In August of 2008, just as 17-year-old Alissa Afonina was preparing to enter the twelfth grade, a car accident upended her life and drastically re-arranged her future. Afonina, her mother Alla, and her brother were riding along the Trans-Canada highway, in a car driven by her stepfather, Peter Jansson. Jansson was speeding, his tires were nearly bald, and the road was wet from a recent rain. Going around a curve, the car veered off the road and nosedived into a ditch.
What happened next has become the subject of a thousand breathless tabloid articles: While Afonina's brother was unharmed, she and her mother both sustained brain injuries, with Afonina suffering moderate damage to her frontal lobe, the section of the brain that controls judgment, memory, language, and impulse control, as well as social and sexual behaviors. In the years following the accident, Alissa became a sex worker, going on dates for money before eventually settling on work as a dominatrix under the name Sasha Mizaree.
Soon after the accident, she and her mother began the process of suing Jansson, claiming that the accident had caused significant personality changes in Alissa, including increased sexual impulsivity. (Jansson disagreed, arguing that she had been "troubled" before the accident.) In January the Afoninas were awarded $1.5 million, with the judge finding that the accident had caused "significant changes" in her personality and mental abilities.
The story of the brain-injured dominatrix quickly went viral, despite the fact that Afonina hadn't been interviewed by a single publication: the photos of her in short dresses and leather gear that news outlets were able to find online were more than enough.
In recent weeks, Afonina has begun giving interviews about the accident, the lawsuit and the ensuing media frenzy. She spoke with Jezebel last week about the common misconceptions surrounding her case.
In February you announced you were "officially responding to media stories and accepting interviews." What led to that decision?
My story got reprinted basically everywhere. I was shocked at first, but pretty quickly I decided to not let them victimize me, but instead use it as something positive.
I officially started responding when the case was resolved. That didn't happen until after the media stuff first came out. Just because you get the judgment doesn't mean it's over. There's still time for appeals that can happen. So I wasn't responding right away until something was resolved.
There's an implication in lots of the stories about your case that you're no longer intelligent or studious, and that the car accident turned you into a sex-crazed maniac.
At first I took it very personally, not just that part, but the fact that this was the only symptom they focused on, the sexual stuff. That's by far not the only thing that happened. And also the connections that they made; they drew this conclusion that the only reason I got the money was because I magically became a dominatrix because of this.
It was invalidating, first of all. It seemed like a lot of publications purposely made it into a joke. I was reading the comments, and that's how people took it. The fact is, it's a lot more complicated than that. And that's why I decided to start talking about it.
The accident happened in August 2008. Can I ask, how long after that did your mom and her boyfriend stay together? Did he take responsibility for what had happened to you?
My memory is very bad from the first year especially. I don't think it was very long. The communication between us stopped fairly quickly, although not right away. Part of why, at least for me, was because he didn't seem sorry at all. There were never any apologies. I don't talk to him, so I don't know how he feels, but I didn't get a sense of any kind of apology. What was said in the judgment is that he never denied fault for the accident, but what they [the defendant and his lawyers] argued was how it much affected me.
You've mentioned in an interview with Cosmo about differences in "the old me" versus "the new me." It seems like there's a very distinct line, a very clear before and after. Are there other personality changes besides your sexuality that you see?
Yeah, totally. The media kind of made it seem like that's my only symptom, and I somehow got that large settlement for being sexually impulsive, which is made to sound like a fun thing. It's never fun, it's never positive. There's a difference between a desire and a compulsion. Compulsions are not fun. There's an infinite amount of things that can go wrong.
The most basic is it's hard to have a good, healthy relationship where you aren't completely in control of yourself. People will take advantage of that, and they have. Some people commented, like, "Oh, she became my dream girl." First of all, that's creepy that you'd think that's an appropriate thing to say. But it's not fun. I'm not "sexually liberal." It's a problem. It's like sex addiction. It's a very complicated, unpleasant thing. There's an amount of shame that goes into it, not feeling like you're in control yourself, not knowing what you're going to do next.
But there are other things that bother me more, basic stuff. There's depression, even with medication. I'm still feeling it a lot. In general, I have a hard time feeling pleasure in life. It's very difficult for me.
I think part of why I took to the whole sexually acting out thing is because it was a much easier way for me to feel more alive. It's one of the things that's stayed, in a way. It wasn't necessarily that it was just because my sexual desire went up. There were other reasons.
You've also talked about suddenly feeling extremely dependent on—addicted to, basically—the men you were seeing. How quickly did you realize something had changed there?
It was fairly early. I don't remember the first few years super clearly. Something that stands out in my memory, though, I was around 19. That's how long it took for me to even like think about dating or whatever. I started to notice thoughts and urges I had towards guys I wasn't even attracted to. That was odd.
I was raised in a very conservative kind of family. So my relationship with any kind of desire, it was very—I judged myself a lot at first. I tried as much as I could not to act out, just for the sheer shame. That's kind of what led me to search for different thought patterns and what led me to a better mental path.
But as I was saying, the thing that really stands out was being 19 and just being really involved with this guy. I hung out with this guy for days. I didn't even go home because I felt this weird thing where I didn't want to leave.
Fast-forward to another guy: at first, I thought it was just that I really liked him. But that was odd because it didn't quite feel healthy. It wasn't like, "I have a crush on this person but I can live my life." My thoughts were consumed by him. I felt pathetic. I judged myself. I felt very needy that just did not feel good. I'd try to suppress it and then something would happen. After a while, I realized, it's not the guy, it's me.
Your mom was also injured in the accident, right, while your brother was OK? Has she seen personality changes as well?
Yes, she did. Her symptoms are fairly similar to mine, but not exact. She also suffers from depression now, has to sleep a lot, doesn't have much energy, she's also not employable.
It's interesting that my case got publicized and hers wasn't. It's pretty obvious why that is: they had nice corset pictures to post of me and this flashy tagline. My mom was also a brain-injured woman and nobody cared. The reason why I'm getting this attention is not because there's an overwhelming concern for brain-injured people.
That's part of why I'm responding. It's not just to defend myself. I can live with criticism. I'm used to it as a sex worker. I wanted to do some education for invisible disabilities. I understand I look normal. I'm fully aware of that. People will often invalidate when you look normal.
Have you reached out to other disabled sex workers? I know a few sex workers with disabilities, although I feel like in the media, I tend to only read about sex workers who cater to people with disabilities.
The Cosmo interview was written by a sex worker with similar problems. Even though I don't hear much about it, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who's thought, "How do I make money?" I'm a young female, this is a realistic choice physically and mentally. I'm sure there are many more of us.
In his decision, the judge in your case said you had "no ability to work on a full-time basis or in any job that requires anything other than basic entry-level skills."
Yeah, he basically said I'd be able to work for a very short amount of time in a day. That's not even realistic. Nobody's going to hire you for an hour. And what would I earn? Ten dollars an hour? That would be ridiculous. Nobody could live on that. You can't earn anything on entry-level positions a couple hours a day.
I'm very different now in my capabilities. Being able to choose when I work is very, very important.
In the judge's decision, it also looks like your attorneys had made a request for the cost of sex therapy to be covered, is that right? And that claim was denied? Have you seen a sex therapist?
It was part of my request. I'm a big believer in therapy. I continue to try to change my thinking on my own. I thought that it would be nice to have somebody help me along with that. But I guess the judge thought that could be handled by other therapists. I think it's too specific [for anyone but a sex therapist,] but it's his decision. I think sex therapy is not as recognized as it should be.
I want to tell you more about the things that changed for me aside from the sexuality. In all the articles they skim over it, they say "concentration problems, etc," and then just focus on the sexuality. The lack of energy that I have—every day I wake up and it's kinda like it's one of my good days or one of my bad days. Do you know about the spoon theory?
Yeah, Christine Miserandino's explanation of living with a disability, needing to choose how much of your limited energy you can spend on certain things in a day.
When I read that, it made a lot of sense to me. How many spoons do I have? I have to decide that mentally every day. I have sleep issues, which can really exacerbate things. I have constant free-flowing anxiety. It's higher on a bad day, lower on a good day. And obviously there are concentration and memory problems. In general, it's extremely hard to study, especially when there's any kind of pressure, or I have to do it at a high speed.
I don't react well to any kind of stress. When I say I have anxiety, it's to the point where my hair has fallen out three times. That's why I've quit school.
Losing your hair would be really devastating, as a young woman and as somebody whose livelihood is somewhat tied into your appearance.
Yeah. I've had to use Rogaine. Now I'm living a pretty calm life, but what happens, apparently, is your hair behaves the way you felt six months ago. Six months after I started doing my dom work, my hair started falling out. I was like, "Oh shit, not now. This is really not the time." That was the last time I had to use Rogaine. People can easily be like, "I get anxious sometimes too." Of course everybody does. I'm not denying that. But a brain injury—especially a frontal lobe one—the switch is just turned much higher.
Aside from the mental stuff, I experience constant headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, I grind my jaw and have to wear a night guard. It translates into more headaches and pain in that area, the temple area.
Another thing that happened after the accident, I developed a really severe eating disorder. I'm trying to recover from bulimia right now. At first I thought it wasn't related, even though it happened right afterwards.
The doctors said that obviously impulse control won't just be sexual, it'll just be in everything, whether it's anger or food. Apparently overeating is something that happens to people. Back when they thought lobotomies were a good treatment, like in the '50s, they found people would gain weight or act out inappropriately sexually afterwards.
For the longest time, especially the first few years, [the eating disorder] was a way for me to feel like I had some control. I thought if I achieved a certain body type, everything would magically be normal again. It took me a long time to get any ind of acceptance that this is permanent. I'm still not 100 percent over it, but much more so. I'm more grounded than I used to be. It took a lot of weight fluctuations and a lot of time to for me to lose weight, see nothing happens, then gain it again and see it's futile.
Another thing that happened to you after the accident were inappropriate verbal outbursts, a lot of them sexual in nature. It's hard for some people to imagine what it must be like to make verbal outbursts you can't control. Would there be some part of you listening to yourself say these things in horror, or did you not realize they were inappropriate?
To be clear, I'm—I'm a different person now than I was years ago. Some of the things I'm talking about aren't as bad currently. The changes in me were fluctuating. Who I was in the first year was not who I was in the third year. It's always changing. I don't want to say that I'm completely in control of myself, but I'm not as bad as I was three years ago.
From what I was told, the first year I was really inappropriate. I don't remember much of that. That was in the testimony of my old media teacher.
Sounds like your memories of the first year are pretty fuzzy.
I would say the first few years. My memory is very odd now. I think I can remember things if I have some sort of trigger. If I'm asked about it out of the blue I have trouble remembering what I did last weekend. But it's not completely erased.
From being 19, the only thing I really remember was that relationship I told you about. I remember things that are more emotional better. Intense emotions, positive or negative.
I do remember later parts more. What happened especially with me sexually acting out, there's a mood that happens. It's sort of like—when I'm in that mood, things seem reasonable that don't seem reasonable when I calm down. I would just get into my sexual mind state. I think people think I'm always rubbing up against a chair all the time. That's not what it is.
The mood, especially in the past, it was like—I'd start to feel really sexy and really high on myself. I've heard people with mania describe similar things, but I'm hesitant to appropriate someone else's illness. In that moment it seems rational for me to, say, hit on somebody who might be completely inappropriate. Later on, maybe the next day, I'm thinking wow, I'm really embarrassed about that.
The same thing would happen with one-night stands. As me, as who I am naturally, I do want something deeper. I'm not somebody who on a true, deep level enjoys sex without a connection. And I think that there's nothing wrong with it, but for me it wasn't ever a healthy thing. I always ended up feeling hurt and like it was my fault because I made it seem like I was totally down. That's what I want to reiterate. It wasn't this fun thing that ended up in me getting money.
It's only in recent times that I see progress when it comes to that. Only in the last four months that I started to feel some control over that. I thought it would never go away. This whole time I was always trying to improve and get better, be independent again like I used to be in high school. I had all these interests then. Boys were never something I felt hugely dependent on for self esteem. I've really missed that so much. I was working so hard on that. I've read all these books on sex addiction and love addiction. It was just not working for the longest time. I'd meet somebody again and feel that same pattern and be like, "God dammit."
Only recently did I start to feel like I can get through the day and be doing things and not really thinking about guys.
Are you still studying psychology?
Not in a school setting, but I do my own research when I can. Just for personal wellness. I end up learning things from doctors, I ask them questions, looking up new medications.
You and your mom seem pretty close. When did you tell her you were thinking about sex work?
The dom thing wasn't my first venture into sex work, it was just the most stable thing. Everything else was always temporary. I used a site called What's Your Price, it was one of my first things. When I was maybe 21 I did some erotic modeling. I did a bit of webcamming for a while as well. I did burlesque, I did stripping, a whole gamut of things. One way or another, they didn't fit.
Were you still living with your family when you started in that field?
When I first started doing modeling I was maybe 20 and still living with my mom. And then I moved out and lived with a roommate for a long time.
When I started domming, it wasn' t a surprise anymore. I think my mom was relieved—not relieved, but at least I didn't get naked on camera. It was better. But she was still very worried and very conservative. I don't think is is something that she accepts fully. There was a lot of fighting and tension before we got to the point that we're at now, which is not perfect. She's a conservative Russian woman.
Is she religious, or just old school?
She's kind of religious, but it's not that. It's just old school. She has certain beliefs about female sexuality. Some of it I've tried to change and educate her, like, "It's not okay for you to say men can do this but women can't." I've tried to make her see how she has some double standards.
Anyway, I think she's relieved that I'm not interacting with people live. I can do it with safety at home.
Do you ever picture what you'd be doing if you hadn't been in the accident, or is that kind of frustrating or saddening?
I find it to be pretty useless to do that. How am I supposed to imagine in some hypothetical fashion what I'd be doing? There are stages. I went through denial and then frustration and crying and wanting things to go back to normal. I'm now in a stage of acceptance and that's where I'd like to stay. I'm going to work with what I have as opposed to what could have been. My goal now is to be happy and not try to go back to "normal."
One of the things they tell you in these self-help books is the old you is dead. It's hard, but that's what it is. There are times when I get sad and think about how much of a social butterfly I used to be. Now I have huge social anxiety and I have trouble having a personal life. So many people were my friends. It was just so easy. That's something miss and I do still think about. Same with my energy levels. When I'm seeing people who get home from work and then they go out and dance, it seems superhuman to me. I can only do one thing in a day.
I'm sure people ask you all the time if you like your work.
People do ask me that. That question is complicated. I can't make it black and white and say, "This is awesome" or "This is terrible." What I can say is I'm glad that I have choices. This isn't something that I want to be stuck doing, but I also have drawn a lot of positivity from this. I'd attribute a lot of my recovery and a lot of my current confidence to the fact that I succeeded in this field. To feel successful in this was absolutely huge.
When I entered sex work, the people I met were a lot more accepting. People think everyone in this world is all fucked up, but everybody has their own stories. When I told them this is what I'm experiencing, it was fine. I met a lot of awesome people who were really kind to me.
I'm a kinky person in my personal life. But these articles have made it sound like it was completely because I felt like it. They totally disregarded the financial need of a disabled woman to survive. Would I do sessions with strangers for free? No. When I work, it's work. I'm providing a service at the end of the day.
Yeah. I love writing but I probably wouldn't be doing it every day if I had ten million dollars. Sex workers get asked a lot more than other people if they "like" their jobs.
Yes. I still have the same boundaries that everybody else does. I'm not some different species of human who's comfortable with strangers. I'm glad to have a choice. That's partially why I went into doing videos. I enjoy those.
You were awarded $1.5 million in the lawsuit. I want to talk about the way that's been written about. Some of the stories make it sound like a truck backs up to your house and dumps money on you.
I'm not getting the amount that's been publicized, first of all. There's such a thing as a lawyer fees. Also inflation is a bitch. I'm really busy trying to figure out how to make the money stay the amount that it is. Apparently if I leave it in the bank it'll become more and more worthless as years go on. So there's that.
Another thing is that this wasn't just money I was "awarded." I am truly limited. At the end of the day, I didn't put myself in danger for shits and giggles in terms of accepting strangers into my dungeon. It wasn't an award for being a dominatrix. I was a disabled woman working in the sex trade, a reality that's a little less glamorous. I got money for being a disabled young woman who cannot now have all these infinite choices I would've otherwise had.
I was really intelligent. I come from a really intelligent family. My mom was a chemical engineer, my brother is in a very high position in a very big firm. Same with everybody else in my family. I was expecting fully to go into a really fancy school. I was fully capable of doing that mentally. I would give every cent of that money back if I could have my health back. This does not in any way make up for anything. Seriously. If I could wake up and not have headaches, not have my moods fluctuating, I'd do it in a heartbeat. It's not glamorous.
It was also really sad for me because I struggled so much for years. I didn't succeed at anything. My mom and I were really poor. Sex work paid for my bills and also hers. When I finally succeeded in something, I got punished for it. If I was sitting in a corner drooling, would that fit their image of disability better?
You have a pretty well-appointed dungeon at this point, right? How much do you think it cost? How long did it take?
The guy who built it was a submissive guy. He only charged me for materials, so it didn't cost as much as people would think. Just recently I had the last piece made, which is a gothic couch you might see in some nude photos.
It took me a while to do all that. I had this very traditional idea of what a dungeon should be. All I had seen was movies, so I just kind of—I wanted to have as much stuff as possible to make up for my lack of experience. It was only later that I realized most doms don't have nearly as much of a setup. But I don't regret it. I like it aesthetically. It feels like a physical representation of what I've accomplished.