TW: Violence, rape
On the sidewalk, the “antis” look at us, escorts as well as clients, and based on our ages, the vehicles we drive or don’t drive, the clothes we wear, the overheard snippets of friendly conversation, they’ll tailor the harassment to what they believe is the greatest effect.
“Does your mother know you’re here – you may be an outcast!”
“That’s what a real baby is supposed to look like.”
“You are not young, nearing the end of your life – repent now!” and memorably,
“Go home and put some decent clothes on!”
We immediately think through all the counter-arguments, the snappy retorts, the “you-don’t-know-me’s,” and sometimes a client or companion will voice them. Mostly we hope to avoid the added annoyance of them learning our names. I can’t help but cringe when this happens, because any acknowledgement feeds the antis. But it’s hard. It’s so hard not to respond, and I understand the temptation. We’re good at what we do, but we’re not robots. We all have reasons for being there, unique experiences we carry up and down the sidewalk.
I carry the memory of Catholic school in the first grade, when getting regularly pinched and shoved by a boy was considered normal, even adorable behavior. “He just likes you.” “Boys will be boys.” When I finally bit the hand that assaulted me, I was scolded by the nuns for my “unladylike” behavior and had a note sent home to my parents.
I carry the endless lectures from puberty onward that “men only want one thing – that’s how they all are, they can’t help it, and so you have to protect yourself.” Internalizing this meant that in order to receive any affection from men, I needed to reduce myself to my body. It meant I accepted as a given that my mind was irrelevant in any romantic entanglements. It took me almost the rest of my life to unlearn this.
I carry the heavy months I spent as a sex worker, and knowing that this would be the peak of my earning power. That society valued me most on my back. That if I got raped, beaten, robbed, there was no one to safely turn to – again, my body was the only valuable thing, but I still had little control over what happened to it. But hey, at least I could pay my bills.
I carry the boyfriend who “rescued” me, who convinced me that no one else but him could possibly love me after sex work. Who asked me to marry him. Who threw a full can of beer at my head in the middle of a party while everyone else shrugged. Who I eventually married because who else could want me now? I felt I must deserve the abuse after my past.
I carry the day I went alone to a Planned Parenthood for an abortion, one I had in secret for fear of what would happen if he found out. One I had to drive halfway across the state twice in two days to obtain. The impotent rage of fighting my way through protestors, with no escorts to assist me. This choice allowed me the time to gain the skills I needed to survive in the nine-to-five world, and without it I don’t know where I’d be. I never once doubted my decision, and don’t to this day, but I do wish that I’d been brave enough then to confide in a friend, and that I’d had escorts to run me through the gamut of shaming.
I carry the time a few years later when my husband began to hit me in earnest, holding our six-month-old baby hostage because “no one is going to give you custody, you’re a whore.” When I called the police one awful night, they talked me out of pressing charges. I was obviously just overreacting, hysterical. I didn’t want to invite CPS into my life, did I? I locked myself into my child’s carefully decorated nursery and silently cried all night.
I carry the last exhausting month of our marriage three years later, when I was trying to leave and he used the threat of further traumatizing my son to get away with raping me. More than once.
* * *
It’s a little past two years since I filed for divorce and never looked back, and it hasn’t always been easy, but I came out the other side knowing this for sure – autonomy is worth fighting for. My story is mild compared to a heartbreakingly large number of people. We need to draw a hard line here, because raising girls to believe that they are only their bodies – as blow up dolls, incubators, or punching bags – is dangerous. I want better for myself. I need better for myself and my child and I am willing to accept nothing less. No one, man or woman, should ever have to suffer living with less.
These are the things I carry with me every morning on the sidewalk, though the antis would never assume it. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. The shame and intimidation tactics are achingly familiar to me. They want to grind you down, make you docile. I lovingly carry my weight to the clinic because we need to hold the line against those who would trap us in our own bodies; against those who would determine our worth for us; against those who would use shame to control us.
If I see you on the sidewalk, client, companion, or escort, I hope you’ll hold your head high. Because it matters, and if you’re out there in spite of all they throw your way, I am proud of you. Make any choice you want, as long as it’s yours. Stay brave, stay free, and may your pack be light.