Ever played Virtual Villagers? It’s a Sims-style game where you get 5 villagers and you have to figure out how to feed them, keep them well, and build various things. It’s not fascinating, but it’s not the worst way to kill some time.
There are five of them. The last one, True Believers, is fairly creepy–at least for someone with a cult-upbringing (like me). You have to “convert” the “heathens.” Yeah. Seriously.
I bring this up only because the Villagers in question have been “captured” by said heathens and are imprisoned in a bamboo-looking kind of enclosure. One of the first challenges of the game is to take the enclosure down. Which is actually incredibly easy.
As far as I remember, you drop a Villlager on it, and that’s what he or she does. Starts taking it apart. If you set two of the Villagers on the task, it’s down within hours.
The prison in my head is still coming down.
This morning a neighbor came for coffee. She brought cookies. She’s nice that way. She’s also a terrifically good cook.
We covered a lot of ground over that coffee. Cafe La Llave must be good stuff. Or maybe it was the cookies. Whatever it was, I told her rather bluntly that I had been trafficked for sex as a child. I would talk about it in softer terms, but I don’t know how. There is simply no easier way to say it. So I told her, not the details or the stories I’ve shared in some of my posts, but the bare fact of it.
She teared up when I said that. And later, she said if I needed anything…
She’s a nice person, like I said.
I couldn’t manage to tell her, as I have said much more easily in this space, that she had already given me what I needed. Because what I need–what I think we all need–is for someone to simply be with us. And she was with me.
I didn’t say either, while she teared up at the thought of my suffering, that being able to speak about it pulls down the prison in my head. Being able to speak means that it is over. It means it is safe to speak, there will be no consequences for it. It means the prison has been torn down and the jailers have gone away.
There is nothing greater she could do for me than that.
Thank you to all of you who are with me while I tear this prison down.
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.
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.
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.
When an adult is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution – or maintained in prostitution through coercion – that person is a victim of trafficking. All of those involved in recruiting, transporting, harboring, receiving, or obtaining the person for that purpose have committed a trafficking crime. Sex trafficking can also occur within debt bondage, as women and girls are forced to continue in prostitution through the use of unlawful “debt” purportedly incurred through their transportation, recruitment, or even their crude “sale,” which exploiters insist they must pay off before they can be free.
It is critical to understand that a person’s initial consent to participate in prostitution is not legally determinative; if an individual is thereafter held in service through psychological manipulation or physical force, that person is a trafficking victim and should receive the benefits outlined in the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol and applicable laws.
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.
If someone holds a gun to your head, do you still have the freedom to choose whether to disobey?
I think you do. Choices always involve consequences. Choosing requires a willingness to tolerate the consequences. Even with a gun at your temple, you can still choose to allow yourself to be shot.
Adults in any situation have choices. Our choices become more constrained as the consequences become less and less tolerable. But they remain choices. I wouldn’t say the same thing about children, because children don’t always have minds of their own. They may literally think what an adult tells them to think. But adults can choose. In any situation. All it requires is a willingness to be shot.
I made what seem to me all of the important choices in my life before I was 16. They remain the foundation for everything else that has happened to me. I chose to be a vegetarian. I chose to stop being a Christian. I chose to come to terms with being a lesbian.
I am proud of the choices I made. I also have mixed feelings about them. They weren’t in some cases the choices I should have had to make, and some of them were outright gambles.
I chose to stop allowing at least certain types of abuse to happen to me. That choice is the one I wonder about.
My mother was physically abusive. Wooden hangers, wooden spoons, belts, brushes and a lot of other things that were long and had handles and lay within easy reach made good weapons. Hard objects used with a lot of force on small children’s backs and arms and legs and sometimes heads hurt. They hurt even medium-sized children. It’s also in some way terribly degrading.
I was 13 when I had decided I’d had enough. I’m a small person. I must have been under 90 pounds at the time, but my mother is a small person too. I had an even chance.
I didn’t avoid the blows. I held out my hands, she gave them a good whack, and I tried to close my hands over the hanger. This happened a few times before I was fast enough for this to work and the next day I had some dark purple fingers to show for it. I stopped the abuse, but I had to be willing to let my hands be struck hard with a wooden hanger first. I had choices. Not good ones, but I had them.
My father, as I have mentioned, trafficked me sexually and took me to perform in pornographic films until I was 13. He stopped when I refused.
I remember sitting in the car with him. I don’t recall where we were going, but I remember the tan vinyl seats of his Volvo—the Volvo my sister still has—and I remember telling him he could do what he wanted, but I was done with what he was making me do.
Back home, he took me in the garage and strung a noose up in the rafters, brought out a stepstool, and told me to stand on it. I did. I let him make me hang myself. I made a choice.
And I wonder about that. Because I did wake up again. I’m still alive. I don’t know if I would have been if I’d continued to act as a sexual commodity in a world where HIV was on the rise, no one used condoms, and pregnancy, disease, or sheer despair might have robbed me of all chance at a future.
But I wonder if I knew what he would do—if I correctly guessed he would cut me down and lay me out on the bed in my room once I lost consciousness—or if I was willing to let him follow through with murdering me. I wonder–what kind of person makes that choice?
August 6th, a lone gunman toting two semi-automatic weapons killed seven people and wounded a number of others at a crowded Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, a man opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and wounded 58 others. The first instance is classified as a hate crime. The second appears to be entirely random—murder for the sake of it.
These are difficult and frightening times we live in. Much of the Middle East has become destabilized, with civil war raging in Syria and smoldering in Egypt. Terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have become so commonplace in Afghanistan and Iraq it no longer seems to be news. Bombs planted in war-torn Chechnya, where violence has erupted sporadically since the start of the First Chechen War in 1994, reportedly killed four individuals on the same day as the gurudwara shooting. Meanwhile, the Indian Mujahideen struck in Pune on August 1st, when serial explosions rocked Jangli Maharaj Road. The world has become a terrifying place.
Or has it? Is this really anything new?
What about the 500,000-100,000 murdered in Rwanda in 1994? The 200,000 killed in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” between 1992 and 1995? The 2 million executed, starved, or worked to death in Cambodia starting in 1975? The .5 million hacked to death or burned alive during Partition? Or, for heaven’s sake, the 11 million who died during the Holocaust under Nazi rule? And going back to perhaps one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish beginning in 1915? What about them?
Targets change, weapons improve, but ordinary people are now and always have been quite capable of torture and mass murder. Evil, it seems, is part of the human heart.
In saying this, I am not arguing that we are all just sinners, hopelessly seduced by that devil. Evil, at least in my mind, is a complicated matter. It is worth making an effort to understand These are my questions:
Why do some people carry out evil acts?
Why do some engage in more extreme acts of evil than others?
Why do these events occur more at some times than others?
How is it that some people—and not others—take a stand against evil, often at great personal risk to themselves?
Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions. While an adolescent Stephen Hawking may have started searching for a unified theory of physics at that age, I started looking for a unified theory of evil. We need to understand the worlds we live in, and mine was for many years almost unrelentingly evil.
It might help to tell a little of my story. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. His aim was not only to frighten, but to corrupt.
Before I was school-aged, my mother assaulted me multiple times—a few times by strangling, once with a pair of kitchen knives, once with a kitchen chair. I have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet. I think she did that. But I don’t know.
To discipline me, one or both of them shut me up in a freezer until I lost consciousness. Alternatively, they chained me blindfolded to a wall in the garage, at times without any clothes on. In the garage, I was fed spoiled food, crawling with bugs, or no food at all and refused access to a toilet.
At the same time, my father was also my pimp. For 11 years, I serviced the perverted desires of pedophiles, mainly in a variety of cheap hotels, but also at home or in the homes of his friends. In addition, I performed sporadically in child pornography—both still and filmed.
I grew up in hell and the devil lived there.
Except these were people. People did these things, and in some cases, a lot of people. Unlike my mother, who acted impulsively and alone, my father was intelligent, organized, and apparently well-connected. For the most part, he abused me in the context of organizations that were systematically abusing other children and employed a variety of people—as actors and film crew, hotel managers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and human traffickers.
This was not simply the product of a single, unbalanced mind going over the edge, nor was it the result of a few people getting greedy and slipping into amoral behavior. There were too many of them—both consumers and producers—for these to be adequately understood as isolated incidents or as the work of the 1% of the population who simply lack conscience. Some of this is about ordinary people committing unbelievably, horrifyingly evil acts..
This blog is not so much the place where I am telling my story, as the place where I work to understand those stories. And also where I try to heal the scars.