Never a victim or always a victim

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I like this understanding of trauma:

Psychologist Mark Epstein argues that trauma’s root is less the fact that bad things happen and more the fact that we don’t know what to do with what’s bad. Trauma is rooted in lack of communication. Sharing our experiences with another person—facing the traumas we are made of, and the new ones that continually shape us, Epstein says, helps create a balanced mind that can hold the truth. Better this than just telling ourselves that things should be different; that—no big deal—next time it’ll be different; that, the first time, it was our fault.

It took me four hours after reading Mitchell’s article to connect the disgust I felt to the fact that I’d experienced what she called “theft of services.” I realized this while I was having sex with my boyfriend. I felt absent and sorry, embarrassed, like I wanted to cry. I was going down on the man I love and suddenly thinking of some random stranger who had ripped me off nearly a decade ago—someone I felt less strongly towards than I felt towards some random writer named Mary Mitchell, because I have always expected more from women than I have men.

I imagined having to explain to Arran what was wrong, and having to bring up—in the middle of our having sex—some stupid article I had read. Or worse, telling him what had happened to me that night in Long Island. I imagined seeing aversion on his face; I heard myself insisting, “It was no big deal.” So instead, in that moment, I said nothing. It can be easier to write stories for strangers than to be truthful with those who are closest. He’ll know what happened when he reads this essay. We’ll talk about it. I can hear myself already insisting it was no big deal.

And: wasn’t it? “When you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money,” Mary Mitchell says, “you are putting yourself at risk for harm.” It is her contention that sex workers who are victims of sexual violence are not equivalent to “innocent” women. She would say what happened to me was my fault. A part of me, even now, is inclined to agree. Certainly, I would have agreed then. I really should have said no drugs. I really should have called a cab and gone home. If he got mad and tried to prevent me from leaving, I really should have called the cops.

Trauma is inescapable in the binary logic of how our society sees sex workers. You’re either, as Mitchell says, never a victim, or, to many others, you are always one. You either have so much agency that you can never be raped or you’re raped, in the abstract, every night. In response to the latter set of people, I am compelled to insist that it was “my choice,” which it was—an insistence that sounded, at the time, a lot like “I was in control.” The “debate over sex work” creates cognitive dissonance I’m still struggling to sort out.

Ultimately, attitudes like Mitchell’s are a reason why Amnesty International’s movement to adopt policy to protect the human rights of sex workers is so important. Attitudes like Mitchell’s are the reason current and former sex workers speak out, in spite of the difficulty in doing so or the discrimination that outing ourselves invites. In 2010, I fought for and ultimately lost my career as a public school teacher when it became headline news that I had, prior to becoming a teacher, worked as a stripper and a prostitute. Sex work had been my past. It wasn’t something I was necessarily proud of, but I wasn’t ashamed either. It was simply a fact of my experience that I refused to continue denying.

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