This Time, It’s Personal

Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Part of a piece in the Waiting Room/Domestic Violence Tableau at the Topeka Library (Photo by the Topeka Library, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

I actually didn’t know who Christy Mack was until I started seeing articles about her attack flying around the internet last week. But her story is one that is familiar to me. Intimately familiar.

I stripped for eight years, in a dozen clubs across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Georgia. I met strippers who were also full service sex workers inside or outside the club, sugar babies, cam girls, and adult film stars. I’ve seen co-workers “graduate” into Playboy and Hustler. I’ve seen every combination of education, economic background, race, size, upbringing, parental status, and religion, so when I overhear non-sex-workers talking like we’re all a certain type, I can only laugh.

But one thing we all seem to have in common is an abuse story, either one of our own or of someone very close to us.

One thing I noticed early on in my career is that stripper locker room talk is brazen and honest. There is some high speed bonding that goes on over trays of eye shadow and half-finished drinks. As a more-or-less good girl going to state college on my parents’ dime, I was no stranger to boozy heartbreak stories, but stripper stories almost always went somewhere darker, faster. Without even knowing a co-worker’s name, I might hear the details of how her ex-husband broke into her house, or how she was borrowing a phone from another girl after receiving threatening texts from a stalker. I’ve had girls show me pictures of men on their phones with the warning, “If he shows up, tell the bouncer and come warn me. I don’t care if I’m in a VIP, just come tell me.”

There’s this recurring theme in our love lives a man will admire us for our independence and freedom, and of course, our money. We’ll thrive on the attention for a while and we’ll enjoy spoiling him with gifts or trips. Maybe he moves in because his roommates are irresponsible, or maybe we move in with him because we’re sleeping over all the time anyway. And then the fights start.

“Where the fuck were you until five in the morning?”

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Late porn performer Linda Susan Boreman/ Linda Lovelace, abused for years by her manager boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Image by Nino Eugene La Pia, via flickr and the Creative Commons)

Late porn performer Linda Susan Boreman/Linda Lovelace, notoriously abused for years by her manager boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Image by Nino Eugene La Pia, via Flickr and the Creative Commons)

Victims of violence are more likely to have experienced violence at the hands of someone they know. The same goes for sex workers. There seems to be a lot more concern about stranger-danger in the industry than there is for what I’ve seen as the bigger threatthe people already in your life. I’m not suggesting you don’t screen clients, of course that is important. I’m also not suggesting isolating yourself from friends and family. But, article after article I’ve read about sex workers’ partners reflects some of my own experience. Now, luckily, the situations I’ve been in have never escalated to physical violence. Butverbal abuse? Manipulation? Sexual harassment? Sexual assault? Check, check, check, and check. Let’s break down this potential mine field and see how sex work stigma and abusive partner behavior collide in the worst ways possible.

I think about how many times I’ve had a friend who was a good decent friend, a decent, “good guy.” I figure, he’s pretty great, I should date him. And almost immediately, the whole situation sours. I wonder, “Did I do something wrong?” Maybe if I had a clearer head I’d see that the deterioration of the relationship is related to his resistance to my standing up for myself. Still, in the context of abuse, it’s going to be branded as my fault. There is no way of knowing that a guy will treat you the same way when he’s dating you as he did when you were just friends. For whatever reason, dating can open the can of crazy douchebag worms in a seemingly otherwise wonderful man in your life. The beautiful wonderful man you are dating can make this very same quick switch the second he discovers you were or are a sex worker, though I will bet you anything that if he reacts poorly to that information that there were already other problems in the relationship.

The first instance is misogyny and the second instance is whorephobia. Both misogyny and whorephobia are leveraged in relationships in order for the abuser to gain:

1. More outside supporta rallying cry against you
2. More sympathythey’re broken hearted, you’re just a slut

I’m going to break down some intersections between whorephobia and abusive partner behavior, based on my personal experiences. You can use this to help identify whether your partner is an abuser or not. Much of this will be familiar, because the world is still pretty shitty about these issues.

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(Image via St James Infirmary's flickr)

(Image via St James Infirmary’s flickr)

I have experienced a lot of abuse in my life. The realization of each instance was a gradual process, despite how accustomed I should be to identifying it by now, despite how thoroughly I understand the dynamics, the signs, the underbelly of the beast. I have always believed, since I was 18 years old, that talking about the abuse was not only cathartic but a small step towards ending the silence surrounding it. It’s not my fault, so why should I be ashamed? Why should I protect abusers with my silence? Still, the realization that I am in fact someone who was forced into the sex industry, that group of silenced victims fauxmanists and policy makers alike claim to care so much about, was a realization that happened in stages. It was a slow process right until I was shouted down by a sex worker exclusionary radical feminist because my views on sex work and decriminalization weren’t taking into account the lives of people who were forced or coerced into the industry or abused in it and unable to leave. And I was livid, because that is my story.

The definition of what constitutes sex slavery and sex trafficking is intentionally blurry. Obfuscating the reality of sex industry abuse is a deliberate tactic utilized to attack the industry in general. Most people I know imagine trafficking victims to be forced to travel from South East Asia or Eastern Bloc nations in terrible conditions to arrive in affluent countries where they can be bought and sold as objects by sadistic rapists while being kept under lock and key. In truth, NGOs and governments usually define trafficking as involuntary participation in the sex trade. In essence, the term sex trafficking is a misnomer; the “trafficking” itself may be no more than a 15 minute drive from home to the brothel, like it was for me. It’s a phrase that brings up very specific associations that are generally inaccurate.

By the definition above, I guess I’m a trafficked person. Wider definitions also include underage sex workers, so a lot of people I know who started before they were 18 years old are as well. This is fairly well understood in most sex worker activism and yet there seems to be no emphasis in our movement on acknowledging and supporting survivors who enter the industry through force or coercion. Through describing some of the difficulty of my experience within activist circles, I hope to be able to offer some insight as to how to better support all members of our community while tackling head on the erroneous idea that antis are trying to help survivors within the industry.

When I was 21, I went to a queer event at my university and met a bunch of people, including a few sex workers. We hung out, chatted, and exchanged Facebook info. I went home and told my partner about the experience. I was primarily interested in talking about the workshop I’d run and the friendships I’d made but my (now ex) long term boyfriend was fascinated with the idea of my becoming a hooker. During our relationship he’d visited various brothels a number of times (though he’d sworn he wasn’t doing that anymore) so I guess at that point he knew more about the industry than I did. Behind my back, he began talking to my friends on Facebook through my account, pretending to be me, asking about the work and how to get into it. Meanwhile, he would bring up the idea whenever the issue of money came up—which it often did, with him being a meth addict—when we were in bed together, really any time he could. When his cajoling, against the backdrop of his verbal, sexual and physical violence didn’t work, he delivered an ultimatum: if I didn’t start hooking, he would start cooking meth again. I had been through this before: visits from the cops at all hours of the night; waking up and walking into my living room with ammonia gas filling the house my children were sleeping in; strangers coming through the door and cutting up, weighing and bagging ice in the kitchen; and his escalating violence under the influence of his constant use and paranoia. It wasn’t something I could go through again. The potential money I could be making working with a friend at the parlor, $100 to $500 a night, seemed like a much better choice. He was already using my bank card to take all of my money to the point where a friend of mine had to steal a container of formula so I could feed my daughter because my ex spent my last $50 on half a point. Sex work seemed like an out. And you know what? It was.

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via flickr user Iain Farrell

via flickr user Iain Farrell

Leaving academia isn’t just for sex workers, but there are a good number of former academics among our contributors and readers. Once you’ve done sex work and experienced the particular freedoms it affords, academia’s constraints can seem more chafing and its endgame more pointless. This post in particular prompted us to have some of them talk about their experiences with higher education and why they left. Thank you to our participants, who will introduce themselves:

Charlotte Shane: I’m in the US and I went to school here, mostly. I got one graduate degree (M.A.) and then went for another. The second time was when I became…A DROPOUT. I’ve been sex working in one form or another since the start of my first grad school stint. I also have various straight jobs, but none of them are dependant on any degree. (Not even high school, I don’t think.)

chelsea g. summers: Possessing a checkered academic past, I didn’t graduate college until my mid-30s, a few years after I started stripping. I worked the last year or so of college as a stripper, the year between undergrad and grad school, and the first two years of grad school. When I started my Ph.D. program, I quit stripping because I realized my students had fake IDs. It was fine if they were hot for teacher, but I didn’t need them to see the evidence that teacher was hot. Plus, I did my work at a Jesuit college here in New York City. I left my program with an M.Phil in 18th-century British Literature and a staggering amount of debt.

Lux ATL: You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I spent 12 years in higher education, earning a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in Literary Studies. In 2013 I finished my Ph.D. and officially became a doctor.  I taught Freshman Composition from 2006 until 2014. I also spent my entire adult life working on and off as a stripper and occasional nude model. I started stripping when I was 18 and have continued to strip, with breaks in between, until present. I am currently 32. [READ MORE]

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tniconsent

If you can read this, you’re too fancy to matter. (image courtesy of The New Inquiry)

Earlier this year, The New Inquiry published this quiz, “Are You Being Sex Trafficked?” which appeared in an earlier form here on Tits and Sass. Katha Pollitt hinged part of her “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?” essay on the imagined qualities of TNI’s writers and audience:

Of course, if you are reading the New Inquiry, chances are you’re not being sex trafficked; if you’re a sex worker, chances are you’re a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one. And that is where things get tricky. Because in what other area of labor would leftists look to the elite craftsman to speak for the rank and file? You might as well ask a pastry chef what it’s like to ladle out mashed potatoes in a school cafeteria. In the discourse of sex work, it seems, the subaltern does not get to speak.

The problem is not that the subaltern was not getting to speak, but that Pollitt was unable to listen because of her own ideas about how trafficking victims should present. We asked Tara, the author of the quiz, to respond.

On April 2nd I was at the Freedom Network’s Human Trafficking Conference in San Francisco speaking to a group of law enforcement and service providers about how to do outreach to people who are trafficked in to the commercial sex trade. I was there as part of a federal program designed to offer the experience and expertise of sex trafficking victims like myself with the goal of improving services to other sex trafficking victims. The other survivor presenting and I both had extensive experience as youth involved in the sex trade, as adult sex workers, and as social service providers. We spoke of our experiences with law enforcement and service providers and made recommendations to those present about how they could best provide outreach to sex trafficking victims.

At the end, the facilitator flipped through our feedback forms and laughingly told us that one person thought that our presentation hadn’t been about sex trafficking at all. Apparently there are rules for being a good victim: 1. Victims should cry 2. They should talk about horrible things done to them by criminals, but not by the police 3. They should not have opinions, and 4. If they do have opinions, they should present themselves as traumatized enough so that those opinions are easily discountable. If victims don’t behave this way, their status as victims can be called into question. [READ MORE]

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