This isn’t a profession. It’s exploitation.
Life is an amazing journey. The human condition encompasses a range of joys, passion, excitement, and love alongside violence, abuse, exploitation, grief, and suffering.
My body, mind, and spirit survived so many things for so many years. The sexual exploitation I endured was almost like something that happened to someone else. If I had told myself the truth about what was being done to me, my psyche would have splintered into a million pieces.
I’m telling my truth now.
Before I was even an adult, I was at risk. A lifetime of grooming by society and unintentionally by my family made me vulnerable. My childhood years were centered on a dependence on men for money. Homelessness and substance abuse made me even more susceptible.
To get by, you have to get outside of yourself. Exotic dancing, stripping, and other adult-oriented businesses are a gateway to prostitution. To participate in these businesses, disassociation is necessary. I learned the capacity to mentally separate myself from what was happening to my physical body.
You create boundaries to make it more bearable. Transactions meant having someone I was repulsed by touch me, and enter my body. I coped by limiting the amount of time with each sex buyer and attempting to impose boundaries that were regularly violated.
You can’t help but think, who wants someone who doesn’t really want them?
No one should have to put a price on something that should be priceless. Being bought and sold is not the way it should be, and you know that. I was rendered emotionless through prostitution. The feeling of degradation that arose when I had to verbalize sex acts, and put a price on my very person, is indescribable.
All violence is bad. But not all violence is equal. The awfulness of each experience existed on a continuum of violation. On one end was my lack of desire, which felt like rape. On the other were acts that were clearly rape. As soon as a client bought power over me, they made it clear they had no respect for my human rights or physical boundaries.
In TV and film they act as if prostituted women have control. It’s a lie. You have no control over the actions of the buyer. When clients got violent, I became compliant or violent myself. My only goal was to escape each situation alive. Once I got into a truck with a man who raped me and beat me, then dumped me on the road like a piece of garbage. I was so injured I couldn’t recognize my own reflection. I was picked up by more men who were purchasers of sex that night.
Not one of them asked if I was all right.
Stigma and shame stand in the way of second chances. I had been out of prostitution for five years when I was sexually assaulted and stalked. I attempted to press charges against the perpetrator, but a law enforcement officer said that my prostitution convictions would make a criminal trial difficult. I had to choose between seeking justice or focusing on my recovery.
I was not the first, and I probably wasn’t the last. Later I discovered that same perpetrator was a serial rapist of women in recovery with prostitution convictions. He preyed on women like me, who the law could or would not protect against his attacks.
There are no quick fixes. When you’ve gone through this, you will never be the same again. Once you exit a life of sexual exploitation you don’t just go back to normal. Healing is a lifelong process. Getting out is just the first step.
The healing began when I realized that, yes, this had happened to me. For years I kept this all at bay. It was almost like it happened to someone else. My mind just told me, No! Imagine floating on a cloud high in the sky looking down upon yourself and shivering as you wonder gratefully how you survived at all. That was me.
The therapist who changed my life worked with me for five years. I was able to disclose my story and all of those parts of myself that had been damaged. Without this therapist, I would have ended up a statistic of suicide or substance abuse. We utilized Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to deal with other traumas in my life.
I’ve dedicated my life to helping other survivors. I founded Survivors for Solutions to help survivor leaders realize their full potential and impact public policies on sexual exploitation. We help train first responders and others, working to change minds and hearts. Seeing their eyes open to the reality of what people trapped in the sex trade go through is powerful.
Don’t underestimate me. Sharing my story is important to me. It’s a part of my work, part of my life. But I am more than my story.
No one should be punished for the crime of not having options. Society needs to let go of the myths and listen to survivors. Prostitution is not a choice. There can be no end to trafficking without a firm commitment to dismantling systems of prostitution.
This isn’t a profession. It’s exploitation. People say it’s always been this way, that prostitution is the “world’s oldest profession.” But there’s a movement of people working to change our culture, and survivors are at the forefront of that. We’re not there yet but we’re making strides.
It’s not about me or any one survivor. It’s about what WE are doing, together, to change things. And we are changing things, which is what makes me hopeful.
Autumn Burris is a writer, international speaker, and founder of Survivors for Solutions. She is a core team member of Cities Empowered Against Sexual Violence (CEASE). Autumn has a BA in Political Science/Public Policy and a minor in Human Rights from the University of California, San Diego.