I woke up this morning thinking that sex is not about love and love is not about sex. (I know this is obvious, but I am confused about some very obvious things.) Sex is about sex.
But people have sex in the same way they do other things. If they lack empathy talking to you about changing the cat litter, they will lack empathy when you aren’t wearing any clothes too. If they love you eating blackberry jam on toast, they will also love you touching you in the most intimate way possible.
I remember Natalya’s love when we had sex because she loved me all the time. I remember my sister using me sexually because she used me at other times also.
And somehow this makes everything okay. Not, perhaps, okay with me, but I can live with it
I was taken into care when I was about a year a half. I have mentioned that before: here and here.
I don’t know why I was, actually, although I have it narrowed down: either because my mother hit me over the head with a chair or because my father raped me with a pair of scissors.
They overlap in my mind because of the shoes. Shoes that looked a bit like this. There seemed to be so many of them, although there probably weren’t. I just wasn’t used to so many people in uniform in the house. With such big shoes.
The shoes came back a few times. They sat in the livingroom and talked to my mom while I played with blocks. I remember that. They didn’t take me away that time.
I was afraid of their faces, so I looked at their shoes.
I do know what happened after I came back.
My dad staged a terrifying and dangerous “interrogation,” insisting I report back to him what I had “told.” I still don’t know if I ever told anyone anything.
And then I tried to kill myself. Because, really, what was the point if I was going to have to live like that, among those people, and become like them?
I went to the hall closet where my mom kept a belt specifically to have handy to beat us with. I thought I could make a noose with it. But there were technical difficulties.
To hang yourself, you need something to stand on. A stepstool wasn’t tall enough. And the the chairs were too heavy and too far for me to drag.
Whenever I am reminded of what I suffered or how there seemed to be no escape from a world I did not want to belong to, I feel the same degree of despair. It is sometimes so hard just to be with that.
Just as I wanted to tell you about Veronique, I want to tell you about Marta and Guadalupe.
If you’re new around here, I will have to first tell you that my father was a sex trafficker, that he trafficked me for sex from the time I was toddler me until I was a teenager. I’m sorry to have to share that with you, but there it is. Life is sometimes an ugly place. And I’ve seen a lot of the worst ugliness in it.
I was never alone. Just as Veronique performed with me in pornographic films when I was a young teenager, Marta and Guadelupe were there when I was wearing headbands and black patent leather shoes and learning how to skip rope.
We couldn’t speak. Having been smuggled into the country from Mexico or places southward, they didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Spanish. But in the summers, when we solicited for men at the Travelodge pool, they swam with me. When the washer broke in the house my dad kept them in and he went to fix it himself (being that kind of handy guy), I played with them and their broken truck in the dirt in the yard. As an adult, it has made listening to languages I don’t understand a peculiar comfort. But it also overwhelms me with sadness to think of them.
They weren’t there for very long. A few weeks, maybe a few months. I remember Marta and Lupe the best, but there were others. Always others, as one set of girls disappeared and another took their place.
I have a vision of a warehouse in which girls like Marta and Lupe, dirty and hungry and crying, are kept in large cages, like dogs. Maybe that’s where I imagined they came from. Maybe it’s something I really saw. It would be a bizarre thing to have seen, but I’ve heard of stranger things.
But what it evokes for me is the immensity of the suffering of the girls smuggled into the country and then brutalized by men like my dad. It makes me aware of my own privilege. After all, I went to school. I was allowed contact with the outside world, which gave me other resources to draw upon beyond the depraved world of sex trafficking. I spoke the language of power in this country. And I escaped.
Did Marta? Did Lupe, with her long braid and quiet smile, even stand half a chance? I hope they did. I really do. I’m afraid they didn’t.
God, do you love us at all? Why do you allow us to do these things to one another? Where were you when we needed you? Where are you now?
A lot of the abuse I suffered was repetitive–the same horrors again and again. They blend together in my mind as if they were one long event, over years.
But a few things stand out as separate events, as really the worst things that ever happened.
I need to tell you about one of them. I don’t know if I can, but I need to tell you.
It is an event that gave me the most nightmares, made me consider suicide daily for all of the next year, prompted me to start cutting my hands. It was something I almost could not live through.
I’ve mentioned it before on here. But just that–a mention. Like it might not be a big deal. It is a big deal.
My father paid four young men to gang rape me in an empty house while he videotaped it all. Now, it could have been the other way around. They might have paid him. That was more the usual way of things. But I think he paid them. I remember money changing hands, and I should be able to recall who gave money to whom. But I can’t.
Because money changing hands meant terrible things were going to happen, and my terror kept me from paying attention after that..
In the car on the way home, I told my father I wasn’t doing this anymore. He couldn’t make me. He nearly killed me after that.
That was fine with me. There are worse things than being dead.
There are two things that are important about this to me. (The other is a topic for another day.).
One of them is those young men. What happened to them afterwards? Could they live with themselves? What did they do to cope with what they had done? Did they drink or take drugs? Did they self-harm?
Did they pretend it never happened? Did they do it again so that they could pretend that all of it was fine and no one had ever been hurt to begin with? Did they find ways to justify it to themselves?
Because they must have done something.
They were, after all, very young. Mid-teens to late teens. I’m not sure. Maybe 20. Twenty at the most.
And I ache for them. For how a terrible decision they might not have fully have understoond the consequences of could easily have destroyed their entire lives. It nearly destroyed mine.
Now, they might have just been heartless, sadistic individuals. But what I know about boys is that sometimes only one in a group is truly without a conscience. The rest of them are caught up in something they don’t understand the full implications of, although they should. They don’t realize or even stop to think about how it will affect themselves or others later. It just feels so good to be part of the group, to be together, to be inside this intense experience. But it does affect them later. Sometimes in terrible ways.
And I want to grab us all up in that moment on the street outside, before they hurt me so very badly, before they did something unthinkable and unforgivable, and I want to hold us all very tight and keep us safe. And I can’t.
I have to live with what they did that day. And so do they.
Now, of course, it’s possible that wasn’t her name at all. I tend to make up names for people when I don’t know what they are. And when I was young if I didn’t like a name–when I thought it didn’t quite suit a person–then I made up a new one. Veronique may be entirely made up.
I went to high school with a Clive and a Virginie. Other people referred to them as Mark and Brandy.But I felt Clive and Virginie suited them better. And who knows? Maybe I was right. Maybe we have a name buried deep within ourselves that reflects who we really are and I was good at digging down and finding it.
But let’s call her Veronique, even though she may have been called Svetlana or Natalya or Nadja. Because I will never know her real name anyway. She might not remember it either.
Veronique was a porn actress. And before you call up images of a teenage Ashana mooning over full-cover spreads of a big-breasted woman with her legs wide open, let me explain that I was on camera right along with her.
I should probably also tell you I was 12 and 13. The braces were off, but I was definitely at that awful age when you are still very much a child, but all these weird things are happening to you. You’re oily and smell bad and can’t figure out that you need a shower every day, and your body has these odd new feelings. Skin cleanser ranks high in your list of priorities, or it should anyway. And it’s just generally pretty terrible.
I went to school and we talked about Shakespeare in English class and linear equations in math. I had crushes on girly-looking boys and thought a lot about dying. And on Saturdays I got it on with Veronique.
I don’t know what to call sex acts you are coerced into performing with another person in front of a camera. It is rape, but the rape is perpetrated by someone who does not need to touch you at all.
And although I was a young adolescent and Veronique was a grown woman, we were both being raped when we touched each other. It is both more and less horrifying than the perpetrator assaulting you directly himsef. The particular terror and degradation of being sexual with someone else in front of others because you have no other choice is very difficult to describe.
But I wanted to tell you about Veronique. She spoke about five words of English. She was, in fact, blonde and big-breasted. But the blonde could have come out of a bottle. I suppose her breasts were her own. And she had no escape. I’m not sure she cared much about that anymore. I’m not sure she cared about much of anything anymore. I’m not sure she felt there was any hope anymore.
Not everyone who acts in pornographic films is in that situation, but I’m quite certain that was the situation for her. Unless you are a pedophile, you don’t molest young girls on camera for the money. You don’t do it because it seems like a good time. You do it because you have to. Everyone has a line. That’s over the line.
I’ll tell you another little secret about sex trafficking. Women who are trafficked do not look sad, the way they do on the posters. They look however the director or the john wants them to.
A part of being a slave involves doing what your master wants you to do, and that can mean smiling, or looking seductive, or faking an orgasm. It can mean you say, “Put it there, big daddy,” or “Fuck me harder,” regardless of how you feel: which might really be disgusted or frightened or just plain bored. It might be tired and that you really wish you could sleep but you have to finish this scene or fill your quota for the night.
The slaves of my ancestors picked cotton and washed dishes. Modern slaves perform sex acts with a smile or in tears–whatever the john wants. Because only his feelings matter.
So mostly victims of sex trafficking look vacant. I mean, if you look carefully. Underneath the smile or the smirk or the ecstasy. They dissociate as much as they can. Dissociation is the only way out.
So Veronique smiled and looked seductive and faked orgasms and sometimes probably had real ones–whether or not she wanted to. And her five words of English were all words you might say during a very pleasurable sex act, even though this was not one. And she really wasn’t there. Not at all. Touching her was like touching a ghost.
I am again and again grateful that I am not her, and that I was not in a strange land with no one to help me and no one to turn to or trust. I am grateful that I had the chance to go to school and to college and when I left my captors I had no family for someone to threaten to kill. I am grateful that I had more choices than she had.
I am grateful also that she was a visible and urgent reminder of what would become of me if I did not get the hell out. That I would become a shell of a person who no longer cared about myself–and not much about anyone else. You just get through the day, because in the end, you don’t really have a choice, do you? There is no hope, but they don’t give you razor blades either. I am grateful to her for silently urging me to leave before I became what she was.
And I am sorry I could not help her. That we both did what we had to do. And what I had to do did not involve going back to save her. Just as what she had to do involved harming me.
What I really want to tell you about Veronique is this: She understood what was being done to me, and she did nothing to make it worse. Sometimes that’s the most you can do for anyone. It’s the most she could do for me.
It has been almost 3 decades since I last saw her. She would be in her late 40s or early 50s now. I am quite sure she’s dead. Veronique, I have never forgotten you. I am sorry the rest of the world did.
One reason that sexual contact is so traumatizing for a child is precisely the same kind of hyper-arousal and lack of control that makes psychological torture so traumatizing for detainees.
It is not just the intense, negative emotions that are so overwhelming for a child who is being sexually abused–betrayal, disgust, fear,or guilt–but the sheer degree of nervous system arousal. Children simply cannot tolerate such intense amounts of sensory stimulation. They can’t tolerate it, they can’t calm themselves, and since the adult is perpetrating the act, they can’t stop the stimulation either.
It is like being taken to a child’s birthday party with endless amounts of ice cream and cake, performing clowns, games, noise, music, and other children. And not being allowed to leave. For days. It is simply too much. It is torture.
If you’ve ever had a toddler, then you’ll know what I mean. Even when the stimulus is pleasant, too much is still too much. Children’s systems get overloaded. They have total, violent melt-downs.
Sexual contact is too much for a child. That is true even if the perpetrator did nothing painful to the child, and did nothing overtly threatening–if the child was bribed to participate in her abuse, rather than frightened into it. But sexual stimulation is too much. And that is part of the torture.
There are other, obvious problems with sexually abusing children, of course. This is only one of them.
But this is also why sexual contact is used as a part of psychological torture methods. It can also be too much for adults when it’s outside one’s own control. Yes, unwanted sexual contact is degrading. It feels humiliating and dehumanizing. There is a profound sense of betrayal and violation. And it is disgusting. Those are aspects of the torture as well.
But it is also simply too much. Sex is like going to a birthday party with people you like and then being allowed to leave when you want to. It’s great.
Sexual abuse is being taken to a birthday party with people you hate and not being allowed to leave, Sexual contact is an intense stimulus. It can overpower the ability to regulate one’s degree of nervous system arousal. Consequently, it creates a profound sense of powerlessness when it is being carried out by a captor–of being unable to control either one’s environment or one’s own mind. In the end, the enemy becomes your mind.
One night, my dad raped me with scissors. I was a toddler. I think this is what led to being removed from his care, but I’m not sure. It could have been after something else horrific.
I don’t bring that up to be shocking, but to get it out of the way.
At a year or two, I understood that what he had done was wrong.I didn’t know that the other forms of sexual abuse he had subjected me to were wrong. They were confusing, disgusting, and weird. But they didn’t hurt (at least not very much), and they didn’t make me bleed. I was damaged by them, but didn’t understand the nature of the damage.
As we begin to develop a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong, we begin to see patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and to create lines and divisions in our mind about what is okay for people to do.
Making someone bleed was over the line for me. Especially if you don’t say you’re sorry after you do it.
And that’s when I knew I wasn’t living with a man, but a monster. I didn’t have a father, but a captor.
It is not something you ever un-know.
What is devastating about that memory for me is not just the horror of what happened, or the fear, or the pain, but the loss of it. I don’t remember what I felt for my father before that, but I can guess it was something more normal–that I felt some degree of attachment to him. But after that I did not feel anything for him but fear.
If you also grew up with horror, when did you know?