This guest piece was written by Harmony (Dust) Grillo, MSW, a sexual exploitation survivor and founder of a nonprofit that helps women successfully exit the sex industry. 5-minute read.
So, you’re thinking of leaving
By Harmony Grillo, MSW
The thought of leaving the sex industry crossed my mind many times before the day I finally quit and walked away. There always seemed to be a reason to stay—for one more day, one more month. Before I knew it, years passed and I felt like I was stuck in the same place as the day I started.
The money was one of the biggest factors in preventing me from leaving. The more I made, the more I spent, and the more the vicious cycle perpetuated itself. How else could I sustain the lifestyle I created for myself? And then there were all of the questions and unknowns. Could I actually transition back into the “real world”? Would anyone hire me? Would people find out about my past? And what was I supposed to do about the gap on my resume?
I have heard it said that until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change, most people prefer to stay the same. That resonates with me.
It finally got to the point that the pain of continuing to work in the industry was greater than all of my fears of leaving.
Good money, but a high price
My view of myself and the people around me was deeply impacted by my time in the industry. All of my relationships—even my friendships—were sexualized, and I began to think that finding people who would value me for being anything other than a sexual object was impossible.
I had created this alter-ego, Monique. Hiding behind her made it easier for me to do the work. Monique’s job was to become whoever the fantasy required her to be. She was full of smiles and rhetoric about how she loved her job. Sometimes, she even convinced the real Harmony of this. The problem was, everything about Monique was a lie. Eventually, I felt lost in her and out of touch with my true identity.
Aside from walking away from the people and settings that had become so familiar to me, I walked away with gaps on my resume, no potential employment, and a couple of decades worth of trauma and abuse to “unpack” and heal from. I still couldn’t look men in the eye, I cringed when anyone tried to hug me or shake my hand, and I was plagued with nightmares at night and intrusive sexually violent thoughts throughout the day. I couldn’t ride in an elevator without imagining the man next to me trying to rape me.
The money was good, but the price was high.
I would like to tell you that I had this well-thought-out, replicable plan that helped me successfully leave the business. I didn’t.
I just left.
The tools and steps to start your exit
Since founding Treasures, an outreach and support group for women in the sex industry, I have had the opportunity to walk alongside hundreds of other women and have seen the same thing. There comes a day when we just can’t bring ourselves to show up for one more day, and we walk away.
With that said, if you are considering leaving the industry, there are definitely some things that will help you make a successful transition.
In all my years of supporting others as they rebuild their lives, I have noticed that those of us who have managed to leave for good have had one thing in common: we didn’t do it alone.
Whether it was a trusted friend, family member, therapist, support group or organization, we had someone in our corner, encouraging us along the way. If you are considering leaving, I encourage you to find at least one safe, caring person who can be a consistent ally for you throughout this process.
Know what to expect
Leaving is not easy. I would be lying if I told you it was. There will be times that you will be tempted to go back. There will be times when you may miss the money and the adrenaline or the attention and certain flexibility that came with the lifestyle. There will be times when the work it takes to recover and rebuild your life may seem daunting.
It is helpful to know that this is a completely normal part of the process. It is during these times that it is especially important to lean into your support system. Let them remind you that although the process can be hard, it is worth it because YOU are worth it.
Find a way to process the pain
The truth is, many of us who find ourselves working in the sex industry come from backgrounds of sexual abuse. These histories are often compounded by our time in the industry where we are often met with further experiences of trauma. It can be very difficult to move forward in building a new life without addressing this.
Finding a way to process the pain is an important part of the journey out. I am a strong believer that we must face our pain to overcome it. It is because of this that I have gone to great lengths—participating in support groups, individual therapy, grief recovery and 12-step recovery—in order to work through the impact that abuse and trauma have had in my life. I am happy to tell you that I feel healthy and whole and my past does not have a grip on me anymore!
Keep your goal in mind
Remember not only why you decided to leave, but the life you dream of building for yourself. Keeping this vision fresh in your mind will help you push through the difficult times.
You may find it helpful to write a list of all of the reasons you left/want to leave—what would it cost you to stay or go back and what kind of life you imagine for yourself in the future?
Know your triggers
Spend some time identifying those people, places, and things that tempt you to return to the things you have decided are not healthy for you.
It might be helpful to work with your support system to develop some avoidance strategies as well as replacement behaviors and activities. For example, you may want to go for a walk or call someone in your support system when you find yourself facing a trigger.
Create a new budget
I have yet to meet someone who left the industry without having to reevaluate their spending habits. It can be as simple as making a list of all of your monthly bills and expenses and looking for ways to cut back.
For me, this meant getting a roommate, getting rid of one of my two cars and drastically cutting back on eating out and shopping. The sacrifices were well worth the freedom I felt as I built a life outside of the sex industry.
Ready to take the next step?
I genuinely hope that this has been helpful and encouraging to you. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed right now, I want to remind you of this:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lao Tzu
I encourage you to ask yourself, “What is one thing I can do today that will be a step towards the future I want?”
Because you are worth it!
Disclaimer: Some of these resources are gender-specific, others are religiously-affiliated, others use a variety of approaches. Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative awareness and education organization hoping to provide access to resources that are helpful to those who need support. Including this list of recommendations does not constitute an endorsement by Fight the New Drug.
SUPPORT FOR WOMEN
SEXUAL ABUSE RECOVERY
If you believe that leaving the situation you are in may jeopardize your safety for any reason, we encourage you to get additional help.
- Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
- National Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7889
If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.
About the Author
Harmony (Dust) Grillo, MSW, is a survivor of exploitation turned UCLA honor student. In 2003, Harmony founded Treasures to help women in the commercial sex industry find freedom. Her story has been featured on NPR, Buzzfeed, and in Glamour. Her memoir, Scars and Stilettos, gives an account of her story going from working in strip clubs under the control of a pimp, to leading an organization that reaches women on a global scale. She can be reached at @HarmonyGrillo @TreasuresLA on social media and at www.iamatreasure.com.
Listen to Harmony’s interview on Consider Before Consuming, a podcast by Fight the New Drug.