Back in Town

The birds in the treetops outside my 6th floor balcony serenade as I write today. It has been over 3 years since I posted. A long time-out, no?

The mission of Serenity Sisters, to explore, excavate, and facilitate authentic narrative of the women impacted by prostitution (past or present), continues through appropriate interruptions for personal healing both in my family and myself. We have weathered a few storms and there is no reason to think there won’t be more.

This is not a pessimistic outlook people. A rational assessment of my family revealed my truth as a mother – We are grappling with mental health challenges and any number of addictions. So what.

So what? Right. We are not unique in the landscape of challenged families. What makes us unique, IMHO, is our (mostly) anti-shame approach. Who needs shame and/or stigmatization when a son or daughter’s life is in the balance?

I have learned in ministry with the homeless in Cambridge and within my own family that basics (ADL’s) are a starting point for self-respect and healing. Just encouraging someone to care enough to take a daily shower can be a starting point. The INTENTION PLUS ACTION to take a shower while living on the streets is a boldface act of hope among the destitute, “I may be trash to society but I know who I am and I matter. I want to be ready for the new day.”

When any of us are down for the count I have come to believe there is a silent count of surrender to authentic hope that begins – if we could hear it … “You are ready now. Let Me fight this battle…My Love never let you go.”

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Cold in Boston

Since I last posted I graduated from Harvard Divinity School with an MDiv degree. The day was May 31st and it was about 100 degrees.  Today I can’t fathom such heat. Today the weather was around 10 degrees, considering wind chill, and Boston got close to 5″ of snow. Yes, the weather has our attention today as it did back in May – the extremes get attention.

And now I wonder about this tendency to look up when life throws an extreme situation. Like someone screaming ‘Stop him – he stole my wallet!” – Our community’s calm, that was taken for granted, is shattered and we look up toward the crisis or we look away.  I wonder if something is missed or gained by this acute attention to discomfort? Perhaps there is a gain: a reminder that gratitude was missed on better days? A two-for-one!

And so I pause to consider the life stress I have with family – another member has a tough bout with mental illness and we are all looking up. I missed out on claiming the good days! I miss them. But this is our family’s long day’s journey into night, again. I must be present, cell phone at my side.

It is times like this that I consider the meaning of life and these strange bodies and the membrane that separates this life from the ‘other side.’ It seems to be thin as a child, thickens midway and thins again as the years pile up. I am not to worry but notice. How can there be any worry when the outcome seems foregone well before there was awareness of a crisis. It is a bit late to worry.

So, I think when we look up in a crisis, it is too late. That is like looking up when two cars crash in an intersection. Now it is about intervention after the fact, not prevention. It would seem to be the same story about teens and prostitution. By the time a runaway lands in prostitution, that teen has pretty much given up on the reliability of home-adults to be a support. Hello, that was why most run away. Why did we, as a society, not look up to see this teen’s family in crisis before the crisis got an additional pile-on of prostitution, a secondary event? To then show up for this teen with a ‘rescue wagon’ with an anti sex-trafficking message seems pathetic. Why not deal with the primary cause? No message about family’s coping with teen life or is that not enough of a fund-raising appeal?

Tie this to today’s weather? Okay. It would be like a young teen asking for a warm coat (at best) before they walked 3 miles to school. Maybe the teen refuses to wear a coat (worst case) but the adult does not look up to do anything about a coat – the house is warm and the adult is complacent and negligent. The kid goes out in the extreme weather and gets frostbite on the way to school, landing in the emergency ward. The crisis call from the hospital causes the parent to finally look up but by now it is too late. Do we run an educational campaign or outreach about families having clothing protocols in place that keeps everyone safe, regardless of the weather? (Yes) This would be a primary concern: support families to function as families. A secondary event is underage kids and frostbite. Its the catch basin. Kinda too late.

Parents miss cues. I know with my five, I missed cues to look up before a crash more than once. This time is not the case. And this time a crash just might happen anyway. You do what you can.

This is a time for the Serenity Prayer.

God, Grant me the Serenity to accept the tings I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdome to know the difference. Amen

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Serenity Sister’s First Step is a Step up to Choice

Over the years Serenity Sisters considered the first step of the 12 step program as inelastic to our needs. This is the Serenity Sister Step One:

“As women, we admit we could act powerless over unhealthy sex and love choices — that our lives became unmanageable.”

Compare to AA: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Unlike the alcoholic, the issue for Serenity Sisters was not addiction per-se. But social conditioning was so deep that you’d think we were sex addicts, creatures of self-doom, or perpetual stockholm syndrome ladies.

It was also the case that many of us were indeed addicts – to drugs or alcohol. Addictions were certainly tangled up and influenced our socialized unhealthy choices with love and sex.

The responsibility was ours – the Serenity Sister had to sit down and sort out her business. What was “can act powerless” and what was “powerlessness” ? It could be both. Or just one.

A Serenity Sister could ‘act powerless’ because she was – she was a drug addict.

Or, she  might ‘act powerless’ over choices that were hers to make. Due to cultural conditioning she had no imagination for authentic choice – for the human spirit this is worse than addiction!

The ‘could act powerless’ nuance was not a dilution of AA traditional Step One but an essential accommodation to realize full potential and recovery as a reality – for women.

The Serenity Sister first step reflects freedom of choice – no one else can make you admit anything about your soul. Were we acting ‘as if’ or were we acting ‘in fact’?  This reflection is our choice and responsibility to ourselves.

We have a saying “A Serenity Sister is NOT a victim! She is taking herself back with love peace and acceptance.” Victims in need of rescue? No. We needed to wake up to choice. Take it back.

The traditional first step is one-dimensional as it deals with addiction. Like the Serenity Sister version, no one can force you admit to anything – despite evidence to all witnesses. Ours goes further and is inclusive of authentic choices that seem out of reach: it serves the mission of the tradition while opening it up to even more emphasis for self-actualization.

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Serenity calls out insanity

The sex trade is diverse and includes street work, stripping, ‘indoor,’ escort/call girl, porn, and even the well-kept mistress qualifies for some – the courtesan.

My serenity, as accepted truth, is that I experienced prostitution in a multiple of venues – starting with street work at 15. I have moved on, never to forget the life lessons. It’s all rich even if some lessons were traumatically delivered.

Well, I found out that a sister (we call each other ‘sister’ in our group, Serenity Sisters) who was an escort, has been telling others that many of us were never prostitutes. I guess this was the hierarchal trap of bottom behavior that recovery groups face – “if you did not get a DUI you aren’t an alcoholic..” or “unless you get arrested for prostitution you are not one of us” and “you did not experience domestic violence if it was only name calling – where are the bruises and broken bones?”

Wow. This was a new one for me.

I never thought I would be so fortunate to hear the usual slander in reverse – that I was never a prostitute!

Ah, but Serenity means no mind fucking allowed. What is the truth here?

What I often hear in Serenity Sisters meetings at Rosie’s Place is, “I had to do what I had to do.” You know what – there is dignity in that choice – to do what you had to do to survive.  We are always looking for a healthier way ‘to do what we gotta do to make it!’

So, maybe our group’s sister is right – naming sets up trouble. If I had to choose between “prostitute” and “loved” (and both are my reality) I would say “loved” is the pre-eminent naming and any other can be a distraction from this affirming truth.

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Maintaining Serenity

I do not understand serenity as a stagnant state. I do not understand serenity to be the appearance of a roomful of monks meditating or the relaxed bodies at end of a yoga class. These people have to exit this bubble and engage reality. The real test begins. Can this bliss be maintained in the messiness of life?

I want to be frank. No.

Its apples and oranges. Yet both are fruit. So, what is the thread from a meditative practice that can be held fast in the messiness of the day?

For understanding the potential for meditation to instill a serenity for the rest of the day, I love Charles Keating, the Trappist monk, who promotes Contemplative Prayer or what is also understood to be Centering Prayer (CP).

I say I am an adherent but I will never know if I practice this meditation well as there is no grading, no qualification, no levels, no ‘rules,’ and no cult that surrounds any of it. The question is “Will you (Mary) respond to the invitation this day, this hour, this moment, to “be still and know I am God” – the Lover of your life and soul – there is nothing more desired from you than this?”

My response to this pursuing Lover?

Why and how can you love me? When I sit still to be with you I hardly manage ‘quiet’ in my mind or heart – I am a lousy student of this meditation! 

So, I sit still and do nothing. I do what I can to think of nothing. I acknowledge that God (the great Love or Spirit) can do for me in five minutes – a subtle shift in trust – what might take me five years of my own efforts. I believe changes – imperceptible and inexplicable – are the gifts of this trust in being still with the great Lover of us all.

I do CP even when I doubt it. It can’t hurt, I reason, to be still and quiet this busy mind whether I ‘get’ God or not. Frankly, I do not think our minds can fathom God and we should not try to explain – we sound foolish or too religious. It humors God (maybe even enrages?) when we try. I think actions are better, don’t you think?

And I go forward knowing that I chose to center my life on the mystery greater than my understanding. I choose to trust in serendipity and welcome all events and be a student round the clock – open to learn beyond what I understand.

I got a call on Monday – a day when Serenity was being challenged. It set me right. I heard the voice of Bobbi, a homeless woman in Harvard Square who said she picked up my card from the ground and noticed it said “Pastoral Care and Counseling” so she called. I said I would be delighted to meet and ended the call, “Bobbi – can I pray for US?” (we have since met and a new chapter has begun for us both – shared hope)

May you be overwhelmed with Serenity this day!

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What’s in a Name?

Truth and Integrity are in a name. If you go by an alias, wow, that might get confusing. If you listen to labels, that is about as bad.

We are Serenity Sisters.

Sisters implies diversity within unity; we embrace serenity; strive in serenity; and seek serenity in the midst of any and all of life’s challenges.

Serenity, real serenity, helps us to assess life clearly and see all of it – this is the opposite of denial. Serenity is not la la land! There can be pain.  Yet there is a peace that surpasses all understanding with that suffering – we assessed what we could change with courage and what was in God’s hands.

We accept nothing less than who we are – magnificent. We are not a diagnosis, a disease, an alias, a prostitute, a criminal. We may contend with a diagnosis of cancer – Cancer is not our name. Our bodies may struggle with the disease of alcohol – we may ‘have’ alcoholism 100% and must accept it 100%.

Our real name? Our real name is also ‘Loved.’  We are Loved.

My name is Mary, Serenity Sister – I have experience with the disease of alcoholism from which I am in remission.

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Harvard’s University Hall welcomes a Serenity Sister!

We had a breakthrough today! Today I received an award of distinction for trailblazing work with Serenity Sisters’ confrontation of myths about prostitution. The award is from the Hopkins Charity Foundation and is the OLDEST scholarship award in the United States!! Yes, it was established before the US was founded. I received a “Hopkins Shareholder Award” and in centuries past this might have been paid out with sheep or chickens but now it will be a check to defray financial aid in the Fall – so very welcome!

The Harvard Divinity School surveys students in the 2nd year doing progressive field work and six of us are chosen. It is an award that forecasts promise in ministry. I wrote my short bio statement that was read out loud. It went from success with surfing but always seeing the parallel story of women in prostitution, including myself, around the beach culture and SoCal overall. That was my world. Roads seeking change led here to HDS.

Professor Paulsell read my bio while I stood.  It was not easy to hear the words spoken in that great grand hall: that I was also a woman in prostitution wanting out – but this was my experience and not my identity. It was push back time! It was a symbolic move to speak it!  My plan is to demythologize prostitution. Gotta say it!

Huge supportive response!! When it was socializing time, some trustees wanted to help with funding. I received more encouragement to publish.

I felt like I hammered a peg into a granite cliff – to help hoist other sisters up – we are going to make it! We must speak it! Face the Shame that would silence us! No more!

I spoke the words of freedom in Harvard’s University Hall. They will not be taken back.


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Acceptance is not complacency

Acceptance is not to be confused with complacency. Not when you consider the Serenity Prayer!

Remember that the idea of acceptance of things that I can’t change, is balanced with “courage to change the things I can – and the wisdom to know the difference.”

There is another word that jumps out at me – Wisdom. It would seem that wisdom is lived experience duely reflected upon from which good counsel and insight could be found. Serene acceptance is born from this personal wisdom. A complacent outlook, however, would seem docile and subservient, even beaten down. A Serenity Sister is not given to the complacent mindset.

How does anyone gain wisdom from suffering? I believe this is a task of writing or some form of expressing self concretely. So, the idea is to examine our lived experience, reflect, and ask – What counsel is here for me, for others? Some say psychotherapy sessions are all that is needed. I can tell you they will also say to WRITE. Writing is a way to explore what life messages were learned and how were these messages played out as a self-script that was never meant to be yours. Some lines we learned were dead wrong – “I am not worthy of love; I will fail at everything I try; I do not know what is best for me …”  Once this is exposed as imbedded self-script, challenge yourself – am I complacent about this trash in my spirit?

A good life, a Fantastic Life, is at stake – yours!  Acceptance means agreeing we have a fantastic life ahead of us as we access the courage to change. Through writing down the damaging messages from our past, we confront them, disown them, and find peace.

From this point of freedom and accessed wisdom, we look out to see how we can make the world a safer place and confront systemic systems of domination responsible for suffering like our own. Gratitude compels this vocation to serve!


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Lost voices for real change

I was at a colloquium this past week in Boston called Arresting Demand. The goal was to bring together movers and shakers from around the world to explore, strategize, and Provoke Change, (as the slogan goes for Hunt Alternatives) with regard to eliminating the Demand for paid sex. Over 250 leaders attended the closed event, including a healthy contingent of women survivors of prostitution. Our survivor voices were heard, felt, and it seems understood like never before. Hats off to Swanee Hunt and Hunt Alternatives for this breakthrough!

The last speaker proved to be a provocative and riveting testimony from a former ‘john,’ named Jeff. He emptied himself before us with a story of unimaginable child sexual abuse which was formation into many forms of sexual ‘acting out.’ Some of it with women in prostitution. He emphatically took full responsibility for his adult choices and actions, recognizing he is fully responsible to fix what he was not responsible for developing as a defenseless child – shattered and corrupted human sexuality. He seemed in a hopeless struggle for wellness that offered little for men who admitted to violent inclinations with women. But he kept at it: the losses were fewer and the victories with God’s assurance, became real. His story concluded with redemption of spirit, sexuality, and family love and acceptance. He received a standing ovation.

I too am a survivor of childhood sexual trauma. I was powerless to defend against it.  Entering prostitution as a teenager was a seamless movement – so easy that I hardly felt a discernible shift in lifestyle for it was more of the same. The co-optation of my body by patriarchy was complete. I used to see men as Jeff as my enemy and with good reason – they tried to kill me. But one day, seeking recovery I landed in an ‘S’ group which is a 12 step group for sexual recovery. Though I was in the minority as a woman I stayed – I was stubborn for recovery and actually desperate.

I too am responsible for my adult wellness (even if harm was at the hands of another) and must arrest unhealthy sexual self-perceptions or behavior formed out of this nightmare.

I heard the childhood stories of the Jeffs – if they were not coming from a male body, I’d swear it was a woman’s story. Yet, he had the advantage of his manhood, no doubt, and all the forces of patriarchy that came with it. But I began to see patriarchy as an added curse – the men’s boundless sexual escapades that included violence againt women (not all men but too many) was normalized – they spoke of that curse! These men in recovery had to go against the grain to find recovery! Wheras for the women – the trajectory into prostitution was not a normalized expression of healthy female sexuality at all. The men, if finally caught, were demonized almost beyond redemption and yet they were on a gendered trajectory that approved and facilitated this acting out. I had my eyes open to the paradoxes and to the debilitating shame we both were under. Mercy began to grow – for the men who wanted recovery. Obviously, for the men who don’t care and continue to harm women and destroy lives – throw the book at them until they wake up, if ever. I would have mercy in reserve for them. DUI’s are handed out for a reason – we must arrest life-destructive behavior.

It is no wonder then, that I believe for a fair hearing of recovery stories of the buyer and the survivor. Imagine Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for prostitution – it would be a wild ride at times, as was the TRC, but ultimately provide a way to vet the unimaginable suffering on people wanting a new day. So, I invited Jeff. I would introduce him as my brother in recovery. I would sit nearby on the stage, unashamed to be close by – in solidarity for hope for recovery for ALL of us. A new radical step of Hope. Jeff was brave – he wanted to spread a message of recovery – we would do so together, buyer and survivor on the same stage.

And we needed to hear a story of hope for many were being fed a diet of despair about the buyers of sex and many of had underlying questions – “can this ever be averted before the harms are unleashed…”

This was not easy – A majority of survivors left as Jeff’s story of child abuse and the subsequent linking of his sexuality with hatred of women hit the spot.  From this we learned to have protocols of self-care in place in the future. Not every survivor walked out but we must care for the ones who struggle with a buyer’s story. The struggle reveals something about our journey and recovery: we did not imagine our encounters with such hate!

Yet a struggle to hear a story does not mean you believe it should be refused or suppressed. Consider the holocaust – just because the stories are a challenge to hear, especially for survivors, do holocaust survivors refuse them? No, we take care in how to present them! And that is where we are now – how do we listen to the men in recovery who hurt us – who are sorry and reforming radically into the men they dreamed to be all along? How do we dare ourselves to learn from them? How do we call them brothers after we demonized them all these years in the movement? Baby steps here, open doors there – we commit, we try.

Can’t we see ourselves as men and women – and even more- brothers and sisters? We survivors got hold of a ladder of mercy – we found it in the dark night of our souls – and began to climb up and out. We are at different rungs on this ladder, and each exactly where they should be. I was able to examine this ladder of mercy once – it was reserved for ALL desperate to find it.

From my interaction with many survivors at the colloquium, we want ALL voices to be heard. I kept hearing the refrain “Dignity for ALL.” This plea was even said emphatically by survivors who could not hold presence while Jeff spoke. This is a journey – a process. Do not mistake a struggle or refusal to listen with a categorical refusal for the hope for change.  We will figure this process out and not refuse it. We will be tested sorely in this process, each in their own time and pace. How is a TRC process worse that what we have already survived? It is not a perfect journey. But we will rise with our tears of sorrow, and then joy, and our brothers who sincerely WANT and WORK recovery, as we do, will be joining us on the stage of forgiveness. One day.

We must enlist brothers in recovery to fight Demand – with us.

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Rewriting History as Herstory

That line is nothing new – its like 70’s – but the work still needs to be done. Especially for women whose lives got tangled up in prostitution. Its a myth-rich history. If it was rewritten as herstory the myths would get the boot.

I absolutely love ‘The Myth of the Happy Hooker” by FreeIrishWoman!

But we need write our herstory as expatriates of whoredom – not the historians who do not know how to listen ‘below the texts’ OR spend any meaningful time with us, god-love-them. (Ever feel like an interview with a researcher was like a visit to the dentist?)

One example of research-on-steroids was done by French physician of the 19th century, Dr Andrea Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet in which he ‘interviewed’ thousands of women in prostitution on Paris streets and brothels. He was forming ideas for legislative reform on the trade. He concluded the women were a contagion and the quarantine idea took hold for districts and exams (not the men).

He bragged he could get data he needed from the women who were arrested for prostitution in under 10 minutes: a gyn exam plus interview. His conclusions were taken up by countless policy makers, sociologists, historians, and theologians – we were now trapped in data that further shaped a stratification of woman for sexual servitude. Any study on the men – the demand – by the men? You know the answer.

Can we recognize that we are our own irrefutable data?

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