#notavictim - Carol Leigh
This is the first in an on-going series on surviving sexual violence, tools for recovery &finding one’s way back to themselves.
I was working at a massage parlor and two men came to the parlor at about ten thirty am, about a half hour before we actually opened the doors, so the only people there were me and another woman. No manager, nothing like that. I remember sex workers were always warning us about who to open the door for and who not to. I sort of ignored those warnings. I just opened the door. Two guys came in, they wanted money. We didn’t have much. One orally raped me. The other woman, they didn't rape. I was afraid of being murdered.
Afterwards we called the manager. She came in, she didn’t want us to report it. I didn't want to report it either. I felt like that would bring the police down on us even more. They could bust us for being sex workers in the first place.
After the assault, I went home. I had a boyfriend who was originally a client; somebody I met a massage parlor and he was very comforting. Maybe if it had happened in a different way I would have been more traumatized. I remember I was very much comforted by this very nice young man. He was very sweet and there something about him also being a client and something about being comforted within the constructs of prostitution that helped me heal.
I remember trying to get my feelings out by doing a collage and it just worked. I called some girlfriends and went to the rape crisis center. I was really fortunate in that the person who dealt with me didn't blame me for being a prostitute, she didn't say “oh you have to stop doing prostitution. You're putting yourself in danger.” She treated me like she would anyone else who was raped. We just talked about it. She had a harm reduction approach. This was before harm reduction was a term of course and she talked to me about what I could do next to keep myself safer. She let me invoke the different ideas about what I could do to be safer and helped me envision making these changes. I never would have thought that somebody would know how to treat me as a sex worker. That crisis counselor made all the difference in the world: to think that there was someone out there who could help me and cared. I was surprised that I was treated so well. So after that I gave myself some time to heal.
The whole experience renewed my commitment to activism. In such a deep way, I felt that the most important thing was to make sure that prostitution is decriminalized so that we would be able to hire security guards. This matters especially because prostitution is one of the few resources that people have to support themselves when they have very few options, especially when they're in poverty. Sometimes there really are no other options. Sometimes it really is a last resort. That's why it's essential people be able to be sex workers in safe conditions. The state should not tell me who I should have sex with or for what reasons. Also, sex is a way that I'm supporting myself, hence workplace safety regulations. And this still is an intimate act and something I should have control over. It is about my body. It’s not that complicated.
I think my political dedication helped me heal. I turned my victimization into political advocacy. I blamed it on the patriarchy or ‘the system’ that put me in this situation, where I was a sitting duck and kept me away from being able to fight back or to report it. In general the criminalized system makes me more vulnerable. A cop having sex with me then arresting me seems like a form of rape by the state. He’s like an emissary. To recuperate from being raped, I channeled my victimization into bucking the system and to dedication to decriminalizing sex work, fighting for our rights and jurisdiction over my body and my sexuality. I wouldn’t be ashamed of being a prostitute or getting raped. I embraced a pride in learning to work better, like developing a business that was based on regulars. I learned from a lot of other sex workers about how to screen over the phone, what kind of questions to ask. I worked through referrals by other sex workers: I would check out somebody’s references. During the date I would give my girlfriend the client’s phone number.
People should understand, it’s especially hard to protect yourself from the rapists and the police at the same time. To protect yourself from rapists you need to screen well, ask a lot of questions. You need to advertise so you can actually reject clients who fail your screening, or work for a business that advertises. To protect yourself from police you need to work more underground and remain hidden.
The law pushes you into working for a third party. I prefer working for a third party but the criminalization means the third parties are more likely to be exploitative. If sex workers work together to protect themselves, they can all be charged with pimping and that does happen. Then, the fact that we are stigmatized as throw aways means that more men target us. Like Robert Pickton, that serial murderer, said he picked prostitutes because it was easier to not get caught.
For many years, I felt there was no recourse with the police; I would never consider reporting violence to them. I had a friend a few years ago who was violently attacked and the police knew who it was. They never proceeded with the case. If I recall, they seemed to think my friend wasn't a “good victim” so they felt that they couldn’t win the case with her testimony.
The more organized you get to fight the police, the more you feel like you might be charged with some kind of organizing of prostitution, which is a felony in many states. Prostitution is only a misdemeanor here in California, but when there’s a felony at stake, then protecting yourself is something that you are likely to back away from. Really, I felt like it was the system, the anti-prostitution laws that made me so vulnerable, that they raped me.
I don't remember having extreme trauma from being raped. I've been traumatized by a lot of things in my life. I'm not saying I wasn't traumatized at all, but I mean I've been traumatized more as a sex worker activist, I’ve gotten death threats, been told I’m an enemy of women by anti-prostitution activists and on and on. That kept me traumatized over years. Now they are trying to take more safety nets away from us with laws against advertising online.
We need more support and respect from feminists, women, everyone. Even in the #MeToo movement people often exclude us. Sex workers’ experiences and perspectives need to be incorporated into society’s understanding of sex. We are treated like we are not really women, like we don’t count because we are either bad or brainwashed. But we live on the edges and we experience the adversity at the intersections of gender sexualities, of poverty and survival sex, of sex and war, and rape, sex and physical integrity. We are left out there on our own with the laws making it harder for us to protect ourselves. People need to look to us for more understanding of the landscapes of sex, sexual violence and all that.
Being raped, and the myriad of other adversities I’ve experienced as a sex worker, teaches me a lot. Even the message that women are destined for abuse if they step out of the line, should they become sex workers and the whole gamut of the way society deals with prostitution – is oppressive to women and is key to women's oppression in society. Besides violence, sex workers’ experiences on the front lines have a lot to teach about diversity of sex on the planet. For some people, sex work can be a spiritual ritual. I object to the concept and rhetoric that claims that “rape is not sex, it’s violence.” This is a simplification that obscures the dynamics of sexual violence. Poverty is a pivotal point and an essential aspect of this issue of vulnerability. Sex work is one of the primary methods that we can use to support ourselves or to raise a family. Choice is a continuum.
It's important for us to look at the totality of the landscape of sex, and that includes violence. Rape is part of the way sex is expressed and experienced around the world. People have to understand that rape is part of sex. Sex is oppressive sometimes and sex is used in war. Sex can be a weapon. Look at some power exchange practices; people work out their experiences and trauma in these contexts. The sex negativity in our culture cuts us off from really understanding the various ways sex works in our culture. Violence is part of life in general. Sex can express our fears. Sex is one locus of oppression and violence. Sex expresses various experiences and aspects of our psyche.
Rainn - 800.656.HOPE (4673)
National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1−800−799−7233
Local Women’s Shelters
National Sexual Violence Resource Center - https://www.nsvrc.org/
Women Organized Against Rape - https://www.woar.org/sexual-assault-resources/
Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project - 1-800-832-1901