I work for an anti-trafficking agency and live in the safe house with the residents. I have been involved with anti-trafficking activities for 4 years, having come to this agency in February 2013. I’ve talked with numerous “prostitutes” over the years, and though I do not claim to be an expert and I am not a survivor myself, I’ve been in this long enough to see trends. I will not say that what I’m about to write applies to 100% of the “prostitutes” or “sex workers” in the United States, but I will say the percentage is greater than 90%, probably closer to above 95%.
Prior to my direct involvement with anti-trafficking work, I had my own biases against the woman on the street corner. She was obviously addicted to drugs, probably crack, and she therefore chose to do that work. She wouldn’t be doing it if she didn’t like it and it was most certainly a voluntary thing to do. She was a hooker, a whore – someone I’d never talk to or really even care about. I looked down on her. She was filthy, not worthy of my time or attention.
That all changed in February 2010. I came in contact with my first real life prostitute. She was standing on a streetcorner. I was in Miami as part of a team to identify human trafficking victims and offer assistance. She was a young black female, probably 19 or 20, standing on a street corner on a well known track. We pulled up in the car, me in the passenger seat, rolled down the window and asked if she wanted “out of the life.” Her eyes filled with tears, she shrugged her shoulders and looked in the direction of her pimp. My heart was forever broken. My eyes were forever opened to the travesty that is that life. She unfortunately did not accept our offer of help and by the time we drove 2 blocks down the street, turned around and came back, she had gotten in a car and was gone.
Sure, I had days in my law practice that I cried because of the work I was doing – but I didn’t have the complete lack of hope and look of despair she had.
These “prostitutes” that I had shunned were real people. Real women whose bodies were being brutalized multiple times a day. When we drove by and saw she was gone, all I could think about was that beautiful young woman being raped, while the tears ran down her face. Since February 2010, I had the opportunity to talk to more people who had been prostituted and learned more about that life: beaten with a 2×4 when she couldn’t balance a book on her head, taken on a ride to threaten her within an inch of her life, threatened to “take care of” her family (child included) if she ever left, handcuffed and raped by cops, beaten with a clothes hanger, left for dead but survived against all odds, etc. These things were and still are really happening. Yes, she’s smiling at you from the street corner or in that picture posted on the website or from the stage and “stripper pole” – but you have no idea what she’s had to endure or what she will endure if she doesn’t smile. No, she likely won’t tell you that she’s being forced in any way to do this because she fears repercussions and she certainly doesn’t trust you anyway.
Something that I’ve really learned at The WellHouse, is that a woman who is spiritually, financially, mentally, emotionally and physically complete will not choose this life. What woman would choose to have body parts and inanimate objects stuck in the various holes of her body? Or have drunk men ogle her, give her one dollar bills and make crude comments? What woman would choose to role play with a stranger or get in the car with someone they’ve never met to go to an abandoned building? What woman would subject herself to beatings by 2x4s or clothes hangers, cigarette burns (exterior & interior), massive internal injuries, risk of having hysterectomy early in life, knife attacks, pistol whippings or any other abuse imaginable. At such young ages, they have the symptoms of PTSD, suicidal thoughts & plans, substance addictions, multiple personalities, schizophrenia and any number of dissociation disorders.
Make no mistake she’s a victim. She’s not a danger to you or to society, but you and society are a danger to her. These women have a vulnerability that is being preyed upon – and society fosters it. Whether she was 14, had just broken up with a boyfriend and was at the mall crying when a new, older boy walks up to her and showers her with a lot of attention – only to woo her into a life of prostitution. Whether she was 12 and being beaten by her father and raped by another family member and decided to take her chances on the streets – after all it couldn’t be any worse. Or she was 17, thrown away by her parents, with no where to live and someone took her in. Or, she was 21 and had just lost a child, turned to substances to dull the pain and so she could support her habit had to start having sex with the drug dealer who then turned her out onto the streets. No matter how, once she is a prostitute, dancer or porn star – she is an object. She is property to be bought and sold, used in whatever sordid way one pays for and then rejected. Her need again goes unfulfilled, she is now degraded by the life she is living, she is ashamed and society doesn’t want to help her. She’s engaging in criminal behavior, so the police won’t generally help. She’s likely got piercings and tattoos and maybe dresses differently, so many churches would not lend a helping hand. She’s nothing but a prostitute, a whore and that’s all society will ever let her be. Seriously, who’s going to put on a job application that she’s her previous employment was as a “hooker”? And without any type of legitimate job experience, who’s going to hire her? And, have you ever had to try to find a place to live, pay deposits for rent and utilities, get reliable transportation without any money? When society says sell your body for money, it’s o.k., the most vulnerable among us will do so. When a billboard advertises “Hey Students” and then advertises summer work for “arrangements”, making easy money – they are targeting the vulnerable among us. Add to that advertisement that the propaganda of that business calls the college students who choose to answer that add “forward thinking” and that it benefits their future – they are telling the purchasers to lose all inhibitions about it because it’s really a good thing, it’s good for the female (i.e,. she likes it . . .). When the culture glorifies the “pimp life” and makes being a pimp cool, yet continues to refer to her as “whore”, there’s a problem. When culture glorifies prostitution in a “Pretty Woman” way – a completely unrealistic look at high end prostitution – of course society doesn’t see the women as victims.
Lurking behind every “legitimate” website, online ad, “high-end” escort, or “prostitute” is a person exploiting a woman’s need. It’s a person who may be a “savior”, a “daddy”, who has taken care of her and provided for her. It’s a person with whom she feels such a bond that she’s willing to do anything for him. (think: Stockholm Syndrome)
Just as society didn’t view domestic violence victims as victims 30 years ago, society is not viewing these women as victims. Just as society had to learn about the cycle of violence, the psychology behind domestic violence to accept the abused as a victim – so must we also begin to learn the same things about these “prostitutes” and recognize their exploitation. Do you not care about an abused spouse because she made the choice at 21 to get married to a man who beats her and then she feels stuck in the marriage? She chose to marry him. She chose that life. That was the argument 30 years ago for domestic violence, that’s the argument now for this exploitation.
Maybe I’ve spent too many hours in a hospital emergency room watching over someone bleeding out due to massive internal injuries. Maybe I’ve spent too many hours in an emergency room with someone who is so distraught she’s ready to kill herself. Maybe I’ve seen too many young girls advertised on online sites who looked less than thrilled to be posing for the picture and ad. Maybe I’ve heard too many stories of what the “life” is really like to be unbiased in my opinion that they are victims. Though I work mostly with adults, I’m really dealing with teenagers. I’ve learned that at whatever age they began getting prostituted, their psychological (really cognitive) development stopped. So instead of having the mind and maturity of a 24 year old, she’s got the mind and maturity of a 14 year old. She hasn’t developed the social skills, maturity or growth to make reasonable decisions. And what about the 22 year old who answers “arrangement” ads or dances to help pay for school? Yep, some of the same issues and vulnerabilities with repercussions as those who started at 14. No one wants to talk about the repercussions because no one wants to talk about prostitution, porn or dancing as a true social ill. No one wants to accept that there are real consequences to that life because we believe that she chose it so she has to deal with it – why should we care.
I will end with a statement made by the U.S. State Department in a 2010 report: “Prostitution is not the oldest profession, it’s the oldest form of oppression.” Oppression is not a choice.