Why I Went Public About My Abuse in the Sex Trade
Written by Michelle Kelly: bestselling author of ‘When I Wasn’t Watching’ and ‘Eyes Wide Open’; sex trade and domestic violence survivor.
Sometimes the biggest silencing efforts come from within the industry
I recently went public with my account of seven years of being exploited in the commercial sex trade. When I answered the newspaper advertisement for an “escort agency,” I was 22, homeless, and trying to escape an abusive relationship. I naively believed the woman on the phone when she reassured me that it wasn’t prostitution.
But soon, I was being trafficked around England’s West Midlands by an abusive pimp, mostly to service men who were often violent. The experience left me traumatized and I eventually attempted to leave the industry; but after a few years of addiction and poor mental health, I ended up back in the sex trade as both an escort and a porn actress. Again, I found that these areas of the industry were exploitative, too. I was lucky to finally escape for good nearly 10 years ago.
I’m channeling my inner rhino.
When I decided to start speaking publicly about these experiences, I was warned. I was warned about Twitter. I was warned about being doxxed. (I had never actually heard about this before I wrote my story, but it means having your personal information broadcasted on the internet or social media without your consent.) And I was told to grow a thick skin. Already, just a few weeks after “coming out,” I’m channeling my inner rhino.
I was prepared for a few nasty comments on my Telegraph article; after all, it’s a conservative press. Being told I was “depraved” seemed a little harsh, but I wasn’t prepared for was the online abuse I got from those still involved in the sex trade. I was bullied by lobbyists, managers, and self-defined sex workers (who upon inspection seem to mostly describe themselves as part-time escorts or cammers and yet take on the mantle of speaking for all prostituted people, everywhere). Apparently, according to a part-time escort who charges $5,000 a night, I am out to destroy her livelihood and leave her in poverty.
I’ve been told I’m anti-sex. I’ve been tagged in sex work advertisements. I’ve had punters (customers of sex workers) tweet at me to tell me how I’ve got it all wrong and sex work is quite liberating; perhaps they think I just haven’t met the right punter yet.
I was doxxed within 12 hours of being on Twitter by a sex work lobbyist who released my picture, given name, location, and contact details to who knows how many of her followers. She then promptly blocked me. While a Google search might turn up this information eventually, it was unpleasant to see my personal details splashed all over someone else’s social media account, especially when that information was tweeted to people with the express intention of discrediting me or getting me to stop sharing my experience.
Eventually, the internet concluded that I must be lying, as I have a pretty decent CV and have managed to reinvent myself in the eight years since I left the industry. Apart from the fact that this very accusation is completely counter to the “sex work is empowering” narrative that pro-prostitution campaigners like to push (as if having been prostituted makes it impossible to ever get a life), there is something very insidious about the immediate attempt to discredit and intimidate survivors.
Like me, many survivors of the sex trade don’t have happy, “sex work is work” accounts of the industry. Instead, we are more likely to carry tales of the degradation, exploitation, and abuse that goes on behind the red lights. After we leave, we talk about the pimps, the daily sexual abuse, and the fact that illegal, regulated, and decriminalized brothels are nearly the same. We speak about the realities of sex trafficking and of the exploitation of minors, and how the majority of the women we worked with couldn’t give a monkey’s ass about labor rights. They just wanted out.
Ours are the voices that are not heard until we leave the industry. Ours are the voices of those who are trafficked, coerced, exploited, addicted, or groomed as minors. We don’t tend to feature in sex work surveys and discussions about the intersections with queerness and Marxism. (Marx recognized prostitution as oppression, by the way.) When we do feature in research, there is a flurry of action to bury it or discredit the researcher, especially if the research is a woman (and, Goddess forbid, a suspected radical feminist). Many stories of survivors, particularly those from existing decriminalized regimes, don’t fit the “sex work as work” rhetoric or the sanitized language of worker’s rights where rape becomes an occupational hazard. Survivors also very rarely support the push for full decriminalization. Funny, that.
Ours are the voices that are not heard until we leave the industry.
And so we must be silenced because our lived experiences clearly do not fit into the sexually liberated, “my body my choice” packaging. Instead, we must be lying. This is gaslighting and victim shaming at its worst. As I unfortunately remember all too well as a childhood sexual abuse survivor, being told to be quiet or that your own understanding of your experience is invalid can be as emotionally traumatic as the abuse itself. It must be considered that those who attempt to silence survivors in this way know exactly what they are doing.
When Rachel Moran, author of the bestselling book Paid For and founder of SPACE International, went public with her blisteringly raw memoir (and successfully aided the campaign to make purchasing sex illegal in Ireland), the abuse she received was intense. She was accused of lying so much and so often that sex worker lobbyists can now tell me with a straight face that she was discredited years ago, even though this is false. (Moran has since proven her background, though the fact that she had to do so is discouraging.)
When pro-prostitution campaigners deny and downplay the daily abuse that takes place, they are erasing abuse and siding with the perpetrators. Disagreeing about exact policies is one thing, but to attack and shame survivors who have finally broken through their silence to speak publicly? That’s a whole other level of nasty.
While many of the online attacks I have suffered so far have been relatively small, I’ve been told to expect that it will get worse if I continue to speak.
Good. Bring it on.
I have been silent for too long: when my uncle sexually groomed me, when my ex raped me, when strangers groped me in the street, and when I was exploited by older men while still a teenager. I will not remain silent about sex trade abuse, not when there are so many women and children still stuck within it.
Our voices need to be heard — if only to provide hope to those still caught in global sexual exploitation. Freedom is possible but sometimes it means speaking out even when they tell you to shut up.
Article originally published at https://humanparts.medium.com/erasing-abuse-silencing-survivors-of-the-sex-trade-3a990a7f5a9b. Republished with author’s permission.