Mary Setterholm’s BIO

Hi All!

As I write this informal bio I am in the midst of studying for finals at Harvard Divinity School – yes, I want a distraction from the books that this bio writing provides but also it serves as a reminder as to why I consented to be buried alive with studies at HDS.

What is my purpose now? Activist Scholar – I am not sold on the theories I am to obediently digest and mostly support or not confront. My purpose is to upend ‘dodgy scholarship!’ as the esteemed Historian and Columbia and UTS Professor John Mc Gukin would yell in his British accent when I brought him perplexing historical assertions on prostitution that were, of course, unsupportable: basic source work was not done. This transgression by scholars for hundreds of years might be set aside if the scholarship did not directly impact lives on the ground, my sisters from prostitution, past and present.

Separate posts will cover these issues – you can see I am a devoted Activist Scholar. Bio’s usually start at the beginning, however – so here we go:

My bio is an improbable journey that speaks of the invisible (and not so invisible!) hand of God, angels, living and dead saints, as well as family. I place this in tension with the economic theory of an invisible hand of Adam Smith.  I am thinking the invisible hand of God will ultimately win the arm wrestling contest with the invisible hand of capitalism but at times, it is painful to watch – or feel – as we can’t see what is invisible.

Well that musing belonged in the blog, no?

I am a “valley girl” by birth home – Encino, CA.

I am an Angelino – born at a downtown LA hospital on 3rd and Alvarado, St Vincent De Paul.

I am baptized Roman Catholic, a complicated belonging. No matter what else I pick up I will be a Catholic – XYZ. Such as Catholic Muslim or Catholic Protestant or Catholic NewAger. There is a distinct spirituality you learn as a child within Catholicism that, even if you renounce the institutional part, it seems to remain. I do not mind this. The Catholic mind seems to be a tortured mind much like Augustine’s in Confessions, wrestling with God, truth, grace, duty, and charity. If I am not careful, the Catholic mind can be come lost, as Aquinas, into endless arguments! For the joy of a good debate can spawn 5 more and there is not time! What about acts of charity, another cornerstone?

My soul dances most freely with the sea, a sanctuary God introduced to me at about 5 or 6. It was to the sea I ran after clergy abuse. It was the sea I told everything to when the men began to harass me everywhere, it seemed. I had a bond and still do, though I am at a desk at Harvard – the longing is greater for the separation.

I rose in surfing – I became a US Surfing Champion. On the world team as well. WE started WISA back then – Women’s International Surfing Assoc. I was the first president and we held the first ever pro surfing event for women at Malibu. The women’s surfing movement began with us, not Roxy. Roxy was more fuel to the fire that was already there.  We needed this help. It ought to be acknowledged – but also our heritage as trailblaizers.

This is enough for now – back to studies!

Continued much later!

Finals done – mostly A-‘s That seems to be my average. The competitor in me asks – “Why not an A?” and the realist replies, “Insane! Never thought I’d make a B – worked my ass off!” I am content. I let others stress about A’s and trust me, they do.

Did I mention that I am currently on the Harvard Working Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery? It is sanctioned by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center of Human Rights. We meet once a month to discuss front-line issues. I was a presenter last year on misattributions from the historical record of Augustine and Aquinas that contributed to the myth and socialized marginality of prostitutes. How this happened will be part of my Sr thesis. Just so you know – Thomas Aquinas never said what he is famously reported as saying – that prostitutes are the sewer of society. Due diligence caught this centuries old promulgation.

A member on the Group from the law school asked me, “What do you want to call yourselves? Sex Workers, Prostitutes, Prostituted women, Trafficked?” My answer? “Why not start with ‘Women’ – aren’t we sisters?” I will never forget the absolute delight that washed over Professor Timothy McCarthy’s face – he is a fastidious historian very attuned to rebranding of the historical record. I believe in tracing out the agency of women in prostitution, past and present. This can be deduced in the historical record in second-hand telling: we do not hear from the women themselves, as Alain Corbin states in “Women for Hire.”  Today we can hear from the women in prostitution if we want to. And the men. But it seems the public record is skewed to the myth or the hand-cuffed-to-a-bed kidnapped girl forced into sexual servitude. Tragically, she exists but I would call this predicament violent exploitation first, over and against prostitution, which can be consensual.

As a former sex worker, I do have perspective. I have seen and experienced the exploitation. I have also seen and experienced the agency to choose sex work as a means to survive: there was dignity in this unpopular choice. It was the underground version of the Protestant work ethic.  “I had to do what I had to do” is how I saw it. It would seem that sexual capital of women is a socialized idea – the tension is there. And some women and men create a life for themselves in this field with an ethic of ‘do no harm.’

I founded the group, Serenity Sisters in LA in 2005. We were street workers, strippers, porn actresses, and escorts that wanted a better way – whether in or out of the sex industry. Our critique was our own life and choices, not attention to externals and judgments of others. Shame had to take a hike. No good day starts with shame but full acceptance. From that place of full acceptance we could make better choices and be assertive, refusing exploitation (even by us!).

Currently, the Serenity Sisters is active at Rosie’s Place in Boston.

I would hope my activist scholarship furthers awareness to the complexities of sex work, prostitution, trafficking, and modern day slavery. I would resist conflation where there is none. Instead, the theme of exploitation in any and all labor settings would be the central foci.

More finals to study for! And a Senior thesis to write!

Oh – I am a divorced mother of five adult children that I am insanely proud of! One passed away two years ago unexpectedly – Grace Ophelia. There is no ‘closure’ but a transition into a new normal. We are a healthy family, unashamed of our sometimes difficult journey. There are no secrets among us, ha ha – at least from me to them!

5 Responses to Mary Setterholm’s BIO

  1. Roxy says:

    do you have an email address? Thanking you in advance, Roxy

  2. shannon aikman says:

    Mary you are awesome!

  3. calliebowdish518065079 says:

    Hi Mary, just got through listening to a podcast where you were interviewed. I am a bit shaken up by learning about some of your earlier journey when we were friends. I wish I could of been of some comfort. Your spiritual and intellectual studies sounds wonderful. I’ve been part of the recovery community for many years and find yoga and different types of meditation and retreats a nice way to live. – Callie Trenary Bowdish

    • Hi Callie! There is a time to speak. A time to heal before speaking. I lived like a bat out of hell, a feral cat. I couldn’t understand this pain, as some described it. Pain can fuel many ventures, no? Good projects can emerge but I learned this is not balanced living. I love the yoga path. A new journey. Let’s stay in touch!!!

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