A little on the importance of respectful representation.

Okay. So some of you’ve noticed that I’m *ahem* outspoken on some issues, such as issues related to sex work, domestic violence, etc.

And the why for that’s what I want to talk about today.

Trigger warning for discussions on sexual abuse, self-harm, mental illness, all that stuff.

See, sex work tends to get short-shrift in fiction. There’s entire swaths of the dark romance genre that are based on the sensational stereotypes and bad data that permeate narratives on sex-trafficking. And I get it- some of these narratives can be thrilling, and fun, and given particularly American ideas on sexuality, and psychology related to the virgin/whore dichotomy, a heroine forced into doing things has an unspeakable allure, because she can’t be judged for it. There can be honest to god satisfaction from identifying with the heroine in this kind of story.

But the problem is that a lack of awareness about wider narratives and experience means that for many people, dead strippers on cop dramas and cowering, soul-dead seeming trafficking victims are the only stories about sex work they are exposed to.

I felt that effect keenly when I was a sex worker. That my unique identity was devalued because of my being a bastard hybrid of several populations misunderstood and marginalized by stereotypes against them. A mentally ill, bisexual, naturally polyamorous abuse survivor with a history of self-harm, turned to sex work. Obviously I was broken, my self-esteem was fucked, I’d never be able to be true to one person, and I’d be dead in a few short years after a string of failed and abusive “relationships”. Obviously I was too sick to see my work as yet another form of self-harm. Obviously, I was someone to be saved, or to become a cautionary tale when no one could save me. Obviously.

Customers who want to buy into a white knight fantasy press for signs of desperation; it can be lucrative playing to their desires that way. Oh, I’m so scared; my electricity’s gonna get shut off if I don’t make rent money tonight, and my boyfriend’ll call me names. Really? You’ll help? You’re such a hero. No one’s ever done something that nice for me! I need your affection and approval because my daddy beat me, and I just can’t believe that awesome people like you exist! You must be soooo loved outside of here. Really? You aren’t? Well, you’re my hero, anyways.

But I was never comfortable doing that, because it was too close to truth, and I believed that I was more than the culmination of those experiences. To play into their ideas about who the girls selling them lapdances must be, knowing that it would only confirm the casual stigma we all dealt with outside of work… I had to be a fittingly healthy representative for all of us, to counter that narrative. And with other sex workers, I felt silenced, too, since many of the people I worked with were just as normal as you can get, and felt personally victimized by the implication that they must have that kind of history, too.

And, lest I be misunderstood here, I felt it a lot outside sex work, too. Plenty of people with self-harming coping mechanisms haven’t been abused or molested, and aren’t actively suicidal or depressed. Masochism can have its own psychological satisfaction beyond simply the psychological triggers that cause some abuse survivors to form those coping mechanisms. And in support groups, I always felt… wrong, for being one of the ones who did have the history.

Hell, I even felt it inside sexual assault support groups. The most violently devastating incident was done to me by someone outside my family, and I was empathizing with the incest survivors who felt alienated by the “stranger in the bushes” narrative that needed no complicated negotiations to maintain fraught family relationships after the abuse was exposed. Or date rape survivors who lamented the invisibility of narratives that didn’t feature outright violence and verbal protests, the so-called gray rapes. Misrepresentations or marginalizations of their stories contributed to them not feeling heard when they spoke. Feeling misunderstood by their therapists, their family, the people who tried to support them but inadvertently revealed their own biases and judgments coloring a story that should’ve been wholly the survivor’s. They were the “wrong” kind of abuse victim. Just the same as me.

I’ve certainly seen it in discussions on domestic violence. So few of us talk about our experiences with it, but there’s so much of it out there in the media: lifetime traumaporn movies, “survivor learning to fight and getting her strength back” cliché movies. A few weeks back, a close friend told to me about a fight with a friend of hers about whether she could call herself an abuse survivor, since the abuse wasn’t physical. And I’ll tell you- having survived several abusive relationships, both mental and physical, the ones that did the most damage were the ones where the closest to an injury I got from it was a bruised arm. Those were the relationships that tortured me so much that I’d hope for my abuser to hit me, because at least I knew how to respond to that. I’m not saying that’s always the case, that the mental warfare is worse than the physical violence- certainly physical abuse has the potential to escalate to the ultimate loss, when your partner kills or disables you. But the lack of stories that show the way mental abuse manifests and develops, it creates this false presentation of what abuse is, that makes it harder for people to get out before it escalates to physical aggression, or to seek treatment, and receive it. And being unable to address unhealthy coping mechanisms, PTSD or anxiety disorders, or fallout from the abuse primes a survivor for more abuse.

In all of these situations, the biggest danger was people misunderstanding, based on their exposure to people “like us” in other capacities. My coworkers being disbelieved when they talked about their happy childhoods, awesome long term partners, or other career opportunities. My friend being told she hadn’t survived “real” abuse, because abuse is physical. The people in my support group being told they didn’t have a “reason” to cut, because they hadn’t survived a sexual assault and weren’t suicidal.

So I believe- full stop- we need as many different narratives as we can get around mental illness, sex work, neurodivergence, self-harm, abuse, disability, and a million other things. And in order for those to reflect the myriad realities of people who live with these identities, that means correcting what we’ve already learned about them, unconsciously.

Especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter that has the potential to hurt real people. Real sex workers, as well as trafficking survivors, are harmed when a rare or false narrative is presented as the one truth, and used to dictate public policy. Real abuse survivors are harmed when their support system is unable to recognize what they went through as abuse. Real people struggling with self-harm suffer when their experience is erased to make it solely the domain of rape survivors or future-suicides.

I doubt I’m gonna talk about it perfectly; I’m still learning, myself. But you’re gonna see the conversation unfold, both through my fiction, and through everything else I share, nonfiction-wise, that can broaden the discussion. To follow along, day-to-day, watch my facebook. Periodically I may actually write longer posts on important things, and post them on the site.

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