This blog first appeared as a series of seven posts in the Tamar’s Hope private Facebook group. For permission to join please click here.
When we found her in February, she was a different person. Something huge had shifted in her life. Y has always been one of the most accepting of the women we work with. Accepting of her reality and means of making money.
“It’s just a job like any job,” and then she’d laugh as we told her she was worth more.
But in February it wasn’t just a job anymore. Within minutes she was sobbing and pleading with us to help her leave. Years of denial and acceptance vanished with those tears. Always quietly controlled, she was overtaken by the distress and humiliation of her life.
Sometimes well-meaning people will tell us it’s a woman’s right to sell sex if that’s what she wants to do. So far, we’ve never met one who prostitutes herself because she wants to, because she likes it, or because she’s choosing this life over another means of earning a living. Some hide it well. Some pretend that everything is fine. Some, like Y, insist it’s just a job. But, eventually, the horror of their life breaks through. No one can smile forever.
Y didn’t leave that day. They rarely do. But something had shifted in her thinking, and that was amazing enough.
We kept in touch with her during lockdown, sending help as we could, and when Shawn returned to Guatemala in September, she was one of the first he went looking for. He found her sitting on a ledge outside the overcrowded rooming house where she lives with her two little girls. She’s a little girl herself – small, frail, and vulnerable.
The pregnancy was almost as much of a surprise to her as it was to us. She doesn’t know who the father is. Some random man paid pennies to own her for twenty minutes and fathered a child he knows nothing about.
We went back to see her last week. It was my first time seeing her since she sobbed eyeliner and lipstick into my shirt.
“Darling, how many months are you?”
“Maybe four,” she said.
Umm, nope. Definitely not four. She’s an itty bitty thing. Her nickname is Skinny, so she’s never huge when she’s expecting, but that was no four month bump.
Maybe it seems odd that she had no idea when she was due. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice or wasn’t aware that her period had stopped. She noticed. She knew. But here’s the thing about anticipating the future. It requires hope. And hope is something she has never known.
Time doesn’t mean anything in an abused life. Every day is the same. Every day is a struggle to survive until tomorrow. There just isn’t time or reason for anything else. If you don’t have enough food for your children today, tomorrow doesn’t exist.
Hope is the luxury of the secure. Hope counts days because good things are coming. Hope plans for the future because tomorrow is to be enjoyed. Hope anticipates good things and assumes that things will turn out well.
Hope is for the privileged.
We sent Y for a medical checkup. She’s had absolutely no care during this pregnancy. The nice people at the clinic told her the baby was due in the first week of December. See? Not four months! Well, at least we have a working date. Time to get stuff done.
And, it turns out, there’s quite a lot to do.
Y lives in a rooming house. She rents one tiny room and shares a communal toilet and an outdoor sink. Her friend Irma lives in the same building. Irma is an angel. Irma, we’ve begun to realize, is the only reason Y has survived this far.
As we chatted, somehow we figured out that Y has no government ID. She doesn’t really exist…at least officially. And if she doesn’t exist, neither do her children. It’s very complicated. I won’t bore you. But it’s just another miserable layer of vulnerability that means that Y has to rely on others to do the most basic things for her. She has little or no authority over her own life, let alone the lives of her children. She can’t get them vaccinated. She can’t enrol them in school. She can’t get herself any kind of education. Missing that one little card means she sits on the edge of society unable to take any kind of control of her life. That card means a lot. I have one. Shawn has one. But this little Guatemalan has been denied that basic right. So now we start the process to make her real! To give her legal proof of her identity. It’s the first step in making real change in her life.
You know what’s hard? Measuring trauma. That’s hard. Statistics tell us that the majority of sexually exploited women exhibit the same level of PTSD as military personnel returning from active combat. So why do they do it? That’s a question with a very complicated answer. Very complicated. But what we know is this – the trauma starts long before they end up being paid for sex work.
Y has known nothing but trauma, honestly. She was sent to sell sex at the age of 12. Twelve! I think I still had dolls when I was that age. Can you imagine? Nope, can’t. But it started before that. Irma casually threw out the fact that Y had first come to live with her when she was only eight years old.
“It was after her brother raped her,” she said. “Her mother didn’t do anything, so I brought her with me.”
And Y sat with her head bowed, as though living with that horror is the most normal thing in the world.
Of all the things I believe I’ll never get used to, I know I’ll never be able to grasp this throw away attitude to unimaginable horror. Not because no one cares, but because it’s so common, so much of a daily reality that it just doesn’t warrant much of a reaction.
Raped when she was eight, but the abuse probably started long before.
So if you ask why they do it. This is why. Childhood sexual abuse is the boot camp for sexual exploitation. And no, it doesn’t happen to everyone you know who’s been abused. But dang, it happens to a lot. And where you live there are support services, and social security payments, and free schooling, and employment. Here there’s nothing like that to make life more livable.
We know that all of the women we work with have suffered unimaginable trauma. Things that I likely don’t know exist. Yet they keep going. They have to. To us, Y is particularly broken. She lives with the wide-eyed terror of someone who knows that horror is only moments away. It’s like she lives at the worst point of a slasher movie, all the time. It hurts just to watch her live frightened, try to parent, and struggle to survive.