Society undermines the abilities of sexual assault survivors to make fully informed decisions about their sex lives. It’s time for that to stop.

by Laura LeMoon

One year ago, almost to the day, I was prostituting for meth. For crack. In hotels, trap houses, on the streets. You may be unsurprised to learn that I am a sexual assault survivor. I say that because pretty much anyone who learns my story assumes that the genesis of my sexual choices as an adult disseminates from some earlier trauma.

For me, that is indeed the case. What is problematic in how society treats sexual assault survivors is not just the assumption that there is a correlation between assault and so-called “unhealthy” behaviors, but how society undermines the abilities of assault survivors to make fully informed decisions about their sex lives.

As an assault survivor, it often feels impossible for me to make a decision about my sex life that will be seen as “healthy” or “normal.” This is because assault survivors are often viewed through the lens of pathology. That is, everything related to our sexual behavior is viewed as coming from an implied deficit. We have essentially lost something through sexual assault, and the more cumulative assaults we have survived, the more of a deficit we incur and the farther away we are perceived to be from normal sexuality.

It’s true that early childhood adversity, such as abuse, can indeed make one more vulnerable to problems in later life, as evidenced through the ACES model put forth by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. But the use of this very real vulnerability in society to nullify the sexual decision-making power of assault survivors only further relegates survivors to the realms of pathology and furthers our sense of shame and isolation. A vulnerability is not necessarily a destiny, and there’s an assumption in society that certain behaviors or choices (such as sex work, drug use, and “promiscuity”) must be the sole “result” of abuse. The reality for assault survivors is far more three-dimensional and complex then just A + B = C.

Don't tell sexual assault survivors how to be sexual.

Pathology is essentially a tangible abnormality that is viewed as being in need of “correction.” Another complexity for expressing one’s sexuality as an assault survivor is that it is extremely difficult to tease apart what fantasies, fetishes, etc. are there as a direct or indirect result of abuse, and what desires are “organic” and not existing as a result of abuse. This would not be problematic if it wasn’t for the fact that the dominant culture looks at any sexual expression we engage in as potentially being associated with or “replicating” the abuse as deviant.  

Related: Why Sexual Education Needs to be Trauma-Informed

I’ve often felt like, as an assault survivor, I’m not made whole again until I distinguish all evidence of my previous abuse, e.g. not being turned on by older men when much of my abuse involved older men, or not enjoying getting paid for sex when my first experience with sex work was being sold into prostitution as a teenager. In my journey through the healing process and in trying to incorporate all of the abuse as only pieces in the meta-narrative that is me, I have realized that I will never be back to “square one.” I can never be as I was before the abuse happened and I don’t need to continue to shame myself into thinking that healing from abuse means being like everyone else. It is okay to have been affected by abuse, rape, and sexual exploitation in ways that I cannot undo. I do not need to feel the pressure to “undo” any of those footprints if they aren’t things that are hurting me or anyone else today.

I’m never going to be like everyone else when it comes to sex. And as long as I’m not hurting myself or anyone else, that’s okay. I usually fluctuate between being completely asexual or compulsively having sex with numerous strangers per day. I will never be who I could have been if I hadn’t been abused, raped and exploited for my whole life.

However, “everybody else” is not the bar that I need to aspire to. If you have been abused, in any way, by anyone, your measure of worthiness is not everybody else’s. We need not be ashamed by how abuse has changed our relationship to ourselves, to sex and to the very people we choose to engage in sex with. We as survivors are okay just as we are. We are neither a deficit, nor an abnormality in need of “fixing.” We are survivors. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.  

Laura LeMoon is a queer, disabled sex worker, trafficking survivor and writer. She lives in Seattle with her service dog and best bud, Little Bear. 

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