When rescuing a girl from a Brunswick St brothel, my favourite fictional detective Phryne Fisher (created by Kerry Greenwood), tells the kidnapper (whose defence is that he is just ‘supplying a demand’) that prostitution should be a choice.
There was a time when I thought about it, beyond just idle curiousity. I was very cold and very poor, living off a loaf of bread a week (sometimes some noodles), and barely making the rent. I wondered what I would do should I ever be evicted. What I would do for food, where I would live, where could I have a roof over my head. It was then that I started to ask myself what I had to sell.
The only slightly valuable thing I had on me was my mothers ring, and I couldn’t bare to sell it. Second to that, I supposed, I had my body.
I was used to trading sex for favours. Mostly social capital, the chance to be with a group of people or a person. Since my loss of virginity at eighteen, I thought of sex as coldly as I would consider moving my bishop on a chess board. The pleasure I could give others in exchange for something I wanted was not new to me. I never had sex just for the pure physical enjoyment, that was for the men I was fucking. What difference would there be between doing it for favours, and doing it for money?
This all came back to me when I was sitting, much richer, slightly happier, (and coincidentally not much warmer) flicking through an issue of Cleo and sipping a flat white. My comfortable position now was not a result of selling my body, but of a caring and loving family who helped me when I needed help the most.
But this April 2009 issue of Cleo reminded my of how fortunate I was and how close I came to choosing yet another destructive path. “Credit Crunch” by Rebecca Davis brought to mind not the self-empowered sexual goddesses like the companion in Firefly, women I’ve never met but am assured exist, but those who did what they had to do to survive.
Some, “felt they had no other choice financially” ( a far cry from Hon. Phryne Fisher’s curt opinion). One thought “I have no choice. I’d rather be this than homeless”.
“Apart from the sex, the rough men, the smelly men, the dirty men and the drunk men, its a pretty easy job”.
The one ex-prostitute I had met was a lonely, self harming, clinically depressed and traumatized woman desperately trying to find relief and power within herself after eleven years on the job.
Where are the prostitutes that love their work?
Where are the prostitutes that chose the career, not out of desperation, but because they enjoyed the sexual act itself and making others feel good?
And why aren’t they helping these women, the women who are in the profession not by choice, but get through with the aid of drugs, or see it merely as a means to an end?
Surely they see that these women have no place among them, those that have chosen pleasure as a business and are happy. Surely they’d help?
In any other line of work, bosses are hesitant to hire employees that only want the job for three months to get some cash to go on a holiday. Those who don’t want a career in (insert profession), but turn up and nine, go home at five, and feel no loyalty to the company aren’t the most desirable employees.
In such a politically sensitive, conflict fraught area such as prostitution, I would have thought there would be a much more rigorous interview process.
In my little perfect world, the prostitutes that love their work, who make it a career, would at the very least have empathy for those forced into the work by circumstance, and if not tentatively sit them down in a white office with computers and office chairs to let them know the position is ‘not for them’, at the very least show them another survival alternative.
Because there is an alternative….right?
But the world is not mine, nor is it perfect. In a world in which prostitutes are neither respected nor perfectly legal, but social pariahs, tough comradeship prevails over sympathy. An attitude of “We are all in this together and those who judge us can get fucked” is not only common but perfectly understandable.
But what about those who didn’t have a choice, not even between homelessness and selling their body?
The charity Destiny Rescue alleges that twenty seven million people are trapped in sexual slavery, and 90-98% of those are women and children. In an interview with the ABC, Annie Guest in her report proclaimed
“There’s good and bad news on sexual slavery in Australia. A High Court decision in 2008 has made prosecutions more likely.
But the practice of luring prostitutes from Asia then forcing them into bonded servitude continues, with estimates of anywhere between 200 and 1,000 women working under these conditions in Australian brothels today.”
Destiny Rescue, a Christian charity, currently supports 1,600 children rescued from this circumstance, and runs a sponsor child program.
Kathleen Barry, in her book Female Sexual Slavery (1979) outlines the type of ‘demand’ that results in sexual slavery in the US: they service the needs of the Military, Businessmen, Sailors, and immigrant laborers.
The Coalition Against Trafficking of Women outlines debt as the common method for indenture:
“About 300 Thai women were held in the sex industry under debt bondage in Sydney, Australia in 1995. (Maria Moscaritolo, “Australia takes aim at Asian sex slave trade,” Reuters, 26 May 1998)
International crime syndicates traffic drugs and women, including 10 small syndicates that traffic 300 Thai women yearly. (CATW – Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific)
Women trafficked to Australia are indentured by a $15,000-$18,000 debt, which they must work off before they are freed. (CATW – Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific)
Recruiters from Australia go to Russia to hire women for “table top dancing” in clubs, which often have links to brothels. (CATW – Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific)
Some trafficked and prostituted women who are deported from Australia may try to return to pay off the debt bond because they cannot return home without money. (CATW – Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific”
Even more frightening is institutionalized, government sanctioned sex slavery, such as the type that takes place in Ghana, where a family may be forced to submit a child virgin as a sex slave as punishment for an offence.
Sepehrrad and Hughes reports that “In Tehran, there are an estimated 84,000 women and girls in prostitution, many of them are on the streets, others are in the 250 brothels that reportedly operate in the city. The trade is also international. Thousands of Iranian women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery abroad.”
All this makes my brief flirtation with the idea seem light-hearted. A joke.
In addition to this, Addiction is a powerful master. I know many people who are vegetarians on ethical grounds, but snort lines of ice every month or so. Cruelty to animals is an issue. Cruelty to a human child or woman should be much easier to empathize with.
Both domestically and internationally children are sold to support drug habits, and women sell their bodies to support their own. The people who make the powder that makes you so witty on a Saturday night also sell to people who need to sell their own child to support an addiction. To women, “Strawberries” (apparently in american slang) with no money, who fuck for drugs.
Requiem for a dream, anyone?
There are many things in my life that I have been very good at from the start: climbing trees, writing letters, manipulating men, but I have never been good at coping. I grew up in a really lovely home with a lovely family who had lovely intentions. However, due to either the things they said to me, or a sense on guilt that I was born with, I felt like I was a bad child with many faults. At the age of eight I started restricting my food intake, a pattern that still haunts me due to my mother telling me I was getting a little bit too fat. Enter life-long body issues. Soon after this initial reaction I started to self-harm in my backyard- hitting my arms with bricks, breaking glasses in my hands. Coping.
My parents had no idea that this was going on, as I showed no signs of being upset by their criticisms. This behavioural pattern continued on through my life, as I didn’t think there was anything unusual about it. By the age of 12 I turned to alcohol as something to make me confident, bold: quite childlike I suppose. By the age of 14 I was self harming in ways that were much more violent, yet I suppose quite reminiscent of my childhood also. My writing turned dark, as did my clothes which covered contusions. Outwardly, this was a phase that seemed normal of a teenager, and it was not until the next year when I became a different person. Despite the feelings I had been harbouring inside, I had always been quite an exuberant and over confident individual on the outside. The age of 15 saw my personality dramatically change as I was attacked by a bunch of older girls via the Internet about aspects of my personality and appearance. I was sent venomous emails, and was tricked and lied to over my Internet journals in order to have information extracted about my friends and myself. I guess being overly excitable and loud did draw attention to me, but other than that, these girls had only seen me from a distance, yet still managed to tear me to shreds. I stopped talking in class, I stopped going to shows on my own, I toned down my dress sense and started to self-harm close to everyday. I would not eat for whole days, losing about 15 kilos, and secretly passing out in bathrooms. By the end of high school, I was functioning at close to zero: going out and getting drunk 3 times a week, letting my grades drop, and eventually failing my TEE.
My parents started to get me help around this time, mainly out of the disappointment of my high school potential travelling down the drain. They sent me once a week to a counselor whom they resented because of his price. I ended up lying to his face about the way I was feeling, to the point where he saw nothing wrong with me. I moved out of home not long after all this happened, getting a full time job and forgetting about study all together. During this time I started using alcohol very heavily, sometimes even drinking before work. Food became a vice in a different form, my size changing from a size 8 to a 14. I discovered boys who were a great form of escapism and also a way to be abused with out the direct self-infliction. I fell in love for the first time this year, got my heart broken, lost my virginity and got pregnant, all to the same person. My family did not know this and soon after a self-termination I tried to take my own life.
A doctor at some point had diagnosed me during these years as suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. I did not let my family in on any of this, of course and always ran out very quickly when trying to get help because these kind of things can be quite daunting for a 16 year old trying to fend for herself.
The next few years were an extensive blur of fighting and self-harm in different forms. It was not until October last year when I had a seizure in the middle of my workplace that these problems in my life were called back into focus. Within a few months I has been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and during the countless interviews with doctors I was also diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder, again. Being surrounded by family and friends made me have to admit to these things and be put on various medications. I was hospitalized for quite a long time with my tumour, which compounded my anxiety to I point I had never before experienced. I started having panic attacks and seizures in public places, injuring myself in the process. The depression I had been feeling for most of my life started manifesting itself in a complete lack of motivation and energy, staying in bed for days and nights at I time, overdosing on whatever I could find, many emergency trips and eventually a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, with bi-polar tendencies. I got placed in Perth clinic to finally have a go at recovery.
Despite having worked for Headspace, whom send a strong message regarding help-seeking, this was the first time that I realized I could lean on someone to help me work through the pain that had triggered this long, abusive cycle I had been living through. Who knows why these diseases manifest in some people but not others? Anyone who looked at me in the street would not have the slightest inkling towards anything that had happened to me in my life, or that I was carrying around this illness that was as debilitating as something like a broken leg, yet completely invisible. It is so, so important to seek help for this reason. God knows that if I had lost my pride earlier my mind and indeed my body, inside and out, would not be carrying the sort of scars that it is.
I am still fighting an ongoing battle with myself. ‘Getting better’ is a lifelong task, not an overnight quick fix. There are times when self-harm looms over me like a shadow, and eating without purging is a daily chore. The difference now is that there is some light in my life, I am not crazy, I am not the only person who has this inside. And I can talk about it. Which believe me, is the most important step of all.
I found it disheartening that her solace was more easily found in pills and external sources, than through my personal comfort attempts to support, empathise and encourage her. My efforts could be sidelined by something as small, inhuman, and pristine as a pre-packaged pill, cut me to the core. I saw this as a reflection upon myself, and so generated larger and larger commitments to her. But these just served to tax me more, deflect from her, and then in turn drive me to greater lengths to “make” her better.
I maintained an idea that I needed to be solid and strong in order to support her. Any emotional or relationship related difficulty that we faced or I was unhappy with became an uncomfortable or volatile subject to bring up, the few times I attempted at least. And so I suppressed them and became a silent martyr, thinking that by hiding such faults within me, I could in turn protect her from additional weight on a strained frame.
The atmosphere of the relationship began to afflict me more and more. I became increasingly disparaging with life and I worked myself into a sort of delusionary state. In this my head became clouded, restless and endlessly depressed by proxy. I developed relationship claustrophobia and felt increasingly trapped and helpless by my situation.
In effect, I had labelled her as an invalid; one who could not properly comprehend reality, and thus needed to be sheltered from it. I was attempting to behave as earnestly and good-natured as possible, but was acting with a naïve mindset. My actions in attempting to become her all-accepting, all-supporting noble saviour were unrealistic and ultimately detrimental. By foregrounding her illness, I undermined her emotional capacity and betrayed my role as her partner.
My working life has brought me into contact with a wide range of people and every one of them has dwarfed me in the intensity and often pure horror of their life experiences – some at the age of six. I was lucky enough to escape through my early adolescence and adult life without experiencing depression or mental illness, though in high school it lurked surreptitiously amongst peers. I am not proud to admit that I silently congratulated myself, figuring that my pervasive, chronically low self esteem as an adolescent made me vulnerable to developing depression but that I had dodged it by some personal qualities of resiliency or fortitude. I am certainly not proud of this self indulgence, but teenagers being slightly self absorbed at the best of times…
I raise my remarkably obstacle free teen years because I unconsciously carried these notions with me to University where they were shaped and moulded – only to be blown out of the water by stepping into the real world. I now work primarily with women who are at risk of Post Natal Depression (PND) or are actively working through this condition. Aside from acting as a very strong personal contraceptive (for fear that I could not have coped as many of them have), the work has been amazingly challenging but refreshing. My contact with women has shattered all notions of the ‘types’ of women who are at risk or do develop depression. I have met the high achiever, orderly, timetable driven mothers to those with a more relaxed approach to parenting and organisation. I have met articulate, engaging, funny, self deprecating (to the point of self ridiculing) mothers – but in my limited experience one thing the majority of women have in common. And whilst we are vain enough to think that it is something of our doing, often it is just if we (or other professionals) are lucky enough to sit with a mother at the right time, perhaps a moment of vulnerability or particular openness, a very common grain of truth comes out in each narrative. A crushing feeling of guilt, lack of personal confidence and horror that the thing they expected to give them the most joy in the world is currently enticing them to react with anger, neglect or even violence that is so alien to their true feelings toward their child. I don’t deny that I am over these old fears and labelling notions. The work is challenging because it is terrifying – it is against the ‘natural order of things’ (and as anyone with poor experiences of a social worker will tell you, we certainly can be the agents of social control and order. Fit. In. Our. Box.
Words like smother, shake and stop. stop. STOP. are some of the most terrifying.
All of this said, I have discovered and seen resiliency with my own eyes and it has bowled me over. Families who draw breath, overcome the feelings of guilt, shame and (as best they can) accept the very real loss that is their anticipated first year with their baby, stepping out into a void to ask for help. To ask (often to plead) for services only to be placed on a three month wait-list for a crisis mother baby unit. Clearly what will resolve this problem is if mothers simply plan their crises’ in advance (readers: please note my overwhelming sarcasm.) But women do in fact persist and form beautiful attachments with their babies.
And unfortunately, like many services I have observed varying levels of treatment of women. Often based on their ability to communicate, to advocate for themselves – but not TOO MUCH (as us bureaucracies don’t cope well with that either.) To ‘play the game.’ Hospitals can be notorious places for labelling people, as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mothers/patients. And often this judging happens in a casual conversation over a cup of tea. But as I have seen resiliency and courage from patients so too are there passionate, knowledgeable professionals enduring minimal pay and working conditions to service vulnerable people. People who access these services might well have different experiences, and who am I to argue?
At this early point, I know that until I can quell my surprisingly intense frustrations at my roommates pug’s yapping that I am in a vulnerable position to judge resiliency and strength in those whose who are diagnosed with PND and cope with the very real, frightening reality of a child solely dependant on you. I am honoured to have briefly held and supported some of these courageous women in their distress, many of them knowing that I myself don’t have children.
It was early August 2009 that I started noticing changes. I started looking for hidden messages in books, what people said and how they said it. Doubtless that helped my English mark. In the lead up to TEE other people started noticing it as well; I was jumpy, made little sense and was prone to long silences. I was also trying very hard to keep people happy. I think I was scared of them being angry or disappointed with me. About a week after exams things started making less and less sense, I watched a movie in English and couldn’t understand anything except a few odd phrases. I became obsessed with the boy I was with, and was convinced, without any grounding, that he was leaving me. Oddly enough, that scared me more than anything else. I started hearing voices that were giving a constant commentary on how wrong, weak and pathetic I was being. I couldn’t understand anything that was going on, I felt guilty and ashamed of everything I had ever done, and the voices weren’t helping. It was at this point I confronted my younger brother and apologised profusely at having sexually abused him when I was seven. Of course, it wasn’t really sexual abuse; all kids play sex games when they’re younger. No-one told me this though, and it was my greatest fear that someone should discover my various sexual encounters as a child. I experimented with my younger siblings, myself, kids at school and in the neighbourhood. All this is normal, apparently, but NO-ONE TOLD ME. I always felt the outcast; developing a crush on my female teacher didn’t help, it was more reason to stay hidden at the back of the class, not talking to anyone lest something slip out.
Often things would accumulate in my head, illogical assumptions building up until they’d explode. I was once sent home because I couldn’t stop crying as I had forgotten my dictionary. Another example was where I had failed to write up notes for a math exam, and literally broke down in front of the library. I realised later that these were signs of anxiety, but of course very few people realised this and the only time I was ever sent to mental health “professionals” was when I punched a girl at netball. I can’t remember why. All I remember was being mildly frustrated at something, next thing I know I was standing in front of a girl twice my size doubled over on the bitumen. Basically, the most insignificant thing could set me off. But that’s under control now.
It was early high school I started craving pain. I’d run into walls, scratch myself until I bled and pull at my hair. I could never bring myself to cut, I don’t know why. The most extreme I went was when I somehow managed to convince a friend to brand me. I wanted to feel pain, you see, and I couldn’t think of anything more painful than white-hot metal against flesh. “It’ll be like being raped”, I remember saying. I wanted to be beaten and tortured, raped. I felt like I deserved it. This too, I have learnt to control, because I have realised that I am better than, that I don’t deserve that.
Later, my childhood escapism which consisted of lying on my bed thinking about dragons took a new turn. I started experimenting with drugs, namely hallucinogens and pot. This was during TEE. I was also doing TEE art at the time, and spent many nights with little or no sleep, stoned and on the verge of passing out from paint fumes. My average bedtime was 2:30 a.m. I lost count of the number of all-nighters I pulled, fuelled by caffeine and the occasional dexie. I do not recommend this mode of study for anyone, no matter what course they’re doing.
Eventually this all came to a head. I was so lucky it happened after my final exams. After a day of trying to explain to my mother that I needed to see a doctor, that something was wrong, I was admitted to Charlie’s psych ward. I met a girl called Anna with huge scars on her arms and thighs, and was convinced she was there to spy on me. I was convinced there were cameras everywhere. Watching for my reaction to anything around me, trying to deduce exactly what was going on. I refused to take medication, as in my mind “meds” were synonymous with “drugs”. I don’t really remember anyone explain where I was or, or why. After a week I was sent to Bentley Adolescent Unit, and thought I was in jail. Over time I became aware I was in hospital, met the other kids and started, very gradually, to put things in the right places. The nurses there were really friendly; you could tell they were trying to help. I was there for almost three months. I was diagnosed with first episode psychosis and associated depression.
Since then, I have made a complete recovery. I’m able to appreciate myself for who I am, rather than strive to some unrealistic expectation and punish myself when I don’t achieve it. I’ve started a nursing course because I want to help people, and have just gotten approval to run a visual arts workshop for people with a mental illness aged 15 to 25. I have an amazing supportive boyfriend (blegh, I know, another boy) and the most incredible thing is, despite everything I’ve put them through, and everything I’ve told them, my friends and family still continue to support me. I think the most important thing to remember is, that no matter what you’re going through, there are people out there who really do want to help, and see you get better.
Burlesque. Passion. Riot. Rock. I’ll post a review of the show Varietease IV; The brainchild of Iskra Valentine (pictured) and the lastest installment of the feminist activist variety event ( staged to raise money for the charity Women For Women), as soon as the feeling of strength and spirit subsides enough for me to do justice to the kind people that let me interview them, and to the generous woman who let me take part.
One of the first things I want to say about the show, though, is that one thing that was so fucking brilliant about that night, was the number of women standing up and owning the stage like it was their god given right to be seen, like absolutely nothing in the world could tear them away from those lights. I think thats awe inspiring and I was proud to be standing where they stood.
She blew my mind away.
She was like a preacher on stage, all heat and fire and light, and everyone was singing like her words were the gospel and all the crowds hands were reaching out to her, and bathing in the strobe lights and these huge L.E.D screens. Everyone’s heads were just kinda tilted back in ecstasy and hers was too. Whenever the crowd screamed she opened her arms up like Jesus and threw her back her head, and her lips were closed and all she was doing was listening to the crowd, and her music, and she was bathing in it. And I was in that crowd, and my heart was hers, we all belonged to her, and to each other, and you could feel the raw sex and power just streaming towards that stage, into the light. And I wanted so badly to be like her. And it gave me hope that more and more women will have a space of their own and a place to scream.
The day I saw La Roux my best friend was hospitalized for depression. It’s not the first time she’s been in hospital, in fact, I think its about the fourth, and she has the scars to prove it. In fact I’m surprised there is anything else to her, as wounded inside and out as she is.
I was hospitalized myself earlier this year.
I’m going to take a guess here, and say that perhaps most reading this know what mental illness is like first hand. That not some, but most have been depressed, have bipolar 1, bipolar 2, an anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, OCD, ADD, god knows what else. There are so many labels. There are so many words that doctors can use to parcel our desperation into a neat little box, a neat little box that they can put a label on that says ‘’do not consume alcohol whilst taking this product’’.
My psychiatrist says that many of her patients are feminist or queerest activists. She said most were female. I don’t know what that says, but I do know there is a dark seed of madness and fury implanted in the young women of Perth that is laying dormant, that is seething quietly.
I believe that most of you know what its like to cry yourself to sleep, or to feel so lonely its like a stone in your stomach. To feel worthless. So tired you don’t have the energy to weep, to get out of bed, to get help, to talk. When your thoughts hurt. What it feels like to claw at your skin, or scream in your car because you have no where else to go. To punch through a window. To cut your skin. To starve yourself.
I believe people reading this know what its like to feel desperate, and inarticulate. Because through countless waves of feminism we still have not found the right word to name our desperation. When the only way to control your own body is to starve it to almost nothing, and the only way to be heard is to be so far outside of society’s control, so outside what is permissible, they put you in an institution, and label you as wrong, the consequences are too dire.
They shame you, the cutters.
They shame you, the bulimics.
They name you, the depressives, as weak.
And we live in Perth. Where they try to keep us so safe. Where there is no acknowledged genocide and no alcohol after 12pm on a Sunday. Where we don’t kill our newborn baby girls in boiling water, or stone our young women to death for behaviour we built nightclubs specifically for in Northbridge.
And so, I would like to say, do not leave behind your sisters who are wild, who are suffering, who are secret, who are not right, who are maniacs. Because it is the sick that are telling us that there is horror in this world, that the monsters under the bed are real, nightmares are our reality, and there is cruelty, and a suffocation which from which our gender has never be free.
We are all afraid sometimes.
But if you have ears, listen. If you have hands, help. If you are wild, be proud, but most importantly, have no contempt for those they say are weak and the quiet, because some of us are more bulletproof than others.
Not all of us can own the stage. Not all of us have that power. But we can stand up for each other. Each woman and man that performed at Varitease IV stood up for an audience member who didn’t have that chance. And through that we can all scream, and all make noise, and riot, and through that, we can make a change.