I have a number of platonic peers who I spend my breaks with during my school days. They know what I do – a number of people in my class do to. We find ourselves sipping coffee and giggling, while we joyfully share stories of our families and friends for the week. Jennifer, a retiree, has a colourful past I eagerly listen and learn from. Lily talks about her adventures of motherhood with her first child. The subject of work comes in at some point – and I naturally join in. My classmates regard me respectfully and they understand that I have prudential first person experience in my industry. They are curious, as expected, and they occasionally take the opportunity to pick my brain when I open the discussion. They never dismiss me; they allow me to rebut their out-dated assumptions; they trust that I’m equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge. I feel comfortable being myself around them.
Recently, on my way to class, Lily urgently pulls me aside and says, ‘Estelle, I worry for you.’ She is alarmed and I panic for a second, trying to figure out what is wrong. Have I failed a class? Have I said something wrong?
‘I worry for your safety. I have wanted to tell you for a while now,’ her eyes, plaintive with melancholy, stare into mine. My eyes edge wider and my pupils shrink, I open my mouth to say something but I freeze. I see the female tenderness in her eyes, the nurturing mother’s expression, and I don’t know how to react. I have no issues talking about my industry in friendly conversation. I can talk numbers, explain why things are the way they are, consider out loud the forms of improvements, but I cannot handle the genuine concern from people I care about. I feel like a heavy anchor in their hearts, clutching onto the love they give me and selfishly sinking into unreachable distances. I feel responsible for their worry for me, and the clamping suffering that comes with it, and I feel guilty because of it. Looking into Lily’s eyes, I see my own mother’s exasperate eyes and I see myself through them. I see a bold, rebellious child; not nearly fearful enough of this world for a mothers liking. Not remotely convinced of her own mortality no matter how many times she is hurt. The child who goes out without a jacket – even though the mother warns it’ll be cold out. The child that doesn’t eat her vegetables – but expects to grow strong through sheer willpower. The child who trusts she knows best – even though she has not lived half the years her mother has. I am the child every parent would worry for even after the countless times I return home unscathed and with a smile. Or sometimes in tears, but never for too long.
It doesn’t matter how old I am, how impervious and capable I demonstrate myself to be, my mother continues to worry herself sick for me. And that’s without the sex work. I could see my mum saying the exact same words to me, if she ever did find out that I was a working escort. I could see her nostalgic pleading eyes, framed in a frown, a replica expression of when I proudly presented my first motorbike to her. Or when I proudly announced I would move out of home unwed and on my own. Or when I proudly declared I would travel Europe single-handedly for 6 months. And I’ll react exactly as I did then, for she, without a doubt, will beg that I’ll revere to her concerns. I’ll feel like a deer in the middle of the road, my eyes shrinking into pinpoints as the car light beams closer. A crash of interests where neither one of us will leave as winners.
Standing ahead of Lily, I felt exactly like that, exactly like I had, exactly like I will – the deer with recoiling pupils. I muster a reassuring smile I suspect resembles more a grimace.
‘Please don’t worry for me, I’m fine,’ the best answer I could assemble under such short notice.
‘But I do,’ Lily said matter-of-fact, Jennifer behind her nodding in agreement. The headlights, pillars of tittering trepidation, zooms closer – my pupil’s turn to pinpoints. Here comes the collision of opinions where everyone wins second place. ‘Men can out-strength women and given the circumstances you work in… When I was working as a counsellor in Sydney I saw one girl who worked for an agency. The stories she told me were horrible, the things her clients did to her. She was so traumatised; it’s just awful what she had to go through. She really affected me, that girl; I really felt for her Estelle, I don’t want that to happen to you. I really worry for you,’ she said, shaking her head, her expression sinking in dismay. It feels like an intervention but I know she only has my best interest at heart. My feelings seesaw from discomfort to cordiality, trying to regards that she cares for me in a tender manner and there’s no offense in that. Tyres screech, the light stings and my pupils disappear. The car skids and I brace myself for impact.
‘I’m not afraid of men. I’m not afraid of my work and I’m not afraid of the people in it. I’m not a very good victim, you see. I may be a girl and small but I’m not vulnerable. I think anyone who has seen me has seen that in me. Just because I do this doesn’t mean I’m going to be abused. I don’t let people abuse me. Every man can sense if they push me, I’ll push back, I’ll struggle, I’ll scream, I’ll fight until I can’t fight no more. I can say no, I can say no very solidly, at any point I want. Most of all, people know I will talk, without shame. I refuse to be shamed into silence. I don’t let anything happen to me without my permission. Perpetrators of violence want the perfect victim and I refuse to be that. So you see, there’s nothing to worry about!’ I breathe.
‘You’re right, I do trust you know what you’re doing. I guess the dangers are not so much different from other jobs. I was attacked and stalked by a schizophrenic patient and even Jennifer injured her arm permanently when she was a teacher. It’s just that this girl, she really got to me,’ Lily confessed. The car vanishes from the road, my pupils widen and I avoid the crash of concerns. If only twitter could follow lead. But there’s more I must say, she needs to know that the perfect victim is created first by the world around them, telling them they ought to be the perfect victim and then sniffed out by the perpetrator. It sticks – that scent – and it’s not a creation of the victim, it’s a conviction that lingers.
‘What that girl needed was the opportunity to seek support and to be helped in a way that’s actually helpful. When she does ask for help, people shouldn’t even think, you’re a prostitute, what do you expect, or to tell her to stop. She gets hurt in her work because she doesn’t know how not to, a reflection of what society says she deserves. What she does should not be the issue, the insidious effects comes from a lack of workplace skills, peer education, esteem, not from the work. The issue is learning the skills to deal with her damage and also learning the skills that will prevent her from being hurt again. When she does go back to work and let’s be honest, she’s going to work with or without your blessing, she needs help. If people were as much engrossed with helping workers at work, as much as trying to convince them to stop working or passing judgements, there would be less experiences like these. These girls need to know how to be confident within themselves, to know how to say no, to learn how to work effectively, so when they do go back to work, they’re not hurt again. It’s the antagonist attitudes that are depriving these girls of the proper care.’ I’m surprised by the passion of my own tone. I feel like I’ve repeated myself too many times and I am in turn indignant My energy has been drained by the countless masses, people who don’t care enough for me personally to listen to what I have to say. The same people who don’t even care about extending their knowledge to regard counter-arguments. This time Jennifer is nodding in agreement to what I have to say. Lily deflates and I hope my passion isn’t misinterpreted as impatience. I would never want her to feel defeated by a sharp tone; I just want her to understand. That’s all I ever want from anyone.
‘You’re absolutely right Estelle. I just care, you know?’
‘I know. Thank you,’ I smile to assure her and banish my own agitation. This time a genuine smile, I’m sure it wasn’t a grimace. It feels like a battle a day and I’m resolved with this little victory.