A Little Understanding Goes a Long Way
Jennifer Hardy, CMPS
Peer Support Coordinator
Somewhere in a suburban corner of the world, a little girl is being abused. No one knows. And after it happens, this little girl hysterically runs to tell her mother something bad has happened. This little girl is crying so hard that her mother can't even understand what she is saying, and company is over, so the mother says "hush, hush. It's okay. Go on back to bed." The little girl hears the message: "What happened to you is no big deal. I really don't care." And she believes it.
Things change for the little girl. She sees the world a little differently. It's harsher than it used to be- dangerous even. Everything is sexualized. And, like many victims of abuse, she believes she is “bad”, that she “let” this happen and she shouldn't be upset about it. No one cares. Not for real.
Time goes by and a guy comes along. He tells her she is "drop-dead gorgeous" and special. He showers her with gifts, attention, and time. But he warns her that he is "bad". She probably shouldn't spend too much time with him. All the while, the gifts keep coming. But, he is bad. Well, she is bad too, right? She will prove it. She is bad too and it's no big deal. No one cares. Not for real. Suddenly, and without warning, the world opens up. The little girl is exposed to things she never even knew about. It's uncomfortable and feels sick and wrong, but she is bad. And this is what bad people do, right? And...he "loves" her, so it can't really be so wrong, right?
And so begins a life of exploitation, doing for others at the expense of her own self. It doesn’t matter that it was painful or that she felt guilty and sick. She quickly learns to numb the pain.
As the little girl grows into a young woman, not much changes in her view of the world. She tries to appear "normal" and fit in and be the person her family and friends think she is. She marries this man. His gifts and attention fade away, leaving not much more than selfish desires. He eventually choses to stop supporting the family. Around this time, someone else comes along and shows the woman how she can make money to help her family. When the notice comes that the electricity is getting ready to get shut off, she jumps on the opportunity. And, so, the exploitation deepens. Her husband is thrilled to take the money she brings home and is not bothered by what she has to do for it. And when she is coming off of the drugs she has used to numb her pain, he choses to turn his head. He’s getting money. He’s getting his fantasy. And besides, he "loves" her.
By the time this woman sees through his lies of "love", her way in the "life" has already carved into her soul in a very deep way. At this point, she just can’t see another way to live.
. . .
I share this with you all so when you consider the woman who is a known prostitute or a "dancer", you may begin to see the whole picture. No one is born wanting to be used and exploited. It just happens. Self-image is shattered and the world view is changed. It is not an easy thing to break out of. Whether the girl is actually still a little girl or is a grown woman with the little girl's world -view, the reality is very similar. "This is who I am.""This is what I'm worth." "There isn't another way." "No one cares." Judging this person is never going to help her or anyone.
I strive in peer support to help the ladies see their own big picture, to see their own self as that little girl. I hope for them to begin to recognize all of the little things and big things that built up in their lives that made them vulnerable to exploitation, so they can be a little kinder to theirselves and a little more understanding of their own experience. In this way, they can learn to love themselves again and help that little girl grow up and decide for herself who she wants to be in this world, and how to shine her own unique light.
I also share this with you that you may consider how something like a gift may trigger a survivor. Gifts, for us, almost always came with strings attached, spoken or unspoken expectations of a return in a sexual nature. When a survivor receives a gift, especially anything overtly "extravagant" in her mind, there will likely be an uneasy feeling, if not an all out automatic thought of "what do they want from me?” It takes us a very long time to understand that some people are really just thoughtful and considerate. I have been out of the "life" for over 6 years and it is still a knee-jerk reaction to me, if I receive a gift, to wonder what I should do for this person in return. It is so bad, at times, that my thoughts extend to those around me. I am often bothered when my spouse receives a gift, because I automatically think that the giver is probably hoping for a sexual return. This has not ever been the case, but I still have to work through it each time it occurs, because those pathways are so deeply burned in my subconscious.
Taking the time to truly put myself in someone else’s shoes is what makes all of the difference in the way I am able to interact with survivors. Things like being aware of their many possible triggers and being truly understanding of the pathways that brought them to their current situation can go a very long way in building a relationship of trust with them. They may experience for the very first time what it is like to be respected. When someone feels understood they are free to breath and to grow. And this is something each and every person deserves!