“We are NOT against sex!  We ARE against abuse.  And abusing sex workers has got to stop.  That is why we give these classes, so you can really try to wrap your head around what you are participating in – a cycle of abuse.  Please listen.  We know what we’re talking about.  We are sex workers.”  A few members of the audience sit up in surprise and start to really look at the speaker.

One of my favorite yet painful things to interpret has been a John’s class.  It is an amazing educational program that came out of a sexworker union in California a few decades back and is now used as a model around the country.  It is unique in that it is taught by  current and former sex workers, so they obviously have some standing to tell the johns some home truths regarding sex for money, and break through some of the Hollywood myths.  When people outside the field try to bring up abusive sex practices, they are  dismissed as prudes who are not sex positive, but when the sex workers are talking, we as a society have to listen.  They know what their work is like.  And they deserve to be heard.

The class has some portions trying to raise self-awareness in the johns.  What makes you think you should have sexual access to these young women and men?  Do you realize it can be considered a form of economic rape?  Instead of a gun you hold needed money, and without that, you are not having sex.  If you claim it is a job, do you care about the working conditions at all?  What makes you feel like it is okay to hop atop someone without even giving the least little bit of a shit about how that person lives or what their life is like?  Even leaving aside the fact that you are married or have kids the age of the kids you pay for sex, and other attendant ethical issues.  What is wrong with you, what is the hole in your heart, the gap in your psyche that allows you to feel nothing  in the face of another person’s suffering? And to actually participate in their suffering with no feeling but a sense of excitement.  Seriously.  Take a look at that.  For your own good.

According the the police officer that presented at the last class I attended, 85% of local prostitutes are under 18 and almost 100% of teens have pimps.  Every class, men claim not to know that the person they have sex with is probably underage, and does not actually keep the money.  They claim they don’t know that young people are forced, coerced, bullied and threatened into the trade.  They have a discussion about it in small groups and once they loosen up, they tend to joke about how it would be great to just get paid to have sex.  That would be a dream job.  They have seen all the media portrayals and it looks like fun.  Easy money.

Then the police officer tells them some incidents from his personal experience investigating sex trafficking and pimping.  He talks about how little money the worker gets to keep for her own use, if any.  How many are raped repeatedly and forced to take drugs, locked up for weeks and have their families threatened, as inducements to agree to work.  Some are found and rescued and then there are the unknown who are never found.  He uses actual names and cases in the news.  He shows a series of photos of sex workers with scars, burn marks, tattoos, knife cuts and stitches, and other permanent marks courtesy of the pimps, either during working years or when the worker tried to escape.  He shows photos from a murder scene.

As he goes through the slides, the police asks the audience,  “imagine if this were your sister, your mother, your daughter, your wife, with her face cut up like that, with those burn marks,” and each time the men I interpret for shudder.  Not for the victims, but because they don’t like their families mentioned. It is such a common fighting word insult to say for example “your mother is a whore”  that it really hits them hard to hear.  They don’t want their womenfolk mentioned. The police officer points out that he wants the men to realize that these workers also have siblings and parents who love them, and often children they support. They are real people with real families.

The local public health department also comes in with photos of genitalia with various sexually transmitted diseases, and gives a quiz on who they think has what, which everyone routinely fails, as many diseases are not visible on women, nor on men in early stages.  Part of the plea bargain includes getting sexually transmitted disease testing, including HIV.  There is information about general sexual hygiene.  One doctor actually joked during his safe sex talk that “god gave you two hands,” as a reminder that the only way to absolutely avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sexual contact with another person, especially someone who by trade is in contact with so many others.  And he of course reminded them that many wives and pregnant women become HIV-positive through their husband’s unsafe practices, so they need to stop thinking of this practice as something they can sneak off and do with no consequences.

A psychologist who works with sex addicts gives information about the psychology of addiction, and how the compulsive behaviors that we routinely use to harm ourselves and others are all addictions.  It could be drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or anything else.  They are things we come back to again and again in order to mask our pain, our loneliness, our isolation, our fear, our impotence.  But none of the addictions will make those feelings go away, so we have to keep going back to the addiction to escape our feelings, to dissociate from ourselves, until we finally get brave enough to seek help and look at our underlying problems.  And only then do we have a chance to become whole.  “Even if nobody ever finds out what you are up to, bottom line, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

The facilitator comes forward between each presentation and tries to engage the johns in thoughtful discussion.  She also shows a film where different workers talk about their struggles to get out of the trade.  Some of them disparage the men they have serviced, and laugh about what losers they consider these needy, greedy, socially isolated men.  One says she has daydreamed at work about stabbing the john in the gut and just watching his intestines pour out of him.   One talks about wondering now that she is sober and off the streets what kind of a person would actually wake up a drugged out unkempt woman sleeping under cardboard and tell her he wants sex.  She showed the alley where she used to sleep and just shook her head.  The film tries to show a human face to their suffering.  I wonder how many of the johns can see it.

The retired sex worker who is running one of the classes talks a lot about the dangers to the johns in the hopes that if nothing else their own narcissism might induce them to care a little .  She told them she herself always carried a knife after the first time she got beat up and that most workers have signals for the pimp to come in and how sometimes the john will get beat up or robbed.  Nowadays they can also get filmed or recorded, or followed home.  This is not the fun stuff we see in the movies, she tells them.  Believe me, I have been there.  Please believe me.  I am not the only one at risk out there.

One sex worker told that she keeps her undies bundled up in her hand in a little ball, so that as frequently happens when the john finishes and suddenly pushes her out of the car and slams the door, she won’t lose so many pairs of underwear.  This is not the movies.

Some of the statistics shared by the human trafficking expert still haunt me .  It is hard to fathom the terror and isolation of young people transported across state lines, let alone the globe, and forced into sex work.  And then there are all the local kids who are somehow vulnerable to it.  Lots start out just as runaways and end up never being able to get home.  Some have no homes to go to.  They fall prey to the larger concerns where millions are made off the backs of the youth.  Kids as young as 12 and 13 are given fake ID and transported across state lines to work in Vegas or other areas.  It stops most of them from getting home and keeps them in the business as they also get into drugs and get caught in the life.  But the number that hit me the hardest was the average number of tricks a typical  pimped out sex worker is supposed to come up to in a day.  Most men guess around 3 or 4.  The actual average was 22 to 25 a day.

Defense attorneys routinely tell me that these stats cannot be true – the police just want to “cast everyone as a victim”.  All I can say is that would be wonderful if it were true.  I would love it if the photos I saw were not real.  I wish all the stories I hear of abuse could be made up, and all human trafficking were just people coming willingly for good safe jobs.  I would love it if the sex worker who was stabbed to death in my town last week by a man who claimed to love her had not suffered such a very common fate, since for sex workers the top three causes of death are murder, overdose, and suicide.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the gamut of sex work from pornography to strip clubs to sex on the street were really just fun and carefree, victimless crimes, like certain people want us to believe?  God, I would love for that to be true. That would make me much happier than the unanswerable questions that weigh like a stone upon my heart.