Of course, I know that not everybody has such an open relationship with their mothers. And sex workers, current and former, aren’t the only ones with tenuous maternal relationships or no relationship at all, an estrangement that writer Natasha Vargas-Cooper once described as “the hardest break-up known to the human heart
.” As Stryker says, “So many people I know can barely talk to their parents about sex, or their queer identity, or their multiple partners, never mind their lives as sex workers.”
As for me, I told my mom I knew what I was doing, but the truth is, I had no idea. At 19 years old, I was a relative child. I’d started stripping because I needed the money. As a student abroad in Mexico, I was bored and broke, so dancing naked in clubs for cash felt like a solution. But the solution became a problem of its own.
Experts say that human beings experience shame as trauma
, and this trauma triggers a “fight or flight” response
in the brain. Empathy expert Brené Brown
talks about how, when we feel ashamed, time slows down. Our rational minds abandon us. We become the children we once were. These feelings, she says, stay with us long after the event.
My mother’s response to the discovery that I was stripping was hostile, negative, and shaming. That email exchange was the first and last time we ever talked about it. I knew implicitly that I was never to mention sex work in her presence, and so I didn’t. From then on, she showed significantly less interest in my life. We still talked, but less frequently and less about me. Her rejection tapped into deep-seated childhood fears that I was unlovable. The fear, distrust, and isolation I had already begun to experience as an individual working in the sex industry was compounded. My sense of self was shattered; my sense of trust in my mother destroyed.
A decade later, I call my mom every other Sunday. I call her because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. I call because I know that if I didn’t, she wouldn’t call me. It’s an unbearable thought, to think that I’d have no relationship with my mother, given that I already have zero relationship with my dad
When my mom and I talk, we skate over the past as if it were a frozen pond. We stick to neutral topics, like the weather or movies one of us has seen. We talk about politics we both more or less agree on. She tells me about her job.
Underneath the surface, there are parts of myself that go unacknowledged. So long as I was working, any conversation about my finances would awkwardly avoid where that money came from. There are things about my life and my past that I know my mom can’t bear to hear.
I work to accept our relationship for what it is. Meanwhile, I’ve found other places to express my truth and sort through my past, including but not limited to my past as a sex worker. At 27, I went to rehab and got sober. I learned to share honestly at 12-step meetings and in therapy. And I became a writer.