From Not for Sale”. This piece goes to places that so few survivors have the strength to be open about.
“IN AND OUT: A SURVIVOR’S MEMOIR OF STRIPPING
The silence is stifling; a slow suicide that can only be stopped by voice and truth. Each time I conquer my fear for a moment and let my thoughts take form in words, I fight death. Each time I expose my wounded soul, I sign a contract to live another day and encourage others to do the same.
I originally intended to write a chapter rich with psycho-social theory and analysis of stripping. Writing a research paper, analysing others’ experiences and theorising about them is easier than processing and explaining your own experiences. Yet facts, abstract and removed from immediacy and emotion, do not change the world. In addition, silence equals a slow suicide for those of us who have gotten out of the sex industry. So I have decided to base this chapter on my personal story. My story shows how a woman enters prostitution, why she stays in prostitution, and how she gets out, if she does. Although my experiences is not representative of all women in prostitution, many elements of it are common among the population that I have worked with, both in the sex industry and then in social service as an advocate for prostituted women.
Many of the poems and journal entries in this chapter were scribbled during the middle of the night, during my second and third years after leaving stripping, in a notebook that I kept at the head of my bed. Some entries seem foreign; I do not remember writing them. Apparently my thoughts and feelings demanded expression; in fact, journaling served as a conduit for emotional and psychic catharsis as it connected thought with affect and past with present. Without this form of release and the processing that followed, I believe that I would still be struck. I would have either returned to the life or lived miserably outside of it.
STRIPPING AS PROSTITUTION
This chapter is largely about stripping in adult entertainment clubs. However, I do not see stripping as a discrete entity, but as a component of the much larger system of prostitution. Accordingly, I use the term ‘prostitution’ to illuminate the true nature of strip clubs that is often concealed by euphemism, strategic presentation, and market positioning. Identifying stripping as a form of prostitution – and strippers as prostituted women – fights the glamorisation and mystification of stripping. Stripping is simply the sale of sexuality: sexual contact for money, shopping trips, expensive dinners, and/or drugs. The sale of sexuality through stripping also leads to the customer’s impression that he has brought the right to touch, grab, slap or otherwise violate, degrade, or devalue the woman stripping.
The connection between prostitution (including stripping) and money is often acknowledged, but the role of economics and power is often misunderstood or unexamined. Many believe that women profit from prostitution, when the largest portion of the profits goes to pimps, club owners, and other businessmen. Many also believe that the women possess the power in stripping. Actually the managers, owners, and investors are the ones in power, even though stripping may feel empowering to the individual woman. For example, club rules forbid dating customers, as the clubs consider such interaction prostitution – but the club’s management, investors, lawyers, and friends are different, of course. The clubs are clearly not concerned with abolishing prostitution, but rather with controlling it. Pleasing the higher-ups is good for business, but taking business out of the club with regular customers is bad for business. The terms ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex industry’ address this reality and highlight the true position of women in stripping as that of commodity.
THEN AND NOW
I found this writing months after it had been written and wondered who wrote it. Later I remembered dreaming it. This entry is powerful because it was written at a time when I was trying to walk away from my past but found that I was bound by it.
I spent six years in the sex industry. For most of that time, I was dancing in adult entertainment clubs and traveling throughout the country. The chronology is unclear and events are foggy.
Although the years I spent in the sex industry seem cut off from the rest of my life, a closer analysis reveals clear ties between that time and my earlier experiences. The connection is subtle but profound. My training began in childhood, when I lived in a neighbourhood with boys who spent many hours educating the girls on the block about sex. The boys demonstrated how our body parts could be used. Perhaps it was just child’s play, but I had been alive less than a half-dozen years (clearly long enough to know that this was inappropriate). In any case, I learned then exactly what girls are for.
Afterwards, I only had to turn on the television to learn more about women’s roles. I saw women serving men, existing in the shadow of men, being beautiful, being thin, and loving their lot in life…. I was becoming what I was supposed to be – thin but curved, cute and young but able to be sexy. The first time I had sex, I was raped by someone close enough to my family to call my mother ‘mom’. Now, I was sure what I was for. I knew that my greatest asset was my sexuality and knew how badly it was desired. I also realised that I had little control over my sexuality, that it could be taken at will. It was easy to give it for profit; at least then I was in control.
For most women I know, it is not hard for them to see where their work in prostitution began. I have heard more versions of my own story than I ever imagined I would. Nearly all the stories tell of abuse. Each story ends with entry into work where they profit from the sale of their bodies or sexuality, because they can, and in some cases they must, in order to attain some sense of control in their lives. Funny, I thought I was the only one. I felt isolated and crazy…. So I do – I tell others. Unfortunately, I must be cautious in both personal and professional domains, as many will still cast stones.
Because many women who have worked in the sex industry have difficult histories, they have developed elaborate defence mechanisms and coping strategies. Compartmentlisation is commonly used by prostituted women as a means of protection. By compartmentalising different experiences, a woman is able to have separate arenas of thought and action. In one arena she may be a caring, attentive mother who would do anything for her children, while in another compartment she may be a drug addict who will do anything with anyone for money or a high. Perhaps she is a successful student during the week and a sexy stripper each weekend. Regardless of the details, there is no distinct compartments that are conveniently separate…. Women in the sex industry frequently display selective memory or some type of mental block. The purpose of the denial is to protect oneself from painful experiences like rape or abuse and/or from looking at some of one’s behaviours, like having sex with strangers and pretending to enjoy it.
Both compartmentalisation and memory alteration are dissociative processes that illustrate the presence of trauma before and/or during sex work. As a woman leaves prostitution, she often tries to forget her past and deny any components of her life that are connected to prostitution. She actually needs to recognise that she is the sum total of all of her experiences. The guilt and shame o the past can trap a woman and make getting out of prostitution impossible. Re-framing the past, recognising one’s strengths and gains, is necessary to reduce the shame and guilt enough so that they are no longer stumbling blocks to exiting the life.
SELLING MY SELF
…. It is no longer my own. Virginity stolen. Body desecrated…. My body is not my Self. Long ago the ties were severed, leaving my body as a vessel for, but disconnected from, my soul.
…. It is not difficult. Once a woman is abused, as a majority of women in the sex industry have been, she gains the powerful skill of dissociation. Once a woman’s ownership rights over her body are stolen, the body becomes foreign, separated from the Self. The body becomes a tool, a weapon, a burden to drag around. The body can then be used for profit or further abuse. Some victims feel betrayed by their bodies and turn to punishing them. The body can be abused with alcohol, food, starvation, self-mutilation, and even death. The victim of abuse is left to frantically seek ways to regain her control (by abusing herself) and ways to increase her power (by abusing others). Promiscuity and prostitution fit here, for if you give sex away it cannot be taken and if you profit economically you are gaining power in this society. It is not difficult at all.
Women often enter the sex industry in attempts to gain power in their lives and control over themselves. Unfortunately, by the time a woman heals and sees what is happening, she is often struck. Addiction to the lifestyle is the norm…. I was furious with him , but even more the fact that what he said is reality for so many women – as if through a revolving door, women leave and return to the sex industry time and again. Addictions bring them back. The addictions include fast money, power, drugs, alcohol, adrenaline, attention, love. Rarely is it a single addiction. Many women don’t even attempt to leave, as they are aware of what they must give up and know that they cannot.
…. For each woman it is different. I remember looking around me on my last night of work in a strip club, and I was afraid. Every way I turned I saw zombies, the living dead, pastel people. I realised I was one of them. The lights, the noise, the money, the drinks, the beauty were all distracting mirages. I could not hear my Self, yet I knew I was not the image that others saw. I realised why I had spent so many years in clubs. The commotion outside of me allowed me to exist without looking inside. I did not have to see the confusion or feel the pain within me. As I looked around me that night, I realised that time had healed old wounds. I did not need the distractions to avoid them. In fact, I wanted to hear my inner voice again. I needed to feel again before I disappeared, as I knew I would if I stayed.
Pastel people, you have attained serenity on the surface. Nothing truly excites or agitates. The surges and pulses of creation run deep and muffled. Slough off your social mask. Rejuvenate. Renew the spirit that is life. Soon vibrancy returns; the colours of gemstones and night and light emerge. And with that, passion, rage, true tranquility.
It is simple. As long as a woman has one reason why prostitution is not so bad, as long as she has one benefit to cling to, she is able to continue sex work. On my last day, I saw clearly: No, they are not just lonely guys looking for a friend. No, I do not love existing for their pleasure. No, the money is not making me happy. No, I will not talk to and dance for whoever pays me the most even if I want to spit in his face. I left because I knew I could. Although I could no longer afford the house I rented, I had friends to stay with. I could not pack and move my things by myself, but I had a family who helped me. I could not get financial aid and I could not afford school, but my family lent me money until I could sell my car. I was afraid of all the changes. I felt stigmatised and was certain others would know and judge me…. My mind was set. Nine years later i have a family, a master’s degree, a socially acceptable job, and a future.
As happy as I am on some levels, I am troubled on others…. Most of the women I worked with in the sex industry and in social service could not do the same. They did not have the support. They were not read bedtime stories every night while growing up. While I got out through privilege, many women in prostitution have no other options.
For too long my skin has been my passport, my body my resume. How easy for a woman to do. Sexuality disguised as power and liberation soon entraps and limits expression. The remedy: discontinuation of a hyper-sexual identity. Learn how to be in the world, how sexuality can be beautiful, and how to stop allowing sexuality to overshadow all components of identity. Becoming more than parts, or the sum of parts, heals the soul and promises new life. Transition is a difficult necessity.
A woman is on shaky, new ground when she leaves prostitution. It is not difficult to understand why many women return to the sex industry soon after they try to ‘get out’ (funny that we use that term, as if they are imprisoned). In prostitution, one relies on sexuality as the core of one’s being. Emotions are polluted; relations are clouded; the self is sacrificed for a repertoire confined to the realm of sexuality. Through limited possibilities a limiting expectations, identity is lost. Once the focus shifts and these roles are cast away, the world is strange and unwelcoming. The path is rough and uncharted. Relations seem empty and drab.
I, like most women in the sex industry, had become a character. I had a stage name, a sexual persona, a second identity. Club managers are smart. They encourage this process and help each new recruit dissociate by insisting that she wear costumes and have a stage names and create a ‘bio’: she can become anyone she wants to be. After years, my real name was as foreign as my stage name was familiar. My sexuality had become my most important feature and most valuable trait after years earning a living by magnifying it. When I left the sex industry, I realised that I was out of balance. Like a child, I had to relearn how to have friends based on personality, how to think as an intelligent woman, how to love with my heart. Above all, I had to take time to discover who I am, what I like, what I want. It is hard. It is scary. It is worth it.
After becoming accustomed to daily life outside of prostitution, I realised that things are not so different. The discrimination and devaluing that I faced as a stripper were also present in academia and the rest of the ‘outside’ world. It became obvious that the problem is not only prostitution. The problem is the treatment of and expectations placed on women. The environment and events may vary, but the story is the same for women everywhere. Women have limited options and face constricting gender role expectations. We are bombarded by images of what we should be. Some insist women have come a long way. I don’t think so. Oppression has become more subtle, more dangerous, since it is hidden.
FREE TO CHOOSE
Some proclaim that women are free to choose or resist work in the sex industry. Through my writing, research, and work on the issue I have a different understanding of prostitution. Choice is not so clear any more…. In cases where kidnapping, torture and/or mind control are used to force a woman into prostitution and to keep her there, clearly choice is not applicable. Certainly coercion and exploitation of economics, abuse, and naiveté also need to be taken into account.
My experiences don’t include forced sex work such as sex rings and sexual slavery. I did not get kidnapped or answer to an abusive pimp; there was choice on some level. This allowed me the delusion that I was in control of my destiny. I did not see the connection between my ‘choice’ to enter the sex industry and my past. I did not see that I was primed for this choice through earlier experiences resulting in my Self being severed from my body, in my awareness that my a sexuality/body was my most valued asset, and in my finding power only through sexuality. I was not conscious of the manipulation and coercion that occurred on a personal and societal level.
In retrospect, manipulation and coercion led to my entry into the sex industry and then to my remaining there. Manipulation was subtle…. Further, economics rewards and social acceptance (in that arena) were directly connected to my popularity and what I was willing to do. The terms ‘stripper’ and ‘prostitute’ were replayed with ‘adult entertainer’ and ‘escort’ to separate us hard-working, ethical professionals from the sleazy type (the difference being the wardrobe and environment, not the function or dynamics). The coercion I faced did not involve physical force. Instead the coercion was emotional and psychological in nature….
…. The road out of prostitution has been long and tough. I have gone through stages of stabilising, normalising, forgetting the past, hiding the past, then processing, accepting, and finally integrating past, present and future into my Self. Simply regaining relative physical and mental health was a year-long process. Normalising – becoming a part of the day world, living day-to-day, becoming a human being rather than a facade – took additional time and required resisting the temptation to return to the life. At first, the daily grind was devoid of the excitement, the chaos, the adrenaline rush, and the drug or alcohol high of the night world.
For a time, I believed that forgetting the past would lead to happiness. Later, I realised that forgetting was impossible, and that in my attempts to do so I was fragmenting my Self and denying a portion of my Self – the effect being psychological imprisonment. Through my writing and through social service work with other women in the sex industry, I have been over time to accept my past experiences. Still, integrating these experiences into a complete Self is difficult because in retrospect the experiences seem so foreign.
I have been out of the sex industry long enough for it to feel like a lifetime ago. I am certain that we need to fight the system of prostitution and we need to do so without shaming the women used in the system. Chances are good that their lives have been difficult enough.