How did you become involved in supporting the abolition of prostitution?
Various family members sold me in a prostitution and pornography ring throughout my childhood and teen years. I always wanted to get away from them but since I knew what happened to kids who ended up on the street, I never ran away. I figured my best chance at survival was to stay home and get away by going to college. If I had run away, I would have become more expendable. They would have either caught me and punished me, or I would have ‘disappeared’. Given that I was used by my family, they had more accountability toward me than a youth picked up on the street by a pimp. For instance, they could only bruise me where the marks would not be seen. Bruises couldn’t show on my arms and legs and face. Plus, if one day I just disappeared, they would have to answer questions from the school and others. I was, in a very real sense, an investment to them – they’d been using me since a young age. To them, when I was a five-year-old girl, I was forty pounds of gold that would only bring in more as the years went by.
So when I did manage to move five hours away to attend college and once I quit drinking and using drugs, my past immediately overtook my life. I always hated injustice – big and small – and what I’d been through and what I’d seen others go through was one hell of an injustice. I started to speak out against prostitution at twenty-one years of age, but at that time (early 90s) feminists did not want to deal with this issue anymore and no one would listen to me. The only way I could get someone to listen was to intertwine political points with my own experiences as a survivor. I wanted to stop prostitution. I wanted to help others, but I also became involved to save my own life because by speaking out I made it harder for the perpetrators to get me back. Immediately upon speaking out, many other survivors privately told me their stories. And that, of course, fueled my desire to speak out. Their stories became part of me and, in that way, I was not alone.
What draws you to support and advocate for people in prostitution?
A desire for justice, a desire to end systems of prostitution, and a desire to create more space in this world for other survivors to exist. I know a whole lot – from my own experiences, but also from reading, working as an activist, and listening to many, many other survivors. I want to be part of a global movement to end this thing that nearly destroyed my life. I want to live in a world where children and women do not have to figure out a way to get up the morning after being tortured the night before. I want to live in a world where women and children are not sold for men’s pleasure.
What does your work in this area involve?
I have been a grass roots activist for twenty-three years – organizing speeches, protests, survivor art shows, boycotts, bus tours of sites of prostitution, and so on. In my twenties, I also began speaking and giving trainings about prostitution and other social justice issues at conferences, law schools, rallies, rape crisis centers, and universities. But what I really wanted throughout that time was to write – that was what I’d always wanted to do since I was a girl, but I didn’t think I was good enough, or smart enough to write. Also, I spent my twenties in extreme physical and emotional pain, barely able to cope with the fall out of a couple of decades of being raped and beaten, so I couldn’t concentrate much anyway. But then, one day, I wrote an essay, and was invited to present it at a conference in Russia. After that, I found more confidence and I wrote. In 2004, I co-edited an international anthology with Rebecca Whisnant called Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Since then, I’ve published a fair amount, including my first novel about incest, dissociation, and girls in athletics called Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation. Nickels was a Lambda Literary Award finalist and I was thrilled. Currently, I’m finishing my second novel and then I’m going to complete my memoir. Most importantly, I was one of six women (five of whom are Native) who designed, researched, and wrote Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota. As a Native woman, bringing forward Native prostituted women’s voices and the dreams they have for their lives is very important to me.
As a survivor/activist are there issues you face by speaking out?
It is frustrating that people can believe stories of abuse if they are told by an ‘expert’, especially if the expert is male. In my experience, it is often more difficult for the audience to process this same information when a female survivor is telling it – that is, if we are ever given the opportunity to have a wide audience, which is rare. I think there are understandable, albeit unfortunate, reasons for this. For instance, in the U.S. we have been taught to believe white, educated, male authority figures. One result of this is that people who belong to one or more these categories carry more credibility; their words determine what is accepted as real and what matters in the world. In contrast, the survivor is under immediate suspicion simply for being a survivor. She must dig herself out of a hole from the get-go. This results in, among other things, silencing and marginalizing the voices and talents of those who have been there. Of course, it is crucial that non-survivors are doing this work, but it’s also frustrating because ‘experts’ typically have access to power that survivors do not. It is rare for survivors to have a place at the table where we are respected and acknowledged as talented, intelligent, and capable women who also have firsthand experience of the subject. This must change.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish prostitution?
I think the Dworkin/MacKinnon Ordinance should be revived and I think the Swedish model should be implemented. Also, at the same time that we are working to create escape routes for prostituted women and children, political focus needs to be placed on the men who make the choice to buy another human being. Of course, this means putting the legal and social spotlight on stopping men who buy and sell prostituted people.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
That’s an enormous question, because really each of us has our own niches and talents, and each of us can use her or his talents to bring awareness and place political pressure on the system to force it to change from one that blames and stigmatizes prostituted people to one that holds men accountable for making the choice to buy women and children for sex. We must make not only prostitution, but all forms of violence against women and children election issues. We must force the system to move toward that arc of justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of, and we must not let fear and timidity stop us.
What are your plans for the future?
I am finishing my second novel, Carnival Lights, which has been accepted for publication by the same press that published Nickels and I am in my first year of an MSW program that specializes in American Indian issues. I continue to speak and do trainings and create artwork. Upon completion of my MSW, I hope to be involved once again with community research projects, because it is crucial that the voices of those who are marginalized and silenced are at the center of this work. The voices of the Native women we interviewed resonate strongly in the lives of those of us who participated in the ‘Garden of Truth’ report. We feel a profound responsibility to continue this work so that Native women are safe and respected.
Recommended websites/further reading:
www.miwsac.org (to download ‘Garden of Truth’ report for free)
- Christine Stark’s writer interview can be read here.