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.