Study Guide

Sold Sex

By Patricia McCormick


If he turns to you in the night, you must give yourself to him, in the hopes that you will bear him a son. (11.EverythingINeedtoKnow.6.)

We begin to understand a little about how sexuality functions in a somewhat unfamiliar society. When Lakshmi is married, she doesn't really have the option of turning down her husband if she doesn't wants to have sex. So sex, even in Lakshmi's home, is tied up with obligation, function (bearing children), and power.

He fumbles with his pants, forces my legs apart, and I can feel him pushing himself between my thighs. I gasp for air and kick and squirm. (69.OldMan.16)

Lakshmi's first encounter with sex is nonconsensual and full of terror. She fights it—and ultimately frees herself. How might this first experience with sex color her opinion of it forever?

I know this noise from somewhere.
I work very hard to make it out.

Finally, I identify it.
It is the muffled sound of sobbing.

Habib rolls off me.
Then I understand: I was the person crying. (80.LuckytoBewithHabib.11-13)

Drugged with whatever Mumtaz put in the lassi (the yogurt drink), Lakshmi is aware of what is happening, but she is powerless to do anything about it. Think about her reaction to her rape. What does it say about Habib that he doesn't seem to care about her sobbing? What does it say about Mumtaz that she chooses to drug Lakshmi?

But if you are lucky,
or if you work hard at it,
you hear nothing.

Nothing, perhaps, but the clicking of the fan overhead
the steady ticking away of seconds
until it is over. (85.WhatYouHear.3-4)

Lakshmi is doing something that psychologists call disassociation or flat affect. She is disconnecting from an act that usually elicits some emotion—in this case the act is sex—and trying to avoid an emotional response to it. Another way to look at this sort of shutting down she does it as a coping mechanism.

Once a month, Pushpa says, a government woman comes to the back door with a basket of condoms. Take a handful and hide them under your mattress, but do not let Shilpa, the aging bird girl, see you; she is Mumtaz's spy. (95.EverythingINeedtoKnowNow.8)

The condoms are meant to protect the girls in the house from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), though Mumtaz and Shilpa clearly don't care about the girls' physical health. STIs are fairly common among human trafficking victims.

In the days after the hugging man leaves, I consider myself in the mirror. My plain self, not the self wearing lipstick and eyeliner and a filmy dress.

Sometimes I see a girl who is growing into womanhood.
Other days I see a girl growing old before her time.

It doesn't matter, of course. Because no one will ever want me now. (120.AmIPretty.1-3)

We can't help but pity Lakshmi as she looks at her real self for the first time in months. Lakshmi feels shame and guilt for an act she is powerless to stop. This sense of hopelessness and self-blame are common amongst people who have been trafficked and abused.

A few days later, when I am finally strong enough to get out of bed, I pass by a mirror. The face that looks back is that of a corpse.

Her eyes are empty. She is old and tired. Old and angry.
Old and sad. Old, old, a hundred years old. (129.AnOldWoman.1-2)

After Lakshmi recovers from her sexually transmitted infection, she sees a reflection of herself and calls herself a "corpse." She also repeats the word "old" six times here. In what ways in Lakshmi old?

"When they heard I was coming," she says, "they met me outside the village and begged me not to come back and disgrace them."

"Did you get to see your daughter?" I say.

Monica cannot meet my eyes.

"They told her I was dead." (130.TheLivingDead.10-13)

When survivors of human trafficking return home, depending on where they're from there is a strong possibility that the society they once belonged to will reject them and isolate them from the community. Sometimes this occurs within the community through talk and actions, and sometimes the survivor is physically driven out of the community. So the effects of sex on the human trafficking victims don't end when they are able to leave the brothels.

And I understand then, somehow, that Monica, the thirsty vine, Monica, the one with tricks to make men pay extra, sleeps with this tattered rag doll. (136.InsteadofHarish.9)

Despite her seemingly sexually adventurous nature, Monica is simply hiding her deep vulnerability to cope with the reality of being at the mercy of Mumtaz and the men she sleeps with.

It is then that I see the red veins in his eyes and smell the liquor on his breath.

He is not a good American. He is just another drunk. (150.AnotherAmerican.5-6)

This sexual experience with a category of person Lakshmi thought she could trust—Americans—does a lot of damage to her ability to trust the third American who comes to the brothel. Think about why McCormick might want to include this particular sexual experience. What is she trying to say about people?

Now, while I wait for the American to return, and the men come to my bed,
I clench the sheets in my hands, for fear that I will pound them to death with my fists.
I grit my teeth, for fear that I will bite through their skin to their very bones.
I squeeze my eyes closed tight, for fear that I will see what has actually happened to me. (173.ForgettingHowtoForget.3)

Lakshmi is waiting for the third American, the one who eventually ends up rescuing her from the brothel. Though we see her break out of her emotional apathy, the emotions she's experiencing aren't good. She is exhibiting signs of rage, fear, and hatred—and of shame about what's happened to her. It's clear that the effects of her sexual experiences will have long-term repercussions on Lakshmi's psychological and physical health.