Secrets & Lies: What difference does abuse make?

03Jul08

Ms. magazine is good for my health. Really! This bastion of the second wave really wants me to have the hottest ass this side of the Prime Meridian. As I chose between the latest celebrity gossip rags the other day, I spotted the spring 2008 issue of Ms. I decided to catch up on the latest feminist news (because, apparently, feministing is not good enough?) while I worked out.

Trouble is, there was an article in there by the beloved Melissa Farley, conflating sex work with trafficking and making the same old tired argument that because most sex workers were (supposedly) abused as kids, there is no real “choice” to enter the industry. When I saw this article, I was so furious, I worked harder than I had in months, sweating until my elbows formed puddles.

Ah, the myth of the sexually abused whore rears its ugly head again! Kathy Griffin used this in a bit about strippers. A recently released (and I use this term generously) study by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation claims that fifty-seven percent on male clients believe the sex workers they see were abused as children. This “study” was then picked up by major news sources.

This kind of press is usually followed by a flurry of sex workers shouting I Wasn’t Abused And I’m a Sex Worker! And rightly so, I think, considering how often this angle is used against sex workers who are happy to have chosen this work. Look at that god awful 20/20 episode where Diana Sawyer grills an escort (who has since been outed, unfortunately) about her past, claiming she can’t believe this escort was never abused.

I’d really, really love to claim that no sex worker has ever been abused, ever, but there are studies showing that among specific populations of sex workers (street-based drug-using youth, for example), there is a significant history of abuse. Considering how prevalent abuse is in our society, it’s not surprising to find a high concentration in any industry. Hell, how many therapists got into the job to help others like themselves?

Now, whether or not I have ever been abused depends on your definition. And really, it’s highly fucking irrelevant. Before I started working, I was in another group popularly assumed to have been abused as kids: women with eating disorders. If I claimed a history of abuse, it made sense what I did to myself. But I don’t.

Here’s my question for anyone who wants to use abuse to pigeon-hole and discount the choices of sex workers: what difference does abuse make? By using this as an excuse to explain why people work in the sex industry, or to explain away why they can’t freely choose this, you twice-victimize the individual. You assume that abuse forever and ever amen negates a person’s ability to make free, rational choices for their lives. Does abuse shape life history? No question. The same way any trauma shapes a life course. (Ask me about the car accident I was in.) But using abuse as a tool to deprive a person of her or his voice is oppressive, manipulative, and exploitative of that abuse.

So, what difference does abuse make? Whatever the individual herself or himself makes of it, not some researcher or journalist somewhere. Whether seeking recovery from an eating disorder or choosing to work in the sex industry, the only expert on a person’s life history is that person. Anything else enforces the victim role.

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