The most powerful and emotionally charged moments of the World’s Oldest Oppression conference at RMIT University in Melbourne and the closing launch of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survivor in the Sex Trade earlier this month, were hearing the stories of survivors in their own words. Some women spoke publicly for the first time. It was very beautiful seeing them support each other, finding strength and solidarity in their shared experience, harnessing their collective personal experiences into the emerging and fast growing global survivor movement calling for abolition of the sex trade.
New Zealand born Ally Marie, who now lives in Brisbane, was among those who decided it was time to go public with her experience. Conceived as a result of the gang rape of her teenage mother, with a history of child sexual abuse (starting at 4), by 21 she was easy pickings for the sex trade. Since then, she has clawed her way back to life out of drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide attempts. Her nine children have helped inspire her recovery. (More of her story on her website).
It was a big step for Ally Marie to speak to the packed auditorium. She explains:
Leading up to the conference I was extremely nervous and fearful. There were many times that I wanted to pull out, not to share this part of me that I had locked away and basically thrown away the key. I had endured a lot through my life but this was a part of me that I had never shared in so much depth with anyone. The voices of fear, despair, sadness, worthlessness, kept playing over and over on my mind like a broken record. But I pushed through, remembering my friends who were no longer able to speak on behalf of themselves. This wasn’t about me, it was about them, and all the women who are still in this life too afraid for their lives, for their own sanity and safety.
Sharing with these beautiful incredible women was so empowering, inspiring and most importantly healing. I finally felt that by sharing, all the pain was now worth something, so much bigger than me, that this would save lives. The support and love I have received has been overwhelming and in this moment I feel so loved and supported.
Now my vision to support survivors is so much stronger than it ever was before I shared my journey. I am excited for what the future holds, not only for myself and my children but for the millions of women’s lives that will be changed.
Fortunately, a friend captured Ally Marie’s speech on film and she has since uploaded it. You will see why she moved us all to tears. Ally Marie will share her story again at the forthcoming launch of Prostitution Narratives on the Gold Coast this Friday. She will be joined by two other survivors, including ‘Charlotte’, a contributor to our book. More info here.
Extensive coverage of Prostitution Narratives in Daily Mail
Autumn Burris from California, who is now the director of Survivors For Solutions, shares her story in a chapter entitled: ‘No life for a human being’, in which she explains how being a prostitute exposes women to violent attacks.
‘When a sex buyer rents your body he often demands more of you than agreed. If you reject him, more often than not, violence ensues,’ she recalled.
‘It is common for sex buyers to act out violently against prostituted women. Upon entering prostitution it is immediately clear that there is no such thing as respect for human rights or physical boundaries as soon as a client buys power over you.
‘They live out their fantasies through renting your body. Fantasies they wouldn’t think of asking their loved ones for, are requested of you.
A written testimony of suffering, pain – and resilience
Our new book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade (Spinifex Press), was launched in Melbourne Sunday night. It was, I think, the most profoundly moving and affecting event I’ve even been part of. A number of contributors shared what being part of this book had meant to them. They felt heard and validated. They drew strength from each others stories. They resolved to join together together to fight for support and services to help other women exit the industry.
MTR with book contributors
UK feminist and journalist Julie Bindel launched the book, describing it as a “stick of dynamite”. The book was, she said “deeply disturbing and profoundly upsetting” and yet, also “a book about hope and resistance.” Irish abolitionist and survivor Rachel Moran also spoke (in her beautiful Irish lilt) about how the book echoed her experience and that of so many others and how it would help to bring about change. For those who couldn’t be there, here’s my speech delivered on the night:
Without these 20 women – almost half we are delighted to have here with us today – there would have been no book.
These 238 pages are created from your stories of survival. These pages are chiseled from the pain of your lives. Your trauma. Your suffering. Your strength. Your resilience. As we wrote in the opening lines:
Prostitution Narratives presents powerful stories by women who have survived the prostitution industry. The testimonies collated in this book bear witness to the effects of prostitution on women and girls, and bring to life its dismal statistics.
We must never underestimate what it must have taken out of you to re-live your experience. But we are so thankful you were willing to do it. To put every word down, to piece together sentences, building paragraphs and then whole chapters.
You were willing to endure nightmares, and flashbacks, and returning (in your minds) to the scenes of the crimes against you, to make this book happen – to render the harm done to you and so many others, visible.
And so we are grateful to you all, above all, for bearing witness in this written record.
Your presence in the book and in person, stands as a protest.
As does your presence at the gathering we have just had. The sex industry tried to stop you. They tried to de-platform you. They tried to intimidate and harass you. They couldn’t stand it – how dare we expose the true nature of their industry? There were nine protestors who went to the wrong venue but even then they were still trying to recruit with their ‘why be poor?’ posters.
A multi-billion dollar sexual exploitation industry built upon the backs of the bodies of real women and girls tried to stop you. They failed. The prostitution profiteers, the right-to-prostitution groups lost today.
Secondly, Caroline. What an honour to work with you. I cannot adequately express my admiration, though I tried, in the endorsements. You provided the academic weight and research heft to this book. You are possibly the most humble woman I have met. Last night when some of us were partying with Julie and Rachel at the Union Bar you were at home making vegan sandwiches for our conference. You always sound so surprised when I tell you how damn good you are!
Renate, Susan and Pauline and the rest of the team at Spinifex. My 4th book with you now. Thank you for all your support and for believing in my work – other authors with other publishers would be envious of the level of support and backing you’ve given me over two decades. And now this latest book. It was a difficult labour and delivery – but here is the new baby, thriving and well.
Caitlin, Meagan and Jacqueline who make up the appendix. Caitlin exposes the pimps and the johns without whom there would be no demand and no industry. Meagan gives us a tool for activism around the Nordic Model. Jacqueline, it can’t have been easy to come out with your role in the industry. But you have chosen to turn what was bad into good.
And all our endorsers – I was blown away by your words! And to have Julie Bindel launch our book is like a dream come true.
My friends here. Especially my Collective Shout crew – Coralie, Caitlin, Melinda are here and a number of CS volunteers and supporters.
Clearly there has been a shift. Growing in strength, and bravery, encouraged and supported by new survivor groups emerging around the world, refusing to be relegated to the margins, linked together by common suffering and common determination to change things for other women, today we launch Prostitution Narratives, with our 20 survivors.
Two of our key hopes in curating these accounts was that women would find solidarity and strength in their shared experience. Yesterday I was sitting at St Kilda beach reading Julie’s Guardian piece on the 11 year anniversary of Andrea Dworkin’s death and these words stood out: ‘Andrea healed her wounds by listening to the stories of other survivors, despite the pain that would cause.
Our other hope that women still in the industry would find a spark of encouragement to get out of it. (And here I have to say the status of funding for exit programs and other outreaches which help women leave the industry in this country is a blight and a shame – note the struggle of Project Respect, for example). The first contributor Linda told me her friends, still in the industry, were sitting around the brothel where she had worked with them, reading the copy she’d sent them. I love this image.
I want to end with a quote from a young survivor who I know personally and who has become special to me.
Near the end of the book, ‘Charlotte’ reaches out offering hope to other survivors.
To anyone reading this who is still involved in the sex industry – you are so much more than your body and your ability to provide sexual gratification. You are worthy, important and loved. You deserve so much more…You will survive this.
Tanja’s letter in Prostitution Narratives reprinted on News.com
Former prostitute takes aim at her clients in scathing letter
Dear sex customer,
If you think that I ever felt attracted to you, you are terribly mistaken. I have never had any desire to go to work, not once. The only thing on my mind was to make money, and fast.
Do not confuse that with easy money; it was never easy. Fast, yes. Because I quickly learned the many tricks to get you to come as quickly as possible, so I could get you off of me, or from under me, or from behind me.
And no, you never turned me on during the act. I was a great actress. For years I have had the opportunity to practice for free. Actually, it falls under the concept of multi-tasking. Because while you lay there, my thoughts were always elsewhere. Somewhere where I was not confronted with you sucking out my self respect, without spending as much as 10 seconds on the reality of the situation, or to look me in the eye.
If you thought you were doing me a favour by paying me for 30 minutes or an hour, you were wrong. I would rather have had you in and out as fast as possible. When you thought yourself to be my holy saviour, asking what a pretty girl like me was doing in a place like that, you lost your halo when you proceeded to ask me to lie down on my back, and then put all your efforts into feeling my body as much as possible with your hands. Actually, I would have preferred if you had gotten down on your back and had let me do my job.
When you thought you could boost your masculinity by getting me to climax, you need to know that I faked it. I could have won a gold medal in faking it. I faked it so much, that the receptionist would nearly fall off of her chair laughing. What did you expect? You were perhaps number three, or number five, or eight that day.
Did you really think I was able to get turned on mentally or physically by having sex with men I did not choose myself? Not ever. My genitals were burning. From lubricant and condoms. And I was tired. So tired, that often I had to be careful not to close my eyes for fear of falling asleep while my moaning continued on autopilot.
If you thought you paid for loyalty or small talk, you need to think again. I had zero interest in your excuses. I did not care that your wife had pelvic pain, and that you just could not go without sex. Or when you offered any other pathetic excuse for coming to buy sex with me.
When you thought I understood you and had sympathy for you, it was all a lie. I had nothing but contempt for you, and at the same time you destroyed something inside of me. You sowed the seeds of doubt in me. Doubt as to whether all men were just as cynical and unfaithful as you were.
When you praised my appearance, my body, or my sexual abilities, you could just as well have vomited on me. You did not see the person behind the mask. You only saw that which confirmed your illusion of a raunchy woman with an unstoppable sex drive.
In fact, you never said what you thought I wanted to hear. Instead, you said what you yourself needed to hear. You said that, which was needed to preserve your illusion, and which prevented you from thinking about how I had ended up where I was at 20 years of age. Basically, you did not care at all. Because you had one goal only, and that was to show off your power by paying me to use my body as it pleased you.
When a drop of blood appeared on the condom, it was not because my period had just come. It was because my body was a machine, one that could not be interrupted by a monthly cycle, so I inserted a sponge into my vagina, when I menstruated. To be able to continue on the sheets.
And no, I did not go home after you had finished. I continued working, telling the next customer exactly the same story that you had heard. You were all so consumed with your own lust that a little menstrual blood did not stop you.
When you came with objects, lingerie, costumes or toys, and wanted erotic role-play, my inner machine took over. I was disgusted with you and your sometimes quite sick fantasies. The same goes for the times when you smiled and said that I looked like a 17-year-old girl. It did not help that you yourself were 50, 60, 70, or older.
When you regularly violated my boundaries by either kissing me, or inserting your fingers into me, or taking off your condom, you did it knowing perfectly well that it was against the rules. You were testing my ability to say no. And you enjoyed it.
When I did not object clearly enough, or when I too often would simply ignore it. And then you used it in a perverted way to show how much power you had and that you could cross my boundaries.
When I finally told you off, and made it clear that I would not have you as a customer again if you could not respect the rules, you insulted me and my role as prostitute. You were condescending, threatening and rude.
When you buy sex, it says a lot about you, your humanity, and your sexuality. To me, it is a sign of your weakness, even though you confuse it with a sick sort of power and status.
You think you have a right. I mean, the prostitutes are out there anyway, right? But they are only prostitutes because men like you stand in the way of healthy and respectful relationship between men and women.
Prostitutes only exist because men like you feel you have the right to satisfy your sexual urges using the orifices of other people’s bodies.
Prostitutes exist because you and your peers feel that your sexuality requires access to sex whenever it suits you.
Prostitutes exist because you are a misogynist, and because you are more concerned with your own sexual needs than the relationships in which your sexuality could actually flourish.
When you buy sex, it reveals that you have not found the core within your own sexuality. I feel sorry for you, I really do. That you are so mediocre that you think that sex is all about ejaculating into a stranger’s vagina.
And if one is not handy, it is never further away than down the street, where you can pay an unknown woman to be able to empty yourself into a rubber while inside of her.
What a petty and frustrated man you must be. A man unable to create profound and intimate relationships, in which the connection runs deeper than just your ejaculation.
A man, who expresses his feelings through his climaxes, who does not have the ability to verbalise them, but prefers to channel them through his genitals to rid himself of them. What a weak masculinity. A truly masculine man would never degrade himself by paying for sex.
As far as your humanity goes, I believe in the good in people, also in you. I know that deep down, you have a conscience. That you have quietly wondered whether what you did was ethically and morally justifiable. I also know that you defend your actions and likely think that you treated me well, were kind, never mean or did not violate my boundaries.
But you know what? That is called evading your responsibility. You are not confronting reality. You delude yourself in thinking that the people you buy are not bought. Not forced into prostitution.
Maybe you even think that you did me a favour and gave me a break by talking about the weather, or giving me a little massage before you penetrated me. It did me no favours. All it did was confirm to me that I was not worth more. That I was a machine, whose primary function was to let others exploit my sexuality.
I have many experiences from prostitution. They enable me to write this letter to you. But it is a letter, which I would much rather not have written. These are experiences I wish I could have avoided.
You of course, you thought of yourself as one of the nice customers. But there are no nice customers. Just those who confirm the women’s negative view of themselves.
This news.com.au feature by Emma Reynolds today is the first mainstream media piece on our new book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade (Spinifex Press) to be launched Sunday in Melbourne. We are so pleased to see the stories of five of our contributors – Rhiannon, Simone, Jade, Annabelle and Rachel – highlighted in this piece, given how rarely we see accounts like this in Australian media. Here are some extracts:
‘I clutched the cash while he used me’: former prostitutes on why they want the industry banned
AT RHIANNON’S lowest point, she agreed to sex for money with a man who found her drunk, high on prescription drugs and crying on the street outside the strip club where she worked.
Back at his home, she cut her wrists in his bathroom and stuck toilet paper on them.
“The man felt it was worth paying a hundred dollars to have sex with a woman who had a tearstained face and bleeding wrists,” she said.
“I insisted on clutching the cash while he used me.”
She told him she was going to kill herself and he should call an ambulance. He shrugged, so she went outside and did it herself, staring at Brisbane’s Story Bridge and thinking that if it didn’t arrive in 10 minutes, she would jump off.
It was the start of her journey out of the sex industry.
Her story is just one of the graphic first-person testimonies in Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, a shocking book that will be launched at an anti-sex trade conference at RMIT University in Melbourne this weekend.
…a growing group of survivors and abolitionists say they are disturbed at pro-sex trade lobbyists painting the industry as a profession, chosen by autonomous women because it makes them feel empowered.
She said many of the prostitutes she has met have been single mothers or students looking for money. More than half of sex workers have been sexually abused as children or teenagers. Others have been raped, neglected or harassed. “Many women are trying to escape abuse or domestic violence,” said Simone. “They have nowhere else to go.”
Simone has been left with PTSD, anxiety and agoraphobia, so her advocacy work and travel has been challenging, but she’s desperate to create change.
Sexually abused as a child growing up in Melbourne, Annabelle* writes in Prostitution Narratives that her experiences “set her up for the sex industry.”
She believes the idea women enter the industry by choice is wrong, because they are often so young, and don’t have all the facts.
“I believe all prostituted women are held captive, not just physically as in the case of trafficked women, but by the lies of the sex industry.”
For Jade, working as a prostitute “was like experiencing a car crash every single weekend”. Eventually, she was diagnosed with drug-induced schizophrenia and PTSD, and she has counselling to this day. “It is hard to maintain relationships after you have been treated night after night with contempt. It is hard to value yourself when you’ve been sold for as little as a packet of cigarettes.”
“I couldn’t negotiate my own life in any sense without making that trade off: prostitution for poverty.
This week France became the latest in a growing list of countries to decriminalise sex workers while banning the purchase of sex.
The French legislation is based on what has become known as the Nordic Model, a form of decriminalisation that treats prostitution as a cause and effect of gender inequality and a site of violence against women.
The Nordic Model shrinks the market for prostitution by targeting demand: making the activities of sex buyers illegal while removing any punitive measures against prostituted persons. It has been effective in Sweden, and has since been adopted in Norway, Iceland, Canada and Northern Ireland. Read more here
‘World’s oldest oppression’ the first ever gathering of sex industry survivors and abolitionists in Australia, will be held at RMIT University in Melbourne next weekend.
The two day conference, April 9-10, will hear from survivors of the sex trade and abolitionist activists including Rachel Moran, author of Paid For, My Journey Through Prostitution and UK feminist and journalist Julie Bindel.
The conference will conclude with the launch on the Sunday afternoon of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, a collection of 20 personal accounts by women in Australia and internationally. Edited by Dr. Caroline Norma and myself, and published by Spinifex Press, we are so honoured that Rachel Moran and Julie Bindel will launch the book.
Here’s two of our contributors, Simone Watson and Caitlin Roper, having just received their copies of Prostitution Narratives. Simone wrote a powerful chapter about the reality of life in ‘massage parlours’ and Caitlin documented the attitudes of the punters and johns who purchase women for sex.
There’s nothing quite like receiving the first copy of the new book you’ve just had published, in the mail. You take it out of its packaging. You run your hands over the cover. You flick through (hoping no mistakes will leap out!). You turn it around in your hands. You read the back page, struck anew by the wonderful acknowledgements other writers, activists and academics you hold in highest esteem, wrote for you. You think of the friends who urged you on to the finish line. And how fortunate you’ve been to have a publisher who believes in your work and backs you all the way.
The feelings evoked are right up there with the birth of your children. OK, not quite. Four children. And now, five books, safely delivered.
Prostitution Narratives Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade is my fourth book with Spinifex Press (Defiant Birth, Getting Real, Big Porn Inc, now this one). And my first co-authored with Dr. Caroline Norma. When I first had the idea for a collection of first-person accounts of formerly prostituted women, I knew it couldn’t happen without Caroline, who is a leading authority on prostitution and trafficking globally.
Harm rendered visible
With a prologue by Irish abolitionist Rachel Moran, who tells her story in her autobiography Paid For. My Journey through Prostitution (2013), then introduction by myself and Caroline, the essence of the book is the 20 survivor stories who render visible the harm done to women in the global sex industry. Their intensely personal accounts are followed by three commentary pieces – one by an ex-pimp, another on the johns and punters, by Collective Shout’s Caitlin Roper, and finally, a case for the Nordic Model by Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT, Meagan Tyler. The cover artwork Legal Slave, is by survivor and contributor Genevieve Gilbert. With official publication date April 9, our book will be launched in Melbourne April 10 by UK journalist, author and broadcaster Julie Bindel. A number of contributors, including Rachel Moran, will also speak at the launch. It will come at the end of a 2-day conference at RMIT University on ending global sex trade abuse.
Here’s an extract from the introduction:
Prostitution survivors speak out
Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist
Prostitution Narratives presents powerful stories by women who have survived the prostitution industry. The testimonies collated in this book bear witness to the effects of prostitution on women and girls, and bring to life its dismal statistics.
Such stories are rarely published. Instead, it is the profiteers who are most dominant and influential in speaking and writing about prostitution. This billion-dollar industry seeks to persuade the world that prostitution is a service like any other that allows women to earn vast sums of money, and to travel and enjoy life’s luxuries. In large sections of the media, academia, public policy and the law, the sex industry has had its way. With money no obstacle, its polished representatives repeat the mantra: sex work is work, prostitution is a job like any other, and the sex industry should be treated as just another business enterprise.
Right-to-prostitution groups present women in sex businesses as ‘escorts, hostesses, strippers, dancers, sex workers’. Prostitution is euphemistically described as ‘compensated dating’ and ‘assisted intercourse’ with women who are ‘erotic entrepreneurs’. But the sex industry’s public relations campaign makes little mention of the damage, violation, suffering, and torment of prostitution on the body and the mind, nor of the deaths, suicides and murders that are common. It is in its economic interest to do so. As long-time abolitionist Melissa Farley observes, much of the business must be concealed and denied in order for it to continue:
There is an economic motive to hiding the violence in prostitution and trafficking … prostitution is sexual violence that results in massive economic profit for some of its perpetrators … Many governments protect commercial sex business because of monstrous profits …
This information [on the harms of prostitution, pornography and trafficking] has to be culturally, psychologically, and legally denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation.
In critiquing the business of sexual exploitation, the accounts in this book sit outside the sphere of mainstream publishing in exposing the prostitution trade for what it is: violence against women.
Prostitution Narratives begins with, as mentioned, Rachel Moran’s Prologue where she identifies the ideology of ‘sex work’ as a dehumanizing force that conceals the reality of prostitution. The survivor testimonies which follow then unpack the reality of commercial sexual exploitation. From the streets to strip clubs, to brothels and escort agencies, from web-camming to the filming of prostitution for the pornography industry, from underage girls groomed for prostitution through child sexual abuse, to young women caught up in a criminal world of gangs and drugs, to students, artists, and single mothers desperate to survive, the chapters of this book have a unifying thread: their contributors survived, got out, and want the world to know what being prostituted was really like…
In order to better understand and respond to the global human rights violation that is prostitution, we must first comprehend what the sex industry looks like and does to the girls and women most affected. For this, first-person accounts by survivors are the only way to begin.
[Trigger warning: graphic description of sexual abuse]
‘Amy’ was a victim of sexual abuse by her uncle as a child. He uploaded images of the abuse on to the internet, they became known as the ‘Misty Series’. These images have been globally trafficked since the late 1990s and are the most widely viewed in the child pornography world, according to the New York Times.
Amy is now 24; she gets notifications through the US Justice Department every time someone views the ‘Misty Series’ video. So far she has 1800 notifications and the video has already featured in 3200 criminal cases. Next month in a landmark case, the US Supreme Court will decide how much a child porn victim can demand from the people who viewed a video of her being abused.
This is Amy’s victim impact statement:
I am a 19-year-old girl and I am a victim of child sex abuse and child pornography. I am still discovering all the ways that the abuse and exploitation I suffer has hurt me, has set my life on the wrong course, and destroyed the normal childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood that everyone deserves.
My uncle started to abuse me when I was only 4 years old. He used what I now know are the common ways that abusers get their victims ready for abuse and keep them silent: he told me that I was special, that he loved me, and that we had our own ‘special secrets’. Since he lived close to our house, my mother and father didn’t suspect anything when I walked over there to spend time with him. At first he showed me pornographic movies and then he started doing things to me. I remember that he put his finger in my vagina and that it hurt a lot. I remember that he tried to have sex with me and that it hurt even more. I remember telling him that it hurt. I remember that much of the time I was with him I did not have clothes on and that sometimes he made me dress up in lingerie. And I remember the pictures.
After the abuse he would take me to buy my favourite snack which was beef jerky. Even now when I eat beef jerky I get feelings of panic, guilt, and humiliation. It’s like I can never get away from what happened to me. At the time I was confused and knew it was wrong and that I didn’t like it, but I also thought it was wrong for me to tell anything bad about my uncle who said he loved me and bought me things I liked. He even let me ride on his motorcycle. Now I will never ride on a motorcycle again. The memories are too upsetting.
There is a lot I don’t remember, but now I can’t forget because the disgusting images of what he did to me are still out there on the internet. For a long time I practiced putting the terrible memories away in my mind. Thinking about it is still really painful. Sometimes I just go into staring spells when I am caught thinking about what happened and not paying any attention to my surroundings. Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognise me and that I will be humiliated all over again. It hurts me to know someone is looking at them – at me – when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera. I did not choose to be there, but now I am there forever in pictures that people are using to do sick things. I want it all erased. I want it all stopped. But I am powerless to stop it just like I was powerless to stop my uncle.
When they first discovered what my uncle did, I went to therapy and thought I was getting over this. I was very wrong. My full understanding of what happened to me has only gotten clearer as I have gotten older. My life and my feelings are worse now because the crime has never really stopped and will never really stop. It is hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my uncle and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment from it. It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again.
I find myself unable to do the simple things that other teenagers handle easily. I do not have a driver’s license. Every time I say I am going to do it, I don’t. I can’t plan well. My mind skips out on me when I think about moving forward with my life. I have been trying to get a job, but I just keep avoiding things. Forgetting is the thing I do best since I was forced as a little girl to live a double life and ‘forget’ what was happening to me. Before I realise it, I miss interviews or other things that will help me get a job.
Sometimes things remind me of the abuse and I don’t even realise it until it is too late. For example, I failed anatomy in high school. I simply could not think about the body because of what happened to me. The same thing happened at university. I went to a psychology class where we watched a video about child abuse.
Without even realising why, I just stopped going to class. I failed my first year of university and ended up moving back home.
It’s easy for me to block out my feelings and avoid things that make me uncomfortable. I don’t know when I will be ready to go back to university because I have huge problems with avoiding anything that makes me uncomfortable or reminds me of my abuse.
I am always scared that people can look at me and tell that I am a victim of sex abuse because my abuse is a public fact. I am worried that when my friends are on the internet they are going to come across my pictures and it fills me with shame and embarrassment.
I am humiliated and ashamed that there are pictures of me doing horrible things with my uncle. Everywhere I go I feel judged. Am I the kind of person who does this? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something sickening and disgusting about who I am?
I am embarrassed to tell anyone what happened to me because I’m afraid they will judge me and blame me for it. I live in a small town and I think that if one person knows then everyone will know. I am just living in fear of the day someone sees those awful pictures of me and then ‘the secret’ about me will be out. It’s like my life is on hold for that day and I am frozen in time waiting. I know those disgusting pictures of me are stuck in time and are there forever for everyone to see.
I had terrible nightmares for a long long time. I would wake up sweating and crying and go to my parents for comfort. Now I still get flashbacks sometimes. There are thoughts in my head that are memories of the things that my uncle did to me. My heart will start racing and I will feel sweaty and then a stronger picture will pop up in my head and I have to leave the situation I am in. I have heard the voice of my uncle in my mind still talking to me saying, “don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell.” Thinking and knowing that the pictures of all this are still out there just makes it worse. It’s like I can’t escape from the abuse, now or ever.
Because I’ve had so many bad dreams, I find it hard to sleep when it’s dark. I like to keep the lights on thinking that will protect me from bad dreams. I hate scary movies and sometimes have nightmares for days.
Sometimes I have unreasonable fears that prevent me from doing the normal things that other kids do. My friend once asked me to go with her and her uncle to an amusement park. I could not get it out of my head that I would be abused. In the end I just couldn’t go. I kept wondering if my friend’s uncle had seen my pictures. Did he know me? Did he know what I did? Is that why he invited me to the amusement park?
Trust is a very hard thing for me and often people just make me uncomfortable. I had to quit a job I had as a waitress because there was a guy who I thought was always staring at me. I couldn’t stop thinking, did he recognise me? Did he see my pictures somewhere? I was simply too uncomfortable to keep working there.
I have trouble saying ‘no’ to people since I learned at a young age that I really don’t have control over what’s happening to me. I am trying to learn to get better at this because I know that not saying ‘no’ makes it easier for someone to hurt me again.
Because of the way my uncle bribed me to perform sex acts on camera, I have trouble taking gifts from anyone. I always feel that people will expect something from me if they give me a present. This makes it difficult in my relationship with friends.
I want to have children someday, but it frightens me terribly to think about how I could keep them safe. Who could I possibly trust? Their teacher? Their coach? I don’t know if I could ever trust anyone with my children. And what if my children and their friends see my pictures on the internet? How could I ever explain to them what happened to me?
I am very confused about what love is. My uncle said he loved me and I wanted that love. But I know now that what he did to me is not love. But how will I be able to tell in the future if it is real love or just another person trying to exploit and use me?
The truth is, I am being exploited and used every day and every night somewhere in the world by someone. How can I ever get over this when the crime that is happening to me will never end? How can I get over this when the shameful abuse I suffered is out there forever and being enjoyed by sick people? I am horrified by the thought that other children will probably be abused because of my pictures. Will someone show my pictures to other kids, like my uncle did to me, then tell them what to do? Will they see me and think it’s okay for them to do the same thing? Will some sick person see my picture and then get the idea to do the same thing to another little girl? These thoughts make me sad and scared. I blame myself a lot for what happened. I know I was so little, but why didn’t I know better? Why didn’t I stop my uncle? Maybe if I had stopped it there wouldn’t be so many pictures out there that I can never take back or erase. I feel like now I have to live with it forever and that it’s all my fault. I feel like I am unworthy of anything and a failure. What have I been good for except to be used by others over and over again. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to get a job or stay in school. I’m tired of disappointing myself. I’ve already had enough disappointment for a lifetime and just don’t want any more failure. To me this brings back all the terrible feelings and shame of abuse and exploitation.
Sometimes I deal with my feelings by trying to forget everything by drinking too much. I know this isn’t good, but my humiliation and angry feelings are there with me all the time and sometimes I just need a way to make them go away for awhile.
I feel like I have always had to live a double life. First I had to lie about what my uncle was doing to me. Then I had to act like it didn’t happen because it was too embarrassing. Now I always know that there is another ‘little me’ being seen on the internet by other abusers. I don’t want to be there, but I am. I wish I could go back in time and stop my uncle from taking those pictures, but I can’t.
Even though I am scared that I will be abused or hurt again because I am making this victim impact statement, I want the court and judge to know about me and what I have suffered and what my life is like. What happened to me hasn’t gone away. It will never go away. I am a real victim of child pornography and it effects me every day and everywhere I go.
Please think about me and think about my life when you sentence this person to prison. Why should this person, who is continuing my abuse, be free when I am not free?
Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editor of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. Melinda is also the co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
How did you become interested in researching pornography?
There were a few things that came together around the same time. Women started telling me their stories of being hurt and harmed by a partner’s compulsive porn use. In my talks in schools, teen girls shared with me the pressure they felt to provide a porn-style performance, to act, essentially, as a sexual service station for men and boys. They were expected to provide naked images of themselves, to provide sexual services. As well, the sex industry was dominating and colonising every public space and was rarely brought to account. I began to talk to my publishers about what I was hearing. Spinifex had published an earlier book in 2004 titled Not for Sale: feminists resisting prostitution and pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. It was a powerful book. But so much had happened since then, especially with the internet being used to globalise and spread pornography. We felt that a new book on pornography was needed. It also seemed to be a natural progression from my previous book Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls, published by Spinifex in 2009.
There seems to be an overall consensus in the book that pornography is the same (or similar to) prostitution. Can you explain the similarities?
Yes, the writers in the book would mostly argue that pornography is filmed (or graphically depicted) prostitution. Melissa Farley uses the term ‘infinite prostitution’. The pornography industry has many of the features of the prostitution industry–it needs to procure women through trafficking, it relies on pimps to mediate transactions with the women who will be used, and the women it procures generally have histories of sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness. Pornography is advertising for prostitution and normalises the sexual exploitation of women. As well, men often want to act out what they see in porn on ‘live’ women. Pornography is often used as a form of initiation into prostitution. It’s also the case that women in pornography are concurrently being prostituted off-set, or go on to be used in systems of prostitution and stripping. The overlap between the prostitution and pornography businesses is so great that we might see them as operating in parallel, or perhaps as one larger sex industry. However, I think it’s also important to understand the differences between the pornography and prostitution sectors of the sex industry, and Big Porn Inc highlights these differences for pornography in particular. Firstly, the abuses that women undergo in pornography have a permanent or semi-permanent record made of them in the form of film, etc. This record causes many women great hardship and stress, because they feel they can never escape their past, and suffer anxiety at the prospect that anyone they meet throughout their lives has seen the pornography. They are also vulnerable to blackmail over it. The permanency of pornography causes particular suffering for women whose childhood sexual abuse was filmed as child pornography and shared by their abusers. Another aspect of the pornography industry that might distinguish it from the rest of the sex industry is the culture of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’ that has developed around the industry in the last ten years. Jenna Jameson and Sascha Grey have been central to the promotion of the idea that pornography is a way for poor girls to escape their lives and become rich and famous, but of course the reality of the industry for the overwhelming majority of women/girls is that they are used up in around three months because of the extremity of the abuse and degradation of contemporary pornography. However, this culture of celebrity is very attractive to poor girls, and unfortunately draws them to the industry in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen for prostitution businesses. It means that the pornography industry is able to attract particularly young women, and in increasingly large numbers. The industry is normalised among younger generations to an extent that prostitution is not, because of widespread consumption of pornography among this generation, and the celebration of pornography by the popular media and culture. A third difference between the pornography and prostitution industries is the diversity of forms pornography takes–it is possible for women/girls to be sold as pornography through being used by their ‘boyfriends’ in front of home-based webcams, for example. While it is also common that ‘boyfriends’ pimp women through their homes, in the case of pornography this pimping is made difficult to recognise as illegal because of technology and the glamorising of pornography. There are businesses dedicated to the pimping of women through pay-per-view webcams, as well as pornography made of women being used through brothels. This diversity in the mode of business that pornography takes means that the industry is able to expand with very little scrutiny and opposition, let alone government oversight. The industry essentially operates in unchartered, frontier space in the absence of any controls whatsoever. Governments and societies worldwide are overwhelmed by the diversity of the sex industry, and so far haven’t managed to enact any governance frameworks at all that might curb its expansion and domination over culture and the economy.
What is your overall message about pornography that the book also highlights?
I think a major theme of the book is that the first and most egregious harm of pornography is to the women and girls who are used to make it. While the harm of pornography does extend to women much more widely, when we think about pornography we must think about the women who are harmed in its production first. This is because women/girls used in pornography are perhaps the most vulnerable and exploited population in our society. They are often racially marginalised, as well as victims of childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Their life chances are very poor, and even more so after they have been through the pornography industry. The writing in Big Porn Inc against the pornography industry mostly prioritises the interests of these women/girls in the way it does not make distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pornography, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ forms of pornography. For the women and girls used in the industry, these distinctions are often meaningless, because the same women are used in both types of pornography production. Often they start out in ‘soft’ production, but then must be used in more violent and degrading productions to be able to make money and stay in the industry. For these women and girls, the chance to lead a life of quality and dignity depends on our efforts to dismantle the sex industry and create social services and facilities that will allow them to recover from childhood sexual abuse, to escape homelessness, and escape pimps or exploitative ‘boyfriends’. In addition to these women, of course, pornography harms many others, including the children who are sexually abused through perpetrators showing them pornography, as well as wives/girlfriends who are pressured to ‘act’ out scenes in pornography, and girls and boys who grow up seeing pornography as a ‘model’ for sexual relationships and never have a chance at understanding what true physical affection and tenderness looks like. Average age of first exposure to porn is 11. This is distorting and warping young people’s views of their bodies, relationships and sex. I believe it is an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexuality young people.
The trend in pornography seems for “sex” to be increasingly violent and aggressive. Can you explain why that is?
Yes, as Gail Dines and others show, the pornography industry over time has definitely escalated its violence against women and the level of degradation and humiliation it inflicts. Researchers have gathered empirical evidence that the more popular forms of pornography are the ones that are more violent and overtly degrading of women. Torture porn has become increasingly popular, rape sites, live S&M and bondage in which women are brutalised in whatever way the viewer requests. And it’s all becoming more and more mainstream. For example the documentary film Kink is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kink website shows images of women in extreme positions of pain and torture. It seems it’s not even about ‘sex’ anymore – it’s about how much brutality and degradation a woman can cope with. And this is where many young men take their cues for relating sexually to women.
What is your response when people state that there are no victims in porn (just consenting adults)?
Linda Boreman’s (Lovelace) account of her time in the pornography industry where she was brutalised and forced into its production shows this claim to be untrue. Traci Lords’s use in pornography as a sixteen-year-old also shows that the industry does not always use adult women. Even women who glamorise their time in the pornography industry sometimes describe aspects of its brutality, such as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in which she describes being incapacitated for six hours after a sex scene in which she was injured internally. The notion of ‘consent’ that proponents of the sex industry use to justify their moneymaking activities is an extremely impoverished one. The idea that young women surviving childhood sexual abuse who are homeless and being pimped by a ‘boyfriend’ are making a ‘choice’ to enter the pornography industry is laughable. The ‘consent’ invoked for women used in pornography is nothing more than a legal ploy to allow the filming of prostitution and sexual abuse (and sometimes overt physical torture) without the threat of arrest and prosecution. These activities are allowed to take place in society only because the cover of ‘sex’ makes them somehow different from what they really are, which is rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation.
When did you first consider yourself a feminist and what influenced that decision?
It is difficult to identify one key moment. There was a dawning recognition about the global maltreatment of women. It was, I suppose, recognising the second-class status of women pretty much everywhere. I have travelled a lot and witnessed the abuse of women in so many parts of the world. You just have to look at the raw statistic on violence, ‘honour’ killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, female foeticide, female infanticide, the systematic elimination of women and girls in so many ways. I recall being in a shelter in Hyderabad, India. On the bottom level were the abandoned baby girls; many plucked from rubbish heaps, with bruises and broken bones. On the second level were the abandoned pregnant girls and women. On the top level were the abandoned widows. Three layers of discrimination against women, all in that one home.
What does feminism mean to you?
It means working to change the second-class status of women. To addressing the real, felt needs of women (I was privileged to help set up a supported accommodation and outreach service for women and girls pregnant and without support in Australia.) To advocating for women and girls everywhere and all the time. It means trying to make the world better for my three daughters and the daughters of other women as well. It means engaging in grass roots activism and empowering other women to speak out, through movements like Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org) It also means working in solidarity with the best people I have ever met.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
“As you read, be prepared to feel both grief and rage.” Robert Jensen
“These accounts are among the most unsettling you will ever read.” Steve Biddulph
“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
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‘The foremost authority in Australia cyber safety lays it on the line and challenges parents to find their digital spine.’ – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
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In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
In this easy-to-read updated book, Steve Biddulph shares powerful stories and give practical advice about every aspect of boyhood.
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“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.