Seyram A. Butame

You see the Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys/ They ain't gonna fight no wars.

Exotic -- A story in three parts

10 February 2022

The other day, I was watching Youtube, and the algorithm recommended a video to me from SoftWhite Underbelly, a documentary channel highlighting society’s more marginalized people; sex workers, people addicted to various substances, pimps, and the unhoused. The interviews are jarring because you hear people reflect on genuinely harrowing experiences. The videos are mostly in color, except for some seconds, usually in the middle, where the subject is shown as a black and white still image.

The video recommended to me was with a sex worker named Exotic, who works on one of the more popular street crawls in Los Angeles, along a boulevard called Figueroa. Exotic’s story is what you’d expect and yet very distinct in many ways. She’s addicted to crystal meth, in her early twenties, and a mother of two. At the time of the interview, she’d been a sex worker for about a decade (since she was 13 years). That in and of itself was such a jarring revelation. To think that there is a whole other world where a girl who is barely an adolescent is compelled to survive via sex work is a depressing fact. It is a testament to our society’s inadequacies despite our supposed evolution and collective wealth.

After the first video, I noticed Exotic had two additional interviews. The second was about a month after the first, and the final one (for now) took place a month after that. The first video is a harrowing account of Exotic’s short 23-years of life. She appears to have come from work to do the interview as she is in her sex worker uniform, booty shorts, and a crop top that I suppose is meant to advertise her availability. Her expression is open but guarded. While she is honest in telling her story, she is also deeply reflective about the events that have steered her life’s trajectory. At one point, she speaks to being in love. She describes being uncomfortable with being treated nicely by a man and resulting to abusive practices visited on her in previous abusive relationships as a coping mechanism. There is a point where she sheds tears, not for sympathy, I don’t think, but for the gruesome nature of the story. Who would not shed a tear at the notion of a woman having to leap from a vehicle traveling at 60mph for fear of a client killing them? Or that the man who sired her children was a statutory rapist and sex offender who only exited her life because he was imprisoned for committing additional sex offenses.

The second is more upbeat. Our documentarian has decided to help Exotic; he is raising monies to support her through GoFundMe. The funds will be used to buy her a car, find housing, cloth and feed her children, give her breathing room, a chance to heal a bit, and perhaps leave sex work behind. I say upbeat because of the way the documentarian sounds. He is positive speaks about helping her escape the “hood,” feeding her children, getting a job, getting a nice place to live, getting her off drugs, and on. Exotic, on the other hand, is quiet and guarded. She is alert and cautiously optimistic, it seems. I am willing to bet she’s heard these kinds of things before. She’s attractive young, and men will promise much for sex. Our documentarian sounds positive; Exotic has a wait-and-see attitude. In this interview, Exotic also reveals that she is a member of the Crips, a family of loosely affiliated gangs operating out of Los Angeles. Again there is some shedding of tears; I sense that they result from gratitude, guilt, frustration, some relief at getting some respite from a hard life. A thick melange of emotion.

The third video is depressing; it is clear the documentarian’s rehabilitative experiment has failed. Exotic has returned to sex work drug use and has begun hanging out with at least one gang member again. The documentarian is deeply disappointed (and perhaps angry) in the tone of his voice. There is also an exasperated air to the entire session; it seems to say, I gave you all this money, a vehicle, a place to live, and this is what you made of it? Exotic again is primarily quiet while being talked to. The documentarian works hard not to come across as condescending, but this video only captures one interaction they had; we don’t know if there was an explosive interaction when he found out that things weren’t working out. Exotic remains inscrutable. It is clear she knows the man who offered her help is disappointed, but it is difficult to tell what she is feeling. She masks warring emotions that she must be feeling; perhaps disappointment in herself, frustrations with not being able to meet expectations, anger at the circumstances that have led her to this point, concern about the loss of certain income, frustration at having exposed her life on YouTube, it is difficult to know.

The last ten minutes are quite a treat; we are introduced to a newish man in her life who goes by “Fly.” Fly is her new boyfriend, her pimp, her new life partner, the new surrogate father to her children, and her connection to the Crips gang. In watching Fly’s portion of the interview, I am tempted to be angry at him specifically. When asked about the monies previously given to Exotic, he responds that it was used for his upkeep, the upkeep of the children, and then for her. That he mentions his name first in the list of people to benefit from the funds generated from Exotic’s tragic story, is disturbing. But then, taking a step back and looking at his earnest expression, I find the anger decimating. We don’t know the fellow’s story, and one can only assume that he also has tragic origins. But we return to the documentarian’s intention with creating this video (and the others on his channel)—which I assume is meant to highlight the lives of those often ignored by society. In that broader context, it is difficult to be angry with Fly. What would that anger achieve? Fly is but one of many components in the broken system. He is but one cog or spring in the machinery of abuse, tragedy, and victimization that characterize Exotic’s life. If Fly were absent, there would be some other figure, some other cog that would seek to continue the cycle.

Watching Fly speak, I become aware of the misogyny that keeps Exotic silent as Fly speaks for her on issues about her. I am aware of the misogyny that makes Exotic an immediate sympathetic figure, needing our dollars to “rescue” her. I am also aware of the misogyny that causes the well of empathy to dry up immediately when Fly enters the picture, and we learn that the money did not go towards what we, the viewers, thought it should go to. I am also cognizant of the race dynamics at play here. Fly is a black male, and Exotic is white (or white presenting). She is thin and small, and while heavily tattooed, with a blank expression, the result of years of hardship, she exudes some vulnerability. The historical and racist trope of black men exploiting white women seems to be on full display. Ultimately, it is a sad interview. The first was sad because of the stories she told. The second was sad because there was a niggling sense that the documentarian’s efforts to “rescue” Exotic would not bear fruit. But this third one is sad because you realize the monumental task involved in helping or attempting to help. But perhaps the cause of greatest sadness is reflecting on what social forces put Exotic on this path and what forces continue to hold her to it.

While watching Exotic’s interviews, a behavioral model I studied in grad school, the Transtheoretical Model (or Stages of Change), came to mind. It describes the behavioral change as being relatively slow and riddled with indecision. Behavioral change was a cyclical process for the model’s developers, with opportunities to exit or renter the cycle at each stage. As I watched the interview, I thought I could map Exotic’s journey to the model. The model also offers some insight into who the process of helping Exotic would be difficult and why the documentarian’s efforts were likely to be doomed from the start. Exotic has experienced multiple tragedies in her life, heinous events that would keep me up at night, and yet she was somehow standing and muddling her way through life the best she could. Initiating behavioral change would take more than giving her money and certain resources. Unfortunately, we as the viewers appear to have little patience with trying to see someone through such difficulties, which is reflected in the comments beneath the videos. With the first two interviews, people were sympathetic and commented about how Exotic is a beautiful soul deserving of all good things. The third interview highlighted frustration and anger, “Why can’t this woman just get her act together?” There are comments about how she had ruined the only opportunity she would get and destroyed all the goodwill coming her way.

It was sad to read those comments, and I think were she to read them herself, it would toss her into a bit of a spiral. I do understand, I think, why the viewership turned against her, as our ability for compassion is not bottomless. I hope Exotic can move beyond the current behavioral challenges she is experiencing. Hopefully, Fly will also see some changes in his life. I think the documentarian would be better served partnering with community providers who understand the needs of people in Exotic’s shoes. Attempting to help her on his own was an error, and his approach simply tossing money at the situation in hindsight was a recipe for disaster. I also wish we, as viewers showed more compassion and patience. We must recognize that the effort to help will not bear fruit overnight.

Prostitute interview-Exotic

Exotic AKA Asriah (follow up)

Asriah AKA “Exotic” (January, 2022 update)