We're kicking off a new series telling your stories and ours about purity culture.
In this first episode of the series, Meg Vallee tells her story of navigating addiction, sex work, and purity culture as a person of faith.
Referenced in this Episode:
Meg Also Recommends/Supports:
Support the show
Be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts and/or your preferred podcasting platform! It helps new listeners find us more easily. Also leave comments on our social media pages, email us, text us, and leave us voicemails with your questions and comments. We want to hear from you!
Interact with Fundamental Shift on:
Web | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | 704.665.7473
Music by '86 Aerostar
James: Heads up: the following podcast contains adult language and deals with adult subjects. We want to add an additional content warning on this episode for domestic violence and sexual content. Keep this in mind as you listen. On with the show.
Grace: Hey folks. I'm Grace.
James: And I'm James. Welcome to Fundamental Shift: the podcast where we explore the major shakeups in our lives, their fault lines, and aftershocks.
Grace: Thanks for listening. You're in for a real shift show.
Meg: My experience with purity culture stands out most to me in the time that I was trading sex and the time that I was working in the industry. What I will say is that I have never, ever felt closer to god than I did in that point in time.
James: That's Meg Vallee. She's a former sex worker and also a person of faith, but it's not the story you're expecting. Meg is not telling a story of repentance and redemption from sin, but rather a loving reception and relationship with god.
Grace: We're beginning our series telling your stories and ours about purity culture. What is purity culture? It's a big tent descriptor for all the ways that religion has tried to control our bodies. When we posted our original call-out, we got questions to clarify what exactly we were asking. In that moment, we realized how sprawling a topic this is. It starts with things like True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and my favorite oldie but not so goodie, Passion and Purity. Then we move on to Purity Pledge cards to remain abstinent until marriage--one man, and one woman, of course--alongside the wedding bands you wear to signify this commitment until it's replaced with an engagement ring.
It ends in shaming people about their bodies; their sexual orientation; their gender identity; oppressing people with pressure to conform to strict gender roles, have many children, and pass this teaching onto them.
Meg: I was born in the seventies here in Southern California. , . My dad was an LAPD officer. My mom was a stay at home mom. My dad grew up Catholic and my mom grew up in Germany and she later immigrated to Canada where she met my dad .
I think they know each other for like a couple of weeks before they decided to get married. It was fairly quick. And my mom had been a Lutheran and she was told that if she was going to marry my dad, that she had to convert to Catholicism. And so they made her go through all the classes and then eventually decided to deny him The marriage anyway.
So my dad left the church and my dad was very irreligious after that. Like, nothing wouldn't have anything to do with the church. My mom, however, raised us in the Lutheran faith growing up.
James: Some of you may be familiar with the highly marketed and commodified version of purity culture sold at Christian bookstores everywhere in the late '80s/early '90s, but it wasn't always like that.
Meg: Back then in the seventies and , I suppose at that point it would have been the early eighties, I don't even know that our church would even say the word sex. Like, I don't remember ever, ever hearing that, like you understood marriage, you understood babies. You understood a wedding. I don't know that those conversations ever happened. And , you know, I feel like purity culture was on steroids in the nineties.
Purity culture has always been a part of the evangelical church in North America. Right. Since the moment we got here, people have been controlling sexuality and controlling, largely women's bodies. Right. That's where the focus has generally been laid and the responsibilities been laid.
But it really wasn't until things took off with post seventies, Christian culture, that those things started to be discussed. And I imagine it's because that was at the apex of women's liberation and they were kind of forced to discuss it. Right. You had the sixties generation where the sexual revolution is happening and you had a lot more freedom.
You had the advent of birth control, right. And then you had the seventies movement where women really wanted freedom and equality , enter Phyllis Schlafly, and the church had to adapt its pursuit and its pushing of purity culture based on how the world was changing.
Grace: When Meg was growing up in the 1980s, sex was rarely if ever discussed at home.
Meg: You didn't talk about it. Like my mom told me about her first experience with her period. She basically taught me about the mechanics of sex. So I would understand it, but we don't talk about sex.
There was never any conversation like, Hey, most people have sex for enjoyment. Believe it or not. Right. There was this understanding that you were to be married before you had sex, but I don't think the actual sex conversations were one that my mom wanted to have other than the absolute basics.
James: When Meg was 12, she came to a realization about the faith that she was being raised in.
Meg: 12 years old is right around the time where you get confirmed. Right? You get confirmed for your first communion. Right. And I, at that point had realized that I did not believe in God. I did not believe in Jesus.
This whole church thing was a big old hoax for me. The Bible was a joke and I basically told my mom, I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to go. And it had been a mandatory thing like, Nope, sorry we do church. Like, it is not an option for you. But at that point I basically told my mom and what I think was a very well thought out argument, which I was mostly sincere about.
My argument to her was, Hey, I don't connect with this. This is a really serious and personal, and very holy experience for some people. And I actually think it would be really unfair to partake of something. You know, kind of unethical to partake of something that I am not emotionally or spiritually invested in.
My mom let me off the hook and I didn't go back to church. I was a card carrying atheist for many, many years.
Grace: Throughout her growing up and school experiences, Meg doesn't recall there being any very strong messaging specifically about sex, but ideas around body image and desirability came to the surface around the time of her first sexual experience.
Meg: This idea of sex, right? Like me being a sexual person, I think was something my mom was very uncomfortable with. I didn't have sex my first time until my senior year. And of course my mom didn't know about that. But I was also a larger child in high school.
And I think that my mom probably thought that was a buffer or a protection from those kinds of conversations. Right. This lack of desirability, right? This idea of the larger body, not being very desirable, probably made my mom feel as if she did not have to have those conversations. But when I lost 75 pounds my senior year in high school , the way she looked at me and the way she treated me definitely changed.
I remember her saying to me, very specifically, like, Oh no, You're you're very sexy, like, and she said it would like this disgusted look on her face, like disgusted and worried, look on her face, which has stuck with me. I remember I was a 17 year old girl and it stuck with me forever. I'm like, first of all, for my mom to point that out, which she felt a little bit of pride in right.
Yay. But then for my mom also to be disgusted by that aspect of me, . Also felt very confusing , but I decided to roll with the compliment, the backhanded compliment.
James: After losing the 75 pounds and having that confusing conversation with her mother, Meg noticed that she was a much more visible person, and being 17 going on 18, she realized the sort of power that came with being seen as more visible, as more desirable than she thought she was before. She graduated high school and enrolled in a few college courses locally, but never knew how to navigate the college experience.
She dated and partied during that time, eventually left college, and at 18, she decided to use her new found sexuality to her advantage by entering the adult entertainment industry.
Meg: I decided I was going to take that and I was going to figure out how I could utilize that.
And I stepped into escorting. So that's what I did. I wanted to make some extra cash. I wanted to kind of like play with this new found power and experience that I'd suddenly discovered. And that's what I decided to do. So I was working part-time and then part-time it was escorting on the side.
Grace: This wasn't the sort of stereotypical situation that's often talked about at church youth group meetings or passed around the email chains of concerned mothers and conservative mailing lists. Meg wasn't a runaway who was abducted and forced into sex work. She was striking out on her own, figuring out what she could do as she made her own way in the world.
But as with any 18 year old headed out into the world on their own for the first time, the experience wasn't always easy and it wasn't always safe.
Meg: I was incredibly naive. I probably dodged a lot of really bad situations because I wasn't familiar with the industry and I wasn't familiar with how to navigate certain situations.
And I find myself incredibly fortunate. That being said , it was also. An experience I wouldn't trade for anything. And as an 18 year old girl who really loved adventure and love to explore, I definitely got to do that.
I was working at Black Angus at the time and I was the girl who would drink on their shift, like half the other people there. And I didn't know that I had developed a drinking problem at that point . And then a few months after that I would discover meth.
I was 18 and I dated someone who I did not know was essentially a Neo Nazi at that time. I figured it out like a couple of weeks in really quickly. But at that point I was very addicted. And I knew that he was the source of my drugs.
And honestly, like I hadn't yet dismantled any kind of white supremacy whatsoever. I wasn't even aware that it was a thing. And I didn't understand how my own racism was complicit in that relationship. So having grown up in a very racist and homophobic home, it wasn't that far off from what I'd experienced.
James: That relationship didn't last. Meg and the Neo Nazi broke up and through him, she had met another man named Julio, who she went on to date. Like her previous relationship, this one turned out to be extremely abusive, so they broke up, but remained friends. Meg and Julio had the shared interest of recreational drug use.
Meg: I was on a really quick course to crash and burn. I was not a functional user in any way, shape or form.
I could not maintain, I could not do daily life. I could not keep it together. My life quickly fell apart after that. So I had to take a hiatus.
I didn't have support. I did not have support at all. I was very isolated.
I did not associate with other people in the industry.
And I really kind of isolated myself from that . I did not want anyone knowing my secrets.
Grace: Meg is quick to point out that, contrary to popular myths that correlate sex work to substance abuse, that was not her personal experience.
Meg: And I know a lot of people kind of hold those two very closely. And I think there can be reasons for that. But I also think it's very individual. And well, I'm very connected to the sex work community. And I know there are many of us who don't use substances. Right. And I know that there are people who do .
All of that's individual and everyone has kind of their own reasoning for that. This idea, right. That you're going to be addicted to something if you're trading sex, because it's so awful, it's not accurate. It's not accurate at all. It's one of those stereotypes that needs to just die.
James: Meg eventually was able to get sober and stayed sober for a couple of years, but it was extremely difficult. She was white knuckling it as she called it. Hated every moment of it, but held it together because she knew she had to. She feels incredibly fortunate to be alive after that run of addiction and sobriety. Meg found work as a cocktail server, she eventually started using again with the idea that she could better control things this time around and avoid falling back into the crushing sort of addiction that almost destroyed her.
Meg: I thought, you know what, I'm okay. Like I can manage this and I can navigate it, and I just kind of miss how it feels. And so I would do it on a Sunday and it'd be okay for week and then it would be a weekend treat. And then I'd be like, ah, well maybe Monday or Tuesday won't hurt. And then sure enough, I was right back into every day.
It was definitely the hidden secret.
It was not something that I shared. It wasn't something that I wanted anyone to know because I was able to function and I was able to maintain the second time around.
Grace: All this time, Meg was still living at her parents' home, where she grew up. When she was 25, her parents decided to sell and move.
Meg: They didn't even put the house on the market and it was gone and they'd already. They were already packing. So they were like, Hey, basically you have two weeks to figure out what you want to do.
You can either move up north with us or you can stay down here. And so I scrambled and figured out that I was going to stay down here.
James: When Meg's parents moved north, Meg stuck around in Southern California, moving in with her ex-boyfriend Julio, with whom she had remained friendly over the past several years.
Meg: And he said, you know, "My mom said you can rent one of the rooms."
And so even though we weren't together anymore, we were still friends and we were hanging out. I decided, okay, I'll rent a room from your mom. And so I did that and I was closer to my college, which was a community college and , I was close enough to either walk or get a ride. It really worked out for me.
I had somehow decided that I was gonna give my faith a shot again, I'd had a really kind of serious life-changing moment. I had tried to kill myself at one point and I was in the ER and I was on the table and I remember overhearing the doctor tell Julio that he didn't know if I was gonna make it or not, but I just remember having this very still peace and understanding that whatever was out there was very real. And I didn't need to know what it was at that point in time. But the only thing that there was to kind of fall back on was, evangelical culture.
So I did the thing that my Bible thumping brother at that point had encouraged me to do, and I went to Calvary Chapel, and I picked up my first Bible and I walked down , to the front and then made that commitment and then no one ever called me again.
And I didn't know what to do. So I kind of like stayed in limbo for a little while. And then eventually I forayed back into the church and I found a large church in West Covina that I could sneak into the back of the church on Saturday night and kind of go to .
What I hear a lot from people is like, Oh, you were high all the time. Right? Whatever you were feeling or whatever you were experienced was a manifestation of the drugs that you were using I don't need to challenge it. I don't need to validate or invalidate that I know what I experienced.
Right. And I had some very, strong moments. What I will say is that I have never, ever felt closer to God than I did in that point in time.
Grace: This was a major development in Meg's spiritual journey, returning to a faith community after more than a decade. At the same time, the teachings of purity culture had taken the shape that many came to associate with judgment, fear, and shame. These were now virtually inseparable from any form of sexual activity or temptation that occurred outside of marriage.
This of course was many years before any form of non-heterosexual marriage was legally recognized. Purity culture is a different experience among men and women. And certainly for those who are non-binary. Meg was going into this faith experience already a product of the culture of purity by the very nature of her gender.
Meg: When you join the church and you are a woman and by default, I'm already embroiled in purity culture, at that point I was a 20 something single woman . I jumped into church and I'm already embroiled in purity culture, right? And I'm already the focus of it. But imagine being someone who's trading sex . And having all of these comments made about strippers coming into the church, . Or what you can and can't do with your body.
And I'm knowing exactly what I'm doing with my body, there's this great conflict. And yet I've never felt more peace about the work than I did at that point. I really felt God say like, I know what they're saying. You're good. Like you and me are good. So I didn't. Feel close to God because of the church.
I think I felt close to God in those moments, despite the church.
James: Even as Meg was at a point in her life where she was rediscovering her spiritual side and finding peace unlike anything she had ever experienced, there was also a great tension between who she was and who she believed the church expected her to become, but just as she had done since she was 18, Meg was forging her own path.
Meg: That's part of the reason I sat in those back pews. Cause I didn't want to have to answer questions about my life. I didn't want to go to Bible study, because I didn't want to have to be real and vulnerable with people and lie to them about who I was and what I was doing and what I was doing to survive.
That being said, I have no regrets and I have no remorse. Like God was like, okay, I'm okay with what you do.
I think maybe there was part of me that was still really struggling with internalized stigma and trying to figure out how can I be a good person in the midst of all of this work that I do.
I wanted something more and maybe that was my way of figuring out what it was. It didn't have to be perfect, but it did feel good.
But there is no space in the church for someone who's not remorseful for someone who doesn't feel ashamed for someone who's unrepentant about their sexual activity.
Right. And I will say this always falls more heavily on the women, right? Women in the church are more burdened by this. Right. Cause we have the uterus and we have babies.
Grace: But the tension in Meg's life wasn't limited to the church and how it viewed sex. She was living in a room rented from the mother of her abusive ex-boyfriend, and the newfound freedom she was experiencing as she found her spiritual path became a point of contention between Meg and Julio.
Meg: I started to experience more freedom. I think that was a real challenge and a real frustration for him because even though we weren't dating and we just remained good friends, it's clear that he had never gotten over me.
And because he couldn't have control in any other way, this was going to be the way that he was going to assert that he was definitely having his own issues with substances. But I think the only way he knew how to respond to that was to control me.
James: The situation with Julio escalated. He knew all her secrets. About the drugs and the sex work. And he used that knowledge against Meg to abuse and blackmail her.
Meg: It was a very, very scary experience for me. So because the violence that I experienced, right? Like the intimidation, the trauma, the violence, the control. It's just, I was literally terror... he terrorized me.
I didn't want anyone to know because he had so many secrets. I was using substances and he knew I was trading sex and he knew, right?
He would come in, he would break down my door.
He would be at three in the morning. He would break down the door in the household. He would slam doors. He would scream at me. He would call me a whore. His mom would be like, Julio, you need to stop that. And he'd be like, she's a fucking whore mom. She'd be like, yeah, I know. Can we all go to bed? I think she was scared. I think she was scared and she didn't want to rock the boat. Right. Scary. It was a really scary, violent person.
But no one stepped in, right? No, one stepped in. No one said anything. No one defended me.
Grace: She didn't realize it at the time, but in addition to falling back into an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend Julio, she had become a victim of sex trafficking.
Meg: So it took me years to figure out that I'd been trafficked. It really did. It wasn't until I was already working with other trafficking survivors that I kind of figured it out for myself. I didn't understand at that point in time that I was being exploited and it happened so gradually, which is what happens with a lot of people like this narrative of like people being thrown into the back of a van and cuffed up...
maybe that's a European experience to some extent where it's a little more organized on some level. But here most trafficking happens through interpersonal relationships and that's exactly what happened. You know, one day it's like, Hey, I took you to that call. You want to give me some gas money? And then, you know, a week later it's bitch, I need a thousand dollars to get my car out of impound.
You better figure out how you're going to fucking make that money for me. And so while it's subtle, it was also very, very stark. And I think I had this moment where I was like, Oh, wait a minute. I just went from. Like knowing where my money was going to go to all of a sudden handing all of it over and having to all the time.
James: It wasn't like this at first. When Meg returned to sex work over a period of five years or so she remembers the first couple of years were actually really great. She had lots of agency, great clients. She describes it as having been a very privileged kind of sex work experience, but things with Julio took a turn.
Meg: Those last three years were, were pretty rough, and progressively so. I still worked through an agency. He just basically made sure he was there to like terrorize me and remind me and at some point he didn't even need to hit me anymore because it was so terrifying.
Grace: It seemed like a hopeless situation: trapped with an abusive ex-boyfriend; living in his mom's house with nowhere else to go.
Meg: So I saw something that had reminded me about a friend that when I was 18, I did a brief stint in rehab. If I wanted to maintain my housing, my mom and dad said that I had to go to rehab when they figured out I was using substances. So I did that and I met Tony and we stayed in touch and I saw something that had reminded me of him. And then two days later I just drove by his house and left him a note, said, Hey, I saw something. I thought of you. I just wanted to say hi.
And he called me and we started talking and I, I had a. A moment where I went, I went home later that night, Tony and I had hung out and I went home later that night and Julio his parents were out of town, which was a particularly dangerous situation for me. Cause there was, there was no buffer at that point.
And it was like around midnight when I got home and he was screaming at me wanting to know where I been Wanting to know who I'd fucked, which had not been the case at all, but it was really irrelevant and none of his business. And so essentially I think I talked him down, it took me about three hours to talk him down.
I stood at the front door and refused to come in until I was able to talk him down. And then I waited the next morning until he went to work and I threw everything in my car that I thought I could not live without. And I left. I left.
James: Meg went to Tony's place.
Meg: He let me stay there and he didn't fully understand the situation, but he knew the situation where I was staying was not good or was not healthy.
But that's where I did and I, I didn't leave. He would later become my husband.
I wasn't ready to talk about everything with Tony. He knew that on some level I'd been engaged with the industry that I wasn't ready to talk about anything. And there were some things that were traumatic enough that I just didn't remember them at that point.
But we went to church and became members of First Evangelical Free Church, Chuck Swindoll's church in Fullerton. That's where we kind of planted ourselves. And rooted ourselves for about eight years.
Grace: Now that Meg was in a place where she could breathe and feel more safe, where she could explore her spirituality with someone who accepted her as she was, without manipulation, without some sort of catch, she began to think that maybe there was support for her somewhere within the church.
Meg: I was actually a fairly conservative person at that point. And I was listening to Concerned Women for America. I remember exactly where I was. I was transitioning off the 105 to the 5 and I was headed to Norwalk and they had this, this guest host on who lived in Seattle, Washington, and she'd been a stripper. And she was talking about how she transitioned out of the industry and Jesus was amazing. And at this point, you know, the internet was well connected enough where I was like, Oh my God, like she would get me.
I could, I could write her. And so I did. I did. I wrote her and I reached out to her and her entire bent was when are you leaving? When are you getting out? And I don't think she understood that I just didn't have that as an option. Which is what I think largely the church doesn't understand for a lot of people who are surviving through sex work, right, or who may be being exploited in some level like leaving at that point in time is not an option. What I didn't have the ability or the wherewithal to talk about or even understand at that point was like, you know, no one asked Rahab to leave, right? No one expected her to leave.
James: Meg is referring to Rahab from the ancient Hebrew scriptures, whose story is recorded in the sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, Joshua. Rahab was a sex worker. Some versions of the narrative refer to her as Rayhab the Harlot. As the story goes, Rahab was visited by some spies who were on a reconnaissance mission to eventually conquer the land, the city, Jericho, where she and her family were living. Rahab had a sense of how things were going to go down, so she made a deal. When the king's men came by looking for the spies, she would send them off in the wrong direction on the condition that she and her family would be spared.
She kept her promise. The spies were able to escape. And when Jericho was conquered, she and her family were spared and allowed to keep all their property. As Meg points out here, nowhere in the story is Rahab asked to leave her profession.
She's rescued, but not from the sex work that supported her family, and she was made a heroine in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Christian tradition holds that Rahab married a man from the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, and among their direct descendants was none other than Jesus Christ.
It's actually a pretty familiar story to anyone who was a church kid. And to put that next to Meg's past and current profession at the time not being accepted by church culture is simultaneously puzzling and quite telling.
Meg: And I think there was this very deep sense of shame at that point in time where I'm like, I have no one, like, geez, Christian women won't even talk to me.
Christian women who've been in the. Industry won't even talk to me. And while I may want to get out at some point, like there's literally no one here to help me.
And it was actually very dangerous for me to leave. I did go to Tony's, but all my stuff was at Julio's and eventually I had to go back. So I would wait until he would leave to work and then I would try and sneak in and I would grab some stuff.
And the first time I went back , every single piece of clothing I owned had been cut up with a pair of scissors he had absolutely gone through everything I owned which I expected , but walking into the room and seeing that was absolutely horrifying and it was very violating.
I think what I did not expect is that I would be consistently finding myself in life-threatening situations. And so this one day when I was pulling away and he was pulling in, he saw me and it turned into like one of those car chases that you see in the movies . I'd always been a really good and fast driver when I wanted to be, and it was one of the things that probably saved my life in this moment. I actually out drove him enough to kind of save myself because he, he would have blocked me. He would have pulled me out of the car and I have no doubt it would have been really ugly.
Grace: That last escape from Julio's was a breaking point for Meg. She says that after this, she stepped away from sex work pretty soon after. She didn't have anything against the industry, but she wanted out of this situation of being trafficked; of being taken advantage of, forced to hand over money. Most of all, she says she just wanted out of the trauma. Moving in with Tony gave her an avenue out of the trauma and she took it. But the drug use continued.
Meg: He didn't know it, but I continued to use until I found out that I was pregnant. And then I continued to use a little bit more probably up until like, almost like second month of my first trimester, you know, right around month, two of that pregnancy I continued to use . I was working at a daycare. And I was smoking meth in the bathroom and I was morning sick and I was throwing up because I just figured out, like I was pregnant and I had this moment where I was like, I don't think I can keep doing this. Like, what am I going to do? Like have this baby? And if this baby doesn't get taken away, what am I gonna do? Throw my kid in the car and go get drugs? . And I would never judge anyone who does that. Right? Like, I work in harm reduction. I work with people who are pregnant and using substances all the time.
We don't do enough for them, but for me, it just seemed like, how do I navigate this? And so I did, I gave up substances. And for someone who had been using every day for about five years I expected that that would be really, really hard. And I was able to do it overnight for some reason, probably cause the pregnancy was so shitty, but like honestly I was really fortunate. I was able to kick really quickly and without much pain at all.
James: After coming out of a dangerous and chaotic period in her life, having overcome trafficking and addiction, then becoming a mom, Meg craved a life that was more stable and structured. That desire for stability brought Meg more into church life with her new family. It was not without its challenges.
Meg: I am literally adulting for the first time. I gave birth in 2002 and I have a baby. So I'm figuring out life, the structure of the church probably met some real unique needs for me. And the ability to adapt and assimilate probably came really quickly.
It probably felt familiar, but it also probably felt very comfortable. That being said, I would say that I didn't experience a lot of freedom in the church to ask questions, churches aren't really good at boundaries, right.
They don't really teach you how to do that stuff. Like you give everything . You tirelessly give bringing the snack for your child's Sunday school, or maybe it means teaching Sunday school, like for women, especially in the church. And there are a lot of heavy burdens and I experienced that, but I also really had taken on that kind of, well, 'this is my role' kind of thing. I'd seen that I'd grown up with that.
And I did not know yet how to challenge that. So at some point later on, when I started to question some stuff, it wasn't well received. Because we don't do questions well in church right. You're falling away. Right? Maybe you're worried everyone wants to throw you onto the prayer chain.
Those questions aren't safe, right? No one wants to... 'Meg's questioning her faith.' No, I'm not questioning my faith. I'm just questioning what we believe. I feel like those are two fundamentally different things.
And when I went to the church and said, Hey, I'd like to do a couple of things , you know, like what would it look like for us to support people who are in the industry?
Grace: Meg knew they should be doing more for people in the industry, people like her, and she spoke up. She asked questions. She wanted to see if she could nudge the church in that direction. They didn't go for it.
Meg: Well, we can't do that. And I was like, Oh, okay. I do remember, I do remember asking God for years, like being very, very honest with God and saying, hey like, I just want healing. And I, in one of maybe only one or two moments in my life, had this very clear sense of direction and hearing. And I basically heard, like, I can't heal what you won't acknowledge.
James: Meg decided if she was going to affect real change, she needed to be more real, put herself out there. Maybe if she could humanize sex work for these church people, it would seem more real to them and they would come around and support her ideas.
Meg: And of course at this point I had no idea that, Hey, maybe you don't share shit personal shit with people who aren't worthy of hearing your story, right. Maybe, maybe you find people who can carry that and be present for you. But I didn't know what that was. Right. I hadn't grown up with that. The church didn't teach that.
So when we went through class and we were like, Hey, everyone's going to get to know each other. Let's all share like 20 minutes of our story. And eventually it was my turn. And I, I basically dipped my toes in the water. And I said, 'Hey, I used to strip.' Which wasn't entirely accurate, but I didn't want to give them everything at that point. And I'm really glad I didn't, because the looks were uncomfortable. You could see people trying to really lean in and be supportive, but not knowing how and, and not feeling comfortable with that because you know, that's whore stuff.
Right. And I use that as a reclaimed word now, but back then, I know exactly what people were thinking of. And so I remember someone from my class coming up to me afterwards and just looking at me and grabbing my hand and just saying, 'I am so glad that you're better now. ' And I remember having this moment where I deeply thought, Holy shit, what if I wasn't?
Grace: What if I wasn't better? That moment triggered another shift in Meg's relationship with the church.
Meg: Better what the fuck is better anyway, but like, what if I wasn't better? Like we're supposed to like reach out to the marginalized and the vulnerable, but like, if we can't even be in space with people who have had different life experiences, I'm not trusting any of you with any of that. And I think like this understanding of purity culture is what drives all of that. Like it's not holy. Meg had a whole bunch of sex, whole bunch of sex. Okay. With a lot of different people and she made some cash off of it. Geez. That's not very Jesusy. I, I don't know that it's not Jesusy. I tithed, first of all, I'd like to go on record to say that Jesus got a lot of my damn money.
But I will say that this inability to hold space for people and for people to not be able to recognize number one, sexuality, but number two, this deep inability to recognize capitalism and patriarchy and like how people survive. Right.
Very middle-class , very white church. All of those things are factors that I realize this is not a safe space , and it really started to unravel for me from there. And , it would take a little bit, but we would be gone within the next few years.
My world would be very different. Had that been my last church experience. We found a small predominantly Asian American church in Fullerton called Epic and Kevin Doi and Aaron Hamilton were the pastors there. Man, to be able to be free of that toxicity and that judgment . And to be able to think freely and find a place where we could ask questions. Right? God, can you imagine that? Like just the mere idea of asking questions, what a powerful experience that was.
James: Meg and Tony attended Epic for about eight years. There was finally that permission to ask questions and challenge the status quo. The pastor talked about justice and dismantling systems of oppression. He took stands that were so unpopular with churched people that, as Meg put it, he preached his congregation down to 40 people.
Meg: And so that was a very freeing experience for me. Yeah. I still have incredible amount of respect for Kevin Doi and his pastoring. He really, really shaped so much of the way we grew as an organization. When I eventually started my own organization, he influenced that immensely. I'm always going to be immensely grateful to him. In 2009, I started an organization. Orange County was highly unaware of how impacted sex workers are. And so myself and a couple of other people starting an organization and intend to serve them and meet them where they're at. I'm very proud of the work we did. We worked serving sex workers in a variety of different ways and just kind of filling in gaps because there were a lot. They did a lot of advocacy and we did a lot of activism.
Grace: At last, Meg had found a sort of spiritual home in the church. She was finally able to fulfill her desire to reach out into the community and help sex workers, with help and influence from the church's pastor. But it wasn't perfect, as she ultimately found out soon after she and Tony ended their marriage.
Meg: I lost the church in the divorce, churches don't always know how to handle a divorce.
Right. And I would say that our church was no different for as wonderful as it was. We still had our issues. Our community did not know how to navigate that and I feel like people kind of bailed on me. Yeah. And I lost the church in the divorce.
James: Meg continued her work, serving people within the sex industry for a number of years through her nonprofit, but it proved especially challenging.
Meg: Unfortunately, the divorce cost me immensely and we had to slow down a bit. And then we actually just shuttered a few months ago. Orange County is an incredibly purity culture driven community, very evangelically driven as far as the anti-trafficking movement and a very conservative, politically area.
We have shifted in the last few years, but the church really has a stranglehold on the anti-trafficking movement. And so this kind of in demand Nordic model thinking and ideology has permeated not only law enforcement, but the church. And so after years of trying to have some really hard conversations about like, Hey, I promise you when you treat sex workers, well, you're going to naturally be taking care of trafficking victims. We have largely shifted to harm reduction work, which I'm really proud of. We offered services to the sex work community that no one else was offering an orange County. And I'm really sad that we are no longer able to do the thing that our community needs.
There was an inability to kind of. Make that understood , and when you're the only person who's having those conversations, that wound up being incredibly difficult and traumatic, and I think it just kind of exacerbated existing church trauma. So It was not a good environment for me to be in anymore, but we just, we just couldn't function and fundraise and do the work that we needed to do.
Grace: When she talks about the time she spent reaching out and helping sex workers in Orange County, Meg momentarily goes in and out of present and past tense. The loss is still so fresh that the shift in her organization's emphasis toward harm reduction still seems current. We asked Meg, what can we do now to expand our consciousness and continue this sort of work and focus that she had with her organization.
Meg: Number one, prioritize a variety of sex working voices. Not everyone experiences sex work the same way. I have a friend who's an amazing activist and advocate. Her name is Phoenix Calida. And she doesn't ever want to go back to sex work. She fucking hated it, right. It was a circumstantial experience for her. And she doesn't ever want to go back and the activism that she does recognizes that everyone should have a choice .
She's on the board at SWOP USA, which is a great sex worker advocacy organization. Definitely think about the things that you're voting for. I know lots of people want to support anti-trafficking initiatives, but the way anti-trafficking initiatives are set up often really hurt people who are marginalized.
When you further criminalize people who are engaging in sex, you're actually locking them into an industry they may not want to be a part of, for the rest of their lives. I really want to see anti-trafficking work supported that's healthy and well-rounded and holistic . But right now I'm seeing an absence of that.
Follow and listen to people who are really great speakers and advocates. I would say Kate D'Adamo is great. I would say Erin Albright is great. Twitter is an amazing resource for sex worker advocacy. Listen to a variety of voices and understand the spectrum of sex work.
James: Meg hasn't returned to church life since leaving Epic. She's in a place where she's embracing mystery and uncertainty on her spiritual path.
Meg: I think I'm still figuring that out. After losing two churches in incredibly difficult and painful circumstances, I have a lot of church trauma. I still think Jesus is really fucking cool. Like I still look at Jesus and be like, man, there's a hell of a lot of ethics in there. And I just like this idea of like, how to love. And how we treat people. You're never going to convince me that's not stellar.
The person that I'm currently with now is, you know, a person of faith. And even though we may be in different spaces, we still have great conversations about this.
He's pretty well known for dismantling and kind of calling the church on its stuff. And I think that's why I felt so safe with him.
My willingness to go to church is next to nothing. I just don't know that I can engage and commit, and I don't even know where I am theologically anymore . I don't need to know.
And, you know, at a point in time where I was first in Christianity, right? Like those early twenties, I'm like, gotta hurry up, got to figure it. Gotta stick my theology, got to figure out what it means. I don't need that anymore. I am so not stressed out about it.
I want to be on the journey where it takes me. And I think there are a million different ways that God can show me what they need to show me or, you know, I just. I don't need to have all the answers.
I was having a conversation with my daughter last night. But you know, almost all of my children no longer are people of faith and, and I'm okay that would've freaked me out 15 years ago. Right. I'm like, so at peace with that, because I realized that our spiritual lives are a journey, but last night she and I were talking and she's like, you know, I think if I were going to be a person of faith, she goes, I really like Taoism. And then she kind of got into this whole conversation about it, which I loved, like, I want deep thinkers. I want to raise kids who aren't awful. Right. I want to raise them to be compassionate. People who like are willing to take a journey and recognize this component of ourselves.
I don't need to have it all figured out. And maybe, maybe them seeing that is valuable. I don't know.
Grace: We use many resources for the show. If you'd like to look into harm reduction more, check out the National Harm Reduction Coalition at harmreduction.org.
James: We were delighted and honored to have Meg joining us to share her story. For more information on how to support sex workers, check out Sex Workers Outreach Project at swopusa.org. That's S-W-O-P U-S-A.org. Please subscribe to the podcast. Rate and review us on Apple podcasts or the platform of your choice. Your feedback means a lot to us. It allows others to find us more easily and helps us know more about the content you're looking for.
Grace: Now that you've heard from us, we want to hear from you. Facebook us on the Fundamental Shift podcast page.
James: Tweet us @funshiftpod, Instagram us at @fun.shift.pod.
Grace: Find us on the web where you can also comment on our blog at funshiftpod.com. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leave us a voicemail or text us at (704) 665-7473.
James: Leave us a voicemail or text us at (704) 665-7473. Tune in next time to hear more stories and our stories on purity culture.
Grace: Until then, remember folks: shift happens.