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Living to tell

Alisa Bernard

Alisa Bernard

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Each time I own my truth and tell it, I get stronger.

My story is my power. One of the most healing experiences I’ve had in the last three years has been speaking and writing about my path into prostitution. I’ve shared my story in groups with other survivors, with politicians whose minds I want to change, with the media.

Each time I own my truth and tell it, I get stronger.

Reality TV is not for real. The way that this is represented on TV and in movies – that glamorous and glorified image of the “Happy Hooker” – is not the way it really is. Most of us suffered childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse, or homelessness. A lot suffered from all three. When you peel back the layers, there is usually a reason this happens.

For me, prostitution was the culmination of a lifetime of trauma. I was nine years old when I was first sexually abused. Later I was targeted by a pedophile who was on the staff of the private school I went to. After I dropped out of school at 15 I was in and out of my home. I used “survival sex” to support myself.    

Sometimes the solution is actually the problem. I was in the life for several years when a john offered me room and board to pay for my college education. But the idea that prostitution would be a way up was a lie. It had the opposite effect on me. It felt like suicide – a slow suicide where you’re watching yourself disappear.

Online does not equal safe. People say that a website is a tool to screen out potentially dangerous sex buyers. I can say from personal experience that it’s not true. “John boards” turn women into objectified commodities to be reviewed as one would review a washing machine. When men see you as an object, it’s a lot easier for them to treat you like an object.

Please don’t call it “sex work.” Not many women would freely choose a job where sexual violence, disease, physical and emotional abuse, and even death are risk factors. That’s not a profession. It’s exploitation.

Exceptions should not dictate the rules. Even if a small percentage of people in the sex trade say they are choosing this, that definitely was not the case for most of us. One of the reasons I’m sharing my story is because I believe my experience is a lot closer to most survivors’ experiences. Too many of our voices have been silenced in the debate about whether prostitution should be treated like just another job.

We need to talk about the economy. When people say we should legalize the sex trade so that those who are impoverished or vulnerable can have a way to survive, they’re missing the point. That’s an argument for equal wages and more jobs, not making it OK to buy or sell someone.

I may not call myself a sex worker, but I still see those who do as my sisters. They are going through the same pain I went through. I see them fast-forwarded by years every time I look in the mirror. And I understand that sometimes you have to convince yourself that this is your only option in order to keep doing it.

Alisa Bernard is a writer, activist, and graduate of “The Stories We Tell,” a testimonial writing program for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights violations.