I am a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation. Rape and money exchanged hands over my body. I have sustained many serious injuries over the course of my life, in the midst of insanity and violence. I still have several old injuries impacting my internal organs, and a deep bone fracture that is struggling to mend itself. My psyche is in thousands of pieces. Just like dropped glass, it does not take much to shatter the sweet mind of an infant.
For a long time, I have been reflecting on the relationship between commercial sexual exploitation, and paid sex. In particular, after hearing someone refer to paid sex as a type of work, and then later as a type of service, I began thinking about whether it is inherently possible for paid sex to operate as a job, or as a service.
I also wonder about the differences between work and service. I consider work to be a paid exchange of labor, be it physical, mental, emotional, energetic, or some combination. People receive money for their time, attention, and skill.
To me, service feels like a word that describes an act from the heart. In our society, it may or may not be paid. Service seeks humbly to fulfill a need in someone. I would not be alive, or recovering, if it were not for the service of many others.
In my experience of witnessing others provide service, especially emotionally supportive service, I notice that it is possible to give service without harming oneself, or even without depleting oneself. Service can sometimes feel immediately beneficial to its recipient, as well as to the person providing the service. When the needs of an individual are very high, the amount of service required might feel overwhelming to those who attempt to provide it, as well as to the individual struggling to provide the rest of it for herself.
I spend most of the minutes in my day trying my best to provide service to myself and my system—to cover years of unmet developmental needs, and years of interpersonal trauma and servitude. I gain temporary reprieve when I am given an hour of outer support, but very often I feel that I need to help the other person help me. And, as a developmental trauma survivor, it is sometimes hard to let go of control, and allow someone else to help me.
My trauma is extreme and unusual, so I work very hard just to be seen and understood. I spend more time than I would prefer to, explaining my trauma and the psyches of my abusers, to help others understand the formation of my internal landscape. Traversing this landscape has felt so difficult for me and for those who know me. Sometimes I feel that my needs overwhelm the people around me—those who try to help, and others merely in proximity to me.
When I was younger, and my owners were allowing me time with my children, I would cradle and try to nurture these wide-eyed beings, these little springs of innocence whom I had once carried in my belly. My desire to love them, and be of service to their needs, was infinite. It also did not harm me, to do so—unless, of course, abusers got in the way, or unless I was in a particularly overwhelming state of damage and depletion.
I wanted to give to my children, and I did not want to take anything from them.
When I was taking care of my young children, I was also a child. It has taken me years to admit this to myself, and to admit that I was mired in fatigue and brokenness while taking care of them. Having always been enslaved, I never saw myself as a child. There are parts of me who do not know what it is to be a child.
Nevertheless, I do know what it feels like to be filled with the energy of givingness. It filled me somehow, as I attempted to fill the emotional wounds and needs of my children.
I was also forced to fill the emotional wounds and needs of my perpetrators, and this created a very different dynamic. Having never had their needs properly fulfilled, they were filled with old pain that had long gone bad. They were attempting to have their needs met through my young life force. At the same time, they were attempting to howl to me in desperation, from the depths of their despair, through the ragged curtains of years of rotten layers of filth—old wounds, violent actions they had taken against others to soothe and cover over their own childhood experiences, betrayals of so many other souls.
I had no choice but to try to give to them, and they did not make it easy. Any child deserves nurturing and unconditional love, even a child trapped or lingering within an adult body. There are so many children in this world living in adult bodies: children who were trapped in time, in love lost, in love cruelly taken away, or in love cruelly perverted.
Adults should know better than to steal from newer generations of children. Who will break this cycle? It feels as though certain people cannot. They are not strong enough to obey their heart at the expense of uncovering its rotting pain. They cannot give their pain any air. They fold it within themselves, becoming even darker, even more hidden, even more deprived, and then they all but grow horns.
They abuse children, to try to have their need for their own inner light and innocence met, through the bright light within someone else, someone innocent, kind, small, defenseless.
My decades in this lifetime have not involved much service, in its true sense. I was a slave, and when I was young, my mind formed roots in the dark land of slavery. I examine the concepts of service, work, and sex exchange in particular, through the lens of my experiences with slavery, ownership, exchanges, and power dynamics.
The words work and service cut straight through me when I hear them applied to sex. Even if the exchange seems to be voluntary, I wonder if it truly is. I also wonder whether a body can volunteer for sex work.
A person can volunteer their body for sex work, but can a body consent? In my experience, people purchasing sex were most interested in engaging in a dynamic with my physical body. They often wanted to receive something from my emotional body and my mental body as well, whether they knew it or not. People paying for sex have been least of all interested in my spirit, dwelling within the hinges of my being.
Very rarely did anyone stop, for even a moment, to seek out any connection with the true me.
As a slave, I could not consent to sex. The very power dynamic within which I lived my life took everything away from me.
As a person who engaged in paid sex, while attempting to escape a few moments of my treacherous life, I was most often underage, thus still unable to consent. Even when I was in an adult body, the levels of trauma I carried, and the helplessness of my runaway life, could not permit me to consent.
Do there exist life circumstances from which an adult can engage in sex work, without an unjust power dynamic somewhere to be found in her circumstances?
Can sex work theoretically exist? What are the job requirements?
If I were ever to be willing to expose myself to sex work, let’s first break down which aspects of myself I may be exposing. I may be exposing traumatized parts of myself to a frightening act. I may be engaging fragile parts of myself in an overwhelming experience, out of a need for survival, hurting myself to try to stay alive. I may be engaging my energy in an entanglement with a stranger’s energy that isn’t healthy for me. I may be engaging my body in an act that is aversive or harmful to it.
Can an inner child consent to sex? Can an adult harboring an inner child consent to sex?
Can a body consent to being used in an act that is so intimate, and requires so much of it, in exchange for money? Can a body give consent to sex, if the body is not in good health?
Can a body give consent to an act that its dwelling spirit may not necessarily agree to?
When a person penetrates another person, does the person do it with just his physical body, or with mental and energetic aspects of himself, as well?
If so, is there a way that a sex worker can regulate what remnants of this person’s body, mind, and energy get deposited into her?
Because it is my job to take care of myself, and my body, I am very accustomed to having to think of many, many parts, and to try to take them all into consideration.
It is not always easy to treat all parts of self with equal value, especially if there are parts of oneself that have ever been devalued. Yet, children and bodies share the common experience of being unable to advocate for themselves. Therefore, we must remember them, and we must make sure that the world in which we live treats them with respect and concern. I look forward to the day when children, and bodies, are included in conversation, and offered unconditional love.
We recognize each other by our bodies, our voices, and our mannerisms. These are visible, audible, noticeable.
I often think of the billions of inner children living invisible lives on this planet. There are so many children who need to work nine-to-five jobs, sit at desks, perform manual labor, and take care of other children. There are so many children who vote.
As a system, we wish we could protect all children, inner and outer, from harm and labor.
The body of a person engaging in paid sex may be an adult, but parts of the psyche may be younger. There may be a scared child living within this life, who may not be anywhere near old enough to understand what is happening. There may be another inner child who is influencing the choice to perform paid sex, because no one has told this child that she or he can be seen and loved without this sacrifice.
For those who engage in paid sex, are their adult selves the ones engaging in these acts, or do their long lost inner children, who may have been abused at the most precious ages, bear the burden?
I would be curious to meet someone who is a sex worker, who has not been abused. I have not yet. I am very open to understanding sex work at the deepest levels, and with my extreme background, different perspectives would help mine to become more well-rounded.
The question of past trauma is also complicated by the fact that not all adults consciously remember abuse in childhood. Sometimes those terrible experiences are held within the unconscious, until they are safe enough to emerge. If sex work is used for survival or financial stability, it may require pushing these inner children further down into the psyche, so as not to be experience the old pain and shame, which might leave the person completely immobilized, and further unable to provide for herself.
I know many survivors who cannot work at all. Their abusers stole so much from them, that in recovery they have barely the strength in them for any exchange.
If I conversed with someone engaging in paid sex, who felt safe within her choice, I wonder how long it would take before some deeper feelings about it emerged. I also wonder how someone would feel if his or her spouse were a sex worker. I imagine that it would probably feel different than if the spouse were a physical therapist or an acupuncturist, or even a massage therapist. In my experience, there are deep layers within a person that open when they are engaged in sex, which do not open in a body-based therapist or practitioner working with clients.
The network that exerted its control over me and my body, and that exerts its control on our world, has done a thorough job of convincing people that sex is a physical act that does not have significant energetic impact on the people engaged in it. They have done this through the mass media, among other channels.
What is the service people are truly looking for, when they pay for sex?
What does a perceptive sex worker do when she observes that the client is completely misguided about what he is truly looking for? What if he is actually looking for self-esteem, attention, nurture, or acceptance of his body? What if he is looking for the feeling of power over someone, in a misguided attempt to address the pain of a disempowered, hopeless inner child?
Should sex workers have a referral process, by which they refer potential clients to the most appropriate services for them? If so, would any client not be referred out?
I also wonder whether the sex worker can ever truly disengage in the mutuality of sex in a way that provides direct service to the client. I do not know the answer to this. In my experiences of sex, there was always an exchange on multiple levels, including energetic levels, whether one of the parties intended it or not.
Whose responsibility is it to accurately perceive what a sex worker is actually selling? Is the person selling a service, or is the person selling a piece of herself?
Is it the client’s responsibility to make sure that he does not pay for something other than what he is formally requesting?
Most often, this is the worker’s responsibility. But what if a client is perceptive enough to see that a sex worker is truly selling herself, not a service? What if he notices that the personality fronting in the sex worker is a child, and not an adult? Then what is appropriate there? Should he immediately refuse the service, knowing that a child cannot consent to sex? If he sees this but does not refuse, is that statutory rape?
I wish that I could trust people to always be kind to one another. I wish that I could trust people to assess their responsibility, and take ownership of it. I wish I lived in a world that did not require anyone to work in a way that causes harm. While I am openly attempting to understand the differences between commercial sexual exploitation, and paid sex, I do not want to believe in any kind of work that causes separation or pain, anywhere in society.
I was never free enough to make the decisions that I would have wanted to make, or to reach for the opportunities that looked like stars to me. As an adult in recovery, I see that I have made hardly any choices in my life, because I have hardly been free to do so. Yet, in slavery, I have been forced to make millions of difficult decisions.
While I consciously attempt to define true responsibility, and dissolve the imposed sense of responsibility that permeates my system, there is a reluctance to letting it go. I think we want to retain our own sense of responsibility for what happened, in order to feel that there were areas of our life over which we had some control. Maybe we do not want to experience the sense of utter, splitting betrayal by higher power, that we perceived to have followed us our entire life, like an anti-security blanket.
Maybe we just feel like somebody has to take responsibility, and we know that our abusers never will.
Maybe the numerous near-constant moments of commercial sexual exploitation, rape, beatings, and trauma-based mind control left us with hardly any time to experience and release our deeply accumulated shame. Moving forward, perhaps we have a chance to sit with it, to give it clothing, water, food, slippers. Perhaps we have a chance to pacify it, and show it its true, gentle smile. Maybe we can know ourselves now, without any imposition or penetration.
Maybe safety can allow our freedom to step forward, and finally emerge into the foreground of our life, like a bird flying just ahead of us, beckoning us to keep going.
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