I wouldn’t say that I was raped that night, but that’s not because I can’t be. And just in that sad assertion—that someone could hypothetically rape me—I’m in disagreement with an editorial published in this weekend’s Chicago Sun-Times, in which writer Mary Mitchell essentially argued that sex workers cannot be raped. She talks about a case in which a sex worker was held at gun point and forced to have sex; calling it rape, she says, “mak[es] a mockery of rape victims.”
I’ve written before that the experience of being a sex worker is relatively benign compared to what some might imagine, and that it is often “what some might imagine” that is so impacting. The way sex workers are gaslighted and shamed is much more traumatic than the simple and lucrative task of having average sex with average men.
For the most part, sex work is routine. But it is also true that things don’t always go as planned. Contrary to what people like Mitchell believe, sex workers can be victims of violence.
When I started out as a sex worker, I wasn’t savvy. I didn’t know how to screen my clients. I was just a grad student—“bored, curious, sexually uninhibited,” just as I advertised. I had been working as a call girl for a brief time, answering ads placed by men online at Craigslist, when I came across an ad offering $1,000 for the night. Though not the last, it was the first time I’d seen so big an offer and so I was willing, excited even. Even though the job was all the way out in Long Island—which was something like two hours by cab from my Manhattan apartment—I said, all right.
We met less than 24 hours later in a parking lot near his house. I paid the driver the hundred-dollar fare and got out of the cab. My date was clean and well-dressed, and not unattractive, which was important to me then. I had broken my rules by not asking for a picture, but seeing him and his nice car, I felt relieved. At no point did I remember feeling unsafe, although I’m not sure whether I’d have turned around no matter what first impression he’d given me, given the time and cost in getting there.
Scrubby pine trees lined the empty roads as we drove together to his place, an enormous beach house set back from the road. He chatted affably the whole ride there about his nephew and his work. It was dark as we drove up to the house, and the house was dark when we entered, but when he turned on the lights everything looked normal and, again, I felt reassured.
Everything seemed normal until he starting doing lines of coke. At that time, I didn’t do drugs—pot maybe, but not cocaine—and so I didn’t know what coke could do. The fact that he couldn’t maintain an erection was frustrating. After tugging a bit at his flaccid penis, he put on a video. It started mid-scene, two black guys on top of a white woman. The camera zoomed in as she on gagged on a cock.
“Could we maybe turn that off?” I asked.
He reluctantly complied. It was in the moment of his reluctant compliance that I became aware of a subtle feeling that only affected me occasionally though I knew its implication was always true: I was alone with a stranger who, more than likely, did not feel any concern for my well being. What I was doing was illegal, no one knew where I was, and, as a prostitute, I was loathed and looked upon as less-than-human by almost everyone. It was him, not me, in control.
The rest of the night went pretty terribly. Unable to stay hard, he resorted to fingering me and performing oral sex. This went on for what seemed for hours. Around midnight, I begged him to stop. “Please,” I said as nicely as possible. “I need to get some sleep.” This was met with more reluctance, but again, he complied. I slept, only to be woken up, on and off, all night, to him molesting me with his hands and mouth, all the while that terrible porn playing loudly in the background.
The next morning was sunny and quiet. I sat out in the driveway, smoking a cigarette and waiting for the cab. I had class that afternoon, and I realized I was going to miss it. I was disappointed in myself. I felt hungover, even though I hadn’t been drinking. The man came out and offered me another $1,500 to have sex one more time. Since we had yet to settle up, I said all right again.
When the cab arrived, the man paid me what I was owed— $2,500—in bank checks. I’d never even seen a bank check before. I was so tired that I didn’t argue. I was defeated and just wanted to go home. Needless to say, the checks bounced.
Since exiting the sex industry, I have learned to look more critically at my experiences. I’ve become able to think more objectively about who I was at the time. This means recognizing that, for years, victimization of any sort did not fit the vision I held of myself. I felt humiliated that night, that morning—so I kept what had happened to myself.
Even now, I question how necessary or even appropriate it is for me to tell this story. I sat down to write it the morning Slate published a feature article critiquing the “harrowing personal essay.” Reminders that no one wants to hear this kind of story come from all corners, and, as they intend to, they make me disinclined to share. I have already diminished that night’s significance; many current and former sex workers on Twitter take pride in not selling their tales. With all this, you can’t help wonder if what happened to you matters. It’s not important, everyone’s saying—or not worth the price of making it known.
But I know that if I don’t write this story I will think of this event for days, and weeks, and wonder, again and again, of its significance. I will tell myself it was no big deal, even as I know that this is exactly what we do when something traumatic has happened. We distance ourselves from the original feelings. We let that anguished sense of estrangement from ourselves take hold.
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.
And so now I try to think just of those facts of my experience. I believed, at the time I sold sex, that I deserved whatever harm befell me. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that I didn’t go to the police, that I went home and showered, probably took a nap, and went on with my life. It’s a fact, too, that I know what happened to me was wrong—and that I can call it wrong now, even if I didn’t before, even if people like Mary Mitchell will never see me as human enough to agree.
Source image (Carl Spitzweg/Auf Der Dult) via Wikimedia Commons, illustration by Bobby Finger
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera America, New Inquiry, Pacific Standard Magazine, Cosmopolitan and elsewhere. She was Finalist for the PEN Emerging Writer Prize in 2015. Follow her on Twitter.