“I believe we need to defend those with no voices rather than silence them further.”
By Ally-Marie Diamond
I have thought long and hard about writing this. I was taught that what others think about me is none of my business. But when what others think and say starts to sneak into my own emotional and mental wellbeing, it begins to affect my children and grandchildren – because if I am not at my best, how can I possibly be there for them the way they need me? With my youngest being six, and my oldest 28 with three of her own, and with another seven gorgeous babies in between, I need to be at my best.
My children are my life and because of them I have gotten through some dark days and times. They lift me up when I am down; their love strengthens me when I feel weak; and their love is pure and unconditional. They are my greatest teachers, and when their wellbeing becomes threatened, I will stand up and fight for them and for my own sanity.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the world of feminism. It was quite unexpected. I was assisting the organisation of a domestic violence rally here in Brisbane. It was a cause I was passionate about especially since I had recently escaped a violent relationship that had lasted eight years.
The world of feminism didn’t even occur to me. In fact, I didn’t know it was actually a feminist event until years later. All I knew was that the event was to create awareness around domestic violence and that this was important, and that the lives that had been lost at the hands of perpetrators were to be remembered. It’s so easy to get stuck in our bubbles and once the media dies down their names and faces are forgotten.
It was at this rally that I heard a young woman speak about prostitution and how it was violence against women. As soon as I heard ‘prostitution’ and ‘violence’ in one sentence I was intrigued. I had never thought of prostitution being violence before. I just thought it was a normal part of life – not nice, but normal. I even thought prostitution was a good thing. I thought it saved lives. After all I used to tell my violent ex: if you want to cheat, go to a prostitute – at least I know you will be safe and not bring any diseases home.
I thought and it sounds strange to me now writing this, but I thought prostitution saved lives, decreased sexual violence, and saved marriages and relationships. It was not until I heard this woman speak that something inside me clicked, and I began to connect what had happened to me on the streets with what had happened to me in my previous relationship.
The more I thought about it, the more I saw that the two were more or less identical. The grooming, coercion, bullying, gaslighting, narcissistic behaviours were the same between my pimps and managers, and my ex-partner.
How could this be? It terrified me, but also woke me up.
This was the beginning of my own personal development and self-awareness as well as my journey into the world of abolition [of the sex trade].
It would be months later that this woman I had heard speak called me and invited me to share my story about my experience of prostitution in New Zealand at an event she was organising in Melbourne. To be honest, I cannot remember even saying yes. All I can remember is being terrified. You see, the only times I had shared this part of me with anyone it had always come back to bite me hard in the heart – it would always be used against me, mostly through threats to publicly shame me.
So being asked to publicly share it was beyond terrifying for me. To share it willingly. I cannot even begin to explain what was happening to me. This was a part of my life I was more ashamed about than anything else that had happened to me, because honestly, I chose to be a prostitute. Yes, my choices were limited but I still chose to be there, and this was what I was most ashamed about, and then to top it all off, even through the violence I stayed, and even though I left, I kept going back. (Does this resonate with the patterns of a women in domestic violence?)
I remember sitting on the plane wondering if the young woman travelling with me could see me shaking. I felt like my heart was going to bounce out of my chest. My brain would not turn off, and it probably did not help that I was absolutely terrified of flying. I remember thinking I just need wine – something, anything, to calm my nerves and quieten my mind, but I had no money. Then she asked me if I would like a glass of wine. Could she read my mind or did she just see my shakes?
She had offered to find me accommodation in Melbourne, but I was nervous of people, especially other women. To be specific, white women. White women scared me. Terrified me. How crazy, right? Especially considering it was men who had hurt me my entire life, and that I had been brought up with my white British grandmother and white British family. But women, especially white women, scared the hell out of me.
Maybe it was because growing up I always felt inferior compared to them because I was an uneducated coloured girl, and my white family’s voices telling me that I was useless, a no hoper, good for nothing, stupid, black sheep, half caste, mixed breed, dumb, somehow always seemed to ring true…
But I am getting off track – back to Melbourne. Gratefully I had a friend who had supported me through some tough times and was there for me from the time I touched down in Melbourne to the time I boarded my flight home.
Before that time, I had never heard of the Nordic Model and had no idea there was a movement fighting for vulnerable women and young people. All I knew was my own story, my own experiences. But by then I did know that it was a feminist event. When I found out, I nearly pulled out altogether. You see I had a picture in my head of a group of white privileged women who were judgmental, political and hated men. This was not me and I did not want any part of it. But I had committed, and I respected the young woman who asked me, so I forged ahead.
In my speech I asked to not be judged when I shared my story. I made the point that I was not political and that I loved men. Crazy how we have our own ideas and assumptions of what people are like just by what they do, right?
I didn’t take much notice of who was in that room while I was sharing my journey. Women still come up to me to this day and tell me they heard my story at that event. It was a tiny room and I cannot remember most of them – I got out of there as quickly as I could. I felt like I could not breathe, emotions flooded over me like a tidal wave from hell and I felt like I was drowning. The room was small, and I felt like it was just getting smaller.
As soon as I stepped out in the fresh air, I took a deep breathe almost reminding myself I was still alive. I remember my friend grabbed me and just held me. I had asked him to stand outside and wait. I did not want him to hear it because of my shame. But like most men he did not listen and came in and heard me speak instead.
He had tears in his eyes. He had no idea this happened to women. But how could he when communities are so focused on hiding this stuff, sweeping violence against women under the carpet, and especially sexual violence? Making excuses for men who violate women in the way they do. It is just easier to handle if they call it work – that way, they do not have to face it.
There was a lot of wine drinking that night, a lot of tears, anger, frustration, embarrassment, shame, more anger, more tears. It had been a book launch and I felt completely like a fish out of water. After all I told myself, I was coloured, insecure, uneducated and these women were completely out of my league. What was I doing here? I felt like I did not belong. I did not know anyone, and it was easier to drink than to have a conversation. After all, if there was a wine glass to my lips, I could not talk. But after a few glasses, conversations flowed easily. Plus, most women in the room were white women.
Why is that by the way that most women at these events are white? Where are all the women of colour?
Anyway, swapping my insecure mask for my drunk confident one was a habit I had become used to. But no amount of good wine can stop those insecure feelings from rearing their ugly heads and eventually I left and began the walk back to the apartment. I had no idea where I was, this was my very first time ever in Melbourne and I had no money for a cab, so I had to walk. Luckily, I had GPS on my phone – until of course it went flat.
I got completely lost and ended up on the wrong side of town. Have you ever noticed when you have had a few drinks, walking distance just seems to become shorter? Or maybe the memory just does not hold as much distance information? Eventually, luckily, I found my way back. I am not even sure anyone had noticed I had left.
Alone in the apartment and all I wanted to do was to jump off the 20th floor. How could I have been so stupid as to share all that? What if my kids found out, or business colleagues, or other family members? This would bring shame not just to me but to them too.
Memories took over as every cell, sense and feeling in my body began to feel what had happened to me. Literally. My neck hair was on end as I felt what seemed like hot sweaty smelly breath, hands on my sides, the weight of someone on top of me. I lay in bed too scared to move.
I knew no one was there, but my body was telling me different. Cold air swept over my body as goose bumps appeared. Fear completely overwhelmed me. Feelings of drowning and doom crept in.
The wine probably had not helped but then maybe without it, I would have been feeling it more. I could not catch hold of my emotions. I had yelled at my friend for trying to help me – he had come to find me and now he had left. I think I tried to sleep with him, trying to find that comfort, security, safety, but he knew that was not what I needed. It did not go down well with me. I told him to get out of the apartment and my life.
What is it that I felt like I needed to jump into bed with a guy to feel loved, safe and then when he said no out of respect, I instantly took it as rejection? When jumping into bed with guys had always left me feeling hurt, and in pain. I swear I was my own worst enemy at times, and of course this was just another reason to beat myself up some more.
Flying home I was incredibly seedy and feeling sorry for myself. Another place I was used to being. But I was looking forward to getting home and seeing my babies. I had missed them when I was away from them, even though they would call me every five seconds normally just asking where something was.
The plane trip home was long, and I wondered a lot about this part of my life, and if it could in fact help anyone by sharing it. One of my friends had videoed my talk, and when I got home that night, I shared it on social media. My children knew all about most of my past, but I had not shared the finer details with them. I had always been honest with them, but just never shared the darkest parts of the sex trade. Of course, I did not share it publicly until I had spoken to them about it in greater detail, because this would ultimately affect them too.
I was surprised by how well it was taken. Friends on social media were all supportive, some grateful. This was where I began to really walk down the path of changing lives with my story and began searching for ways, I could really create change.
The only contacts I had were through the event in Melbourne, so I reached out to several women I had met there and was surprised when I was invited overseas to speak at an event. I remember wondering how I was going to pay for it, and then wondering how I could get out of it because I could not pay for it. No way could I afford the plane fare plus accommodation. I was only on Government payments and the kids always came first no matter what. As I was about to write to make my apologies for not being able to attend, an email arrived asking about my details for the tickets. I was overcome with gratitude, and still could not believe that someone would want to hear my story and be willing to fly me across the across the world for this reason.
The voices of my self-worth began to kick in, the ones that constantly reminded me of who I was and where I had come from. Why me? What was in it for them? There was no way someone wanted to hear me. Then the darker voices began – the ones that asked me what I had done to get them to invite me. The ones that asked: Do they know who you are? Do they know you are uneducated? Do they know you are fake? Do they know you are nothing? Do they know you are worthless? Do they know your family hate you because you’re a half caste? Do they know your dad’s black? Do they know you’re useless? Do they know you have nothing to give? Do they know you are a waste of space? Do they know you are waste of air? Do they know you are and always will be nothing, useless, a mixed breed curse?
But I was learning to not listen to those voices. I was learning to replace them with voices of hope, love, value, and gratitude.
That trip changed my life. Afterwards I knew in my heart that maybe I could make a difference in someone else’s life, that perhaps all the crap I had been through could be for good, that I could actually gift hope. These thoughts created a shift within me. I was no longer regretful, sad and angry about what had happened to me, but was now hopeful, grateful, excited that I could be something far greater than anyone in my life thought I would be, far greater than I ever thought I would be.
I still did not know much about the world of feminism. I had heard terms like radical feminist, liberal feminist. I was confused. I had always thought feminism was about women uniting and fighting for other women, especially those women and children who were most vulnerable. So how, why, was it now all categorised? Why were women not united?
It scared me. But the women who I had met I trusted implicitly. They were amazing, their voices and experiences powerful, and I had unwavering trust that they would not steer me wrong and that they would always be there to support, guide and nurture me along this journey. We shared a passion to support the most vulnerable and that to me was what mattered most. If our most vulnerable were always the focus, everything else would fall into place and be as it was meant to be.
I learnt a lot, I began learning about the Nordic Model, about abolition [of the sex trade]. I began learning about words that I had never heard before; I began learning about the world of politics – something I had always been too afraid to even have a sneak peek at. To be honest it still scares the shit out of me. But I guess things we do not understand always do.
Sadly, the world of abolition and feminism has scared me to the point that I have pretty much walked away on more than one occasion. I always felt my story could bring hope to the cultures in my country, to the different cultures throughout the world. Being a woman of colour has its own set of challenges, and with my amazing family past sometimes even more. So, it was disappointing to see amongst a world of women who should have been supporting other women, I was silenced, and judged.
If I asked too many questions, raised too many concerns, if I had my freak out moments where I began to feel insecure and those voices from my past began sneaking in, if I communicated in a way unacceptable to others, if I spoke out of turn, if I said what was on my mind, if I said what I felt, if I didn’t fit into their square box, if I didn’t do as others expected, if I didn’t play by their rules, if I didn’t conform, I was immediately cast out. No explanation, no reason, just dismissed – as my family, and men, had done all my life.
As I found myself in this world, trying to find somewhere to feel safe, valued, heard, loved, I was dubbed a trouble maker, a woman who was only after credit, a woman who was gifted funds that didn’t go where they should, a woman who was manipulative, a women who was narcissistic, a woman who was judgmental, a woman who should by no means be trusted, an uneducated coloured women who was probably nothing more than a liar and a fake. A woman who was not to be heard, or valued, or given another thought. I was cast out. Dismissed. Women began gossiping, spreading malicious lies, and other women began listening and believing them.
Let me ask you this: How is this any different from the men who are violent towards women? How is this any different than the grooming, the coercion, the narcissistic behaviours that women endure every day?
I thought the feminist world was supposed to be different. I thought feminists were supposed to love women unconditionally. I thought they were fighting to create change, to unify women, to lift other women up. To remind women how beautiful, worthy and valued they are. To show women that they deserve better than to be bullied, beaten, discouraged, violated, raped, murdered, groomed, coerced. I thought we were supposed to be uniting as a woman nation, black, brown, white, yellow, whatever colour, whatever belief, whatever culture, whatever religion or faith, whatever experiences, backgrounds, educations, or lack thereof. I thought as women we were supposed to see beyond all that, and see each other’s souls, our hearts.
The things that scared me the most about women, especially white privileged educated women, were coming true in a world I had expected to be filled with unconditional love, forgiveness, acceptance, hope and unification.
I have felt incredibly alone in this fight apart from a few beautiful women around the world and women of colour, plus some women in New Zealand, who have supported me to make a difference. Women who, like me, are focused on being a voice for vulnerable women and young people in their own communities
The ones I thought I should mistrust were the men who were hurting women and children. But then I found they were not the only ones I needed to fight against. I found some of the women we should be standing with are the ones I need to be wary of. How is this right? How are we any different to violent men when we as women begin turning on each other and holding each other down with our words, our gossip, our toxicity?
While we focus on each other, our different cultures, colours, our different belief systems, faiths, our different values and experiences, our different way of doing things or voicing things, our different traumas, our different paths in a negative way, those violent men stand on the sidelines doing and getting away with whatever they want.
They love that we are focused on each other in a toxic way, that we are fighting and gossiping, because it means less focus, attention and energy is going towards what is right, and they get away with what they do for a few more generations.
It is like a magician’s sleight of hand, while we focus on what the hand is doing, we miss what is really happening. We should be focused on uniting together and being a voice for women and children’s rights.
I ask you as a coloured woman who has been judged, criticised and gossiped about in the movement, “How can we as a feminist movement create change in a world that is violent against women and children if we only invite to the conversation those who conform or fit into our bubble?”
Great change in this world will happen by women but only when we can put our own personal bullshit to the side and focus on what matters: WOMEN AND CHILDREN. This means uniting not bickering, it means acceptance not judgement, it means loving not hating, and it means forgiveness not bitterness.
Are you ready to make a difference? I know I am.
Even though many times I have felt silenced by women in this movement, I have realised they have strengthened me, and for that I am thankful. It would have been easy to walk away, but in the end, it is not about me but the vulnerable women and children, who need women to stand up, unite and be strong for them. Especially where my heart is and that is in New Zealand.
So please let us unite and put an end to the gossip, to the rumours. Let’s embrace each other’s differences. Instead of focusing on each other’s imperfections, let us start focusing on each other’s beauty. Instead of focusing on each other’s weaknesses, let us focus on each other’s strengths.
We have the power within us to create great change, let us be the ones that leave an incredible legacy for our future generations. Focus on what truly matters – coming together as women for the greater good, coming together and uniting for women and children around the world for generations to come.
Women United are more Disruptive than Women Divided.
Ally-Marie Diamond is a sex trade survivor and activist, who grew up in New Zealand, where she was groomed into prostitution, and now lives in Australia. She is the co-founder of Wahine Toa Rising, a new survivor-led organisation that is campaigning for a better deal and genuine alternatives for women involved in the sex trade in New Zealand.
Follow Wahine Toa Rising on Twitter: @WahineToaRising