Inside the War of the Fashion Bloggers

As Fashion Week cracks down on the number of bloggers invited to this once-exclusive event, a veteran pulls back the curtain on a world of web writers gone wild, from screaming matches in the photo pit to selfies with the stars.

The photographers’ pit at New York Fashion Week is a two-feet by three-feet musty trench in front of a few rows of risers. You have to pack in so tightly to accommodate everyone who needs runway pictures that veterans say, “If I can put a fist between you and I, we are too far apart.” It is the pirates crew of the fashion kingdom. Here, the biggest, burliest, most weathered cameramen rule. I am a five-foot-seven female — when I wear six-inch heels. In the pit, I wear clunky boots to protect my toes from being trampled. I’ve dodged screaming matches between photographers, as well as an avalanche of press who lost their footing and went tumbling down on the risers.

Often, to get the shot, I’ve squeezed myself between the legs of another person’s tripod while balancing my Canon EOS 50D camera. There is an unspoken etiquette among the seasoned professionals covering Fashion Week: Don’t block people. Don’t be bitchy. We all know that photographers from Getty Images and Vogue will be let into the pit first, and they will get the prime real estate before the rest of us. We respect that. Then, it’s a mad dash to find a position. Last year, I smuggled individual serving-sized boxes of wine for sipping in the pit and traded them to other shooters to bargain for a better spot.

I am a fashion blogger with a passion for runway photography. In 2010, I walked away from a high-paying corporate job to launch my blog, Ms. Fabulous. I was part of the early wave of fashion bloggers to break into the field, using my industry connections to earn cred. My blogging has led me to being hired as a runway reporter for the embroidery magazine Stitches, and then fashion and digital marketing director of the luxury consignment site Hello La Mode. The latter has landed me on the front page of The New York Times’s Style section and in television interviews on ABC.

Nowadays in the pit, the word “blogger” is spat with disgust.

In recent years, “fashion blogger” has become associated by some designers with the image of a fame-seeking narcissist in possession of dubious writing skills. With platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, you do not even need to write in order to be a blogger. Yet many of these fledgling self-identified fashion bloggers score invites from publicists for fashion shows anyway. In their heyday, fashion bloggers were viewed as mass influencers in style. Some of us added fresh, informed voices to conversations initiated by designers and fashion journalists. Just two years ago, star bloggers were as sought after as celebrities in the front row of Fashion Week, and designers were scrambling to have them wear their products. But the new generation is defined by the selfies taken in front of runways by bloggers trying to cast themselves on reality television shows.

These newbies have made it rough for the rest of us. Earlier this year, IMG, the company that runs Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, made organizational changes to keep out as many fashion bloggers as possible, and instead allow better access for “real” journalists. In a Wall Street Journal article, organizers cited designers’ complaints, and that they wanted to make “invitations once again an exclusive pass for true fashion insiders,” instead of wannabe bloggers and people looking to photobomb the scene. In short, as one fashion insider noted, “It was becoming a zoo.” The fact that IMG now considers “blogger” and “fashion insider” as mutually exclusive exemplifies this new reality. Bloggers have fallen from front-row darlings to outsider villains.

Photos from the fashion world's runways, by Mariana Leung.
Photos from the fashion world’s runways, by Mariana Leung.

I still have my seat at the shows and my place in the pit, but I understand the frustration over such characters as the blogger who showed up in the photo pit in a ball gown prom dress to shoot with her iPhone, or the young man who was asked to leave for wearing a light-up headdress. They distract from the designers who have worked all season to put on a stellar show.

This has made it difficult for those of us who have devoted our lives and careers to fashion. The pros have no reason to try to be “discovered” by wearing crazy outfits. During Fashion Week I look the worst that I have looked all year. Most days, I love a great dress and heels — which would be disastrous in the pit. While covering fashion shows, I sport leggings or jeans, with my hair pulled back in a ponytail. My co-workers are a turtle and a pelican (a folding stool and camera case). Like other serious bloggers, I just want to cover the industry, not make a mockery of it.

* * *

I have been in love with fashion for as long as I can remember. I’ve sketched it, I’ve designed it, I’ve even sung about it in an ill-conceived number from my high school musical. I grew up watching Jeanne Beker, the Canadian host of “FashionTelevision,” and reading Amy Spindler in The New York Times. They made me want to be a part of the fashion world.

I attended my first fashion show while volunteering for the Council of Fashion Designers of America as a student at Parsons School of Design. It was 1994, the first time a central location for fashion designers to present was attempted at the risky location of Bryant Park.

My first full-time job out of fashion school was designing lingerie for a sleepwear company. Next I created embroidery for designers like Armani, as well as embellishments and fabric manipulation — like making origami shapes and applying them to a piece of clothing, or taking sequins and rolling over them with a chair, burning and melting them, until they became an interesting pattern. I used film negatives or even bubble wrap as applications for dresses. For Oscar de la Renta, I spray-painted patterns onto sheets of sequins. For Vera Wang, I created beaded scale designs for a Godzilla look. The job took me to Milan and Paris.

But I was living in a crappy studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen before it became trendy, and I wasn’t making much money. I ended up taking higher-paying, less artistic jobs at corporate apparel companies whose survival was dictated by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. I spent six years at a publicly traded company, where we crunched out loose-fitting sports shirts and printed tees that varied little season after season. The president’s idea of boosting morale after layoffs was to tell remaining employees that they should be grateful to work indoors with air conditioning.

I wasn’t happy. I knew more layoffs were coming. I was used to working through the midnight hour in factories. After eighteen-hour days leading up to Fashion Week, I had forgotten the joy of attending a show as a guest.

In my online job searches, I came across an ad seeking website contributors to a handbag blog called The Purse Page. I had always been curious about writing, and this was an opportunity to cover about a topic I enjoyed, on my own schedule. I made a little money on the side and it opened up a whole new world of social media and fashion publishing I barely knew existed. This was in 2006, when the only people I knew on Facebook were my teenage cousins. There were only a handful of fashion blogs. Twitter had just been born, and none of the big fashion brands had a major presence on it yet.

With The Purse Page, I learned how to use the blogging platform and general principles of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I learned that the structure of a blog post was very different from traditional news or the editorials I was used to reading. Being paid to pontificate about my favorite designer handbag was enjoyable. I had forgotten work could be fun. I requested access to designers’ showrooms so I could have early opportunities to review their purse collections for the blog. The designers granted my requests.

I started my own site on Blogger in 2008 to write about designers whom I actually admire — real style makers like Colleen Atwood and Byron Lars, whose work is vastly different from the brands I worked on day to day. I contacted many of those designers and interviewed them about their art. I took myself to museum exhibits and followed culture that inspired design. Writing my own blog helped me rediscover why I was passionate about fashion to begin with.

I finally made the decision to leave my corporate job in 2010. On my last day, I walked out of my Midtown Manhattan office building on 57th Street and went straight over to the BlogHer Conference at the Hilton on 54th. It was one of the first times I networked with other professional bloggers. Most were mommy bloggers, which is one of the most powerful Internet groups out there. Others wrote about politics, lifestyle, food and health. Only a few wrote about fashion. I left feeling excited about all of the possibilities this industry held.

In between shows at Fashion Week, I learned about Tweet-ups, intimate events that drew fashion bloggers together with stylish celebrities. Alison Brie of “Mad Men” would discuss vintage fashion and AnnaSophia Robb chatted about her wardrobe on “The Carrie Diaries” while my fellow bloggers and I asked questions, then tweeted the answers to our followers. Public relations people were beginning to understand the power of the blogger.

As my blog grew, brands like Louis Vuitton started to reach out to me. When requests for sponsored campaigns, like a series for Rock & Republic, came my way, I also learned that my blog could be a business.

I learned how to approach designers for invitations to their fashion shows by providing clips and explaining that I strove to offer a more in-depth look at their collections than a traditional publication might. I explained how I drew upon my love of fashion and my history in the industry to describe why it inspires me. I documented the details of each fashion show and charged myself with the job of showing the craft behind designers’ labels.

In addition to words, I embraced the fact that fashion blogging is a visual medium. Taking blurry photos from my seat with a phone did not get my story’s point across. I did not want to use the same images as everyone else, so I earned my press credentials and embedded myself inside the photographers’ pit.

What the newcomer bloggers don’t realize is that many of the original bloggers who became “stars” were well established in their fields prior to launching their blogs. I came in from the design side, but many of the bloggers I met were journalists who had suffered when magazines and newspapers were cutting staff. Personal style blogger Susie Lau of Style Bubble and street-style pioneer Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist were both working editors before their blogs became their full-time jobs.

These bloggers would never have made the mistake that some rookies have made. Everyone who understands Fashion Week’s history would recognize legendary New York style icon Iris Apfel, long known for her quirky personal style (celebrated in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit), her work as interior designer to nine presidents, and for always sitting in the front row. But when a clueless blogger wrote, “Why is this old lady in the front row?” you could hear a collective gasp among the fashion elite.

It is no secret that people who write about fashion are often showered with designer wardrobes or gifts. What I lost in income from quitting my corporate job, I made up for partly in perks. Sure, I have more hair products than hair. Generous designers serve as enablers to my handbag addiction. So it might not be a surprise that budding fashion bloggers dreamed it would be their ticket to a modeling contract, fame, fortune and a jet-setting lifestyle. What they do not count on are the many hours of research, marketing, networking and passionate dedication it takes before seeing a return on your efforts. The majority of working fashion bloggers are not starring in million-dollar campaigns or reality shows, and never will.

New bloggers constantly ask me how they can get freebies from brands. Sadly, no one has ever asked me how they could improve the quality of their writing or site design.

There is a flipside to the business, like when you explain to others that part of the way you pay your bills is by painting flowers on your nails and posting images of it on the Internet. With the exception of my tutu-wearing niece, I can assure you that this impresses no one at a family reunion full of doctors and attorneys.

I have to remind people who look down on fashion as a shallow or exploitive endeavor that the apparel industry provides more jobs and a better quality of life for people in developing countries than protests or finance lawyers ever will.

The author, far center, in the Fashion Week photographers' pit.
The author, far center, in the Fashion Week photographers’ pit.

Recently, IMG made it clear that press credentials would be very much scrutinized. Unless a blogger can show an assignment letter from an established publication, he or she is not receiving an invite. This has led to the declaration from traditional media that fashion blogging is dead. This does not affect me personally. I already have longstanding relationships with many of the designers I write about. They trust that I research and know how to tell their story. The same applies for the other established bloggers who care about what they write.

I have never regretted leaving my old job, even though I was earning more money then. True quality of life is about waking up excited by what you will be doing that day. As long as I have a roof over my head, I don’t care if I work in the dark, or squeezed onto the floor with a bunch of strangers. I love living in anticipation of what I might see that moves me. I have been on every side of the fashion business, and I survived.

After every last duck-faced selfie is taken, after every new voice has dissected the season’s hemline, I will still be here, telling the story both behind and in front of the runway.

* * *

Mariana Leung is the publisher of MsFABulous.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarianaByDesign.

 

 

The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

My Secret Life of Shame With the Last Name ‘Fuks’

Going through my childhood with a last name nearly identical to the mother of all curse words was utter torture. But only after my family changed it did the regrets really begin.

I was a serious child born to serious people.

In gym class at P.S. 100 – a school situated in one of the roughest areas of the South Bronx in New York City – two fellow fourth graders are taking turns smacking the back of my head while I attempt to complete our required 60 sit-ups.

This is far from the first time something like this has happened to me. By then I’d been physically abused on two coasts. I complain to the gym teacher.

Instead of punishing the delinquents, he imparts an aphorism: “Saddle a kid with a name like Fuks, in this neighborhood, and you’ll either break him or force him to develop one hell of a sense of humor.”

“What’s a sense of humor?” I ask.

He shakes his head in pity and walks away.

“Papa, the kids are bullying me because of our last name,” I tell my father, who’s of Russian descent, and Jewish, at home later that day.

“Why? Fuks is a good name. You should be proud!”

“Yeah, but everybody calls me ‘Fucks.’”

“Correct them. Tell them it’s pronounced Fooks, or Fyooks.”

“Do you even know how to pronounce our last name?” I ask.

“Yes. I know it’s not ‘Fucks’ and you should never let someone call you that.”

Naively, I heed his advice. The next day I make the mistake of correcting a student, who looks 35 and stands nearly six feet tall, on the pronunciation.

“It’s technically pronounced ‘Fooks.’”

“Well, it’s ‘Fucks’ now, muthafucka,” he replies. “You got a problem with that?”

“No problem at all. I agree, ‘Fucks’ sounds so much better. Let’s stick with that. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

As a kid, the challenging last name compounded my many other issues. My pencil-neck – working against the laws of physics – propped up a disproportionately massive head, which was capped with a 1980s anchorman haircut. (Imagine the plastic helmet hair on a Lego action figure.) My ears possessed a wingspan so wide they practically flapped on windy days. Of course, none of these characteristics escaped the notice of my classmates, who reveled in torturing me over anything that made me stand out. I’m fairly certain I’m the only man in history to have had the honor of being branded with the sobriquet “Dumbo Fucks.”

My family lived in housing projects. Our apartment was on the 13th floor, which developers are known to avoid numbering as such for fear of bad luck. They must have figured: “These people will be living in the South Bronx. If they had any fear left in them, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Mama still reminisces about how this was her favorite apartment – mostly because the rent was cheap. But she didn’t have to attend P.S.100 and, later, middle school at I.S. 131. She didn’t have to dodge rocks thrown at her head while walking home as kids yelled, “Fuck you, Fucks! You corny-ass muthafucka! Look at them kicks! You wearing old-man shoes, you dumb commie fuck!”

After witnessing the high value my peers placed on kicks, I experienced an epiphany: “Perhaps it’s not my last name, it’s the insufficient coolness of my footwear that’s at the root of my problems!”

Much to my surprise, I manage to convince my parents to buy me a pair of top-of-the-line, rich cobalt, high-top Filas – sneakers that carried a bit of cache in the ’80s.

The school is abuzz as I debut the Filas. Kids gather around me in admiration. In fact, three students are so smitten with the sneakers, they hold me down and snatch them right off my feet, leaving me to finish out the rest of the school day in socks.

“You’re fucked now, Fucks! You dumb commie bastard!”

Turns out it wasn’t the sneakers.

I wasn’t the only one being tortured for my moniker. My grandfather, whose first name happened to be Motel, made the unfortunate decision to start a limo business and name it “Motel Fuks Limo Corporation.”

“Say I just want the fucking without the motel or the limo?” some of the many prank callers would say to my befuddled grandparents. “Do I have to buy the bundle or is it à la carte?”

Why did my parents cling to Fuks for so long? Their hypothesis seemed to be: “Children who ridicule our son for our last name may be unique to the South Bronx.” Discussions of changing it were tabled until we carried out a proper field test with a move out of the neighborhood for a brief spell among the beach denizens of the Bay-Area city of Concord, California. There, as an eight-year-old, I experience what it’s like to be attacked by a mob of about a dozen third graders.

The group beating is incited by an innocent remark I make when a classmate snipes, “How come you’re Jewish? My momma says Jews killed Jesus and everybody should be Christian if they want to be good people.” I respond, “Screw you and screw your Jesus. What did Jesus ever do that was so great?”

Suddenly, a fist grazes my right temple, and I’m surrounded by a chorus line of pre-pubescent goons playing “Kick The Jew,” while a few others take turns pushing me around, tearing at my clothes. Eventually, I fall to the concrete floor, pick myself up, and launch into a race for safety behind our playground monitor.

Californians aren’t nearly as laid back as you’d imagine.

The move to Concord was a bust. Failing to gain a foothold due to the unemployment crisis, my parents resettled in the Bronx within a year, and we stayed put until I turned 13, when they were able to scrounge up enough money for a down payment on a modest cape, landing us in the predominantly white, status-chasing, middle-to-upper-middle-class Northern New Jersey suburb of Fair Lawn.

“We’re in a new town again,” my father says to me before he drops me off on my first day of school there. “You have a chance at a fresh start. Now, don’t fuck this up.”

Adjusting to Fair Lawn was its own special nightmare. By that point, I had marinated for such a long time in the Bronx, I became convinced I was black – and no one could tell me different.

The incongruity with my appearance is startling. Opening the door to homeroom class, I make my quasi-grand entrance sporting a mauve nightclub shirt adorned with shimmering streaks of silver sparkles, gray-colored dress slacks speckled with black dots – bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Dust Bowl tornado – and a brand new pair of Air Jordans, still holding out hope it was the sneakers that were the problem.

In what proves to be a futile effort to rebrand myself, I take to wearing a necklace touting my name in cursive gold letters: “Allan.” But as word spreads of my appearance, I once again gain infamy as “Fucks,” the biggest dork anyone has ever seen.

“The kids in Fair Lawn are worse than the ones in the South Bronx,” I say to my father a few weeks into living there.

The next morning, he slaps a pair of boxing gloves in my hands and brings me to the garage where he’s just hung a punching bag.

“Punch hard” are his only words to me.

Papa wasn’t exactly an avid reader of Dr. Spock.

* * *

By the time I was 16 my parents had been able to thoroughly test their hypothesis and reach the conclusion that kids all across the country, hailing from every income level, race, and religion, will verbally abuse you if your last name is Fuks.

Finally, Papa caves. A family meeting is called to make the big change. The only stipulation is that the new name must begin with the letter “F.”

“I bought a gold chain with an ‘F’ and I’m not returning it!” my father proclaims at the meeting. (You weren’t a real man in our family unless you wore an identifying chain.)

We throw a bunch of Irish “F” names in a hat because, as my mother says, the Irish are, for the most part, better liked than the Jews. She also felt that with our pale skin, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

One by one, we take turns picking them out.

“I got Flanagan!” says my younger sister.

“Mine says Flaggherty! Ooh, I love the sound of Flaggherty!” I exclaim.

“Tough shit,” my father says suddenly. “We go by majority – your grandmother, mother, and I picked out Finn, so from now on your name will be Allan Finn!”

To this day, I have no idea why we went through that barnyard raffle contest method of deciding our fates if the adult unit in the room had already chosen a name.

“Now don’t fuck this up!”

* * *

The most dramatic effect of the Finn outcome was on my grandfather, who also changed his first name to Michael, though he passed away shortly thereafter. Michael Finn was born a Jew and died an Irishman.

In my case, college becomes my tabula rasa: anonymity, a foreign experience. No one knows of my former last name outside of a few Fair Lawners, and no one cares. The trauma cuts so deep that I’m on the verge of tears when I’ve gone my entire first day on campus without hearing a single derisive comment. For the first time, I am invisible, which is what I thought I had wanted.

In actuality, it wasn’t invisibility I was seeking, but rather, notoriety on my own terms. Between my unchecked body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and a paralyzing depression that had taken root in my college years, unbinding myself would prove a lifelong challenge. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to stand-up comedy. Getting onstage and exposing my demons granted me the opportunity to take this challenge head on, and enabled me to finally discuss the more painful aspects of my life, including my divorce, the death of a beloved friend, and the mistakes I’ve made that have cost me some of my most treasured relationships – none of which were at all based on my last name.

“Finn” was pulled out of a hat, and the absurdity of that was never lost on me. The more I ruminated on my original last name, and the reasons we changed it, the louder this strident voice grew within that said: “You’re whitewashing your past, your family name, and your true identity. When will you stop pretending to be someone you’re not?”

The first name change was a capitulation to bullies, xenophobes, and conformists. I rather like the idea of reclaiming it. So I did.

Reverting back to it has been strange and surreal – the memories the name summons are far from pleasant. Yet, there’s a certain gratification to seeing my real name on a comedy lineup. I’m no longer hiding from others or myself.

Fuks is the name that was handed down to me from a long line of tough, proud people who survived discrimination, pogroms, and the Holocaust. If someone doesn’t like it, tough shit. I don’t give any Fuks.

 

 

I’m a Sex Worker and I Was Raped on the Job

It happens a lot more than you think.

This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women, The Establishment features new content daily.

I picked up on something in his text messages and emails — they were demanding, bossy, and paternalistic. This was a client who had been attempting to contact me since October, but I decided to ignore him. The client kept contacting me. He was persistent. I’m a sex worker, and as such, I confront decisions regarding safety and sanity and money on a fairly frequent basis. The client’s vibe was just too weird, even for me, a veteran in the field of absurdity, social outcasts, and patriarchs desperately reaching for the touch of a young girl. Unsure how to placate his aggressive energy, I finally told him that I had left the business.

But he found my advertisements online. “Everywhere,” he wrote to me in a text message three months later. “It’s clear that you’ve returned to the industry.” In the lull of the Christmas season, clients were feeling broke and weighing familial obligations — with the holiday season’s moralism, I was left with an empty schedule and a hungry wallet. I agreed to meet with him.

The man was very old. How old, I couldn’t tell. He had crow’s feet in his eyes and a potbelly that threatened to pop the buttons of the Ralph Lauren polo that lurched over his waistline. Fine white tufts receded into his hairline; dandruff coated the shoulders of his black blazer.

He wrapped his arms around my waist on the suede sofa in front of the TV and offered me a glass of wine; he ran his fingers covetously between the small slice of space between my stockings and my naked upper thigh. As I drew closer to him, I smelled something rancid. His musky underarms combined with the smell of feet, urine, cum, a day of hard work at the office, and god knows what else.

In a feeble, but valiant attempt to hold back my disgust, I traced the surface of his crinkled khakis. He took my small hand in his, kneading it like the soft limb of a Raggedy Anne doll, and explained to me that he was a dominant. That I should call him sir. But that before we began, he would like to know what my limits were. I told him I was extremely open, but for now the most important thing for him to know was that I needed him to use a condom when we had sex.

“Well, as we explore the world of BDSM together, we’ll see what your limits really are and if I can convince you otherwise.” A chill went down my spine, but I left the hotel room that day in one piece, with several hundred dollars extra in my pocket.

* * *

On St. Patrick’s Day, he contacted me again. I remembered how unpleasant he had been. I had just spent an obscene amount on advertising, and in my unrealistic state of financial mania, I agreed to meet with him. I had survived once. I had survived a lot. I had seen a lot. No one had fucked with me yet. “You can handle this,” I told myself.

He sent me a text message with his room number, and when I arrived, I rapped my cold knuckle against the door cautiously. He led me back to the suede couch where he had sat on my face months prior and we chatted, I’m not sure what about. I asked him vague questions about his business trip and how he had been. I giggled at the right times and smiled at others, trying to hold eye contact without collapsing like a house of cards. He said he had been to Tokyo and London. He said none of that mattered now, that this was his last stop, and that he had been looking forward to seeing me for months. He was so happy to see me. I couldn’t say the same.

I swallowed hard, clinked my glass to his, and said, “Well, cheers to that,” and opened my painted lips like a broken toy doll. It was the only thing I could think of to say. I held my breath to avoid inhaling too much of the scent that my memory had done such a good job of suppressing until now. He pushed the hair out of my face and informed me that we were going to the bedroom. I tried to push away my nausea. I thought about the money at the other end of this, grabbed his hand, and with put-on girlish excitement, skipped to the bedroom, his sloth-like body in tow.

“Take off your clothes,” he said.

I quietly complied. Wordlessly I unbuckled the straps of my favorite sandals, shimmied out of my skirt, and took off my sweater. I paused when I got to my bra and panties. Staring like a hungry wolf, he sat opposite me, wet circles of sweat swelling beneath the armpits of his dress shirt. My eyes met his, his pupils dilated, his hairy arm snaked across the firm mattress, and with two stubby fingers he pushed my sternum backwards into the gilded Egyptian cotton.

As he fastened restraints onto my ankles and wrists, I inhaled deeply and meditated on all the possible violence that could occur at this moment. I made some jokes and made him laugh because I knew the show wasn’t anywhere near being over yet. He brought out a huge Hitachi magic wand and buzzed its circular surface up and down my pelvic bone, where he seemed to think my clit was located. I managed some soft whimpers and feigned arousal. “Oh, he’s getting excited now,” my client said, stroking the bulge buried in his gray boxer briefs.

Fair enough. Hopefully that meant we’d be done soon. I arched my back into the mattress and opened up my legs, scanning down my naked body to the bedside table, where I’d conveniently placed several condoms in varying sizes. He started humping me, holding my knees into my chest. I got breathy, hoping to eschew any opportunity to prolong the session. He thrust into me with all his force. His pinky-sized dick slid up and down the lips of my tragically wet pussy. With increasing aggression, he throttled my pelvic region, finally sliding his uncovered penis inside me.

I placed my feet on his soft chest and, with all the force I could muster, kicked him backwards. He stumbled back a few steps before falling to the ground. “That is not okay,” I said, breaking with my script. “This cannot happen without a condom.” I spoke as if I was scolding a small child.

“This is not a joke. It’s my safety. There are condoms right there. If you would like to have sex with me, you need to wear one. I have absolutely no problem leaving.”

He looked at me, and then down at the floor, saying nothing. He looked back at me and kissed me. Pulling on the canvas restraints that held my ankles to my wrists, he flipped me over onto my stomach. I tumbled onto a heap of butt plugs that he had bought just for the occasion. Then I felt him on top of me. The long, yellowing nails of his hobbit fingers gripped my waistline, pulling me closer to his body, dragging my back into his sweating, hog-like body in hollow claps of slapping flesh. I felt something in my asshole. Maybe a finger or a butt plug. Something — I just wasn’t sure what.

Then I realized he was inside me. I realized he was anally raping me. I lay there looking at my nail polish, red like cherries in the spring on the white sheets. I stared beyond the ends of my long lashes and felt my nose crunch into the down pillow. I wondered if I was right — was he really inside me? Was this really happening? How could he be doing this when literally seconds prior, I had specified that under no circumstances was he to enter me without a condom?

I knew that if I wanted to, I could kick from behind. I knew I could get him on his back and even probably choke him if necessary. I had been taking kickboxing and self-defense classes and knew that the right calculated slither from beneath him could foil the violent desire of his pinky-sized, but all-powerful, penis. Completely clearheaded, I envisioned the exact movement of my limbs that would render him powerless. I knew I could push him off the bed, choke him, and throw a fairly decent punch.

But if I resisted, I mused, what would happen? If I was going to get him off me, it might mean injuring him. What would happen to me, a young girl working in an illegal trade, if I hurt this man? Scratches or marks were courtroom collateral that could be held against me. If I fought, I would be leaving without compensation. If I fought, he could retaliate and rape again, or worse. If I fought and ran into the streets, soaked by green beer, I could be followed by civilians seeking to save me from sex-trafficking, or worse, vigilante justice seekers looking to avenge my John for his injuries.

If I fought, I could be arrested. New York state laws explicitly exclude prostitution from rape protection laws. I didn’t think today was a day I would lose my life, and had I been at real risk of being murdered, I thought to myself, the situation and the risks incurred by my potential resistance would carry a far different weight.

I remembered the expressions on the faces of the doormen as I entered. Everyone knows what it means when a beautiful young girl in a trench coat and red lips walks into an upscale hotel room for exactly one hour and then leaves. I remembered the silence of the middle-aged tourists in the elevator, how they had looked at me, the ambient tension brought to the surface by a whore’s presence.

I had no choice but to summon my most convincing performance of clueless high-school girl and as I emitted the perfectly crafted moans of fake pleasure, I prayed to whatever god does or does not exist that my client would cum quickly and that all of this would soon be over. It was only a few seconds before I felt his hot cum inside me. After his final gurgle of exhausted ecstasy, he rolled over beside me. The liquid trailed the inside of my ass, and slowly drizzled down my perineum.

Without pause I hopped off the bed and flew as quickly and gracefully as possible into the bathroom to wash myself off. “Wow, that felt great,” he exhaled into the comforter. I wondered if he was aware that he had just raped me. “I love fucking girls in the ass. It’s almost the same as the other way; it’s just a little bit tighter. I don’t have the right size dick that’s ideal for ass fucking, but I sure do love it.”

“Uh-huh. Yeah that felt really good,” I half yelled from the marble bathroom. I looked at my naked body in the mirror. What the fuck was happening? I didn’t have time to think about it. I only had time to make sure I came out of this alive. “Sweetie, can you bring me a hot towel, while you’re at it?” he called.

“Sure thing!” I pushed away his moldy bag of toiletries and turned the hot water on. I took a deep breath, putting the fluffy hand towel under the lukewarm water.

“Here you go,” I said, sweeping off the remaining cum from his crotch with the white linen. I smiled because I felt like I had no choice. I giggled girlishly when he asked me to lie down and snuggle. I looked at the digital clock on the bedside table. We still had 40 minutes left of session. I sighed and laid my head on his heaving body because I felt like that was what I had to do. I didn’t have anything to say and I wasn’t in a position to make pleasantries. I waited for him to speak. He pinched my nipples and told me about his wife. I tried to keep breathing.

He went off about how he likes to take girls to Atlantic City for long weekends. He told me he liked playing with me, and he would write a review of my services; he would take me out to dinner. “That sounds nice,” I said, sweetly, smiling and batting my eyelashes as if it was possible to speak to god through the performance of beauty and perceived feminine purity.

I have never felt so powerless as I did within this moment. I cannot explain to you how it feels to have all of your human rights and physical and emotional strength eclipsed by the existence of bureaucratic structures, which quite literally do not recognize your personhood. At some level, I’m not upset that this happened. I’m not fazed by the fact that sex workers get raped, and that this time, I was one of them. I know this happens. At some level, I expected it to happen to me at some point. For me as a sex worker, the prospect of rape is a fairly mundane factor in the extremely dangerous and illicit work I do.

I enter every room ready to be killed. I meet new clients and I imagine what they can do to me and how I am going to escape. I look at everything they do. I watch their grip on glasses of wine and the way their eyes flicker from my body to the bed. I think about every word they send me in text messages and emails. I look at the speed of their wrists when they unsnap my suspenders or unzip the flies on their pants. I listen to the tone they use when they answer the door and when they suggest that we “get more comfortable.”

I reach for their dicks when they are halfway inside me to make sure that they haven’t slipped the condom off. I do this even with my regulars who I see on a weekly basis. I do this with clients who have told me their whole life stories, who I know everything about, clients who I actually enjoy seeing. I want to trust them, but the sad reality is that, due to the systems in place, I can’t afford to relax into the illusion of trust and safety.

Sex workers are soldiers. We never, ever get to turn off. If you don’t understand this, then you are fundamentally misunderstanding what makes sex work “work” rather than play. Period.

I most certainly don’t show up to work thinking that I’m about to have a great time. I’m providing a service at my own risk. No one even has to say that to me for me to know it’s true that women get raped every second of every day, and that even those who aren’t sex workers have trouble achieving justice. From day one, women are told that there are good girls and bad girls, and bad girls have it coming to them. The parameters of our existence as femme-identified people and women are strictly policed with ambient threats of persistent violence.

Though I am emotionally equipped for the plausibility and total likelihood that I will be raped or even murdered at work, there is no amount of conviction, physical strength, or intuitive savvy that can protect me as a person who leads a criminalized existence. Because I am a sex worker, even though I am a fairly privileged sex worker, I do not have the basic rights that all human beings should. Yes, assault is assault and rape is rape, and the stakes are high for every single person who encounters abuse and assault. We can acknowledge that all women experience these things, but it’s simply not true that sex workers have the same experience with sexual violence that other women do.

The part of me that walks away from this rape scenario knowing that it was a matter of time is, yes, deeply fucked up. My stone-faced blasé-ness in the face of this violence is an internalized victim blaming. But more than that, it’s the result of systemic injustice that is applied to all victims of sexual violence, and especially to violence against sex workers.

I know too many women who have been hurt. There’s a serial killer who targets sex workers in Long Island, there’s a serial rapist who calls girls to his house in New Jersey to then rape them. I’ve heard stories of police actually laughing in the face of workers who report violence on the job. I’ve been to vigils full of crying women and trans people and LGBTQ providers, many of whom are acquaintances or friends of mine. This happens, and it happens fairly frequently. I see the stories in my email inbox, hear about it from my loved ones; I see it on the news. I know that it happens, but more importantly I know that, in the majority of cases, no one gives a fuck.

Why? Because we’re whores. Because everybody knows we had it coming. Because we could have chosen a less dangerous profession like a retail job or a waitress position in lieu of sex work. Because a whore is a woman who has plummeted from her celestial virgin state to the rock bottom, to the sewers of despicable human existence. A whore’s life is meaningless. She and the pain she carries are irrelevant, save for the moment when her soft lips cradle your hardening dick. These ideas are hundreds and hundreds of years old, and they need to change.

* * *

Serial rapists and murderers often target sex workers, with full knowledge that those workers are the most vulnerable due to their lack of protection under the law, before moving on to target other women. It’s almost impossible to get real statistics on the subject of sexual violence against workers due to the criminal nature of our work, but estimates say that those in the sex trade have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence on the job. There are numerous examples of murderers and rapists who target sex workers — but what’s troubling is that, more often than not, we don’t take this violence seriously when it is recounted by those who experience it first hand. What’s troubling is that we know this information and have known it for quite some time, yet the powers at large begrudgingly refuse to acknowledge that it is necessary for serious change to occur.

I don’t feel like I can afford to be silent. As a person with privilege, I worry about the hundreds and thousands of sex workers who will be murdered and raped in the remainder of 2016, and I know that we are very, very far from achieving justice — even if decriminalization happens, that does not compensate for the fact that I will be living with this for a long time.

I will be thinking about all the women I don’t know who will be meeting with this man. I will be wondering about all the other women he says he has met with and wondering if they were also raped. I will be wondering if he has killed anyone before. Even as I write this I wonder what the consequences are of speaking out — what happens when my mother googles my name and finds this? What happens if my rapist finds this? What happens if the police see this? What happens when I want to apply for some normal ass job and this article pops up? What happens when x y z?

I don’t have any answers or brilliant ideas. I can’t sit here and allow myself to get tangled in a web of criminal paranoia while other, less privileged members of my community get abused, threatened, killed, raped, and jailed. What I can do, however, is seek healing in telling you my story, and hope that within it, you see some refraction of humanity’s struggles and joys that are worth fighting for. I can hope that you will understand that I am a person whose pain is real, and that there are millions of others just like me, and that this will encourage you to re-examine your ideas about sex work and join us in the fight for our rights.

 

 

The Secrets in My Mother’s Nightstand

When I was little, nothing made me feel closer to Mom than rifling through her prized possessions.

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Sophia Wiedeman is a comic book artist currently drawing and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of The Lettuce Girl and Born, Not Raised, which was recently included in the Society of Illustrators 2016 Comic and Cartoon Art Annual. Follow her on Instagram: @sophiadrawsdaily.

 

 

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.”

* * *

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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