A few days back, Katya was having a rough time of it. The stuff in her head was way beyond her, and she just had pictures of women and girls colliding in her head that she couldn’t put words to.

Katya loves pink. She likes pretty things.

Katya is Girl. Not Grrl. Girl.

And she’s seven, and part of her job is to sort out what it means to be female. At the time, it made me aware that there were far too many different female roles in my life and most of them were toxic, but not toxic in the same way. One toxic female role is usually enough. It’s tough when there are several. It’s so complex, it’s a little over my head too.

In the 2×2, everyone is supposed to strive for submissiveness, but some people more than others–women more than others. Restraint, quiet, unassertiveness. These are all seen as good qualities. In most of the world’s cultures, women are expected to be decorative. Not in my little 2×2 world. That could lead to pride. We were drab. I might even say ugly. So there was that.

Then there was being trafficked. Boys get trafficked too, but there were no boys among us which, for me, meant being trafficked was a female thing. A girl thing. And if you are being trafficked for sex, you are supposed to want sex all the time. You are supposed to be crazy about it. You cannot get enough of it and you want it to never end. Your job is to be aggressively seductive. If he doesn’t want sex, your job is to make him want sex. And whatever someone else wants to do is a fantastic idea that you love—whether it involves physical pain or humiliation or a completely unrealistic fantasy or whatever. It is all just delightful to you. That is your role. That was my role. From pretty much the time I can remember. It is not just a matter of not saying no when you wish you could, but that you must say, “Oh, my god, yes, more.” Regardless of what it is or with whom. So there was that.

And then there was Natalya’s example of how to be female, that’s still a little confused and blurred in my mind, but there is some kind of definite impression about it. It’s not just that she was my role model for how to be, but also there was a sense about her of unconsciously demonstrating how to be Girl. We were trafficked, and then the trafficking was over or there was a break from that and it was like for her the costume came off. I was raised in it, and for me I probably could not see where the role ended and where I began, but she had some experience of normalcy and so the role came off and she became something more like herself, but the femaleness of herself was far, far different than what I was being raised with outside of trafficking.

She was physically and emotionally strong. She was confident. She spoke up. She argued. She was pushy. It was everything I wasn’t supposed to be in my own house. There was no sense that this is how she was, but that it was transgressive in terms of her role. For her, this was Girl. And Russian gender roles are contradictory and I don’t know enough about them to analyze the female role I was presented with in that little tiny world, but it was strong in a way that we see as being masculine in the West.

I can feel it in me still though. When I work hard physically, I feel more female. It isn’t just resonant for me to do that as an individual, but it is resonant for me in my sense of my role in society. When I see tiny little Country X women hauling 50 kg sacks of rice on their backs, it’s familiar. I feel totally inadequate in comparison, but it’s familiar. It feels right instead of astonishing. So there was that.

At the same time, there is also how others saw us. There is how the johns saw us. There is how Yuri and his attaché saw us. I was reading something the other day about the Vory V Zakone, the Russian criminal gangsters, and it mentioned for them that women are like animals. They are at the same level—lower than the lowest on the rung of their hierarchical world of men—not even human.

So there was that.

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