A Survivor Shares Her Perspective on the Reality of Choice

Microphone speaker at the rally, closeup
Microphone speaker at the rally, closeup

After Michael Goguen's lawyers threatened legal action against AnnieCannons (a 501(c)(3)) over an opinion piece we published recently on the Huffington Post Impact blog, we talked about it with our class of human trafficking survivors we're teaching to code. We assured them that both our opinions and their opinions are protected by the First Amendment, but they were still upset about how the press was describing the arguments at issue.

One talented programming student, who we'll call Bess, wanted the world to know what she thought. She shared her perspective on choice, words of love, and life when you're working on the street and don't want to be. Bess spoke to and from her experience and that of other survivors she's been in contact with rather than a direct, personal knowledge of Amber Baptiste or Michael Goguen or any facts of that case.

Because amplifying the voices of survivors in the fight against human trafficking is part of AnnieCannons' core mission, we're happy to help her tell her side of this story.

"I want people to understand what it's really like when you're on the pole or in the life and someone offers you support," Bess said, referring to working as an exotic dancer and/or escort , "people think it's a choice and that we can just say no. But it's not like that. I don't want people assuming all women are out there by choice. Most of us didn't choose it." She explains almost all the women she knew in "the life" got kicked out at a young age, were abused, and/or ran away. "If you have nowhere to live and can't get any other kind of job without a stable place to sleep, and were like me and had no idea about safe houses, and then a dude finds you and offers or promises you a better life, it's kinda hard to say no. " (Bess refers to the man to whom she had to give the profits of her exploitation as her "dude.") "It's not like you say 'no' and then go get a great job with a decent apartment and a nice salary." She explained that "just saying no" could mean a beating, homelessness, starvation, even death.

"When you're in the life and some trick offers you something, of course you say yes. You have to do what you're doing anyway. You're traumatized, and the idea of comfort is seductive... You're happy to get anything out of it. Someone offers you $10,000 to do what you have to do for nothing? Obviously you take it and you're happy about it. I know girls who have gotten a car from a trick. Sometimes they just give it to you because they want to help you, and sometimes they want something in return. It depends."

Bess told us there was a time when she was in the life that she longed for someone to make her an offer for an "exclusive" support arrangement: "I got to the point that I was like, 'I wish I could just meet one man I could live with and that could be my life. Where you are then - you haven't been to school, you feel like you've been an escort or exotic dancer for so long and you can't do better in life - at best you could get an $8-an-hour, 30-hour-a-week job. When you have to work 30+ hours a week to pay rent by yourself, getting an education is not an option. Then - what, having no help and a minimum wage job while you try to go to school and paying rent AND paying for school? That's impossible. So I thought, for a while, I could find someone who would pay for me and I wouldn't have to live on the streets." She got a couple of offers - one from a man who wanted her to be a secret "girlfriend" and pay all the bills for her to live in a town away from his wife. Now, she's glad they didn't pan out. But she notes that the trick in those offers usually pays the bills himself rather than giving a woman money to pay them "so he can stay in control," so his escort can't leave him.

Over time, Bess saw where those kinds of offers led. "Usually the guy is nice for a while - maybe a day or a month." She personally recalls only two instances when she thought "I'm going to die here" as soon as she stepped into a room with a trick. "But after a while," she explained, "he thinks 'she's not going anywhere,' and he thinks she's in love maybe, he's comfortable, and then things change."

We did explain to Bess that Mr. Goguen's cross-complaint argues that Ms. Baptiste is retaliating after being scorned by a man she was in love with, and Bess actually laughed. "She wasn't in love with him," she said matter-of-factly (note that this is her opinion and not based on specific knowledge of or any contact with Amber Baptiste). "If she's emailing him saying she loves him, it's just to keep getting support. She's not on the pole anymore and thinking that's a really good thing" (Goguen does print an email from Baptiste in his cross-complaint where she says he "saved" her from stripping). Bess explained: "You're going to tell him you love him and he's the most wonderful thing ever and all that to keep him happy... But it's just an act. When you're an escort or an exotic dancer, you're always acting. Always. Your whole life is an act."

"Think about it. Say the last job you had was as a stripper, when you were like 20? You have no education past high school and some didn't even get to graduate high school. If you haven't worked in more than ten years, and you have no money of your own, how can you afford to lose his support? You're thinking, 'who's gonna hire me?' And these men know (or think) that. First they're saying 'I'll take you away from this place' and that sounds so amazing. They get comfortable, then they just keep getting more violent and crazy. After ten years? He's gonna live out all of his disgusting fantasies. She'd be living out on the streets [unless she let him]." Bess thinks exploiters pay bills rather than give cash or help find economic empowerment "because then she could leave him."

Bess drew a distinction between her circumstance - being "sent out" by her "dude" - and the arrangement of one man paying one woman's bills in exchange for her sex. "I don't know what to call that, but [if the man were] abusing her, the hospital stuff - that's different. Now it's abuse."

The idea of a Settlement Agreement reminded her of a survivor she'd met at a shelter whose "dude" had sold her to a powerful man in a distant small town. "The guy knew everybody, all the cops, and everybody loved him. She felt like no one around her would listen to her if she told them what was going on." But this purchaser had forced Bess' friend to do atrocious things, and he'd also made her sign "a paper" saying she belonged to him and she would not leave.

Bess prefers to build her new life away from her old life, but this story upset her enough to want to speak out: "These guys that buy escorts or take dancers out of the club, they're powerful. They're usually rich, or they're cops, or they work in the government." She told us about customers she'd had who'd disclosed their high-level government positions.

"It's not fair that they get to do what they did - like, where did this guy meet her, anyway? And then everyone describes him like he's a king and she's dirty. I want people to see what it's really like to be in the life and be 20 years old or younger. I wish people would ask these ladies why they're doing this instead of assuming they're sluts or dirty. You have no idea what she was going through and what she was being forced to do if she wanted a roof over her head and food in her belly."

"It's not fair for people to say 'she got herself into it.' She's just trying to survive. We all were... this all started because of him trying to 'save her' from the strip club and pay for sex, and that's how it always is. She didn't get into anything by herself. It takes two to tango."

* For more from survivors regarding psychological coercion, you can check out End the Game.