Friday, 26 March 2010

Angel, Emma and I: Finding a Voice

Yesterday, I shared my story with an audience in London. I've never spoken about my experience in front of a group like that before, and I was terrified, although I'm told it didn't show. I forget sometimes that how I feel, and how I think I look, and how I actually look to other people are often quite different things! I used a pseudonym, Emma, but still, being face to face with an audience, speaking about what I used to term the unspeakable, was daunting. When I was first asked if I would consider speaking there, I said no: the fear got in the way. But after thinking it over, I realised what a great chance this was to be heard, to do something, however small, to have a voice. So I agreed.

I'm so glad I did!

When I was in the middle of it all, caught up in the violence, the addiction, the drinking, the prostitution, I was mute. Quite simply, I just didn't have the vocabulary to form a narrative of any sort. Words ceased to do justice to the pain, the shame, the confusion and the terror I felt. Trusting no one, I became a ball of feelings, a mass of tangled emotion, of jumbled thoughts, of fragmented snapshots. When you are isolated save for the men who use and abuse you, but tell you you like it, deserve it, belong here, you lose touch with reality. Doubting yourself, loathing yourself for your inadequacy (ashamed of your addiction, and he reminds you every day that you make him do this to you, that you couldn't manage without him, that you're lucky someone loves you inspite of all your failings) you lack perspective. What they tell you about your reality and your experience of that reality are 2 different things. You get confused. You lack validation.

Even when you get out, if you get out, you continue to be invalidated. You turn on the tv and are told sex 'work' is fun, easy money, just a job. Magazines tell you the same, even the women's magazines. When everywhere you turn you are told that selling your body is fun, empowering, liberating, harmless, feminist even, you quickly learn that you and your story are not acceptable. Before you even open your mouth, you're put on the backfoot. You risk the label 'prude', 'conservative', 'moralist', 'judgmental' by just daring to say, hang on a minute, that's not how it was for me.

You learn early on that the people who hurt you, who make money from you, are a just part of a wider picture, a clever story which the sex industry has told us, has sold us, in which they are the good guys, championing women's rights, and their critics the bad guys. In disbelief you listen as they hijack the language of feminism, a cause which supposedly protects and promotes practices to help tackle inequalities, to end abuses, to further women's rights, for their own ends. And in doing so they have amassed the uncritical support of the mainstream. You see people, other women, otherwise moderate women, defending the very people who hurt you, fighting for women to have the 'right' to experience what you experienced! Or at least, what they believe you experienced, which is something altogether different. You feel alone.

You are struck by the absence of personal words in the debate around surely that most personal of experiences, being used in prostitution and pornography. You find that these defenders of 'free speech','liberalism' and 'rights' don't seem able to listen when you speak of your experience, of pain, of lack of choice, of body fluids and fear and degradation and exploitation. The sanitised language the industry adopts around its practices - 'girls, clients, escorts, business, workers, models, actresses' puts a comfortable distance between the majority of women, who have no direct experience to go on, and the reality. People who defend images of women, open legged, penetrated, as 'rights' (on behalf of us women! Thanks for that...), react with anger or embarrassment when you tell the truth: 'I was raped' or 'I hated it'.

You see you face an uphill battle just to be heard, to be acknowledged. Used, judged, and finally dismissed ('she has mental health problems you know'), left to shut up and put up with the mental scars that threaten to overwhelm you, you question, at times, if you can take this anymore.

In it, you find yourself colluding with the lie, telling the johns as they hurt you, as they touch you, as they fuck you, that it feels good, that you like it. It's not enough that they abuse you, they demand to hear that you want it. Smile, baby! And trapped as you are, desperate as you are, needing the money as you do, you say it. He gives you money, and you ease his conscience, massage his ego. The ultimate betrayal, you feel you've sold yourself out, body and mind.

So to have the chance now to get the truth across, to give that a voice, is awesome. It's not a given. It makes me feel ... lucky. Unbelievably lucky. There have been so many occasions I have thought I wouldn't make it, that I wasn't going to get out alive, with the violence and the addiction...

Just to be alive after prostitution, after the violence, is amazing. Not all women make it out. But to have the words now, clumsy as they may be at times, and inadequate as they sometimes feel to convey that pain, is a miracle. It's 3 years on and it's taken me that time to begin to articulate that chapter of my life. When I first got sober, I couldn't even put a word to how I was feeling, I had got so used to hiding how I felt. My emotions were just a huge tangle, and incredibly, janglingly raw. That takes some unpicking! And then putting together some sort of a narrative of what happened to me, with all the blackouts and gaps... It's been a slow and painful process, and one that continues as more memories resurface and repressed feelings emerge and demand attention.

Being given the chance to speak out, and not just told to shut the fuck up, feels... truly liberating. For all its talk of free speech, the sex industry puts a mute on the women it uses, it sells her body and then puts its words in her mouth to justify it.

The only way this situation will change, and I believe it can change, is if people are prepared to stand up, to take a risk, to speak out, to join forces. We need to shift the grounds of the debate from the abstract to the real, where it belongs. It's by showing the sex industry for what it is, by speaking the concrete language of our common humanity, talking about the physical and emotional suffering it creates, that we will change things.

It was a real gift to be asked to speak yesterday. Meeting again with women from Object and UK Feminista who are taking action, fighting for change, I was given fresh hope. It doesn't have to be like this.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Mind Body... and Me

More present than the present, more real than the real, I re-live what happened to me, as some of the blackouts, some of the blanks, fill themselves in... I find myself triggered and suddenly transported back to it all in all its technicolour detail. I'm waiting to be fetched downstairs to perform for them, to entertain them, and I'm shaking and rocking myself backwards and forwards, disconnected from my body yet strangely aware of its every sensation. It's like I'm in two places at once - in the sick fear I feel vibrating through every cell of my body, but also at a distance, observing, in a mind empty of anything but fear. The fear is all consuming.

My mind and my body stop working for me. I feel simultaneously numb and out of it but also more solid than usual. My body seems to have become a dead weight, not responding to my commands. It feels strangely heavy, while my mind feels floaty and light. My mind can't process, can't think straight.

It goes beyond tears, beyond movement. I sit and stare blindly: nothing else is possible. When he orders me downstairs, I can't move. Observing this scene in a detached way, I see that it's going to go more badly for me because this he will view as disobedience. Until my mind reattaches itself to my body in that jolting way that it does, I am a helpless observer. In that jolt, I suddenly find myself seeing through my eyes, hearing clearly, no longer a voyeur, back inside my body, a rush of physical sensations both disorientating and nauseating.

Sometimes the drink and drugs are responsible for this. But fear, at the pitch I experience it, has the same effect. I have some idea what's coming.

And now, years later, I find myself feeling some of the things, seeing some of the things, that my mind fought so hard to distance myself from at the time. Disconnected images, like projections on a big screen, appear before my eyes, obliterating my present reality. I am transported back, I find myself quite without warning there again. Staring at the inside of a toilet bowl and the nausea as I vomit before they use me. A man moving a blindfold towards me. A semi darkened room and bright lights and shadowy figures around the room. A particularly disturbing image he's showing me in a porno magazine to teach me how it's done. Staring uncomprehending at this reflection in the mirror, a woman I can't even recognise as me, bruised and bloody, as he holds me up by my hair and shouts and shakes me like a rag doll.

Painful then, painful now, me but not me, present but past. My mind and body battling between their partly chosen, partly unconscious, separation, and the knowledge that we are one, and need to integrate to heal. At war with myself, I struggle to eat, struggle to accept my body as it is, with its scars, its past, its associations. Common sense tells me to lay the blame, the anger, where it belongs - with the men who abused me. But sitting outside myself, as I so often find myself, dissociated, I struggle and hurt, feeling the dual betrayal of a mind and a body which couldn't rescue me, couldn't keep me safe, couldn't stop what happened.

Pain doesn't even begin to describe it.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Bread and the Games

The Romans had a saying: 'give them bread and the games'. What they meant by that was that as long as the people they ruled over were fed and entertained, all would be well. The status quo, Rome's survival as a ruling power, rested on this belief (amongst others).

I have been thinking recently about games, and circuses... an email discussion with an ex 'liberal feminist', now parted from that school of thought that porn and lapdancing and escorting are just a bit of fun, sparked off some reflection for me. There also seems to have been something of a run of articles in the national press of late at last talking seriously about the pornification of our society and what that really means for us and the next generation.

I got to thinking, animals in the UK and US are better protected by law than women. Think about it for a moment if you will... suppose a person were to videotape an animal, being held down and taunted and laughed at as somebody probes its anus and genitals, and inserts things, large objects in particular, and fucks it roughly and at length with them, and laughs more as they show close ups at the end, pissing on it as a final climax.

Such a person would, quite rightly, be locked up.

Here's another picture for you. A woman is videotaped having large objects inserted into her anus and her vagina. She is fucked roughly with them and the camera man and the man or men in the video laugh as they they do that, they hold her open for 'gaping' shots, they fuck her anally, orally, vaginally, and then as a final act they piss on or in her and cum in her face.

What becomes of the cameraman in this case? The person who videotapes this is not pursued by the law. No cops turn up on his doorstep! Instead, he markets it, adds it to a growing collection of similar videos of other nameless women, and he sells it. And he profits from it ad infinitum. Not only is he secure in knowing he will not be arrested for this, he rests safe in the knowledge that he is supported in his efforts by a huge clamour of voices calling for 'free speech' - whatever that might mean in this context - and in favour of pornography.

Okay, the word 'choice' here enters the debate. Perhaps this woman, these women, choose to put themselves here. Certainly, the element of coercion is less obtrusive in this case. In our example of the animal, we could see it being held down, or caged. I would argue, however, that some cages are not so visible, but for all that, they are just as real. If a woman appears in pornography, apparently freely (not tied up, chained up etc), and particularly if that woman smiles at some point, or says lines expressing that she likes what is happening to her, we say, see, fine, she chose it. She likes it! I can buy and watch this or look at this with a clear conscience.

Let's take another look. Is coercion, is lack of choice, is lack of freedom, really so clear to spot? Does a smile or a lack of obvious physical constraint in pornography or prostitution really give us grounds to say, everything's fine here, let's move along?

Such an approach would be over simplistic. It ignores the bigger picture.

So what is the bigger picture? The reality is, here in 2010, women are still not financially equal to men. The sex industry constantly wants new women, new 'meat', because your average 'user' wants to see 'fresh faces' ( or 'fresh pussy'). Women who work in the sex industry often seem weary beyond their years and that's not what 'users' want, the industry chews women up and spits them out, damaged both physically and emotionally. There is a high turnover as women are used and discarded. So in reality it is extremely easy to gain employment in the sex industry. Age, weight and looks, academic ability, accent... none of these matter, if you're willing to get naked, there will be a market for it, and someone who'll sell you. If women need money to live, and other jobs are not as easily accessible and available to us as sex 'work', to what extent do we have choice?

The sex industry also carefully manages its public image... women's magazines speak of 'high class' escorts who get taken for dinner etc... the seediness, the reality is edited out or made fantastic (literally: fantasised). Highly paid porn stars say how much fun it is being paid for something so 'fun' - to say anything otherwise could cost them a job. As for 'glamour modelling' - even the language sanitises it and makes it sound respectable, glamourous. As I've argued in greater detail in previous blogs, the whole porn industry thrives on the lie of being harmless enough, just some fun. No mention of the deep mental and physical damage women in the industry commonly endure (see Object website, If women are groomed to think that sex 'work' is just harmless fun, the reality hidden until they are living it, to what extent do we have choice?

Many women in the sex industry have mental health problems. Sometimes these problems include substance addictions. Addiction has 3 major effects that serve to make women highly vulnerable to sex 'work':
1. Active addiction needs a constant supply of money, and desperation for a fix may lead you to do anything, even things that you hate and which hurt you: addiction is all consuming.
2. Addiction changes perception and level of consciousness, disinhibiting, numbing, and lowering awareness. This makes it almost impossible to maintain mainstream employment, so you need money but can't get regular work. It also leaves you open to being exploited sexually (blackouts) and means that you are not aware always at the time of how much you have been hurt. Women trapped by addiction may be in pornography or sell their bodies as prostitutes initially to get money, but end up needing to use higher and higher levels to block out the physical pain of prolonged rough sex, and the humiliation. This in turn requires more money and so the cycle continues. At the same time, ability to take care of basic safety eg use of condms becomes compromised, and violence and exploitation increase.
3. Addiction and self loathing / low self esteem go hand in hand. The shame of addiction, with all its social unacceptability, may lead a woman to feel she deserves to be treated as an object, used, abused and sold.

If women are trapped in active addiction, and stigmatised for it and given no help to get out, to what extent do we have choice?

The shame of addiction and the secrecy surrounding it (or attempts at it!) are preparation for the secrecy and feelings of shame which arise in 'working' in the sex industry. Bizarrely, as a society, our thinking is not at all coherent around the women who are used in pornography and 'work' as prostitutes. Despite talk of empowerment and free speech and liberation and choice, the reality is that supporters and users of porn / prostitutes ultimately do view and use the women simply as sex objects - bought to be wanked over or on for a quick release. So though these people publicly and very vocally laud pornography and its supposed 'liberalism', their use and purchase of women as objects still invokes negative feelings for the women involved.

For myself, I felt humiliated, exposed, degraded, objectified, used (first by the pornographer, then again by the consumers), discarded, and very, very hurt. The hurt was physical and emotional at the time, and in time when the physical pain stopped, the emotional pain grew. I do still get body pains, part of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I (and many sex industry survivors) suffer with. I get flashbacks, I struggle with food, and body image, I don't like to be touched, sometimes I wish I was invisible. I get nightmares that it's still happening. Of being humiliated and scared and hurt, and in the dreams I run but I can't get away. Just like the reality. I hear people who argue for pornography in a seemingly erudite, liberal fashion laughing and joking about the bodies of women like me, speaking with one language but acting with another.

I still think somedays, when a guy looks at me, has he seen pictures of me or videos of me? Sitting opposite my psychotherapist, I think it again. Or that man? Or that? Porn has a long shelf life, and once it's out there, once it's in the hands of the pornographer, there's no taking it back! Something I and every woman who has ever been photographed or filmed has to live with every day. The power inequality is obvious, because he can see me, and I can't see him. He can buy me and look at me intimately, and I wouldn't recognise him.

In the pictures they took of me, the videos, the violence, the lack of choice, wasn't always obvious. Sure, sometimes it was. But other times, the threat of violence ever present, and his warnings ringing in my ears, I put the mask on and was in his words a 'good girl'. No beating tonight if you take it like you should! Smile, cover up the pain, when they're fucking you in the arse, or double penetrating you, just breathe and get through it conscious, don't look like it hurts. Sometimes I guess I must have looked fairly out of it, with the drink and the drugs. Other times, though, you might not have known. I never injected so there were no track marks. And he gave me elbow length fingerless gloves to wear when the self harm (cutting) on my arms was bad. Sometimes he had me cover up the bruises from the beatings, and he'd help, dabbing makeup on, there were plenty of them and often out of my reach. Other times, though, they'd leave the bruises, because in a particular market, that sells.

The other mental health issues women in porn and prostitution so often suffer with are also hidden. Many women in the sex industry were sexually abused as children. Many have low self esteem, and are in abusive relationships as adults. Many or most have borderline personality disorder. If women have mental health issues, and inadequate mental health services to access, and there's stigma involved in accessing them, to what extent do we have choice?

And so we come back to our starting point, that animals are better legally protected than women. That will continue to be the case until we get rid of the stigma around mental health issues, addiction, and violence against women. It will be the case so long as women who enter the sex industry, and those who support it and buy into it, believe the lies spun them by the moneymakers, that it is fun, just another job, an easy way to make money. And it will be the case until we are prepared to admit that gender inequalities still continue to exist, albeit hidden away by the clever use of language by the sex industry, who speak so glibly of choice. Until we acknowledge the lack of choice which forces so many women into the sex industry, until we stop dismissing the voices of women who have survived and who are speaking out their truth, that this industry damages women and treats them as less than animals, future generations of women will continue to find themselves trapped there. We will, quite literally, have sold them out.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Just a Job?

It's just a job
like any other
they said

And - boom!
that lie
chopped her down

They laughed
as they hurt her
they came as she

They wouldn't listen
when she said
No! please stop.
I'm scared.

They told her
she liked it
they fucked
with her head

They told her
that's where she
belonged -
on a bed

Her bruises
stayed hidden
Her dignity

They caught her
and made her pay
when she fled

She lived terror
and pain
a life spent
in dread
She died lonely
That's where
'just a job' led.