trauma

“Patients Waiting To See A Doctor, With Figures Representing Their Fears” by Rosemary Carson (via wikimedia)

Most people have some form of a lurid narrative about drugs, exploitation, childhood abuse, and mental illness come to mind when they imagine the life of a sex worker. However, sex workers’ relationships to their identity are far more complex and difficult to characterize than that trite narrative allows for. When it comes to sex workers who do live with the stereotypical trope of also having a mental illness, it becomes even more essential to uncover what these sex workers themselves have to say about their lived experiences of that mental illness and sex work.

People diagnosed with mental illness frequently have their decisions invalidated and undermined by the dominant culture. Many individuals who do not have much experience with mental illness will attribute any socially unacceptable behaviors to “mental illness.” In much the same way, people who have never been in the sex industry tend to sideline the decisions of sex workers by inferring that trauma or abuse must have predestined them to a life in the sex industry. When people who are neither mentally ill nor in the sex industry say these things, they are robbing us of our ability to exert agency.

Amber, a full-service worker from Washington DC, states, “I very strongly believe that the way that society treats sex workers, mentally ill people and other marginalized communities (that often intersect)…[is] based on kyriarchal/patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist systems of control. In order to treat marginalized people better, I think we all have a lot of work to do regarding the unlearning of certain stigmas and stereotypes.”

The presence of stigma is one the key aspects of institutional violence keeping communities and individuals subjugated. It proliferates because it benefits those in power in this way. Stigma creates legal and moral justifications for the criminalization of sex work in America. It also creates an environment in which mentally ill people can be stripped of their rights through court-ordered institutionalization, coerced medication, and the assignation of relatives as proxies to control them legally and financially. The disqualification of the decision-making abilities of communities on the margins is a weapon of the oppressor.

Tara Johnson, a stripper from Portland, Oregon, elaborates on the ways in which decision making can be invalidated based on association with the sex industry, especially if one also has a diagnosis of mental illness: “Just because I’m (sometimes) crazy, doesn’t mean I’m wrong. My sex work was not me acting out, or indulging in yet another form of self-harm. It was nothing that entitles people to belittle my full humanity. It’s nothing that automatically means that mentally ill sex workers, especially ones who may have other issues too (drug use, etc.) should automatically be deprived of the rights that privileged, able-bodied civilians are entitled to.”

Sex work is not a dysfunctional behavior stemming from our disease. Rather, it is often the best choice we can make to adapt to our mental illness. In truth, many people with mental illness find sex work helpful in a variety of ways as an occupational choice. It gives us a less rigorous schedule which allows for more emotional instability. Sex work can also affirm us as something we can excel at when mental illness has hindered our success in more traditional pursuits.

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(Photo by Flickr user gen_genxx)

(Photo by Flickr user gen_genxx)

Many people think of whores as being as far from God as possible. We are seen as “fallen women,” people whose moral deficiency has put them at odds with God. When God, morality, and religion are discussed in tandem with sex work, these conversations often promote religious dogma which serves to justify the marginalization of sex workers. Sex workers are rarely heard from on their own relationships with religion or spirituality, even though we have roots in religious and spiritual life as far back as Biblical times, with Rahab of Jericho and the Empress Theodora standing out as two early examples of celebrated historical religious sex workers.

Ideas of “morality” and “decency” inform the rule of law in the United States. Narratives around sex work and morality as defined by “God”—specifically, white Protestant notions of God—often allow punitive laws against sex work in the U.S. to persist. Yet, when asked about their own relationships to a higher power, many sex workers discussed relationships with monotheistic forms of religion:

“I was raised by my dad, who grew up Catholic but is probably an atheist or at least agnostic,” West Coast escort and stripper Red recounts. “My mom was a frummie (very, very very orthodox Jewish) convert in her youth who loosened up a lot and that was the only religion I got. I didn’t live with my mom so I only went to Hebrew school the once and shul a handful more times, but I saw her on weekends so we did Shabbos, either at hers or her friends, and that stuck with me.”

“But when I was a teenager I got really depressed,” she continues,” and during that [period] I read this biography of Muhammad that said that the whole point of Islam (and also Judaism) was to leave the world better than you found it. I found out later that in Hebrew this is called tikkun olam and it’s a Thing, it’s the whole point of everything, but …that’s not what 6 yr old me got out of Hebrew school or shul for sure! It was a revelation. And it saved my life and continues to save my life since my therapist insists we can’t opt out and I have a duty to stay alive and keep trying to make things better however I can. ”

Others described less orthodox relationships to a higher power:

“My conception of a higher power is a feminine energy, which for lack of a better word I call Gaia,” Oakland street and internet-based worker Keika explains. ”She is not associated with any organized religion. She is the spirit of the universe whom I meditate and pray to. I can turn to her like others turn to God.”

“I first discovered Buddhism when a neighbor had a Buddhist boarder who taught me and my friends how to chant nom yo ho renga kyo,” independent massage worker Julee Deree of San Francisco recounts. “As I grew into my teenage years and a body that looked like a Playboy centerfold at a very young age (tall, long legs, huge boobs), I used chanting to help me deal with the unwanted sexual attention that I was getting, and generally to calm me down during times of stress.”

One common thread in sex workers’ descriptions of their relationships to higher powers is the way sex workers’ resilience and resourcefulness are reflected through these relationships. [READ MORE]

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The headline at Jezebel.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Zola and her fabled strip trip to Florida with her new friend, Jess. If you haven’t, the story was told in a series of dramatic tweets by Zola, AKA twitter user _zolarmoon. In it, she spins a story that’s so intense and absurd that it’s hard to believe. In sum: she reluctantly agrees to take a work trip with her new pal, Jess, to Florida. Things immediately go wrong in a variety of terrifying ways. Zola’s narration of the journey is flippant and casual. She saw a lot of humor in the events that allegedly occurred.

The series of tweets were so flagrantly wild that they exploded on Twitter—at one point her story was (and still may be) trending worldwide. The story was picked up and regurgitated by your typical new media blogs: Fader, Buzzfeed, Complex, and, Jezebel (the list is still growing). It’s not surprising that Zola’s narrative was embraced so thoughtlessly. It contained the trappings of a good story that the new media elite thrive on, a perverted version of the who-what-where-when-why-how I learned about in journalism school: sexy pictures, nefarious and criminal doings, content that could be quickly mined and embedded, and, uh, Florida.

Sex worker Twitter did not appreciate the Jezebel piece. It triggered a familiar dialogue about the intersection of social media and journalism. What, ethically, is public record? Is Zola’s Twitter account public record? Jia Tolentino, the author of the story, argued that YES, it is. And further, the original tweets themselves had been shared hundreds of timesso who cares? The story went viral. Deal with it. [READ MORE]

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Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini in performance (Photo by Filipe Besca, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project)

Anna Saini is  a community organizer with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders – New York (VOCAL-NY), where she works towards  ending the drug war, mass incarceration and racist policing. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, make/shift magazine, the forthcoming Dear Sister Anthology, her self published anthology Colored Girls, as well as both Red Umbrella Project writing workshop literary anthologies, Prose and Lore issues One & Two. She is a  Brown and proud captivating performer, a veteran Red Umbrella Diaries storyteller who is featured along with six other sex worker storytellers in the upcoming documentary, “The Red Umbrella Diaries: A documentary about sex worker stories.” Writing can be a great vehicle for social change and Anna’s work is an example of this kind of activism. 

In your writing and performances you talk about your Indian family, growing up in the suburbs, and living in Detroit before moving to Brooklyn. Seems like your background is pretty mixed. How do these different experiences influence your work?

 

It wasn’t until I moved away from Southern Ontario and came to live in the United States that I actually realized how I’m a mish-mash of all these different identities. I’m fiercely working-class and Desi, Asian, queer, a suburban city girl and a survivor, an academic, an activist. It means I connect my struggles with a lot of different people and I hold a lot of intersecting communities dear to me.

 

It also means that I never really feel like I fit in or I’m at home anywhere. If you look at where I was born and raised, a bizarre and wonderful place called Brampton, it’s this brand spanking new suburb that’s morphed into a place largely populated by folks like my family, who identify as “from” somewhere else. I never really felt like I’m from there so much as I came from there. The suburbs are kind of a vacuum in that way.

 

But it’s also fascinating. It’s this unique confluence of socio-political dynamics: the suburbs, Punjabis, Canadiana and the biggest city in the country a mere thirty minutes away… It’s probably the only place in the world where you can get a proper chai from a drive-through window at Tim Hortons. Now that I don’t have to live there anymore I have a lot more respect for the place where I grew up and a lot more interest in how it made me who I am.

 

Sometimes you have to reach back into an uncomfortable past to make meaning out of it. You’re a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Dear Sisterabout healing from sexual assault. What did you share in it about your healing process?

The call-out for submissions for the anthology presented the opportunity to write a letter saying whatever you always wanted to say to another survivor. I know that often when we think of a “survivor” the expectation is that the person is valiant, strong and resilient. I wanted to talk about the flip-side of survival, the part that many consider ugly or uninspiring, the part that breaks down these myths about who we are.

I wanted to say what people don’t say about surviving, so that I could feel less alone in the experience and  reach out to others so that they could also feel less alone. A lot of folks who have survived violence that I’ve known are damaged in some kind of way. Instead of ignoring that damage, I wanted to acknowledge it, maybe even revel in it. I wanted to talk about that damage, explain what it looks like on me.

My piece is called “The Unlikable Survivor” and I guess what I’m trying to accomplish in it is to deconstruct the persona of a survivor. The commonality of our experience is that we lived while others did not. And for many (most? all?) of us the healing is never really complete.

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