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Political Memories

I’ll never forget the evening after the release of my first issue as editor of Feminist Voices. I remember the clothes I wore, the snowy sidewalk, the buildings surrounding me, the dreary winter sunset, the heavy bag over my shoulder as I trudged up the side street after work. I’d finished my shift at People’s Bookstore, just off State Street in Madison, Wisconsin. In my early 20s and a collective member of the local feminist newspaper, I’d completed my first stint as editor-in-chief. The issue I’d chosen to focus on was “prostitution and pornography”. I’d collected articles from a number of nationally prominent and local writers, all of whom viewed prostitution and pornography as violence against women and children.

I was not an experienced activist, but I was learning rapidly what it meant to go up against the multi-billion dollar industries of prostitution and pornography from a feminist perspective, which meant that critiques of the institutions revolved around the harm inflicted on the prostituted ones, and not on censorship and morality. At that time, I existed in a state of suspended shock–over my own victimization as a girl, teen, and young adult in prostitution and pornography, and as a burgeoning feminist activist. Women–straight and lesbian–who supported, defended, and championed prostitution and pornography, had begun harassing me publicly and privately because I spoke out about being raped in prostitution and pornography as a girl by my father and other men.

As I traipsed up the street, I passed Rainbow Books, another lefty bookstore–People’s Bookstore’s competition. I’d spoken out enough by that time so that I’d become known locally as the woman who talked about being raped in prostitution. Walking along, in my denim knee-length jean jacket, my chin tucked into my black scarf against the cold, someone yelled from behind me. I turned, saw a woman I did not know run out of Rainbow Books toward me, yelling You can’t say those things! You can’t say those things! Instead of feeling targeted, frightened, and overwhelmed as I usually did when encountering this behavior, I shrugged. After all, the newspaper and my anonymous article about surviving child prostitution and pornography existed, no matter how much she yelled. Suddenly she stopped. It’s just that you make me feel guilty, she said, and turned into her store lit up against the falling night sky. So that’s what it’s about, I thought. My survival makes you feel badly. My ability to speak makes you feel badly.

Paired with my memory of walking toward State Street that night is the memory of the first time I spoke publicly about being prostituted as a girl. That was on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol at a Take Back The Night Rally. I’d just begun dealing with my past (thanks to quitting alcohol and drugs) and I was quite simply terrified that I would disappear, meaning that my father and his friends would nab me up off the street as I walked home from classes or work. I was also angry, and believed that the world, especially women, wanted to know and would do something to end the abuses I’d suffered. Back in the early 90s, Take Back The Night rallies were large and animated, attendees were inspired by anger, resistance, and action and as I stood on the steps, took the microphone, and gazed out over the large crowd, gathered together at the top of State Street, I expected the anger, resistance, and action to swell when I spoke. I expected that the crowd would rise up to stop others from being hurt.

My first few sentences named my father as the abuser, thus identifying me as a survivor of incest. The crowd shouted in support. Then I said he’d prostituted me as well, sold me as a girl to be raped by other men, and the wind went out of the proverbial sails. The crowd quieted, became silent, the change so palpable I recall thinking What is going on? At that time I knew nothing about the political divisions over prostitution and pornography. I stood on the steps of the government, knowing that by being public I was making myself safer. I also spoke to deliver a message from a place few escape, expecting that the audience would embrace the enormity of what I’d done and fight for those still being hurt. But the crowd had heard me identify part of my abuse as “prostitution”, a word they did not want to hear.

In retrospect, I think that by the early 90s the politics of prostitution were deemed too divisive and controversial, which meant that my life and those I left behind were being silenced and therefore ignored. As a survivor of incest, prostitution, and pornography, this abandonment was all too familiar. It was my childhood all over again and what was at stake was what had always been at stake: my life and many other lives.

Now, two decades later, things have changed, as they are apt to do. My life is better. Recently, my novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was released and became a Lambda Literary finalist. I have the same feeling I did on that cold winter day a long time ago. My words exist in the world, on paper, and people are reading them. The book, and the award, can’t be taken from me. No one can make them not exist. I am glad. The industries of prostitution and pornography have changed as well. They are much larger, so that the ways I was brutalized as a girl in the 1970s and 80s is widespread and much easier to access. We must not turn away, no matter how hard it is to hear, to see, to know.

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