A Tiny Kingdom’s Worldwide Warrior

With her country in crisis and her father in prison, a twenty-six-year-old exile becomes the international face of Bahrain’s restive uprising.

On August 8, 2013, Maryam Al-Khawaja walked up to a check-in counter at London’s Heathrow airport to pick up her ticket home. The woman who put Al-Khawaja’s information into the computer gave a confused look before informing her that she was not allowed to board the flight to her native country of Bahrain.

The government of the small, Persian Gulf island had contacted the airline and requested that Al-Khawaja not be allowed on this — or any other — flight to the country. The airline had no choice but to comply.

In that moment, at the age of twenty-six, Al-Khawaja officially became an exile. But her life had been heading in that direction for a long time. Born into a family of activists, the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011 thrust Al-Khawaja into the role of high-profile human rights defender. Now, as the Bahraini government has cracked down on dissidents, she can no longer return home.

For the three years since protests began in Bahrain, as the regime tortured and imprisoned members of her family and other activists, Al-Khawaja has been trying to raise awareness in the international community about the human rights abuses perpetrated by her government. Composed and confident, with quick, intelligent eyes that convey an energetic, undeterred dedication to her work, Al-Khawaja has unwittingly been preparing for this role her whole life.

*   *   *

Bahrain is tucked like a small pearl in the gulf between Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the peninsular nation of Qatar. The island has a long history of protest for expanded civil and political rights, stretching back to at least the 1930s. At that time, Bahrain was a British protectorate and protesters were demanding greater autonomy and self-governance.

Maryam Al-Khawaja at work at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. (Photo by Ditte Lysgaard Holm)
Maryam Al-Khawaja at work at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. (Photo by Ditte Lysgaard Holm)

Even as the ruling Al-Khalifa family, which has governed the island for over 200 years, gained more independence from Britain, largely secular and nationalist opposition movements continued to call for greater popular representation in the government. The Al-Khalifa regime has responded to each successive round of unrest with campaigns of arrest and by driving opposition leaders into exile.

Al-Khawaja was born into this ebb and flow of protest and oppression. Her parents, both activists, met in London, where they had fled from a government crackdown in the early 1980s. The couple then briefly relocated to Syria, where Maryam Al-Khawaja, one of four daughters, was born in 1987. With prospects of returning to Bahrain slim and no path to citizenship in Syria, Al-Khawaja’s parents decided to seek political asylum in Denmark in 1991.

Growing up in Denmark, Maryam Al-Khawaja’s life revolved around a tight-knit community of Bahraini families who relocated to the country to avoid political persecution. “We grew up like brothers and sisters in the community,” she says.

The adults intentionally raised the younger generation with an awareness of their Bahraini identity. “Every Saturday we had the Bahrain Danish club,” Al-Khawaja recalls. “It was mandatory.” Al-Khawaja and the other children learned patriotic songs, put on plays with national themes, and were introduced to the culture of a country most had never seen. “We hated it when we were kids, but now I’m really glad they did that,” Al-Khawaja says.

Al-Khawaja’s parents never intended to stay in Denmark. Despite the financial burden, they sent her to an English language international school because having a command of English would be more helpful than Danish once the family returned to Bahrain. They also made sure she took Arabic classes outside of school so she would be able to communicate in her native language.

Maryam Al-Khawaja's father Abdulhadi at a pro-Democracy protest in Bahrain. (Photo: BCHR / Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Maryam Al-Khawaja’s father Abdulhadi at a pro-Democracy protest in Bahrain. (Photo: BCHR / Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Because her life revolved around the Bahraini community and international school, Al-Khawaja never really connected with the Danish social world. “I grew up in Denmark for twelve years,” she says, but “I never really had any Danish friends.”

She was also steeped in her parents’ activist tradition. “We were constantly told by my parents that if you see an injustice and you don’t do anything about it, then there is something missing in your own humanity and with your faith,”Al-Khawaja says.

Her father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, continued to be politically active during the family’s time in Bahrain. A lithe and tirelessly optimistic man, Abdulhadi co-founded the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which is focused on the rights of political prisoners, and organized demonstrations to draw international attention to the issue. Al-Khawaja grew up attending these protests, and the ethics of human rights permeated the family’s life.

“My father told me one thing,” Al-Khawaja says, “that you either stand for human rights everywhere or not at all.”

*   *   *

In 2001 a new leader, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, ascended to power following the death of his father. The beginning of his rule marked a moment of hope for reform.

The National Action Charter (NAC), a document that laid out a vision for political, judicial and economic reform, encapsulated the sense of optimism brought by Hamad’s rule. Almost ninety percent of eligible voters in Bahrain cast ballots in a popular referendum on the NAC, with ninety-eight percent of those voters supporting its adoption. Hamad’s government repealed the State Security Law, which had, since 1975, allowed for the imprisonment of individuals for up to three years without trial. The government also pardoned a number of political prisoners and invited activists and political leaders to return from exile. After two decades, Al-Khawaja’s mother and father were finally able to return home with their daughters, who had never seen the island.

“We had such a sense of culture shock going to Bahrain,” Al-Khawaja, who was fourteen at the time, recalls. Raised as a Bahraini, Al-Khawaja always felt like an outsider in Denmark, and thought returning to Bahrain would make her feel a sense of belonging. “I moved to Bahrain and suddenly everyone in my high school called me the Dane,” she says. She realized shortly after returning that, as she now puts it, “even if I live in Bahrain, even if I come from the same background, people in Bahrain are never going to see me as completely belonging.”

“To be very honest, I didn’t like Bahrain,” Al-Khawaja continues. “I didn’t want to live there. I was looking for the first opportunity to leave. I blamed my parents for moving us there. I just wanted to go back to Denmark.”

She was also frustrated by the political attitudes of the people she encountered in Bahrain. Because the community she grew up in consisted of political dissidents, Al-Khawaja assumed she would be moving to a country of revolutionaries. Instead, she says, “I went back to a country where most people were apolitical and did not want to talk about politics or human rights.”

Her father continued to be politically active, co-founding the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), an umbrella organization that trained marginalized torture survivors, women and migrant workers to advocate for themselves, and organized protests to raise the profile of human rights issues on the island.

In the beginning, Al-Khawaja attended her father’s protests. “I saw how it was always no more than twenty people,” she says. “The police would come and beat the crap out of them and then they would either get thrown in prison for a night or let go.”

She also saw that most people viewed her father as a troublemaker, and as a result she became one of his biggest critics. “I used to tell my dad there’s actually no point in what you are doing,” she recalls. “’How can you change a society, how can you change a country, if the society doesn’t want to change?’”

For a time, Maryam Al-Khawaja turned her back on the activist tradition of her family. She got a job at The Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park and then worked as a teacher while attending university. “I had a convertible car, and my biggest worry was which restaurant were my friends and I going to in the evening,” she says.

“I was disenchanted with, specifically, what my dad was doing,” Al-Khawaja explains. “As for human rights in general, I never lost interest.”

Before too long, the force of events beyond her control would push Al-Khawaja back into the world of activism.

*   *   *

In the summer of 2010, Al-Khawaja sat down for a job interview. She had recently returned to Bahrain after spending a year in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and was on the hunt for a job that would pay enough to buy a sports car and spend time at nice restaurants with her friends. She had sent out applications to every position she could find and only heard back from one company.

At the beginning of the interview, the manager looked at Al-Khawaja’s name on her resume and then at her over the top of the paper. He asked, “Isn’t your dad in and out of prison?” To which, Al-Khawaja truthfully answered, “Yes.” The manager replied, “I hope you are not expecting too many callbacks.” And the interview ended.

“I couldn’t find a job,” Al-Khawaja says. So, she started volunteering with the BCHR, which was looking for someone with strong English skills to be the organization’s liaison to the international human rights community.

By 2010, the optimism and goodwill surrounding the early years of Hamad’s rule had long since faded. One year to the day after the referendum on the NAC, Hamad had declared Bahrain a kingdom by royal decree, making himself king. He then introduced a new constitution that included a bicameral National Assembly, as had been agreed upon in the NAC. However, the power to enact legislation was vested in the upper house, whose members are appointed by the king. Critics lamented that the National Assembly had very little real authority and the king could still govern with almost no counterbalance to his power. Opposition parties grew increasingly frustrated and distrustful of the government.

By the fall of 2010, according to veteran Middle East analyst and George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, “the regime had become increasingly intolerant, arresting bloggers and journalists and various activists on trumped-up and widely disbelieved charges.”

At the BCHR, Maryam Al-Khawaja’s primary role was sending information about the arrest, detention and torture of activists, journalists and other opposition voices to international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These activities quickly placed her on the Bahraini government’s radar. Numerous activists who had been detained and interrogated told her they had been questioned about her role with the BCHR.

“Usually, people who have their names brought up repeatedly during interrogations are the next targets for arrest,” Al-Khawaja explains. “So, within twenty-four hours I packed my bags and I left Bahrain.”

Al-Khawaja moved to London to work as the head of the BCHR’s international office. The move was calculated so that the organization would have a voice on the outside as the crackdown on dissent in Bahrain intensified.

The quick succession of events, from being blacklisted for employment because of her father’s political activity to self-imposed exile to avoid arrest, solidified her return to the world of human rights.

“In my mind, I never planned to become a human rights defender,” she says. “It was the government that pushed me towards it.”

*    *   *

In January 2011, when protests rippled across the Middle East, Al-Khawaja was still in London. The events of the Arab Spring inspired activists in Bahrain to begin using social media to organize demonstrations calling for the regime to make good on the reforms it promised in 2001. The activists chose February 14, the ten-year anniversary of the NAC, as the date for the protests to begin.

Pro-democracy protestor in the streets of Bahrain.  (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)
Pro-democracy protestor in the streets of Bahrain.  (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)

Al-Khawaja contributed to the calls for protest from abroad, but was not overly optimistic about their success. “I didn’t think it was going to happen,” she says. “I thought twenty people would show up, get beaten and go home, and that would be the end of it.”

Still, she returned to Bahrain around the first week of February. “I knew I was going at the risk of being arrested,” she explains, “but I didn’t care. I wanted to make sure that if anything happened, I was there.”

When February 14 arrived, protesters gathered across Bahrain. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a task force created by the king to investigate the events of February and March 2011, approximately 6,000 people took part in protests on the first day.

In the streets, the people chanted slogans calling for reform. The unifying cry of the Arab Spring, “The people want to overthrow the regime,” became, “The people want to reform the regime.”

The protesters were very careful with their message. The ruling Al-Khalifa family is Sunni Muslim, and the majority Shia population claims it has suffered from systematic discrimination over decades of Al Khalifa rule. While the anti-regime protestors’ demands have never been sectarian, according to Cambridge University research fellow and author of “Sectarian Gulf,” Toby Matthiesen, the Bahraini government, like others in the region, has stoked sectarian fears to divide and control the population over the years. Sensitive to the possibility of the demonstrations being viewed as sectarian, the protesters expressed their grievances in the language of civil, political and human rights. Chants such as “No Sunni, no Shia, national unity!” could be heard along with calls for the government to respect the human rights of its citizens.

Eventually, police moved in to disperse the protesters. During the ensuing confrontation, officers shot a man, Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, in the back. He died en route to the hospital.

“I personally saw him at the hospital. I can still close my eyes and see him right in front of me,” Al-Khawaja says, her face growing serious. “He was shot in the back with pellets while running away. The government says the police killed him in self-defense. It can never be self-defense if they are shot in the back.”

Early the next morning Al-Khawaja returned to the hospital with her father and sisters to take part in Mushaima’s funeral procession, consisting of around one thousand people. Government and protester reports of what happened next differ, but when the procession exited from the gates of the morgue, another confrontation broke out between marchers and the police.

After the confrontation, the funeral procession regrouped to bring Mushaima’s body for burial. It was at the cemetery that mourners received the news that another man, Fadi Salman Al-Matrouk, had died after being hit in the back at close range by a police shotgun blast. The funeral procession morphed into a political protest fueled by anger over the deaths. The marchers headed to the Pearl Roundabout, an iconic traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, where they set up camp and settled in.

Protestors in Bahrain. (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)
Protestors in Bahrain. (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)

On February 16, thousands more Bahrainis joined the demonstrations as anger spread over the government’s heavy-handed response. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report, the participants in the protests represented “a cross-section of Bahraini society.”

That night, in the early hours of February 17, Al-Khawaja was at the Pearl Roundabout with about two thousand others. A rumor spread around the encampment that the police were coming to disperse the protesters. “And then I saw those flashing lights…and they started shooting without warning,” Al-Khawaja says.

Four protesters were killed and hundreds of others were wounded.

“It was horrifying what happened that night,” Al-Khawaja recalls. “I thought that it is impossible, after what I witnessed, that there is anyone who is going to have to guts to go back on the streets.”

But the government’s crackdown only increased public outrage and tens of thousands took to the streets to voice their frustration. The regime’s offer to initiate a national dialogue on reform seemed like too little too late after the events of the first three days of the protests. “Something had changed,” Al-Khawaja says.

People had lost the fear that had kept them silent — the silence that so frustrated Al-Khawaja when she first returned to the island, the fear she had mistaken for apathy. “I felt so ashamed for judging people when I did not understand why they were the way they were,” Al-Khawaja explains. “It was when people were attacked while they were sleeping, and I saw people get shot in front of me, and I felt that fear of being chased, of being wanted, that I understood.”

“It took the revolution to teach me that I do belong to Bahrain. I do respect people in Bahrain. It is a society I am very proud to be a part of,” she continues. “It’s after the revolution that Bahraini people started to see me as much more of a Bahraini than a Dane.”

Al-Khawaja’s newfound embrace of her home occurred under the pressure of the government’s continued crackdown. The more violent it became, the more protesters came out onto the streets. This cycle of repression and protest persisted for the remainder of February and into March, reaching several crescendos with demonstrations swelling to an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 participants — in a country with a native population of only around six hundred thousand.

Al-Khawaja was involved during every step of the protests. As the number of high-profile demonstrators being arrested and imprisoned grew, her family became increasingly concerned for her safety. Around the end of February, she received an invitation to testify at the United Nations Human Rights Council about the abuses during the government’s crackdown.

Protesters left signs, many reading "leave" or "the people demand the removal of the regime," on the bushes outside a government building in Bahrain. (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)
Protesters left signs, many reading “leave” or “the people demand the removal of the regime,” on the bushes outside a government building in Bahrain. (Photo: flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/)

“My first response was, ‘Hell no,’” Al-Khawaja says. “With everything that is going on, there is no way I’m going to leave.”

Then her father sat her down and told her, “In a revolution everybody plays a different role. There are only so many people who are going to be on the outside making sure that the people who are being silenced in Bahrain are actually being heard. That’s a responsibility that has to fall on your shoulders.”

Her strong command of English and the connections she had built in the international human rights community during her time in London made her a natural fit to be a voice for the Bahraini revolution to the outside world. Ultimately, she decided to give testimony in Geneva and the United States, planning to return to Bahrain about two weeks later.

Al-Khawaja bought a round-trip ticket and left Bahrain at the beginning of March. “I left with a very small suitcase,” she says, “because I was like, ‘I’m going back, no matter what.’”

*   *   *

During the two weeks of Al-Khawaja’s trip, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic union of Arab Persian Gulf states, invoked its collective security agreement for the first time, at the request of King Hamad.

On March 14, one month after the uprising began, around 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 more from the United Arab Emirates rolled across the causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi’s Eastern Province. The following day King Hamad declared a three-month period of martial law. Marc Lynch described the crackdown that ensued, symbolized by the sacking of the protest camp at the Pearl Roundabout, as “one of the most comprehensive, brutal, and oppressive of any in the region.”

“Once Saudi came in, I knew that going back means getting arrested on the spot and more than likely tortured,” Al-Khawaja says. Her fears were confirmed a week later when her uncle was violently arrested.

Then, on April 3, her father was arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the monarchy. In a trial described as grossly unfair by human rights groups, he was sentenced to life in prison. During his imprisonment, human rights groups say that Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been subjected to torture and sexual assault.

As the government cracked down on her family members and other protestors in Bahrain, Al-Khawaja spent the remainder of 2011 watching, powerless, outside the country and living out of her suitcase. As the head of foreign affairs for the BCHR, she accepted every invitation to speak at universities, human rights organizations or other events and mostly lived in hotels. “I tried to play as big of a role as I could in making sure people didn’t forget what was happening,” she says.

Maryam Al-Khawaja's sister Zainab is among several of her family members who were beaten and arrested during protests in 2011. (Photo: Picture Conor McCabe © copyright 2011)
Maryam Al-Khawaja’s sister Zainab is among several of her family members who were beaten and arrested during protests in 2011. (Photo: Picture Conor McCabe © copyright 2011)

By January 2012, the stress of following events in Bahrain from afar and her transient lifestyle took their toll on Al-Khawaja, who became very sick. She also realized that it would probably take a long time for the political situation to improve in Bahrain. In February, she decided to move back to Denmark so she would have a home base from which to continue her advocacy efforts.

Then, in July 2012, the president of the BCHR, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison on various charges related to his role in ongoing protests. He was released from prison at the end of May. Al-Khawaja took over his position for the duration of his time in jail.

As part of her role, Al-Khawaja has spent the past three years talking to government officials in the United States about the human rights situation. For years, the United States has had a very close relationship with the government of Bahrain. The island is home to the United States Fifth Fleet, with more than six thousand American military personnel stationed there. As such, it has been a major part of America’s strategy, coordinated with other Gulf allies, to contain Iran, explains Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Bahrain is also a major purchaser of American military technology, from weapons to aircrafts and tanks, and the first GCC country to establish a free-trade agreement with the United States.

Initially, the United States sent signals to the protesters in Bahrain that it supported the movement to reform the government. In a major speech about the Arab Spring in May 2011, President Obama said, “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” Specifically about Bahrain, he added, “Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens…You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue.”

“The Bahrainis were really looking to the U.S. in the spring of 2011,” Bockenfeld says. “They really thought that they were on their side because we said we would be.” Instead, according to Bockenfeld, the U.S. has “never really been willing to use any leverage to push the Bahrainis for the reform they would like to see.”

For her part, “I went from somewhat optimistic to completely pessimistic about what role the U.S. could play,” says Al-Khawaja.

After three years of using non-violent means and being met by violent repression without gaining tangible international support, the Bahraini opposition runs the risk of becoming radicalized. Although it has not happened yet, Toby Matthiesen says the regime’s response to the protests is fueling a nightmare scenario where the opposition fractures along sectarian lines, seeks support from Iran and moves away from non-violence. “It’s dangerous, and it’s not getting any better,” he adds.

*   *   *

The three-plus years since February 14, 2011, have been emotionally trying for Al-Khawaja. Denmark is still her home base, but she spends much of her time traveling to the United States and around Europe speaking about the human rights situation in Bahrain to anyone who will listen. While living in exile, she had to learn the details over the phone of how her father was beaten unconscious in front of her family when he was arrested. She also watched a YouTube video of her older sister, Zainab, being beaten and arrested.

“I felt like it was my responsibility to protect my family and that I failed,” Al-Khawaja says. “Even though that is not realistic and even though logically that doesn’t make any sense, you feel like you should’ve been there and you should have done something to stop that.”

“It’s really difficult seeing where we are headed right now,” Al-Khawaja says. “It’s a lot easier to be pessimistic than optimistic.

Maryam Al-Khawaja in Copenhagen, June 2014. (Photo by Ditte Lysgaard Holm)
Maryam Al-Khawaja in Copenhagen, June 2014. (Photo by Ditte Lysgaard Holm)

“You work day and night and you do what you can,” she continues, her shoulders slumping slightly as a small crack opens in her otherwise composed and energetic persona. “At the end of the day, there’s so few people that will actually listen.”

Al-Khawaja draws hope and strength from the protesters still on the ground in Bahrain. “Against all odds they’ve continued,” she says. “They’ve continued going out to the streets. They’ve continued getting shot at and killed, and they’ll continue tomorrow as well.”

She feels a sense of responsibility to the many people who approach her looking for help. “I can’t explain the number of mothers or sisters who call me or message me and think that I can get their sons out of prison or that I can stop them from being tortured,” she says. “I’ll do everything I can, but I can’t stop the torture.”

She is also motivated by a desire to see some measure of justice for the abuses she has witnessed. “Who is going to bring back the time that they lost?” she asks of the protesters imprisoned in Bahrain. “The fact that their father died when they were in prison. Who is going to bring back the fact that they weren’t able to say goodbye to their father before he died? Who is going to bring back the three years that this kid lost from high school? Who is going to take away the memories of the torture they experienced?”

“These are things that cannot be compensated,” she continues. “There are some things that will just never go away. The government can never make up for some of the mistakes they’ve made.”

At present, there is no end in sight for Al-Khawaja’s work as a Bahraini human rights defender, just as there is no end in sight for the unrest on the island. In the eight months following the beginning of the demonstrations, the Bahraini government put between 1,300 and 1,500 protesters behind bars. In the years that have followed, the government has continued to imprison many of the most prominent human rights activists and opposition voices. Yet the protests continue on an almost daily basis.

Despite the intractability and gravity of the situation, Al-Khawaja draws solace and strength from the words of her father, who told her, “If you are going to be a human rights defender, don’t do what you do because you think it’s going to result in something tomorrow. It might not even result in change in your lifetime. You do what you do because it is the right thing to do, whether it brings that wanted result or not.”

*   *   *

Eric Reidy is a freelance journalist writing about the Middle East. His work covers topics ranging from human rights and environmental issues to entrepreneurship and culture. Follow him on Twitter:@eric_reidy

These Gender-Nonconforming People Are Building a Safe Haven on an Appalachian Farm

Growing their own food and winning over their neighbors, they feel safer in rural West Virginia than they ever did in the big city.

Up the narrow, winding roads where the Appalachian Mountains cut through West Virginia, the countryside is dotted with squat one-story homes. Some are decorated with American flags and covered in slabs of cheap plywood; other homes are sturdier buildings painted with delicate country motifs. In each yard, animals wander freely, and golden sunlight bounces off the purple wildflowers and rolling meadows.

One small town here, a settlement established in the 1800s, has a Walmart, a gas station, a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and a handful of churches. Down a forked road, half an hour outside town, the pavement turns to gravel and the landscape changes to deep forest. It’s here that Honeybee Williams’ new home comes into view, its sharp, modern angles contrasting with the softness of the countryside and her surrounding 65-acre-farm. On a summer afternoon, Williams, a 26-year-old transgender woman from Maryland, sits at a long, rectangular table in the garden in front of her new home, wearing a lacy pink dress and braiding a piece of grass, her dirty blonde hair tucked into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

Williams and a small group of young transgender people are working to transform this Appalachian community, with its dwindling population and flailing economy, into a place where LGBTQ people can rebuild local ecosystems and fight for environmental justice and sustainability.

To some, this region, where trees outnumber people, might seem like a strange choice for a group of marginalized people looking for community and safety. Residents of Appalachia have a reputation for being wary of outsiders, and much of the region is politically and socially conservative. But Williams and the rest of the farm’s residents (whose names have been changed here to protect them from the violence, harassment, and discrimination transgender people regularly face), say Appalachia’s open spaces and sparse population offer an opportunity for LGBTQ people who feel isolated and alone.

* * *

It started with a death. Last year, when a local artist died, and left the 65-acre property and home he built to the West Virginia Regional Land Trust, the Trust’s board decided to give it to a group of people aiming to create an intentional community. The Trust launched a call for proposals and asked applicants to submit a one-page description of what they would do with the land. Williams, along with Sara Smith, an Indian-American transgender woman from Detroit, and Jamie Taylor, a gender-neutral Native American from North Carolina, both of whom are in their late twenties, jumped at the opportunity. Their six-page proposal included a five-year plan, a resource assessment, a fundraising campaign to build new infrastructure on the property, and a detailed framework for developing an intentional community for LGBTQ people with a particular emphasis on people of color.

Williams and her boyfriend, Heron, were living in their car with their two dogs when they heard about the call for proposals. Heron is 24 years old and grew up in rural Maine. In his free time he plays the fiddle, collects rocks, and classifies different types of moss. Today he lives with Williams on the farm and enjoys bluegrass music, whittling, and herb farming.

Honeybee Williams.

After facing constant harassment in big cities for the way she looked and dressed, Williams chose to drive up and down the East Coast doing seasonal work and taking on odd jobs, like picking blueberries in Maine or helping a friend with a construction project. For her, moving to Appalachia was a chance to have a fresh start and a permanent home again.

“I thought, this is the one chance I’m going to get,” Williams remembers. “I wanted to show these people who don’t know me that they could give this land to these trans kids and expect that we would take care of the place.”

Since then, the group has learned the history of West Virginia and how the economy has changed Appalachia’s landscape. They’ve made it their mission to remove the invasive plant autumn olive from their property, and they’ve started to forge relationships with their neighbors. The group has gotten particularly close with one of the women on the Trust’s board, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement (a group of autonomous Catholic communities) who moved to Appalachia several decades ago. Williams, Smith, and Taylor occasionally give tours of the area to groups of Catholic students visiting Appalachia to learn about conservation. One of their main goals is to promote community resiliency in the region, which has been impacted by flooding and pollution and has lost many of its traditional farming practices.

“This hollow used to produce so much of its food, and people have gotten away from those ways,” says Williams, as she sits in the property’s serene garden, surrounded by edible plants. “Community resiliency is about us being in it together and building something sustainable for generations to come. We want to live in a place where we can make connections with our neighbors, where we can grow grains that we know are going to grow in this region.”

The property contains the small house where the group lives, several gardens for growing vegetables, fields of grass the residents hope to convert into farmland, a pen where their 14 ducks live, and acres of wooded hills. Deep in the woods is a dilapidated WWII-era cabin and a dried-up ditch where a small pond used to be. The group lives in quiet intimacy on the property, telling jokes and engaging in long conversations when they want company, or writing, playing music, gardening, and doing housework in solitude. Each person uses their unique talents to turn the place into a home.

Williams and her boyfriend were the first people to move onto the land, and she has taken a lead role in building and mending the house. Arriving in December of 2016, her first major project was to fix their only source of heating, a stove that was falling apart after years of disuse. It was snowing on the day she moved in, and Williams surveyed the wood stove with its missing stovepipe.

“I was like, I’m going to the hardware store and buying a stovepipe and attaching it to the roof so we don’t freeze,” she says, laughing.

Williams, Smith and Taylor launch into a jovial assessment of her handiwork, giggling as they point to the spots where the stovepipe jutting from their roof is still lopsided.

Smith is a slender, 28-year-old transgender woman of Indian descent. Her sleek black hair is fasted in a ponytail that hangs coquettishly at the side of her head, and she is wearing a loose turquoise shirt and long black maxi skirt decorated with sequins. She and Taylor tease Williams, but Williams appears confident about her work.

Taylor looks over the garden.

“I knew the stovepipe had to be higher than the roof to create a draw and pull all of the air out,” she explains. “I’m the builder, I’ve never grown a tomato in my life, you can’t expect me to keep anything alive, but I can fix a window and put in a door, I can put up a stovepipe or dig a hole.”

The group is now focusing on making the property as hospitable as possible so other people will be tempted to join them here. Williams constructed a homemade toilet from a deep hole in the ground and a plastic bucket with a toilet seat fastened on top. Slabs of wood surrounding the toilet offer a semblance of privacy. But the property has no electricity for now, and there are wild animals. One day, Williams was sitting in a wheelbarrow reading a book when a bobcat walked down the road. Her boyfriend was almost attacked by a bobcat when he was singing in the garden another day; Williams is convinced that his subpar singing voice was what attracted the beast. The area is also known to have mountain lions, and bears and deer regularly visit the property’s garden to eat the kale and squash.

* * *

For Williams, the threat of wild animals is far less perilous than the threat she faced from other humans before moving to Appalachia. When she lived in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C., Williams was physically threatened and harassed more times than she can count. All of the farm’s inhabitants share memories of the trauma and discrimination they faced in more populated urban centers as a result of their gender identity. Everyone living at the farm had trouble talking about their gender with their families, were physically attacked or threatened while living in cities, and faced persistent homelessness. In D.C. and Baltimore, Williams and her friends were regularly grabbed or groped by passing cyclists, and people often screamed insults at them from passing cars. Street harassment was an everyday occurrence.

Last year, at least 23 transgender people died in the United States due to violence, the highest number ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The group also reports that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia often deprive these women of employment, housing and healthcare, making them especially vulnerable.

Williams was working as a labor organizer in Baltimore when she decided to go “full-time,” a term for when transgender people begin to represent their true gender identity all of the time. The shift was incremental. First, she started wearing dresses every day, then she began fixing her eyebrows, wearing makeup, and growing her hair long. Now her dirty blonde hair reaches past her shoulders. But this transition was far from easy. She says the community organizers she worked with, people who claimed to be radical and progressive, were not comfortable interacting with and supporting transgender people.

“I was facing huge amounts of street harassment and violence that I’d never experienced before,” says Williams, remembering the time when she began identifying as a woman. “Doing it sometimes in controlled environments is different from doing it every day and needing to get on this bus and go to work.”

As time went on, her mental health began to deteriorate. Terrified of being attacked, she stopped leaving the house and seeing her friends. When she did go out, she carried a baton for self-defense. Williams was yelled at, catcalled, and harassed every day on the streets of Baltimore, and she was physically attacked so many times she was sure one day someone would kill her.

She feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia. The fact that she knows all of her neighbors, and that there aren’t very many of them, is preferable to being stared and yelled at by strangers in the city each day. There are several families living up the gravel road near their property, a man who lives alone, and one gay man who lives in the town and works at a restaurant. The group has made contact with all of them with varying degrees of success, but they spend most of their time at home working on the property. One of the farm’s neighbors, another man who lives by himself, brings them fresh eggs and tomatoes sometimes.

“In the city you can have the anonymity to be any terrible human being that you want to be without any repercussion, but here you know who everyone is,” she says. “Everyone who has a Confederate flag out here, we know their names, we interact with them on a regular basis. There is a sense of community that you don’t have in the city.”

Smith wanders over to the table carrying a plate of salad greens freshly picked from the garden. The array of herbs and leaves is richer and tastier than the produce found in most supermarkets.

“Oh, it’s a friendly little kale bug,” she coos, picking the insect off of the leaf and flicking it onto the ground. A few minutes later she lobs a piece of apple into the nearby compost pile.

“There is kale, there is something called shiso, which is strongly antibacterial, there is amaranth, chickweed, arugula, buckwheat, so it’s half grown and half wild… I can talk for hours about microgreens,” she continues, gesturing towards the salad on her plate. “You should try shiso, it’s like basil meets mint.”

Smith is the group’s permaculture expert. She began learning about farming after leaving her job as an engineer with an automobile company in Michigan when she was in her early twenties. Her decision to leave home was fueled by the feeling that she couldn’t fully express herself with her family and co-workers. Her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. from India a few years before her birth, had a hard time accepting that their child was transgender.

“My dad grew up in the 1980s in India and everyone was really fearful of AIDS, so I think there was a lot of propaganda against gay men and how they are evil; although, if you look back in Hinduism there is actually a tradition of gender non-conforming people, and you can find it in the scriptures that being trans is powerful,” she says, adjusting her flowing black skirt with a manicured hand.

Smith’s parents were angry when she explained her gender identity to them. They yelled and screamed and mentioned that she played with boys’ toys as a child.

After leaving home and quitting her job, she bounced between farming projects in New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico and California for a few years, and eventually began working for a solar energy company in D.C. It was there that she connected with Williams and several of the farm’s other residents. The women were involved in organizing grassroots activities and charity events for the LGBTQ community in Washington. But Smith also experienced violence while living in the city.

“Violence of all kinds comes hand-in-hand with being gender non-conforming. There is a big relationship between violence and gender,” she explains. “I felt pretty unsafe in D.C.”

People regularly threatened Smith’s physical safety, and she had weapons pulled on her on numerous occasions while living in the city. Like Williams, she feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia, but being a person of color in a majority white community has added an extra challenge. When Smith and Williams visited a local government office to request food stamps, Williams, who is white, was given the food stamps right away, while Smith, who is of Indian descent, was asked to prove that she is a citizen. She often has to modify her real name because people don’t know how to pronounce it.

“I’m very aware of being different through multiple layers,” she says. “I told [neighbors] the name of the town where I was born, and they were like, ‘In America?’ I said, yeah, I was born in Detroit, and they were like, ‘Detroit, America?’”

* * *

Today, the group is working to build the relationships of mutual support and trust that are the pillar of Appalachian society. Down the narrow gravel road where they live, they are slowly reaching out to their closest neighbors. Williams, who is a trained medic, has informed the neighbors that their house has Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses a drug overdose.

West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in a country plagued by an opioid epidemic. In 2015, the state’s drug overdose death rate was 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams thinks a big part of the reason so many people die in West Virginia is because they are too far from a hospital when they overdose. Offering Narcan might make people feel awkward at first, but she thinks it’s better in the long run that they know the drug is available nearby.

Despite their efforts, sometimes neighbors can be standoffish. Many aren’t accustomed to having outsiders move in. In the nearest town, the population fell by around seven percent between 2010 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the farm’s isolation can lead to something the group nicknamed the “hollow ramble.”

“We’ll see people in town who we know and we’ll just start rambling on about a lot of stuff people don’t even care about,” explains Jamie Taylor, 28, who met Williams and Smith in Washington D.C. and later joined them in Appalachia.

Taylor, one of five siblings, grew up in an impoverished North Carolina fishing village. As a teenager, they began reading blogs on Tumblr and learning the terminology needed to self-identify as transgender. But when they came out at the age of 15, their religious stepfather attacked them viciously. After leaving North Carolina at the age of 25, Taylor experienced homelessness on numerous occasions.

Honeybee, Sara and Taylor walk through their garden.

Today, Taylor sits basking in the sun at the long rectangular table, wearing jean shorts over their slender legs and a shiny headband to hold back their chin-length blonde hair. Taylor often catches themself talking to the farm’s 14 ducks, and sometimes Taylor even hand-feeds them and cradles them on their lap.

Williams, too, has examples of her hollow ramble.

“The weeds are this tall now, we need to cut the grass, maybe it’ll rain next week, the deer ate my squash, you won’t believe what this duck did, I put a couple of screws in that piece of wood,” she describes, laughing. “And you just ramble and ramble, because other than each other we haven’t seen other human beings in like four days.”

Still, all of the farm’s residents are excited about transforming the community into a safe and sustainable place that can accommodate more LGBTQ people. Smith is especially excited about promoting anti-racism, environmental justice, and justice for transgender people, and she wants the farm to be a place for people to do different iterations of that work without too many rules.

“LGBTQ folks in rural areas don’t have community, but there are issues we can tangibly address by offering residency, among other things,” Smith explains.

In the quiet atmosphere of the garden, surrounded by sorghum and pumpkin plants, the group discusses their numerous projects and plans for collaborative farming and community resiliency. Raising ducks, planting seeds, building beehives, and milling wheat are all on the agenda, as is planting fruit and nut trees.

They temper their excitement about the new project by remembering how much hard work is needed to create a sustainable project that people will be interested in joining.

“Here we have steep hills, but there is a lot of potential to grow a huge percentage of the food we eat,” Williams says as she continues to braid the long piece of grass.

She pauses and looks around.

“This is better than anything else I’ve ever had.”

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.