I carried a rather conservative outlook on life when I was in high school, but even then, I noticed something that bothered me:
The poor and minority boys in my very small high school listened with rapt attention to the military recruiters who gave us presentations. The middle-class boys showed very little interest whatsoever. The reason was obvious, and clear: the poor boys had two choices after high school, get a job and work for low wages the rest of their lives, or go to the military so they’d have a way to pay for college. The well-off kids were already accepted into their college of choice, with parents to pay for it.
I knew these boys, I’d gone through four years of school with them. I was quite aware that none of them was really a want-to-die-for-my-country American. They were just boys, boys who didn’t want to kill, boys who preferred to make silly jokes and do stupid things and act like children- act like the children every single one of us was in those days. The military wasn’t a choice for them, not really- but it was the only feasible way they had to get where they wanted to go, so they volunteered themselves to trauma and spirit-breaking and all the things that go hand in hand with an institution gutting your identity and re-making you in their image.
That was one of the points that eventually led me to become so liberal. The notion that these boys were free and equal was laughable. In fact, they had to completely give their lives over to an organization many of them had questioned and held in contempt. They became killers, and disassociated themselves from the boy who just wanted to go to college and get out of poverty.
Some boys do legitimately choose to go to the military, because it’s in their blood and family, or they want to defend their country (say, the surge in recruitment after 9/11), or they’re kind of sociopathic anyway so it fits nicely in with their psychology. (This isn’t a critique on the military industry as a whole. That’s a subject for another day.)
I thought that was wrong then, and I think it’s wrong now, and I’ve been actively critical and outspoken against the process for years. And still, it was only recently that I understood the female parallel.
For years, I qualified as a sexpositive feminist, advocating for sex worker’s rights. Little wonder- I’ve stripped and turned tricks myself, and I did it (so I thought) via free, informed choice. Even with the broken, strung-out, vacant faces around me, I couldn’t deal with or confront the fact that the sex industry is wholly unhealthy for the vast majority of women working in it; that it leads to suicide and drug use and broken families. The phrase “distress sale of labor” has haunted my skull for years- women and children will work in sweatshops for little money to survive, girls ‘paying their way through school’ by hooking or stripping are no different, with no more rights, yet we’re willing to actively campaign against one and not the other.
The hardest part was admitting to myself that my choice was never as ‘free’ as I liked to claim it was; that my own poverty, severe mental illness, and lack of political/social power was the impetus for my decisions. Who wants to find out that they’re not really free? Who wants to look at the things they have done and see destruction and chaos instead of value and progress? And maybe worst of all is the knowledge that I was awesome at what I did- that when I stopped working, men cried and harassed me and offered me astronomical amounts of money for ‘just one more hour, just one more night…” They had these fictitious relationships with a fictitious girl, and the real me- well, I carry a mix of absolute pity and absolute hatred for them. They were never men in my eyes. More like biologically activated ATMs.
Sisters in the ‘real world’, I am so, so sorry for the hurt I caused to womankind. I am so sorry that I did damage to your relationships, and self-image, and soul. I am so sorry I worked against you, for everything you’ve established, and everything you fought to achieve. This will be my cross to bear, and all I can do is make it into something equitable and liberating in the end.
And brothers, I am so sorry you had to give up your humanity or moral objections so you could go to school, I am so sorry you defend a country where half of the population sees you as cannon fodder and the other half respects you, but not so much you as the uniform you wear. I applaud your sacrifice, as do millions of others, and I vow to work for a world where that sacrifice won’t be forced upon your- or mine, or anyone’s- children.
But brothers and sisters, we must stand together. We can’t excuse the behaviors of capitalism and misogyny by insinuating money is an equal exchange for a violation of a human being’s civil rights. Feminism sub-divided itself into little sects that fight and bicker about individual rights. This isn’t about any individual woman’s right to sell her body. That aspect isn’t even relevant to this discussion yet. Before any woman can make a free choice to do that, we must free the woman who never got the right to choose.
Sisters, brothers, trannies, and queens that I left behind in the industry- “violet”, “cherie”, “nightmare”, “taryn”, “cali”, “suni”, “arya”- and all the rest- I heard your cries. I saw you shooting smack. I heard you say hateful, ugly things to the other girls. I saw you crying when they hurt you, and I saw you mocking men with vehement hatred. And I saw that you did it all with love for your children, and love for your families, saw you do it with love, so much love- love for everyone else, but not yourselves.
I saw you as you are, as beautiful, broken, yet insanely strong women, worthy of respect and love and compassion and life. I saw you, Sisters. I haven’t forgotten, and I promise, if it takes the struggle to my dying day- we are coming for you.