In 2008, high school student Alissa Afonina, her mother Alla Afonina, and her brother were in a disastrous car accident on the Trans-Canada highway, the result of her mother’s boyfriend Peter Jansson’s reckless driving running the car off the road and overturning it. Both Alissa and her mother suffered brain injuries. Alla, a Russian immigrant with a degree in chemical engineering, began to have trouble with basic arithmetic and was unable to keep her job as a bookkeeper. Alissa, a bright student with film making aspirations prior to the accident, began the 12th grade displaying problems with impulse control, following directions, memory, energy level, and social appropriateness in class. She dropped out of school to finish grade 12 at home, and was able to only briefly attend college. Psychiatric evaluation revealed that she didn’t have the ability to maintain most employment.
Around 2013, Alissa Afonina became a pro domme in order to support herself, working under the name Sasha Mizaree. In January 2015, the British Colombian Supreme Court finally awarded Afonina and her mother 1.5 million in damages for loss of employment opportunities. Most reporting on this story has taken the court case and salaciously interpreted it as “BRAIN DAMAGE TURNED HER INTO A SEX MANIAC DOMINATRIX!” The following is a condensed and edited version of the e-mail conversation Afonina and I had to clear up the whorephobic hype.
Can you talk about the importance of sex work as an option for disabled people?
Sex work should be decriminalized. The fact is, many disabled or otherwise marginalized people need this as an option, and it makes no sense to take [it] away or make it more dangerous for sex workers to screen clients (which is what happens when you have the Swedish model for example) without offering alternatives.
I am thankful that in my area I was able to work without any legal issues. That is a freedom that everyone should have, disabled or not. However, people with limited options especially need that freedom.
When it comes to brain injuries, what one aspect of your condition do you wish the public were more educated about? How would you instruct our readers to be sensitive to people suffering from the sort of injuries you have?
A huge thing is that people think you need to “look” disabled for it to be “real.” For example, if I had a scar on my face but had no physical or mental difficulties, people would probably feel much more automatically accepting of the reality of my injury. It’s rather backwards since the brain is such an important organ and even small changes in it can have devastating effects, but still, time and time again it comes down to me not looking the way people imagine a disabled person should look.
Another huge thing is how against medication people are when it comes to emotional problems. I have been told countless times by people with zero medical training that I should look for more “natural” alternatives and get off antidepressants ASAP. Can you imagine someone telling a person to get off insulin or their heart meds? But when it comes to things like antidepressants, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Truth is, I had a hard enough time accepting that I need a pill in order to function, and don’t need anyone else doubting me.
Lastly, I wish everyone who got a concussion of any kind would pressure their doctor to do an actual MRI, not just a CT scan. I had a CT scan done when the accident happened and it didn’t show soft tissue damage. Only an MRI did a year later. The only reason that was even done was because my mom took charge of the situation, and a lot of people I talk to seem to think that concussions aren’t a big deal.
As you wrote to me in our initial e-mails, the way the media framed the quotes from the judge and your lawyers in your case was “done specifically to support the sensationalism.” In most coverage on your case, the judgement is interpreted to imply that only someone who was incapable of making “correct decisions” would ever choose to do sex work, rather than sex work being the most rational economic option for someone who’d suffered a brain injury which made it impossible for them to earn a degree or work at a nine-to-five job. How would you retell the story the media tried to tell for you?
The judge’s comment [“the plaintiff argues that it [her pro-domme work] shows a lack of correct thinking on the part of Alissa”], at least how I understood it, had to do with lack of safety measures implemented for my work. That part is very true as I failed to have even the most basic safety measures such as texting a friend. The judge also made comments about how he understood my financial needs and he actually declined the request to open the trial when the defense brought in “new” evidence showing that I am still working. This leads me to believe his comments were not meant to be sex worker negative.
My brain injury is supported by far more than just the sexual symptoms, which is all the media decided to focus on. The truth is I have brain scans, countless assessments and [a] history of behavior that is totally congruent with my type of brain injury. I very much wish that my story was just as readable to people if it was not full of flashy sexual context to spark their enthusiasm. I would love for people to be [just as] interested in being educated about mental illnesses and brain injuries.
Your lawyers did argue that your decision to do sex work was based on an “unnecessary risk assumption”—that you didn’t really need to take that risk to “get rent and get food.” The judgement in your case reads: “Her chosen…line of work is an example of inability to make appropriate decisions around safety or health.” How would you respond to that?
I would say that this is maybe their opinion. However, this opinion didn’t include what they thought I could have done INSTEAD. I have not been able to come up with safer and more realistic options for employment in my condition, aside from maybe continuing to do strictly internet-based work.
I do however agree that the way I did it was unnecessarily risky and I did more work than strictly needed for survival. Meaning, I worked also because making that amount of money felt good and I wanted to save as much as I could, while not having any safety measures in place with all the clients I was sessioning with.
The impression I got from both my lawyer and judge was that while their wording wasn’t always perfect, their intent and worry was mostly about my safety. I am usually pretty good at judging who is a whorephobe and who isn’t, and that wasn’t something I sensed when it comes to them.
The defense in your case argued that you were able to organize clients on a schedule, thus the idea that your brain injury barred you from most employment was fallacious. Many disabled sex workers are very good at their jobs and yet incapable of maintaining a straight job, because the way a disability can affect someone’s ability to work can be very specific. A sex worker with chronic pain, for example, can be good at “reading people well and anticipating what they desire”—as the Huffington Post Canada paraphrases you in a recent interview—but would be unable to take the long hours associated with many other human service jobs. How does this play out in your life?
That is a comment I found to be on the invalidating side, because of the reasons you stated. It is very hard for some people to imagine that while being good at one thing (such as reading people and meeting their emotional/fetish needs) I maybe completely lost in other areas.
The fact is client sessions were something I booked not on a set schedule, but on a constantly changing basis. It is also not the end of the world if I [have] to cancel a session or move it due to health, which isn’t a freedom I’d have in other employment. I find domme work more manageable, though still difficult because of general low energy levels, because it is more empathy and creativity based. So no, I am not completely useless in every area, but it doesn’t mean that areas I’d need for most conventional employment weren’t significantly affected.
In your case, your new “sexual impulsivity,” caused by changes in your personality due to your brain injury, was connected to your choice to to become a pro domme. You wrote to me saying rather that “my domme work wasn’t connected to my [sexual] needs at all.” In the Huffington Post Canada interview, you explained: “Part of why I became a dominatrix wasn’t just because I had this inexplicable urge to spank people.” Why do you think the general public persists in connecting sex work to the worker’s own sexuality rather than their need to survive?
Why would people assume my personal needs are connected to my work? Do people assume doctors have a fetish for white lab coats and are personally in love with all their patients? Sex workers in general are not seen as regular humans. I find that extremely true with myself when you throw the brain injury into the mix.
The defense in your case argued that because you were goth as a teenager and acted out occasionally, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and because you saw a counselor at one point, you had “borderline personality disorder” and wouldn’t have been successful as an adult even if the accident hadn’t occurred. How do you feel about these kinds of assumptions made about countercultural and opinionated teenagers?
I think that the defense had to come up with an argument against me, any argument, because that is the nature of their job.
I do however see this sort of thing in other people. It feels like unless I was Mary Sunshine who wore pink before the accident and never rebelled in any shape or form, it must mean I was “damaged” to begin with. I wasn’t Mary Sunshine, I had a mohawk and I drank alcohol occasionally. I also had done some drugs, like pretty much most kids in high school (even if parents would rather not believe this). However, I was happy and healthy. Having a mohawk doesn’t equal depression, anxiety, memory and concentration problems and the ongoing list of things I currently suffer from. All those things started after the accident.
What do you think you needed most after your accident? In a perfect world, how would your disability have been supported?
Education, right away. Proper care done immediately. Meeting other brain injured people and being taught all of the things that I had to slowly learn on my own. Fundamental things such as the fact that being tired all the time isn’t because I’m lazy. Being told that I could have disability benefits right away instead of years later when my mother has already [run] into credit card debt. People not telling me that I “should” be able to handle and do this that and the other. Basically, acceptance of invisible disabilities.
Do you think the precedent your judgement sets is helpful or harmful to sex workers as a group, or both?
I’d like to think neither. It’s a lot of pressure to think about my case in this manner, and it overlaps with disabled people’s rights so it becomes even more complicated.
I think the bigger issue is people demanding that I define if I either LOVE or HATE my time as a sex worker, when it fact it’s a bit of both. I loved a lot of it, I also hated some of it, just like, you know, any other job will not be either totally perfect or totally horrible. When I said that “I don’t want to be stuck doing it,” that is all that meant. I want to have choices. It does not however mean that I think sex work is bad, that I didn’t draw any empowerment from it. It is nuanced.
But at the end of the day, I want it to ideally always be a choice, which is what the judgement allows for me. I still don’t have as many choices as I did when I was healthy, but at least now I have money to rely on if I one day wake up and decide no type of sex work is right for me anymore. I just think I should have that option, ideally.