By Michelle Kelly
It’s been a while since I’ve written on this, and part of me is scared to. Speaking out as a sexual exploitation survivor, especially like this, publicly and under my professional name, is frightening.
After all, it didn’t go so well last time.
In 2019, I spoke in Parliament at the launch of the CPHRC report on prostitution in the UK, lobbying for the Nordic model. I told my story of being trafficked, and then further exploited in the sex trade when I was in an abusive relationship. I wrote about it for The Telegraph. Then I was offered a book deal to write my memoir. I had never spoken about this outside of close friendships, recovery groups and to my therapist. My readers and literary agent had no clue.
I thought it would be cathartic. Healing. And I wanted to make a difference. When the support poured in, I felt seen.
And then too seen. The sudden public exposure, after seven years of hiding this, left me feeling vulnerable and wide open. PTSD set in. Overnight I went from being a largely recovered, happily married mother and bestselling author, and flashed back to that scared, vulnerable woman barely out of her teens, being sexually exploited by men who controlled and terrorised me.
When I was contacted by sex industry lobbyists, sending me ‘evidence’ against the Nordic Model, befriending me even while some of their peers trolled and doxxed me online, I panicked. What if I was on the wrong side? What if I was, as I was being told, harming the very people that I wanted to help? What if full decriminalisation really was the only way to keep women in the sex trade safe? Was I really a SWERF, harming those that I had left trapped and exploited while I lived my fancy new life?
Survivor’s guilt hit me, and hard.
So, I briefly spoke out in favour of ‘sex worker’s rights.’ I publicly denounced abolitionist groups who had both befriended and platformed me, lashing out angrily at the women who had supported me. They were a cult, I was told. They were exploiting my trauma to push their Puritan agenda. When a few anonymous radfems trolled me and even sent me rape porn, triggering a particularly acute PTSD attack, that was all I needed to believe them.
And so, the cognitive dissonance began. I started referring to myself as a ‘former sex worker’ as well as a trafficking survivor. My mental health suffered as I started to keep up the same pretence that I had once been forced to when I was involved in the sex trade. That this was okay. That this was ‘work.’
I quickly realised that these people were not what I had been led to believe they were. That the ‘grassroots’ groups were heavily funded, sometimes by the actual sex industry itself. That ‘sex workers’ speaking about minority rights were mostly middle-class academics who identify as communists. That when I tried to speak about being exploited in any way that didn’t fit the narrative, I was silenced.
So, I left them too, and a campaign of lies, defamation and slander began. That I was a liar, had hidden my identity, when in fact I had rather stupidly used both my given name and my writing name on social media after initially being doxxed anyway.
This was two years ago, but it continues to this day, even though I gave them exactly what they wanted. I turned down the book deal. I turned down an interview with TIME magazine. I deleted all my articles. I sat on the fence, supporting neither one side or the other, saying what I thought people wanted to hear, angry at the world and lashing out online at pretty much everyone. My mental health got worse, as did my physical health, a chronic pain condition worsening until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
The trolling continued sporadically, no matter how many times I deleted and reactivated accounts or how many times I changed social media handles. I disappeared, bruised and hurt and wishing I had never spoken out, that I had stayed silent. The sex industry, I thought, was just too big an enemy to fight.
I spent time in therapy, working through the trauma, and was able to start forming authentic opinions again. I reconnected with other survivors, and helped them write and publish their stories, only to watch them be bullied and harassed offline too. I was bedridden with pain a lot, working in my pyjamas.
When I recently came back to Twitter, it was for the chronic illness and neurodivergent communities and also to connect with other therapists. (I have become a licensed counsellor since becoming free from sexual exploitation). I thought this was all over. I was still frustrated at the silencing, but tried to put it behind me, figuring it was my own fault for being gullible enough to be taken in by them in the first place. That I was better off out of it all.
It isn’t over. My address has been shared online, my accounts have been hacked and slanders about me sent to former employers. It has become clear I have been being tracked from the start, as montages of different tweets from myself, many doctored, have been shared in an attempt to construct false narratives. There is a public statement here, so I won’t repeat myself.
I have reported this over and over to Twitter, but they do nothing, apart from occasionally deleting the very worst of the tweets. While I am suspended for accidentally misgendering a person who is very publicly harassing me.
I share this not for sympathy; but rather to show what happens to survivors who refuse to fit the sex industry lobby’s narrative. Who examine their claims and find them wanting. Who see through the propaganda.
Because I am far from the first, and sadly won’t be the last. Prominent, public survivor-abolitionists often face abuse on a daily basis. Even those with smaller, anonymous platforms are targeted and trolled. It is relentless and co-ordinated. This, more than anything else, shows me that we are speaking the truth.
But I am stronger than I was two or three years ago, and even than last year. And I am able to see the truth. And if I am going to receive abuse for simply existing, then I will stand in that truth.
The sex trade is rotten to the core, and I will never attempt to apologise for it again.
It needs to be abolished.