I've neglected this blog for over a year now; my recent past has been one of those times when it's been very hard to find the kind of energy, clarity and strength that I often need in order to be able to write about systems of prostitution.
I'm not sure that I have an adequate supply of those things now, but I'm giving it a try.
The theme of this post is isolation, and it would be fairly easy only to write in painful detail about the immediate experience of isolation that victims of systems of prostitution have during experience of abuse. One of the many consequences of organized/institutional child rape is that it really devastates our ability to relate to other human beings in virtually any way. When you're a kid, and someone is doing these unthinkable, inexpressible things to your body, and whoever was theoretically ever supposed to protect you has let it happen (or is perpetrating it), and you're pretty little--- it creates this core terror of virtually any social connection. People, almost without distinction, are deeply dangerous.
A critical aspect of healing involves figuring out how the hell to rebuild not just particular or good connections, but the basic ability to connect and be associated and grounded and intentional about wanting to be in touch with another human being. This problem is particularly acute, because at the same time, our need for external comfort and support is really beyond description, and only intensifies as time passes and we continue to carry spiritual/emotional/traumatic injuries.
The central issue I want to write about here is what it's like for child survivors, as we heal and grow older, to try to rebuild social networks and communities, or to have any sort of successful relationship.
Here are some of the obstacles:
a) Off-the-edge-of-the-scale horror stories: Any really deep intimacy requires that the person connecting with us be able to hear about, witness, or know something about our stories. I've met a lot of good, kind, politicized people who haven't had my experiences, and could maybe think about them in theory, but even when they mean well and try, can't really handle knowing me unless I keep my history as a survivor pretty compartmentalized. It's taken me time and healing to get to the point where I can have these kinds of connections and feel at all authentic, and be able to appreciate people despite the fact that we're so separated. But if that's all I have around me in a given day or week, I tend to have bursts of anger or grief, and more constant feelings of exhaustion and loneliness. Sometimes I find that I want to keep talking or take up space when I'm with several people, as a reaction to the fact that I feel so invisible --- but having everyone's attention on me really doesn't resolve the feeling. Other times I just retreat and want to stop interacting with people. I notice that when the interaction isn't really working, I'll have a hard time letting it go, and won't want to say goodbye because I keep waiting for it to get better. When I do finally disconnect, I often want to hide out, and quit trying to interact socially because it takes so much work and so often doesn't yield anything sustainable.
b) Survivors can be hazardous to one another: A lot of times, those of us who've survived things like torture, organized or commercial sexual exploitation, or anything beyond 'garden-variety' (still enough to destroy you!) incest or molestation, end up in one-sided dynamics where we are the people who other survivors can talk to, we get it, but those we interact with can't really reciprocate, and often get too triggered or overwhelmed by what we've been through, for the understandable reason that their own traumas are a lot to comprehend, without opening consciousness to the most extreme examples of sexual sadism and destruction. So we become someone else's best confidante or sounding board, appreciated for the survival which at the same time, we can't really share. It's possible, but really rare in my experience, to create a sustainable, gentle, functional dynamic with another survivor who's been through something like child prostitution or pornography. I feel lucky that I've been able to make it work even a few times.
The perils are plural, these are just a few: when we get into conflict, the potential triggers are like a minefield. Upsetting or being angry with another survivor feels unbearably hard. We mirror and resonate with each other enough to tap into and trigger all sorts of feelings of self-hatred or lack of self-respect (which come out as irritation or frustration or fear towards the other person for reminding us of ourselves). The fact that everyone in the relationship may comprehend the extremes or have comparable experiences still doesn't mean we can reliably hear and witness one another. Some survivors really can't bear the stories, or can only engage in certain ways, precisely because they tap into our own pain or memories. It may not be something we have any real choice about. It's particularly frightening and disheartening when we try to connect with or share with other survivors and it doesn't work--- in this "oh hell, there's really *nobody* who can stand to know me, not even people like me" kind of way.
c) The echoing pit of need: As already mentioned, the needs of people who've been through the atrocity of being prostituted or similarly abused as a child are not small, and tend to be really complicated. We deal with it in different ways--- some by shutting down and dissociating from feelings that make us vulnerable to more disappointment, exploitation or abuse, others by throwing open our boundaries despite the likelihood that we'll get a lot more injured while trying to get help. Many of us go back and forth at different times. Once you actually find connections which feel healthy, healing and nourishing, it's really tough, whether relating to other survivors of similar things, or not, to figure out how to let that in, in small, gradual steps. How to not run away from fear of losing that person and resource, how to not cling or try to turn it into more than it can be, how to be ready to let go or walk away if it starts to be unhealthy or someone's getting hurt, despite how badly you need it to work.
d) Basic lack of political consciousness: I have to do so much '101' work, even with very smart, very politically conscious people. Jokes and casual references about pornography or stripping are totally normative. I've lost count of how many times I've had to explain to people that referring, in my presence, to the institution in which I was serially raped as a toddler and small child as "sex work", is painful, and really doesn't reflect my reality. On the flip side, this isn't the sort of issue which most politically left or progressive people seem to get that they need any education about. I might for instance, talk about sexism as a woman, or any forms of oppression, whatever my relationship to it is, and at least some of the people I know will perk up. It's a cue: "this is an issue I care about", "political accountability around this issue is important and I should try to listen and not be defensive". And in whatever haphazard way, people respond. But when I speak as a survivor of systems of prostitution, whether or whatever I disclose about my history, there often isn't that presumption that this is political, important, and not just me talking about my personal sexual trauma as if it bears on anything else, and could serve any function other than being uncomfortable to hear. Ironically, I could confront basic sexist language or humor and often get a better response than if I confront the fact that people around me are trivializing, eroticizing, or denying my and other survivors' experience with systemic sexual exploitation.
e)Pity/contempt: Reactions to victimization are so intense, and most folks' baggage about powerlessness, fear and being victimized is so loaded, that it's always a risk that if/when I share with people who I am, they won't be able to comprehend me as anything other than very damaged (which certainly, is part of what I am). I get so tired of interacting with people who either can't know me as a survivor at all and appreciate me based on the strengths that come from my survival without understanding my roots, or if they know me as a survivor, can't really recognize my strengths or experience me as anything other than the symbol of their own horror and fear of being broken or destroyed.
For child prostitution and torture survivors, all of these factors combined with an initial orientation that people are pretty damn scary, are enough to really cement feelings of being almost perpetually 'alone in a crowd'.
I feel truly grateful to be loved and cared about, even by people who don't get me all that well. I feel especially grateful to have at least one friend with whom I've been able to circumvent or work through each one of the obstacles I've written about above.
And I feel grief and anger, knowing that while I'm lucky, it's not enough to keep me from feeling alienated and tired a great deal of the time once I walk out my door --- and more, that for many of us survivors, it's worse--- there's not that one friend who's really gotten close, or there are nothing but humiliating and exploitative relationships which make it all worse, or there's just total isolation. People like me, people like my survivor loved ones, deteriorate, fall apart, and eventually die, not just from sexual exploitation and abuse, but because the isolation afterwards is like the infection in the wound. It sucks at whatever capacity for healing we have; it breaks our hearts as fast as we can try to rebuild the already broken pieces; it compounds the pain. Systems of prostitution kills some of us immediately, but for those of us left alive, it's not just pimps and tricks and rapists who finish us off, it's the world which decides, willfully or blithely, never to recognize us, humanize us, offer us the resources we need even when they're close at hand. The five obstacles I've described could be worked on, not always that well just by individuals, but more powerfully by communities. So much of this is about political education, about creating collective spaces in which our stories and realities are told, and broader communities are challenged to comprehend them and take them in and think about what to do with them. Our environments are structured so that we really are not supposed to exist, are supposed to be elsewhere or dead, and not wandering around among the living. We're forced to deal with that by pretending that we are not who we are, or by giving up on people who are unable to accept us, by surrendering to one form or another of isolation. And when isolated, we do so much less than we're capable of, as the damaged brutalized surviving beings that we are-- we teach less, create less, advocate less, give less, heal less, live less... we often die faster. And all of the work we are so needed for--- leading movements against systemic sexual exploitation, helping to create communities and resources geared towards healing more of us, teaching people about the connecting and integrated dynamics of oppression which make organized sexual abuse so possible --- all of this remains undone.
Isolation is the weapon which insures our inefficacy, ensures that the social, the collective, global wounds won't be recognized, held, treated, and healed, because we aren't allowed into the relationships and communities through which it could be done.
The part that's most hard to express is what it's like to think and feel hard about isolation, to write about it in the context of systems of prostitution, and to be in touch for the moment with the fact that there are so damn many of us out there, suffering through it (of course, alone). So if you've found your way to this sparse little blog, and have read to this point--- know that as I'm writing I know you or somebody like you is out there. We all deserve better than this.