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.