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A Sex Trafficking Survivor’s Letter to Her Younger Self

2 Mar

Stella Marr, my body the city, prostitution, sex work, younger self, trauma, new york, manhattan, columbia university, human trafficking, sex worker, prostitution, sexual exploitation

Dear twenty-year old Stella,

Work hard on learning to ask for help.  It’s the only way you’ll ever  break free.  No one ever does anything alone.  You don’t have to.

You’ll learn how to make the men happy.  The happier they are the nicer they treat you.  You’ll get very good at being a hooker.  But when the Johns say “baby you were born for this” that doesn’t mean its true.

Now when most men come near you  feel a stabbing at your eyes, your throat, and your gut that you know isn’t real.  You don’t want to admit it but you’re terrified.  You start, you tremble.  Your hands shake.  Think about it, you’re being stabbed a lot these days.  This is a quite reasonable reaction to being used by man after man, day after day, in this prison of a brothel.  It doesn’t mean you are so miserably flawed that you can’t do anything but prostitution.

Being sold for sex doesn’t make you subhuman.  It’s not OK for your (white) pimps to smack you and tell you they’ll kill you.

You have to work up the nerve to pay a cashier for a soda.  You’re too scared to ask that guy behind the deli counter to make you a sandwich.   This isn’t weakness, it’s biology.  Trauma changes your brain.    Your hippocampus, where you form narrative memory in the brain, shrinks.  This is a symptom of PTSD —  a neurophysiologic response to repetitive trauma –not evidence that you deserve to be in prostitution.

In the middle of the winter in the middle of the night when that guy in the Doubletree suite invites you to sit while he pours you a seltzer trust your gut and back out of there before the five guys you can’t see who are waiting in the bedroom have a chance to get between you and the door.

Being vulnerable means you’re alive.   There’s no shame in it.  It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  You don’t have to apologize for doing what you must to survive.

When Samantha tries to stop working for your pimp Johnny.  make her get out of the city.  Otherwise two weeks later Nicole, the madam who works with Johnny,  will show you Samantha’s diamond initial ring and tell you Johnny murdered her.  Though you’ll always hope she was lying, you doubt it.

You’ve lost all sense of the linear — time  disappeared and you felt it leave.  Now you’re living in the immediate and eternity.  It’s scary and bewildering, but you need this — you need each moment to stretch infinitely so that you can be acutely aware of each man’s tiny movements and shifts in expression,  which can reveal a threat before it happens.  This hyperawareness will save your life.  One day you’ll see this being untethered from time as a kind of grace.

When that shiny classical pianist you meet at Au Bon Pain says he wants to know everything about you don’t believe him.

A lot of what’s happening doesn’t make sense now but it will later.  That habit you have of writing poems in your mind to the beloved you haven’t met yet, as you’re riding in cabs to calls?  There’s something to it.

Your ability to perceive beauty is part of your resilience and survival.  When a man is on top of you watch the wind-swirled leaves out his window.  Seize the gusty joy you feel as you run three blocks to a bodega to buy condoms between calls at 3 AM.  When you think for a minute you see that friend,  who’s death you never got over,  standing in the brassy light under a weeping linden, be grateful.  All this has a purpose.

Being in prostitution can seem to mean you’ve lost everything you hoped to be, but that’s not true.  You’ve splintered into a million pieces, but you’re still you. You’re alive.    It’s in the spaces between those pieces where you learn to feel how other people are feeling.  It hurts so much you’re sure it’ll kill you, but it won’t.  Later when you’re out of the life it’ll be so easy to be happy.  The mundane will buoy you.

When your madam sends you to the Parker Meridien at 3 AM and you meet a British professor who says he wants to help you, believe him.  He will set you up in a beautiful condominium across from Lincoln Center that he deeds in your name.  Of course you’ll have everything to do with this — you are so “good” at being a “hooker,: so “good” at fucking that you can make a guy want to buy you a condo.  Shame is a hollow stone in the throat.

During the two years that this voracious man ‘keeps’ you as his private prostitute the condo will come to feel like a platinum trap.  But it’s still your chance to get out and heal. Take it.

After you’ve sold the condominium and are living in a graduate dorm at Columbia University, a man with eyes like blue shattered glass will sit beside you in the cafeteria.  When he begins to speak you know he’s the unmet beloved you’ve been writing poems to all these years.  You’ll try to run away, but he won’t let you.  Fourteen years later the two of you will be hiking through pink granite outcroppings with your Labrador retriever.  You’ll  feel like the freest woman in the world.

One afternoon when you’re twenty-one you’ll be at the Museum of Metropolitan of Art with your best friend Gabriel, who’s a hustler, a male prostitute.  When he says you ‘remind him of his death’, don’t lash back.  Even though he told you the doctor said he didn’t have that rare new virus named AIDS, it would behoove you to realize he’s still coughing.

Stop thinking about your own hurt.  Don’t lash back with that phrase your mother’s said to you so many times  –” I hope you die a slow death.”  Don’t tell Gabriel  you never want to see him again and storm out of the  sculpture gallery.   Or it will be the last time you see him.  Gabriel will die of AIDS five months later.  When he said you reminded him of ‘his own death’ he was trying to tell you he was dying.   You’ll regret what you said for the rest of your life.  But even more you’ll regret running away from his friendship.

Say forgive me.

Say I love you.

Stay connected.

Love,

Stella

P.S.  I’m sure my mom learned to say “I hope you die a slow death” from her dad.

This is a tribute to Cheryl Strayed‘s transcendent letter to her younger self.  Her letter’s form gave me a pitcher that I filled with my life.  A big shout out to Dublin Call Girl who’s thank you letter to punters is already a classic.

Terrible Beauty: Prostitution & the Inadequacy of Language

23 Feb
nelson mandela, hero, angel k, prostitution, human trafficking, sex work, sex industry, sex worker, trauma, torture, ptsd

My Hero

Survivor Angel K’s writing is searing and fearless.  In a recent post up at her blog Surviving Prostitution and Addiction she describes the after-effects of prostitution — the flashbacks, the startle response, the sleepless due to the terrible dreams.  Researchers have found the women in prostitution suffer from the same levels of trauma symptoms as the victims of state-sponsored torture.  It  forever changes how we face the world.  After going through something like state-sponsored torture or trafficking/prostitution everything you do is an act of will — you must continually summon a new being  from your fragments. Yet as the survivors of torture or trafficking/prostitution rebuild their lives, their selves, their voices  — they can develop extraordinary abilities to connect with, inspire, and understand others.  Nelson Mandela exemplifies this type of rebirth.

Most everyone understands that Mandela’s experiences of being held 27 years in a prison infamous for torture make him unique.  When he was finally released few denied the vast injustice done to him.  No one expected him to act like everyone else.  Instead South Africa and the world stepped back, and waited to see how this extraordinary man would transform the terrible wrongs he’d been through — they gave him a chance to bring something new into being.

It’s my hope that the public will start seeing us trafficking and prostitution survivors as people society has wronged in a similar manner.  I hope they’ll understand we’ve been changed by the pain and harshness we’ve experienced.  Public denial of the violence we experience and whore-blaming forces many of us into hiding.  If this stopped, we survivors would be empowered to bring something new and beautiful into being.

With exquisite precision, Angel K writes of  how it feels to live inside this trauma and form a new self and voice from the fragments.  Here’s an excerpt:

 The images remain, technicolour, replaying when I sleep or sometimes anyway. Something triggers me and I’m gone, magically transported back there, no tardis required.
I sleep with the light on, and barely even then. Scared of dreaming, but scared of my thoughts lying awake hour after hour. The night looms, interminable, the fragile grip on sanity of the day stretched to a mere thread, at breaking point. The body, that is to say my body – the splitting I did to survive what they did to me continues – doesn’t help. Muscles tense and tire, old injuries ache, and now the exhaustion from night after night of broken sleep has taken it to the point of fainting, of collapse. Both body and mind work against me, telling me I am in danger now, making me re-experience what happened then now.
Many thanks to Rebecca Mott  for our conversations on Mandela which inspired this post.

Sung

20 Feb
stella marr, human trafficking, sex trafficking, sex work, prostitution, sung, new york city, manhattan, manhattan call girl, prostitution

Sung's kindness gave me a momentary home

Sung’s kindness gave me a momentary home

This is the prologue to my memoir My Body the City:  The Secret Life of a Manhattan Callgirl. 

You don’t know me but I love you. I’m the irresistible force and the immovable object. I’m stubborn, so I’ll always be here. They tore out my tongue, but I learned to re-grow it. Now I will always speak.

It is 3:00 in the morning, my lunch hour, and I’ve just stepped out of a cab at 10th Street and 6th Avenue. A black velvet rain is smothering the city, icy gleams threading the air. I walk toward a fruit stand that seems to float above the sidewalk in a cloud of light. When I blink there’s a stabbing pain behind my eye, and I can feel his fist pound my cheekbone like it’s happening again.

The plastic curtains protecting the produce out front are steamed from the cold. I glance up to the bulbous security mirror which distorts my face. My eye and neck are swollen red and turning greenish-yellow. I feel my hair sticking to my forehead and pull my fingers through the dripping tangles that hang to my waist. But I’m used to going around the city beaten up.

Inside there are so many bins of flowers it makes an indoor garden. I bend into the freesia to breathe their thick fragrance, and in the same motion grab a smooth green apple from a wood crate on the floor. I head back to the coolers. Opening the cool glass door, I exhale with a long sigh so I can watch my breath make a cloud as it hits the chilled air. I gather up a six pack of Diet Pepsi and a coffee yogurt, walk back and set it on the worn wood counter. I feel caved in with shame as I lift my bruised face to the tall man at the cash register. His eyes are deep and warm like licorice made with pepper. His plastic nametag says Sung. He hands me my bag and my change.

He reaches into a bin of red roses, selects the most lush, and hands it to me with a bow. When Sung bows he sends strength. I take the rose and it feels important, as if I’m accepting the folded flag at a military funeral. “

You’re a nice lady,” he says. “Your life should be nice.”

His voice makes me feel like a rug being shaken out in fresh air. Tears warm my eyes.

He grabs two expensive handmade caramels from a basket by the cash register and reaches across the counter to throw them in my bag. When I hold out a crumpled ten dollar bill to show I’ll pay for them he puts his hands behind his back, smiles slowly, and shakes his head ‘no.’ He sits on a plastic crate and starts marking bags of walnuts with a price gun. In the fluorescent light his wide cheekbones shine like they’re wet.

*****

Now a man with thick tufts of hair on his knuckles walks into the store, and I see—no feel—his cock and thighs projected into the space between us. I feel a stabbing, like knives, at my eyes, my throat, my gut. It happens when most men come near. I know the knives I feel aren’t real, but their stabbing hurts. I fight this by trying to fill my body with peace, so it rises from my skin like perfume.

The brutality I sense around me can seem like the strongest part of the city, a riptide always about to drag you under. I close my eyes and breathe in the thick scent of cabbage and orange rinds. I exhale. I want to purify my body so the stabbing disappears. But it never disappears, not completely, which is why I must tell you my story. How I got to this fruit stand in the middle of the night, reaching my wet, shaking hands to take a slightly bruised rose.

++++

After this every time I saw Sung at the fruit stand, he gave me a rose.

How a Holocaust Survivor Can Help Prostitution Survivors

11 Feb
The amazing Primo Levi

My Hero

Primo Levi is amazing.  Many trafficking/prostitution survivors I know read him again and again.  We need him and somehow we find our way to him.

Primo (he will always be ‘first’ to me) has been necessary for my intellectual survival.  I’m not drawing any direct parallels between the concentration camp and what I experienced in prostitution (though in many ways it was an underground Gulag), but Primo defines the denial of evil and how evil molds and changes the people it preys upon better than anyone I’ve ever read.

I’m so thankful to him, for his amazing clarity, honesty and courage, for having the guts to write the truth, when it wasn’t what people wanted to hear.  For going beyond his outrage, pain, despair, to examine like the scientist he was what happens to people  when they’re subjected to unfathomable violence, fear, loss and pain.

From the Drowned and the Saved:

“The well-known euphemisms (‘final solution,’ ‘special treatment,’ the very term Einsatzkommando literally ‘prompt-employment unit, disguised a frightful reality) were used not only to deceive the victims and prevent a defensive reaction on their part, they were also meant, within the limits of the possible, to prevent public opinion, and those sections of the army not directly involved, from finding out what was happening in all the territories occupied by the Third Reich.” “The entire history of the brief “millennial Reich” can be read as a war against memory, an Orwellian falsification of memory, falsification of reality, negation of reality.

All Hitler’s biographers … agree on the flight from reality which marked his last years, especially beginning with the first Russian winter. He had forbidden and denied his subjects any access to the truth, contaminating their morality and their memory; but, to a degree which gradually increased, attaining complete paranoia in the Bunker, he barred the path of truth to himself as well. Like all gamblers, he erected around himself a stage set of superstitious lies and in which he ended up believing with the same fanatical faith that he demanded from every German. His collapse was not only a salvation for mankind but also a demonstration of the price to be paid when one dismembers the truth.”

The falsification Levi describes above reminds me a lot of the many lies and euphemisms society and the sex industry use to hide the degradation and violence of prostitution.  These untruths dehumanize the prostituted class.