There it is, that little word, so small and seemingly innocuous. A word bandied about freely and unthinkingly with regards to the abuse of women. Such a killer to the spirit of women trapped in violence, in being sold! That little word 'choice' holds the key to society washing its hands of responsibility, of empathy, of any attempt to care or understand women living a half life.
We love the word choice here in the West. How tightly we grasp onto our choices and our freedoms, our rights. We forget that with rights come responsibility. Freedom is a beautiful thing, and choice. But we forget that some choices are less free than others, that some choices made freely then limit us and our future choices, trap us and end up destroying our freedom.
These things are rarely so simple as they sound. To suppose that they are and that we understand women in complex situations, usually without taking the time to know them, to ask them, to understand them, is to do them a huge disservice. It is to cast judgment, to hint at stupidity, to lay blame and assign fault to women who are trapped in the system, legs caught in the trap.
If we say that a woman who stays in a violent relationship should just leave, we imply that she can, that she has freedom to make that choice as an equal choice out of various choices. It is to ignore or wilfully dismiss the other factors at work here: financial insecurities, the problem of where she is to go, whether she has anyone offering her emotional and practical support, her mental health... Women experiencing trauma, as a battered woman or a woman in prostitution or pornography, will be traumatised. This is perhaps obvious, but largely unacknowledged. It is rarely something one hears taken account of in conversations around the abuse of women. Should we castigate the traumatised for not thinking more clearly?
When you've had your self esteem chipped away at day by day by what your partner says to you, by what he does to you, you feel like you can't cope anymore, can't make it on your own. He treats you like shit and tells you you are shit and deserve it, and you find the voices of total strangers in chorus with him, saying you must like it or you wouldn't go back. Or else disbelieving you - he's such a nice man! From the outside anyway. As you go in on yourself, a result of the humiliation and the pain, you retreat from people, as you recede he expands. Outsiders see what they want and judge you - you're not as sociable now, now you know what people can do to you, what people think of you. Your lack of trust, a direct result of the abuse, now works against you, discredits you further. You become invisible.
Encountering abuse, maybe you drank more or used substances to take away the pain, anything to help. A choice? Maybe to start with, but then you couldn't stop. Up to 95% of women in prostitution are problematic drug users (see www.object.org.uk for statistics). The two things go together, the self abuse and the abuse, and the need for funds traps you there. 74% of women cite poverty as the primary motivator for entering prostitution. Women experiencing domestic abuse may find themselves trapped by finances and homeless if they leave.
I've heard it said that there is help out there, so if women don't access that help, that is their choice. A beaten down woman, who is just surviving, just concentrating on getting through, isn't always in the best headspace to evaluate options, to see choices, or strong enough to act. Living in constant fear is utterly debilitating. Studies show that the most dangerous time for a woman who is experiencing domestic abuse is when she decides to leave. Battered women are not stupid - we learn quickly, we dissociate and numb out, we live in denial at times, just to survive. It's hard to reach out for help when you've been slapped down, when you've trusted the wrong people in the past, when you risk more violence, are scared he'll kill you, maybe he's told you he will or you know what he's like. I tried to leave once before I got lucky and got away to safety and the lesson he taught me after that, when he found out, stayed with me. I couldn't walk for days.
Choices choices choices eh.
As long as the discussion around prostitution and pornography is couched in the language of fun, empowerment and liberation, as long as the voices of women who have been used and abused by the industry continue to be muted and invalidated, the language of choice is meaningless. We live in a culture that grooms women, where school girls dream of being glamour models, where the reality of the sex industry is papered over with a veneer of respectability, porn stars on chat shows, pro-sex industry stories in women's magazines and the expectation of easy money and harmless fun - just a job like any other.
I don't know of any other job outside prostitution and pornography where a body and mind is so abused, where complete strangers fuck you in every hole and in every way possible, where 68% of women experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans undergoing treatment, where violence is the routine, where you are verbally, physically and sexually abused for the sexual kicks of others. I had men spit in my mouth, call me a bitch, a slut, a whore, tell me it was all I was good for, that they'd like to kill me when they were done raping me, I was told to perform for the camera or else, I was given tablets to 'help me' relax. I could go on for pages. The abuse was endless.
We need to keep the language around violence towards women real. Change the language and you silence the debate. In the face of mental health issues, poverty, violence, misinformation and addiction, the language of choice is meaningless. We need to make the realities visible. With porn and prostitution we need to tell the truth and not sanitise it: it's about money and power, inequalities and the infliction of pain, aggression and cum, women's bodies being sold and abused. It's about what happens to the women after, should they be lucky enough to escape it - nightmares, panic attacks, re-living, trust issues, dissociation, addictions, serious physical and mental scars that will take years to heal, and will never be forgotten.
The next time we hear someone blithely casting judgments about women, and condemning them for their choices, we need to shift the language. It's uncomfortable - and it needs to be. As long as we continue to simplistically apply the word 'choice' about the women in prostitution and pornography, we wash our hands from all responsibility. It means I can justify my use of porn, enjoy laughing about it and have a wank to it, guilt free. The sex industry is as powerful as it is, as omnipresent as it is, as mainstream as it is through our collusion, our denial. We need to break through that denial and the first way to make a chink in the armour is to stop clinging to the simplistic defence of the abuse of women as choice.