Surviving As Working Class After Backpage

by Kelly Michaels on August 24, 2017 · 11 comments

in This Time, It's Personal, Trafficking

Content warning: This post contains discussion and accounts of trafficking, debt bondage, and exploitation, both in the context of sex trafficking and trafficking in another industry. There are also brief references to experiences of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, custody loss, structural violence from criminalization, and violence against sex workers.

In the last four months, I have been in the most unusual employment circumstances of my life. I am kept in a small box with no access to even basic human needs like hot meals and showers. I am forced to stay there until my employers are ready to use me again. I am only permitted to shower when my employers are not using me. Up to a week in between showers has passed.

I am not paid for all of the work that I have performed. I am forced to share my small box with strange men when my employers demand it. These men have become aggressive and verbally abusive toward me. I am not allowed to know if the men have been violent to others before I work with them. I have been harassed sexually by my employer and I’m viewed as a sexual object by an overwhelming number of the men that surround me.

I am paid less than minimum wage for the hours that I work. I am kept apart from my family and do not see my home for months at a time. In fact, since taking this job I have not seen my home once, though I was promised I’d be brought home every three to four weeks.

I do not have access to healthcare despite having been the victim of a violent physical assault by one of the people they had living with me in my box. I’ve asked repeatedly to go home to see a doctor, but my employers keep me in my box. They keep moving my box around the nation so that I am too far away to escape and return home. I suspect they keep my pay minimal so that I cannot afford to escape.

I first saw the signs from Truckers Against Trafficking at truck stops around the nation. They were your basic public awareness flyers with signs about how to recognize human trafficking. Then at the port of entry in Wyoming, I saw a different poster from Polaris asking, “Do you want out of the life?”.  I thought for a moment and realized that I do feel as if I am being trafficked and I do want out of “the life”.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I should call Polaris for help, but I can’t. Because I am no longer a sex worker.

This all began after I left sex work.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich doing a photo op with Truckers Against Trafficking. (Photo by Flickr user TruckPR)

For most of my life I have earned an honest living as a sex worker. From the age of 15, I have been involved in one form of sex work or another. I began working the street as a homeless teenager, waiting to turn 18 so an escort service would hire me. At 18 I upgraded to being an escort, then quickly began advertising on my own as an independent. I married for 13 years, but when the housing market crashed I returned to sex work to save my family from certain homelessness.

Until recently, my work life was satisfactory. I made good money, was treated well, and had the freedom to do as I pleased when I pleased. Until this latest round of human trafficking hysteria began, I was happy at work.

Then things changed. I began to feel hunted. I began to fear publicly broadcast police stings, and FBI investigations that changed the charges I would face from the previous charge of prostitution to frightening things like felony promotion of prostitution because I used a computer to commit my crime. The prospect of being charged for violating the Mann Act for crimes involving “crossing state lines for immoral purposes” and earning myself a ten year sentence haunted me.

I lost my children to a violent man with a long history of domestic violence because I was a sex worker. The court did not view him as a wife beater, they viewed him as a whore beater, and that wasn’t nearly as bad. The courts refused to view important evidence and left the children in his care despite overwhelming evidence that they were being abused and neglected in his home.

The losses that I suffered due to the criminalization of my work are inconceivable : three children whose lives I will never again be a part of. Then I lost my main source of income when Backpage executives were forced to shut down the Adult Services section of their website.

Sure, I could have moved my business to the casual dating section, or gone to another website. But for me, the closure of Backpage meant yet another loss—the loss of my successful business model. It was too much for me to bear. I finally threw in the towel.

What would come next was unimaginable.

First, I tried to go to college for the first time in my life. I applied to the University Of Florida, having been awarded FAFSA funding. But the university declined my application to their online curriculum, citing my criminal background.

My criminal background has prevented me from achieving many of my goals in my life. I stayed in that abusive marriage far too long because of the lack of economic opportunity that I have always faced. I went to domestic violence shelters for help on two occasions based on their promises to help me find work and become independent, but their promises failed because of my background.

Having been denied employment, a college education, and custody, I had little chance to survive. I was suicidal when I decided there was one thing I had not yet tried: CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) school. I had not tried to get a job in the trucking industry. They often hire felons, so I put suicide on hold, and made one last effort to make my life sustainable. I spent three months on a black top training pad, with instructors screaming at, swearing at, name calling, and body shaming me.

(Photo by Flickr user yooperann)

I never imagined how much whore-bashing I would face entering the workforce, either. It began with my first female lead driver, the person charged with the on-the-job-training I was to complete following CDL school graduation. I listened for hours as she told me how vile and disgusting prostitutes are. She occupied the drive time telling me that her husband gave her MRSA after getting it from a prostitute. When I asked her how she knew he got it from a prostitute she said, well, if you think about it, they have sex with 50 to 100 men per day.

“Really? You think that is even possible?” I replied. It was shocking to hear what she imagined being a prostitute involved. I knew at that moment that I had to conceal who I really was to make life on a truck with a stranger possible.

I did try tried to conceal my ties to sex work when I was at CDL school, but ultimately I found it unbearable to keep it up. For me personally, the hardest part was the truck driver talk about “lot lizards”—the derogatory trucker term for the sex workers who work truck stops. Every day, several times a day, I listened to these veteran-truckers-turned-instructors telling stories and making jokes about “lot lizards” and “dirty whores.” Every day I came to school to huge “Truckers against Trafficking” logos on the parked trailers.

I was so down about it that a friend tried to cheer me up by sending me a pro-sex work t-shirt that said “Hookers of the world, Unite and Take Over!” I loved it and wore it to school under my jacket. I planned only to take a photo discreetly and not let anyone see my shirt. I was waiting for lunchtime to come so I could enlist a friend to snap a quick pic of me wearing the shirt while standing by the Truckers Against Trafficking logo when an instructor asked a group of us if he’d ever told us about the time he poured hot coffee on a hooker’s head. I was the only woman in the group of people he addressed.

He told us that a lot lizard knocked on his door and he told her that he was married and tired and not to knock on the door again. He said she knocked again an hour later and he opened his window and poured hot coffee on her head. Everyone laughed. I said, “I guess she let you sleep after that.”

He said, “No, about an hour later, there was another knock. This time it was the police. Can you believe that dirty whore called the cops on me?”

I asked if he got arrested and he said, “No, the cops asked me if I poured hot coffee on her head and I said ‘Yes I did, and if you take me to jail for it maybe I can get some sleep there because I can’t here when that hooker keeps banging on my door.’ So the cops turned around, put her in handcuffs, and drove her to jail.”

I was infuriated by his boastful account of abuse and the fact that his behavior was perfectly acceptable to all those listening—except me. Empowered by my t-shirt, I slipped out of my jacket and saw his eyes dart back and forth from the words on my shirt to my eyes several times when I said, “Cool story. Tell it again.”

If for no other reason but to do something to stand against his pride at what he had done to that woman, I stood up to him. I began feeling a need to be true to who I really am, a sex worker, even during these difficult times when I am displaced from my industry.

I eventually graduated with a CDL and the transphobic, whore-hating rhetoric on the job was not quite as bad as it was in training, but it was still present. If I wasn’t listening to negativity about sex workers it was negativity toward the LGBTQ community, of which I am also a member. Most of the time, I learned to hide being a whore, and hide being a lesbian.

Typical trucker attitude toward truck stop sex workers. (Photo by Flickr user G A R N E T)

I was hired by the company that put me through school. It seemed like a good offer when I accepted it. They would pay for my school, and deduct the costs from my paychecks at a rate of no more than $40 at a time. I would be home one day for every week out, and never out more than four weeks at a time. I would be paid $0.25 per mile for the first six months. That is significantly below average, but I attributed it to being debt bonded to the company. My income was projected at $52,000 my first year.

That didn’t happen.

Debt bondage. I know this phrase from my early days working for a pimp. He paid for my legal costs after an arrest and then put me into an apartment he paid for and kept almost all of my earnings until I “repaid” my debt. To be exact, I was able to keep $20 per $200 call. He kept track of my payments and it was a very long time before I realized that he kept conflating new debt with old debt to keep me in a constant state of confusion about the repayment. This allowed him to exploit me for far longer than the debt alone would have called for.

The same thing is happening to me today with the company I work for. They keep changing things and coding repayments in a very confusing way to keep me working without being paid for the work that I am actually doing. Mileage is not accurate, log books are faked to misrepresent the amount of time I actually work, and so far, I am making only an average of $150-$200 per week for being held captive in this little box without being allowed to go home.

This is not what I agreed to, but I am debt bonded to the company. If I leave before completing ten months of this indentured servitude, my CDL will be useless due to the agreement major carriers have with each other not to hire debt-bonded individuals.

I am left now in a worse situation than I ever felt I was in as a sex worker. I feel terribly exploited, and there is no “Truckers Against Trafficking Truckers” to help me safely return to the freedom and independence of sex work.

Prohibitionists do not understand that for women who are consenting adult sex workers, transitioning into life outside the sex industry is a painful process. I am facing abuse, shame, ridicule, and far worse working conditions than I ever experienced when I traveled the country as a tantra provider.

Exploitation in the workforce is real and rampant. But to admit this or give it any attention would require that prohibitionists admit that it isn’t exploitation that they are concerned with, or they would fight all exploitation. It seems what they are interested in is controlling who is permitted to do the exploiting.

I am now being exploited by a multi-billion dollar company. Does that make it acceptable, or just invisible?

Trucking in my experience has been extremely exploitative. However, for many in the trucking industry the experience is far different. To focus only on my experience in trucking would not be a fair representation of the industry as a whole. To demonize and criminalize trucking based on my experience would force many out of a career that is lucrative and loved. It depends on individual circumstance—much like sex work.

The author’s t-shirt, from Red Light Legal.

Prohibitionists focus solely on individuals in the sex industry who were coerced or abused. This is not a fair representation of the majority of consenting adults that find their livelihood in the sex industry. In the effort to “rescue” trafficked individuals they are driving many more sex workers out of a career that is lucrative and loved, or is even just the best of many bad options. And as many trafficking survivors can attest, prohibitionists don’t help them by “rescuing” them via arrest, either.

Prohibitionists offer no apology or assistance when rescue goes wrong. I know because I asked. In an email to a leading activist in the prohibition movement, I wrote,

…What do you tell women like me? What do I do when I am ostracized from society due to a felony and cannot find suitable employment?

Where are all of the sex workers that leave and find jobs? Why isn’t there anyone lobbying to give incentives to hire women attempting to leave prostitution rather than laws that make it harder than ever for a prostitute to start a new life? I noticed prostitution is the only misdemeanor on the list of crimes that prohibit someone from having their record sealed, why?

In her reply she stated simply, “I wish I had fast answers but I don’t, I’m sorry.”

It seems prudent to think of these answers prior to leading a campaign to force change in an industry you don’t understand and then proceeding to abandon the individuals you proclaim to save when they are lost in the transition.

I have lost a great deal to the stigma associated with my work. So much that I threw in the towel and tried it their way. I went to school. I got a job. I was “saved” from sex work and now I am a prisoner. Unless I can pay $6,000 while earning $200 a week to buy my freedom, I will be a prisoner of this company until March of 2018.

For me, sex work was my best option. I had done it my whole life. In my heart and my soul I am deeply connected to the industry and I proudly self-identify as a whore. I just want to have my freedom back and do what I love. I don’t want to be saved.

I miss the admiration and gratitude of my clients, and hope that one day I can return to my true calling—sharing love and teaching the sex positive lessons of the Tantras—if I can only figure out a way to escape from the debt bondage that I’ve been trafficked into since accepting this “real job”.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ariel Howland August 25, 2017 at 12:24 am

Thank you for writing this.

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Alex August 25, 2017 at 2:20 pm

You are a hero of your own life! Thank you for writing and sharing your experiences. Your sisters are waiting to do what we can. Tell us how to help you rescue yourself.

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Mike August 25, 2017 at 10:02 pm

jalr.org

Good luck.

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Ashly Lorenzana August 26, 2017 at 7:40 am

Thanks for sharing your experiences. If you need someone to talk to who can relate to almost all of what you have experienced, feel free to reach out. My email is thegirlnextfloor@gmail.com.

Sending some good energy your direction, dear.

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Maddie August 26, 2017 at 2:40 pm

sending you all the love and positivity i have in my body and soul ❤️ stay strong, sis ✊

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MR August 26, 2017 at 10:35 pm

That’s tough and sounds wretched. I looked more into your story and your ex husband is a piece of work and am so sorry about the courts and your children. You’re so right that the “rescue” organizations aren’t primarily concerned with general exploitation. There really isn’t enough exposure regarding exploitation in other industries, so thank you for sharing. There isn’t real help in transitioning into other work, especially for people without much experience in other areas, and so fucked that the court was trying to find something wrong with your “legitimate” catering business when you were working so hard on doing something else. I hope you can find a way to get through these next months and your new job pans out the way they told you it would. If you start a crowd funding campaign to help you, I’d be happy to contribute and share.

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Viv August 27, 2017 at 8:05 pm

I second the crowdfunding. Seriously, please start a kickstarter or gofundme, I would very much like to help. As one sex worker to another, I am sure there are ways to make this better. Lets get you the help out if that job and into a better one, you deserve it.

I know all of us are suffering after backpage got shut down, but we are brothers and sisters and we can make it better together!

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Savannah August 26, 2017 at 11:59 pm

This is such an important article, I’m going to be referring to it as I encounter and discourse with the many who misunderstand and ignorantly oppose sex work. Thank you for this incredibly insightful piece of writing. I’m sending love your way, what you’re doing is incredibly hard. You’ve been heard, and you’re not alone in this struggle.

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EDW August 27, 2017 at 6:47 pm

Thank you for writing this. I try and am still failing to find a living wage job after sex work, and I am pushing through a suicidal place right now. I appreciate your strength is publishing this.

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john Ziskowski August 28, 2017 at 11:34 am

The “crowd funding” approach is an excellent suggestion.
I would be willing to contribute to it to help her regain control of her life.

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Caty Simon August 31, 2017 at 8:46 am

If readers are interested, Kelly’s Paypal is paypal.me/truckerlove . I tried to convince her to start a GoFundMe, but she’s worried that if she did people would think that this piece was a calculated fundraising ploy. Kelly is easily verifiable through some Googling–she worked on a Kickstarter for a documentary before on her experiences losing custody of her children because of her sex work, and she is out.

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