Portrait of Exploitation: The Real Face of Prostitution
by Laura Coulter
(Editor's note: Each set of mug shots published here shows a single person, arrested repeatedly over a one- to two-year period, for prostitution. These photos put to rest all arguments purporting that prostitution is "work" or a "profession." Unfortunately, we do not have mug shots of their pimps, for pimps are rarely arrested.)
Kathleen Mitchell still wonders what happened to Carrie.
Carrie (not her real name) was only 18 years old when she appeared at the shelter where Mitchell worked. Her two children, fathered by the pimp who had put her on the street when she was only 12, had been taken by the pimp's sister. While other girls her age were attending their senior proms and planning for college, Carrie was just trying to survive.
When the other women at the shelter learned of Carrie's history—that her pimp targeted 12- and 13-year-old girls, dropping them when they got "too old" at 16 or 17—they began to withdraw from her. Concerned that Carrie might attempt to draw their own daughters into prostitution, the women tried to keep their children from coming into contact with her.
One night Kathleen Mitchell arrived at work to discover that Carrie was gone. The girl had, however, left a note for Mitchell, one of the few who had shown her kindness. She wrote about her reasons for leaving and then concluded, "I don't think anyone here understands what it feels like to be a disposable person."
A former prostitute herself, Mitchell has been working in Arizona with women and girls victimized by prostitution since 1989. While in jail in the late 1980s, she began to organize a support group for women looking for a way out of prostitution, because, she says, she needed that support. After her release, she was able to make a complete break with her past and ultimately went back to school to earn certificates in chemical dependency studies.
The product of her labors, a ministry called DIGNITY that operates under the auspices of Catholic Charities, offers long-term and transitional housing to formerly prostituted women, providing them with the support, education, and tools they need to move out of the miasma of their life in prostitution. DIGNITY touches the lives of more than 900 women and children each year.
Like Mitchell, women from all over the world who were once caught up in the commercial sex industry are reaching out to give a hand up to people most of society views as worthless—victimized pawns in a global web of sexual servitude. Armed only with the weapons of hope and love as they fight an enemy of legionary magnitude, these women on the front lines are offering a new future to those whose lives have been shattered by prostitution.
The real face of prostitution
Stereotypes about prostitutes and the world of prostitution are both abundant and contradictory—prostitutes are human trash, and they deserve what happens to them, for example, or prostitutes are canny businesswomen who bring in good money by providing a service that men are all too willing to pay for. Each of these distinct portrayals serves to accomplish the same purpose: They hold prostituted persons at arm's length, proving primarily that they are "not us." Movies like Pretty Women show the proverbial prostitute "with a heart of gold," a lovely outsider with a pure heart who can be saved by Richard Gere or some other knight in shining armor.
The reality, however, is much more complex—and ugly. The vast majority of prostituted women (and men) have serious problems with substance abuse, mental illness, or both. A growing number of prostituted persons are recruited at increasingly younger ages, brainwashed and psychologically broken down in order to coerce them to conform to the will of a pimp.
According to Joe Parker at the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to working with survivors of prostitution, war, and domestic violence, "The sex industry is ultimately about power," he writes. "This is best demonstrated by the care which the industry takes to ensure that those it uses are powerless. The predators are neither irrational nor stupid. They watch carefully for a kind of 'victim profile,' and avoid anyone who may be uncontrollable or dangerous. They focus on young people coming out of families that are abusive, disorganized, or non-existent."
Linda Burkle, who works with Wellspring, a Salvation Army ministry targeted toward women and girls coming out of prostitution in Omaha, Neb., estimates that 99 percent of the women she works with have a substance abuse issue which then fuels the continuation of prostitution in order to buy drugs. It's a self-perpetuating cycle, says Burkle. "Often women get involved in prostitution because of being seduced or enticed into it by a smooth-talking pimp who gets them hooked on drugs. Once they're addicted, they have to keep prostituting to feed the addiction. We also see a very high occurrence of serious and persistent mental health issues. The mental health and substance abuse issues together—these are a recipe for disaster."
Moreover, DIGNITY's Mitchell insists that the average age of prostitutes is lowering each year. The average age is now around 15, and Mitchell says she's seen prostituted children as young as 10. In their 1996 report Prostitution of Children, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that over 100,000 children are currently involved in prostitution in the United States.
Although nationwide statistics indicate that 85 percent of those involved in prostitution were sexually abused as children, in Mitchell's experience the numbers are even higher: around 96 percent.The abuse they suffered as children makes them exceedingly vulnerable to predatory pimps, who feed on the abuse victim's sense of guilt and worthlessness in order to coerce and manipulate her.
Social norms are an unwitting aid in subjugating those trapped in prostitution. Joe Parker writes, "The larger society provides pimps with a very powerful weapon. It makes prostitution an identity, not an occupation. Once you have taken money for sex, you are a prostitute. Society does not allow an expiration date on that identity, nor a way to be publicly accepted as something else…Many people prefer to view prostitution as a 'lifestyle choice' or even an 'addiction' to a lifestyle. They think most people in the sex industry are there to support their drug habits, when actually the drugs are used to cope with what is happening to their lives. Society assumes that nothing can be done to help them, so there is no need to try. The pimps count on it."
As for prostitution's harvest, Parker says, "The health effects of prostitution are devastating. Prostitution, especially in childhood, is at least as effective as war in producing post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors usually have some combination of depression, anxiety, and dissociative disorders. Brain damage, psychosis, and suicide are common. Long-term psychiatric disability, serious medical illness, and the effects of accumulating injuries shorten lives."
Loving the whole person: A comprehensive approach
Because there are so many ways in which prostitution conspires to ensnare people and consume lives, no single approach will succeed in combating its existence or minimizing its toll. Certainly laws which strengthen the penalties against sex traffickers, pimps, and those who solicit prostitutes are a necessary part of the equation—but just a small part. Incarcerating prostituted children in juvenile detention centers and jails in many cases prevents them from getting the therapy, drug treatment, or education they need in order to have a viable alternative to prostitution.
Wellspring's Linda Burkle emphasizes the need for an approach that takes into account the entire story and circumstance of each person who is a survivor of sexual exploitation. Wellspring has taken this necessity to heart and, instead of waiting for potential clients to come to them, their staff assertively go in search of those who have been involved in prostitution and who need their help. Jails are a primary target. "We do a lot of outreach in the jails," Burkle says, "including classes in the jails on life coping. We have mental health therapists and dual diagnosis people. We also do case management; we coordinate services for them; we go with them to appointments. We do whatever it takes. It's very difficult to leave the lifestyle, because it's a culture. They're not accustomed to keeping appointments, don't have a social security card, any of the things that you need to function in society. They haven't developed a legitimate entrée into regular societal institutions. That's why Wellspring is a comprehensive program involving advocacy, education, therapy, drug treatment, and whatever else it takes."
Because those emerging from prostitution often have attendant challenges, such as drug addiction, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other health problems, trying to help the whole person can be a daunting task. Relapse is likely, Burkle notes, but she's careful to add, "We never say, 'That's it, you've had your three chances, we're done with you.'"
Kathleen Mitchell says that upon release from jail a prostituted person's first instinct is to throw herself into involvement with friends and family, to try and "make up" for what she's done. This approach is disastrous. Without laying a solid foundation of identity first, failure is almost a foregone conclusion. DIGNITY deals with this by preventing the women and girls who stay at either of their two transitional houses from having any contact with anyone outside the program for the first 30 days. In this way, they are able to concentrate on getting themselves in order, working on their self-image and on the life skills that will prove critical to preventing recidivism.
Children who have been victimized by prostitution may need additional services. Because their sexual victimization occurred during such a key developmental stage, prostituted youths often need to rediscover what it means to be a child. Angela's House, a metro Atlanta haven for young girls who were prostituted, has embraced this premise in their approach to the girls they serve. A group home at a secret location in rural Fulton County, Ga., Angela's House offers not only
comfortable housing to these young people for up to six months, but provides education, therapy, and medical care as well.
Additional family services may also be necessary. According to Linda Burkle, prostitution can be an intergenerational problem. She says, "One family with whom we worked had the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter all involved in prostitution."
Service providers also agree that failure to address the demand side of the prostitution equation means long-term failure in the battle against prostitution. DIGNITY provides an 8-hour program for johns (men who pay for sex). The cost of the program is $788 per participant, and it delves into the reality of prostitution: how it destroys families (including their own), communities, and individuals (including themselves); and the ways in which it objectifies and damages women.
Mitchell explains that the cost of the program is high so that the johns take it seriously. "It is a highly concentrated program that hopefully gives them insight into making better choices for themselves. We have mandatory sentencing in Phoenix for prostitution and solicitation, so the alternative to the program could be two weeks flat time in jail for the first offense and 60 days for the second, so $788 is a deal compared to the loss of wages and time away from work." Mitchell adds that completing the class expunges the solicitation charge from the men's record. "The men who have completed the class say it was worth the cost, and they believe this class should be given to young men in schools."
Wellspring also used to offer counseling services to johns, but the program was downsized several years ago due to funding shortfalls. In fact, each of these service providers, from Angela's House to DIGNITY to Wellspring, is fighting an uphill battle. While clients are plentiful, funds and support are sparse. According to the report on Angela's House published in 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on any given day at least a dozen girls are on the waiting list to get into the program. Although DIGNITY's diversion program, which educates women and girls convicted of prostitution, has a 74-percent success rate in helping their clients stay out of prostitution, thousands of women and girls will never benefit from this program simply because it's not available to them.
Part of the funding pinch, acknowledges Linda Burkle, has to do with the sort of nonprofit work in which they're involved. "This work is so important," she says, "but people don't want to give money to help prostitutes. They'd rather give money to help poor children. What they don't understand is that when they help prostitutes, they are helping poor children, because the children are deeply impacted by this."
WWJD? The church's role
In his book What's So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey recounts the story of a young woman seeking help from a counselor as she tries to extract herself from a life of prostitution. The counselor gently asks her if she's considered going to a local church for help. The young woman looks at the counselor in amazement. "Church?" she asked incredulously. "Why would I go there? They'd only make me feel worse about myself."
Yancey's anecdote should act as a cautionary tale to churches in all of their dealings with those on the margins of society, but an even greater impetus to reach out to the sexually exploited is found in the life of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus consistently associated with society's most "visible" and reviled sinners, and prostitutes were among those outcasts with whom he surrounded himself. In fact, the actions of one woman of ill repute in anointing Christ's feet with her tears and costly ointment led Jesus to defend her against the condemnation of Simon the Pharisee, who observed the scene with disgust. God incorporated two prostituted women in the mortal lineage of Christ: Tamar and Rahab, whose faith is praised as being comparable to Abraham's (Hebrews 11).
Condemnation and denigration characterize the lives of those who are trapped in a life of sexual exploitation—condemnation from society, from the pimps who coerce and abuse them, and from their own wounded hearts. To engage in further marginalization of prostituted persons only worsens their situation—as well as our own, as we ignore Christ's admonition to reach out to "the least of these."
If God's attitude toward prostituted persons is one of love, grace, and acceptance, how can the church offer any less?
Laura Coulter has written for PRISM magazine on the issues of Guantanamo Bay detainees, gender equality in the church, the juvenile justice system, water rights, the hazards of the Christian workplace, and the death penalty.
(This article was published in the September/October 2007 issue of PRISM magazine. You can view the pdf here.)