Shine a light

From the day she en­tered the world as the child of un­mar­ried par­ents, Jen­nifer Souness’ life was im­pacted by so­ci­ety’s sense of shame around sex. Later, as the owner of an es­cort agency, she was ex­posed to a whole lot more of that at­ti­tude. Now, as more a

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

In 1963, my Aus­tralian birth mother dis­cov­ered she

was preg­nant – out of wed­lock. She was in her early

20s, the youngest of nine chil­dren in a con­ser­va­tive

Protes­tant fam­ily and the sense of shame and fear was im­mense. Like many young women at that time, to avoid de­tec­tion, she crossed the ditch and waited out the fi­nal months of her pregnancy in New Zealand. My fa­ther was to fol­low soon af­ter and they would then de­cide what to do. But find­ing her­self un­der con­stant pres­sure from the hos­pi­tal to give up her baby, my mother re­lented and 10 days af­ter I was born, the nurse came and took me away.

They in­formed her I was go­ing to a “nice mar­ried cou­ple”. Their un­sub­tle im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that a fallen woman could not love and pro­tect her child like a mar­ried one. This cou­ple would give me a life free of the stigma and shame I’d ex­pe­ri­ence with a solo mother.

My birth mother never told an­other soul she’d had a baby. It was un­fath­omable she sub­ject her par­ents to such shame, so she car­ried her se­cret for 33 years. My par­ents went their sep­a­rate ways af­ter my birth, but a few years later they re­united, mar­ried and had two more chil­dren who grew up un­aware they had a third, older sib­ling. Me, grow­ing up in New Zealand.

When I was 5 my adopted par­ents told me I was “spe­cial” as I’d been “cho­sen”, but that logic was some­thing I failed to grasp. All I knew was that other kids had nice par­ents, moth­ers and fa­thers who’d been good and were al­lowed to keep them. I grew up ashamed, re­gard­less of my spe­cial­ness.

I guess it’s that pri­mal ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as many that fol­lowed that have shaped my life­long quest to ex­tin­guish the strange, cen­so­ri­ous at­ti­tudes that we as a so­ci­ety have around sex. I know from ex­pe­ri­ence that they are dam­ag­ing.

I feel strongly that the place to make this change is in the home – with par­ents talk­ing hon­estly and frankly to their chil­dren about where they come from as soon as they’re old enough to be cu­ri­ous and un­der­stand. This con­ver­sa­tion should con­tinue – not re­lent­lessly, but here and there through­out child­hood and into ado­les­cence with topics like con­sent, pornog­ra­phy and plea­sure be­ing ex­plored. Yes, schools need to cover this too (and, ac­cord­ing to re­cent news sto­ries, the cur­ricu­lum needs a se­ri­ous over­haul). But I think the best sex ed should come from par­ents.

A re­sponse I of­ten receive when I voice th­ese views is, “you’d feel dif­fer­ently if you were a par­ent your­self”. Well, putting aside the fact that I was a very in­volved step-par­ent for more than a decade, I do feel qual­i­fied to talk about sex. What qual­i­fies me is pretty rudi­men­tary stuff. I’m a hu­man be­ing. I was once a vul­ner­a­ble child then a vul­ner­a­ble and con­fused teenager. As a young woman I was fre­quently sex­u­ally ha­rassed but learnt to de­fend my­self. I had many re­la­tion­ships, long and short, happy and not so happy. I’ve had good sex, and I’ve had lots a of bad/bor­ing sex. I’ve had sex with­out my con­sent. I’ve or­ches­trated sex for other peo­ple and I’ve en­dured way too many un­in­formed opin­ions as to why I shouldn’t. I’ve taught women how to stand up for them­selves when hav­ing – or sell­ing – sex.

When I was 11, my adopted fa­ther passed away, leav­ing my mother to raise four chil­dren on her own.

Like many kids of that era, I grew up with a mother who was un­able to dis­cuss the nuts and bolts of sex, let alone the psy­chol­ogy of it. This en­sured that I too was left vul­ner­a­ble and wretch­edly un­pre­pared for many of the sit­u­a­tions I en­coun­tered grow­ing up. And it was this same shame that pro­hib­ited me from de­fend­ing my­self, when older pow­er­ful men be­gan to ex­ploit their au­thor­ity. Men in pro­fes­sions and po­si­tions that so­ci­ety had told me to trust, and con­tin­ues con­di­tion­ing us to trust.

In the early 2000s af­ter a ca­reer as a model and an event or­gan­iser, and a long pe­riod spent liv­ing in Italy, I opened an up­mar­ket es­cort agency in

Welling­ton (and later Auck­land) in which my em­ploy­ees’ rights were given ut­most pri­or­ity.

One day, an Amer­i­can doc­tor booked an early af­ter­noon ap­point­ment with an our es­cort. While chat­ting over a glass of wine, he men­tioned his spe­cial­ity was sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases. He was here to give a talk on STDs at a con­fer­ence – in fact he was giv­ing it straight af­ter this book­ing. Fif­teen min­utes later, af­ter ex­it­ing the com­pul­sory shower, he in­formed the es­cort he didn’t want to do any­thing with a con­dom. She laughed – and re­fused, re­mind­ing him why he was in New Zealand. He per­sisted but com­pany pol­icy (and the law) was on her side. She stood her ground.

“Find­ing her­self un­der con­stant pres­sure from the hos­pi­tal to give up her baby, my mother re­lented and the nurse came and took me away.”

Some of our New Zealand doc­tor clients also tried to re­ject the oblig­a­tory rain coat. Per­haps it’s the pro­fes­sion that con­vinces them they’re bul­let­proof, or per­haps our higher prices lulled them into a false sense of security. In­ter­est­ingly, the es­corts’ safety was not con­sid­ered.

It seems to me this lack of em­pa­thy and con­cern for oth­ers is closely linked with shame. They’re like op­po­site ends of the spec­trum. One in­volves un­der­stand­ing our fel­low hu­mans and car­ing about them; the other in­volves pushing peo­ple away, hold­ing them at arm’s length or be­low us. To shame some­one for their sex­u­al­ity is also a form of de­nial – de­nial that we are sex­ual too.

Chil­dren aren’t born full of shame about sex, we teach them to be. De­flect­ing their ques­tions is merely re­peat­ing the process, in­still­ing the same feel­ings that we grew up with. It’s learned be­hav­iour, not bi­o­log­i­cal.

When I was a child and kids at pri­mary school ex­cit­edly whis­pered new words I’d never heard be­fore, like “pe­ri­ods” and

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