This is the second part of the collected questions and answers from the commentary threads on the Jill Brenneman interview columns which appeared in this blog last month. I’ve arranged the questions into logical order, editing as explained yesterday.
Asehpe: How do you manage to do sex work despite your scars? This must take a lot of self-control and self-discipline. I wonder if this doesn’t cause misunderstandings with your clients, who probably expect girls that at least look enthusiastic.
Jill: I’m a sex worker because I need the money and at present lack other opportunities. I’m amazed that I have repeat clients; whatever success I have probably still comes from the training from the era with Bruce. Some clients have left the date very unhappy with zero feeling on my end. I got lax with self discipline and self control with the Federal Air Marshall. I let my years as an activist, and my years of harm reduction training and crisis counseling give me a false sense of my own safety. He wasn’t happy with the results, wanted what he didn’t want to pay for, he also wanted more enthusiasm than I was giving. He insulted me and I reacted with a smart-ass comment…he had me down, handcuffed with a trash bag over my head and then restarted the negotiation. He could get everything he wanted at no additional charge including enthusiasm and I could get to breathe and take no more blows that worsened the concussion he had given me…The only person I can truly blame is myself. I knew better than to get cocky and aggressive…with a client and let my ego get in the way of doing the job safely. Since then I have been much more careful.
It’s hard to have gone back to sex work. While I totally respect that many of my colleagues enjoy the work, take pride in what they do and do it well, I’m not in that space with sex work. I’m haunted by the violence, not sexually attracted to men and offer the clients more of what they want physically but very little emotionally. I am able to recognize the difference between the past as a runaway teen and now as an adult consenting sex worker, and despite what the antis say, there is a huge difference. In some ways, I feel better about my activism now that I have returned to sex work because of a sense that I am with my colleagues doing sex work and activism rather than just being an activist. But from a client’s perspective, I admittedly suck.
Asehpe: Where do you see yourself going in the future? Do you have plans for the rest of your life, or are you just living each day as it comes? Are you going to continue being active in the pro-prostitution/harm reduction movement?
Jill: I don’t have plans for the future. I never have; I never felt safe making them. Life can quickly take away what it has given. I try to focus on remembering the gifts…of love and friendship in each current day. I would like to be a flight attendant again. I miss that, but who knows? I’ve found it just isn’t wise to make plans for the future as they seldom work out. I’d rather focus on what I have today then even ponder the future. Yes, I will remain a sex worker rights/harm reduction activist. It’s a passion for me; I suffered some horrendous things, [but] some really awesome people taught me that I could be loved, could give love and could make a conscious choice. I could let the horror of my past make me into a monster, I could do nothing, or I could use it to understand oppression, to understand violence, to hate to see others suffer and try to make a difference for them when they are not able to do it for themselves.
In retrospect, even if I knew what I was facing with Bruce before I got into the car with him but knew what I could learn from that, and that it could…[make] the difference whether I grew up to be shallow and empty or to have humanity and to be able to rely on my own sense of right and wrong…I would still get in his car. I would not be who I am today had I not…I will always do the activism because I have something to give as a result of my past. Something that perhaps is a bit different than others, something that may bring constructive social change to someone.
Amanda: [To Asehpe and other readers] I would like to clarify one thing: there is no such thing as a “pro-prostitution” movement. There is a “sex worker rights” movement. “Pro-prostitution” is a label dreamed up by the antis who like to throw it at sex worker rights advocates. Fighting for human and civil rights is very different from being “pro” anything. The antis also like to claim that the vast, worldwide “pro-prostitution lobby” is funded by porn and encourages sex trafficking. That does not describe the sex worker rights movement at all.
Jill: Amanda, thank you for illustrating the point about “pro-prostitution”. There is NO “pro-prostitution” as it is represented by the antis. I don’t know that people without experience from within the anti movement realize the horrible meaning [they] attach to that. [They] believe that all prostitution is bought and sold rape; what they are saying by calling us “pro-prostitution” is that we are “pro-rape”, that we are deliberately trying to get as many women raped, assaulted and hurt as we can. They malign the sex worker rights movement and its activists with that terrible term. I have never met anyone who was “pro-prostitution” as they represent it. Even many of the staunchest supporters of sex work have suffered rape and violence in their lifetimes and I don’t know anyone in our movement that wants anyone to suffer bought and sold rape.
Thus as Amanda illustrated, it is imperative to remember when describing yourself as “pro-prostitution” the meaning is completely different from how people here understand it and how the antis understand it.
Frank: Jill, when you were at home, what did you want your parents to do that they weren’t doing, or what did you want them to stop doing?
Jill: It wasn’t so much about what my parents weren’t doing…it was that they never wanted me at all and made no secret of it. I was malnourished and…froze in the winters for lack of winter clothes. I was an unwanted child in an era pre-dating Roe V. Wade. I was born many weeks premature…in an era where premature births almost always ended in death. There was a lot of sexual abuse from [my mom’s boyfriend], who got extensive access to me with a blind eye from parents. I wanted that to stop.
I had little choice in…leaving home…quite simply no one wanted me there in the first place. Even if I had a choice, for me to stay would have meant the sexual abuse…would have had to stop, there would have had to be some concession on the amount of hatred…directed at me, I needed more food, clothes that weren’t falling apart and were warm enough for a very harsh New England winter. My only support was from a paternal grandmother who died just before I was thrown out. Without that I had nothing left and it was a matter of time.
Asehpe: I am…curious about how you feel about your parents and other family members, if you want any contact with them.
Jill: I re-established minimal contact and was present the day my brother’s baby was born. No one in the family has ever asked what happened to me. I don’t have much contact with them, they have so little part of my life.
Brandy Devereaux: What I would like to know is how…the run-in with Bruce could have been avoided. What I mean is if there had been a youth drop in shelter that you could have gone to, would you have? If you had been educated to the fact that there are creeps out there like Bruce and the signs to look for to avoid nutcases like that, would you have not gone with him?
Jill: The likelihood is nothing could have been done. He offered what I needed right then, when I had nothing else. I knew partially the risks yet went with him anyway. I can’t say that I would do it differently if the same scenario happened again. The warning bells of hunger, homelessness and basic needs ring louder than those of potential threats; it was a case of actual threat vs. possible. The only logical answer was to go with him. By the time I got to his car and he wanted me blindfolded, nothing had changed. I still needed what he claimed to offer; I had nothing else. I knew at the time I was probably going to be raped and hurt; I expected that to be part of the trade-off for food and shelter, [but] I just didn’t know the rest. I couldn’t have, I’d never even heard of most of the rest.
Asehpe: I have the impression that your life history makes certain things — intimacy, friendship, trust (especially of men) — much more difficult for you than they would otherwise have to be. This is a sobering perspective for people who take such things for granted, and gives to your tragedy a depth of dimension that is really very moving.
Jill: I’ve learned over time how to build and maintain strong relationships with female friends which last well as long as sex isn’t involved, [but] my relationships with men are virtually nonexistent; while I recognize there are good men out there and have met some of them, I have virtually no ability to form any kind of trust with them. The best…I can achieve is seeing that some of my friends are in relationships with good men and being happy about that situation.
Asehpe: Perhaps if you at some point found a good man who needs your help, who was equally scarred by life… this might allow you to develop a relationship. Nothing makes us feel more like we’re healing than helping others heal. Cleaning other people’s wounds has a soothing effect on our own.
Jill: I agree with you that helping others is cathartic. I’m empathetic by nature anyway, but found reward in being a crisis counselor in Minnesota, by being a non judgmental friend…helping others clean their souls has helped me a great deal…I’ve been fortunate to have made some really wonderful friends over the years that I have been able to learn from and regain my humanity. I would like to believe and hope that I have been able to give back more than I have taken from the world…I wasn’t a particularly quality human being for years after I got away from Bruce. I’ve been very fortunate in having had the opportunity to learn from mistakes and be able to make amends to the people I hurt and prove I could learn humanity.
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