November 27, 2017 by The Jailhouse Doc
“Have you ever traded sex for money, drugs, or housing?”
So my favorite days of the week are when I get to do the women’s health clinic- get all the ladies caught up on their pap smears, offer contraception and talk shop about lady parts, risk-reduction and sexual health. In a jail, you can imagine that these conversations tend to be colorful. Sometimes hilarious- like the time I was about to do a pelvic exam and the lady sneezed and shot the speculum right out of her (!!!) and it landed across the room- we nearly lost our minds laughing, and I’m grateful I had just gotten up to get something because that sucker would have nailed me in the teeth! Sometimes what I hear is gut wrenching, because women do not have full power over their sexuality, especially women in poverty. This issue is getting national attention with the Weinstein scandal- and when you think about millionaire actresses being taken advantage of, feeling powerless to say no to a movie producer, it’s absurd to imagine that women with no income or means are able to maintain control over how, when, where and with whom they have sex. Which, makes this particular story so interesting.
So I’m going through my general well-woman exam questions, and we get to the high risk sex discussion. Some providers just straight up ask if the patient has engaged in prostitution, but I just cringe at that word, because it has such thick historical connotations and I don’t think it speaks to the complexity of poverty and survival. I ask “Have you ever traded sex for money, drugs or housing?” Because I feel like this at least tries to dignify them with a choice.
“Yes.” OK, nothing unusual or crazy here. And then she goes on.
Pointing to her chest emphatically, “I did. I wanted to know what it feels like to be the one with the power for once. I did. I had the drugs and the money, I wanted to know what it felt like to tell them (men) what to do, like they always do to us. I didn’t make them do anything sick or anything like they do, but it was MY TURN. My turn to be in charge.”
I just looked at her stunned. She had indeed been the victim of sexual violence, exploitation and degradation in the past. But that’s not what she wanted to tell about. She was defiant. Just once, ONCE, she had the upper hand. She held the power and she turned the tables. Sex wasn’t a vice for her, this wasn’t to satisfy her own twisted cravings. It was to beat the system, even if for just one day. And she was somewhat proud.
I’ve thought a lot about that interaction since. I don’t even know how to describe it- it’s still a story of drugs, desperation and exploitation between human beings. Was she empowered in that moment? Was there any lasting lesson learned between the parties involved? Did those men “get it?” Did they experience the shame and the powerlessness that victims of sexual exploitation often do? Have they thought twice about using others for sex since then? Does she deserve props for literally sticking it to the man? Or is she no different than anyone who uses power to exploit?
I’m not going to judge her- I think her story is one part shocking, one part ballsy and one part bewildering. I obviously don’t support sexual exploitation in any way, but as a woman who’s been victim to harassment and inappropriate touching over the years since I was ten, I am sad to admit a little bit of admiration. And that comes from the basest, most sinful part of myself- the part that is wounded, that wants to wound back, the part that wants the oppressor to experience oppression. The part that wishes every man in the universe had to live as a woman for a week- walking the streets, getting on and off the metro, raising their hand in business meetings, waitressing at a diner. All the day in day out settings in which we are subjected to being leered at, whistled at, propositioned, ignored, belittled, patronized,… mansplained. And then go home and watch the news as local, national and international governments comprised of mostly men put forth degrading policies that control and withhold gender equity and empowerment, and ultimately make it harder and harder for women, like my patient in this story, to EVER get out of poverty.
So she got some justice in her own mind, on her own terms. I usually have compassionate things to say to women who tell me about having to sell their own bodies to survive. I didn’t know what to say here. “Good job?” “Way to show ‘Em?” It was some awkward silence for sure. But I’ll never forget her story.