That she…

I wake up angry.

It is not Vivianne’s frightening, overwhelming rage, but Katya’s childish, ineffective anger.

I am angry at Natalya.

I am angry at Natalya for things that are not her fault.

I tell myself that it will not hurt her for me to be angry, that anger is a part of the process of grief, that I can feel this way and nothing will happen.

I am angry at her for being unable to protect me. I am angry at her helplessness.

I am angry that she loved me, but she could not refuse to hurt me.

I am angry that she hurt me so much.

I am angry, more than anything, that she left me.

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The voyeur

The other feeling I have about what happened then is, I suppose, shock. I am shocked that someone wants to see this. I am shocked that there is someone—in fact, many people—who want to see this done to me and who want me to suffer so that they can feel something good.

I am shocked that so many people enjoy seeing what is the evidence of my suffering. I am shocked that seeing me hurt makes them feel good. I understand, perhaps, that it is not my suffering itself that creates the good feeling for them. Instead, it is the convergence of feelings on one single act: the same act that makes me feel bad also makes them feel good.

I am nonetheless shocked. I am not shocked now, but I was shocked then. I was shocked again and again by it. How can it be?

This is disgusting.

And yet so many wanted to see it.

It is somehow different than being abused by someone directly. The camera changed something important about how I understood it.

The camera means the pleasure for the abuser comes not from a sensation in his own body: it was not about what I did to a man that made him enjoy it. The pleasure comes from something he only imagined.

And, in the case of me and Natalya, it came from imagining what was for us violation. It came from imagining our helplessness, our shame, my fear and her terrible regret.

For some of them, that’s the point. Their superiority—because they are not helpless, they do not feel shame, they do not feel afraid, they do not feel regret—is the source of the pleasure.

Voyeurism, like abuse, is about power.

For others, it is about having the power to imagine children or women feel the way you want them to feel without any kind of reality intruding upon your imagination. Their real bodies are not present with you to betray the unreality of your desires. No gesture will give away the lie of what you want to see. No stiffening of a muscle, no subtle expression will betray how it really feels.

At the same time, someone else is enforcing whether the image being created is the one you want to see. Someone else is attending to whether the facial expressions, the movements, the sounds being made are the right ones for your purposes.

Someone else has the freezer. Someone else is administering the beatings. Someone else is holding the mock executions. All you have to do is press play.

It means that every abusive act has thousands of perpetrators. For the child being exploited—for me and the child I was then—it’s almost impossible to not know this. You see the camera and you know what it’s for. It is not for one person’s memento of you. Even if the set-up is not a professional one—which this one was—and it is merely a single perpetrator taking images of a child in his own house with personal equipment, you know it’s not to view on a single occasion.

As a child, you know how photographs are used. You know how clips are used. You know that they are made to be shared with others or that they are made for one person to view repeatedly.

You know that others aside from the cameraman want to see the act that caused you pain, and confusion, and shame, and helplessness. At the very least, you know one person wants to see that act repeatedly.

You know it is not about being raped or molested one time by one person. It is about having that experience repeated multiple times, perhaps millions of times, within the mind of the voyeur.

It is about knowing that so many people want to do this to you, and they want to do it again and again. It’s impossible to make a film or take a still of a child being abused for the purpose of sexual gratification without intimating a scale that is utterly obscene.

Girl Scout Uniforms, Shower Tile, and Being Trafficked

There are two very primary effects, I think, of having grown up being trafficked for sex. One of them is that you live in a world no one outside it seems to understand or even acknowledge.

Unless you are part of the world of trafficking, the assumption is most often that children aren’t really sold for sex—not in this country, not in this town or in this school district, not in this neighborhood. Not here. Trafficked children do not play after school with your own children. The guy sitting next to you in church does not have an illicit side business. These things don’t happen.

But they do. My trafficker went to church, sat next to ordinary (albeit cultish) people, had a regular working-class job. I had friends at school and in the neighborhood. I was real and I existed, but my world was not something anyone outside that world could imagine.

It isn’t just the denial of the fact of child sex trafficking that leads to a sense of being apart from the rest of the world, but the denial of so many its details.

images (10)It is not just a denial of what it is like to be raped multiple times in the night, but what it is like to wear a Girl Scout uniform for a regular trick, or the deep impression shower tile makes on you because that’s what you stare at when you’re giving some other guy a blowjob. When you are six. Or the fact that you are always being handed money,and  what that money means will happen to you, what it means you will have to do, or the reality that you are no more less valuable to the people around you than these little bits of paper.

You are handed back and forth in precisely the same way as those little bits of paper, and have no more value and no more rights than the money used to buy you. You are a commodity. Nothing more. Nothing less.

That’s what it was like. That’s what it was like for the women and girls who were also being trafficked in the same hotels by the same or different traffickers as I was. We were commodities. We knew it. We knew how commodities behave. We knew how it felt to be a commodity. We knew what it was like.

No one else knew or really wanted to.

It is as like going to school or church, watching TV, chatting with friends and neighbors—the world of the ordinary—and realizing there is no such thing as school outside of your own world, children do not have parents, they don’t have microwaves, or shoes, or clothes. No one in the ordinary world feels how you feel. They don’t feel how you feel about parents, or microwave ovens or shoes because they don’t have them. And if you try to tell anyone in this school-less, parent-less, shoe-less world how you feel about those things, you get deeply puzzled looks and a suggestion that it’s time to rein in your wild imagination. Or a trip to a psychologist. Because you must be crazy.

Everyone who has experienced a profound trauma or even loss feels at least a little that way. Isolated, apart, and as if no one has really experienced those things, even though people have.

And I know very clearly I’m not the only former victim of child trafficking. I am not by any means alone. But as an adult I don’t know anyone personally who has been. I have never in my life sat down with someone who has been able to say to me, “Yes, me too. That happened to me too. I know what it was like.”

It is not like other kinds of trauma that are more common, like losing a close family member in childhood or even having been sexually abused—since a third of women and at least a tenth of men have been. Child sex trafficking happens, but we don’t talk about it. As taboo as child abuse is, this is even more so.

And we also don’t all survive. I have never sat down with another survivor of the kind of suffering I experienced partly because not everyone lives to tell the tale. Children really are trafficked. It is not common, but it isn’t as unheard of as we’d like to think. But we don’t all make it into adulthood. We don’t make it into adulthood sane enough to even tell the tale.

The sense of isolation can be profound. It also makes the experience harder to get one’s own head around. There are so few people with which to compare notes. That’s one effect.

The other major effect of having been trafficked is an ongoing and pervasive sense of having no rights, and a lingering confusion about what my rights really are.

Trafficking affects the self-esteem of victims as well, but I have found under layers of pain and self-hatred I like myself. I believe I have value and worth and I walk into new relationships and casual social encounters assuming that most people will like me. Unless you are evil, I don’t think you will intentionally hurt me. You may never be my best friend, but I think we can manage a civil conversation. For the most part, I trust the world. I trust other people.

That’s because my foster parents did well by me. They loved me. They made me feel that I had worth and value. They gave me models of what good people are like. And after a bit of excavation, I have found the intact self-esteem they helped me develop.

But I don’t have a corresponding sense of having rights. I don’t have a sense that I can expect to be treated well or be rewarded for achievements. I don’t really know what to think or do when my rights are violated. I have the skills to be assertive. I don’t especially believe I deserve poor treatment. But I have trouble believing in a correspondence between worth and treatment and I don’t know when to exercise the skills I have to assert or protect myself. I don’t know when it’s allowed. I am usually afraid it won’t be.

The damage of slavery goes beyond not thinking well of yourself. It goes beyond shame. It extends to the idea that I cannot expect much of life. Life is arbitrary and capricious and it dishes out whatever it feels like giving to me. Which may not be much. It may not be what I want. It won’t be what I have earned.

I am aware that the last four paragraphs I’ve written articulate two completely contradictory beliefs: I trust the world. I don’t expect much of life. That’s the damage I’m trying to heal.

The Worst Thing

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.

Kids.

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.

Veronique

I want to tell you about Veronique.

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.

There is an overlap between prostitution and pornography, although one is an illegal industry and the other is legal. Street prostitutes often participate in or create their own pornographic images as a part of their services. Women who act in pornographic films also work as prostitutes.
There is an overlap between prostitution and pornography, although one is an illegal industry and the other is legal. Street prostitutes often participate in or create their own pornographic images as a part of their services. Women who act in pornographic films also work as prostitutes.

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.

Money Can’t Buy Sex

You cannot buy sex.

The problem with prostitution and pornography is that you are buying something that in reality cannot be sold.  And yet we have enormously profitable industries devoted to them.

So what do I mean?

If you have ever paid for sex or even watched a porn film–especially with a woman, since I really cannot vouch for the feelings of men–the woman who serviced you either in person or virtually is playing a part for your benefit.

I have found men who pay for sex want one of only a few things: they want to be the most desirable man in the universe and to be treated as such, they want a woman who is constantly and overwhelmingly overcome by indiscriminate sexual desire, they want someone who enjoys a position of humiliation and debasement.  And that’s about it.  They may also want someone who nurtures them and gives them everything they need, but I haven’t so much come across that.  I may have been too young.

You will notice that most of these desires play out in some way in our cultural myths about prostitutes: that they are women who have no inhibitions about sex and can provide it to nearly anyone at any moment.  That’s because our myths about prostitution are written by the men who use it, and not by the women who provide it.  Men who pay for sex confuse the product constructed for them with reality.

But they are not the same.

Prostitution and pornography are intensely disgusting industries to work in.  Most women who are engaged in providing sex acts for money are disgusted by their clients, disgusted by what they are doing with those clients, and in the end often disgusted by themselves.

By disgust, I don’t mean a moral disgust or outrage.  I am not talking about the unpleasant sense that what you are doing is wrong.  That is a different issue entirely.

I mean disgust in the sense of cockroaches crawling all over your body.  Because acting in pornographic films is a little like watching an unattractive, unwashed person having a noisy bowel movement.  Prostitution is not much better.

Sex acts are highly visceral experiences.  They are intended, generally, to be done with people you like or who otherwise draw out some kind of positive emotion in you–such as attraction.  That gets you past the sweatiness, the stickiness, and the gooeyness, the smell, and weird noises.

But sex acts for money have none of that.  As a purchaser of a sexual product, there is no pleasant glow of love or lust to gloss over the fact that your sex organ is funny looking, you smell bad, and much of you is in some way unpleasantly textured, you have odd facial expressions, and you sound ridiculous or at the very least strange.

Even if all you are doing is watching, the woman on the other end of the lens knows that that is what you are like at that moment, because she’s seen someone just like you in person a million times before.

What you are paying for when you buy sex is for someone to pretend that none of this is true.  In that sense, the sex industry–as many people claim–is all fantasy.

It is acting.  But the difference between acting in a plot-driven film or television show and acting in the sex industry is that in the former, the actions performed during it in do not usually call up any particular emotion in the actor performing them.  The legitimate actor rarely needs to suppress intense emotional experiences, because there aren’t any.  The acted-out experience is covering over what is mainly absence.

But the prostitute or porn actress does experience intense emotions that cannot be expressed.  These must be suppressed in order for the fantasy to be conveyed satisfactorily.

To put it more succinctly, in acting, the self living in reality is unoccupied.  In the sex industry, the self living in reality is suppressed.

As a purchaser of sex acts, you are paying for someone not to be there.