Like most girls who end up in prostitution “Alissa” grew up in an abusive home. But at age 16 a deceptive Prince not-so-Charming came to her “rescue.” He told her she was attractive and that he’d like to be her boyfriend. Flattered, she accepted. Soon after, he prostituted her.
Alissa stayed with him, partly because she felt emotionally attached. Girls who have lived without love crave it and often take whatever they can get. Pimps know this and use it. But she also stayed because she feared his violence.
Nick Kristof told this story in the New York Times:
She was sold to johns seven days a week, 365 days a year. After a couple of years, she fled, but a pimp tracked her down and — with the women he controlled — beat and stomped Alissa, breaking her jaw and several ribs, she said. That led her to cooperate with the police.
Perhaps the strangest part of this story is that she was sold on Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media. Strange, since Village Voice is a well-known alternative journal whose aim is to speak truth to power. Yet Backpage makes up about 70% of prostitution advertising among similar Web sites. Most of the Backpage ads are legit, but the sex slavery that it promotes is troubling.
The Village Voice was born out of the desire for an independent media voice for the people, a voice that had the freedom and authority to hold those who abuse power accountable for their actions… As my father’s son, knowing all of the hopes and dreams that went into the work of creating this particular paper, the Village Voice appears to have lost its way…
Pandora Young, now at Media BistroI, has also felt the pangs of conscience. For years she worked at the Village Voice-owned LA Weekly. She said:
I knew that I was being paid in some small part by blood money. And while I felt lousy about it, I did nothing beyond kvetching about the problem with fellow employees. I always cashed my paychecks, and I never gave a dime to help victims of sex trafficking.
Some defend Backpage’s right to free speech. And Village Voice says they work hard to make sure all ads are legit. But too much gets through.
The only reasonable argument I’ve heard to keep from shuttering Backpage is that it provides a tool for law enforcement to identify trafficking victims. But Kristof points out that:
Village Voice makes some effort to screen out ads placed by traffickers and to alert authorities to abuses, but neither law enforcement officials nor antitrafficking organizations are much impressed. As a result, pressure is growing on the company to drop escort ads.
Change.org has a petition to shut down Backpage. Weigh the pros and cons yourself. If you want Backpage shut down, sign the petition here.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”
- Edmund Burke.
Last week I wrote about Stella Marr who had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but who eventually escaped. Below is a letter she wrote to her younger, enslaved self. With details changed it is good advice for anyone, especially those who have lived through trauma.
Words of wisdom from a survivor:
By Stella Marr @ Secret Life of a Manhattan Call Girl
Dear twenty-year old Stella,
Work hard on learning to ask for help. It’s the only way you’ll ever break free. No one ever does anything alone. You don’t have to.
You’ll learn how to make the men happy. The happier they are the nicer they treat you. You’ll get very good at being a hooker. But when the Johns say “baby you were born for this” that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Now when most men come near, you feel a stabbing at your eyes, your throat, and your gut that you know isn’t real. You don’t want to admit it but you’re terrified. You start, you tremble. Your hands shake. Think about it, you’re being stabbed a lot these days. This is a quite reasonable reaction to being used by man after man, day after day, in this prison of a brothel. It doesn’t mean you are so miserably flawed that you can’t do anything but be a hooker.
Being a hooker doesn’t make you subhuman. It’s not OK for your (white) pimps to smack you and tell you they’ll kill you.
You have to work up the nerve to pay a cashier for a soda. You’re too scared to ask that guy behind the deli counter to make you a sandwich. This isn’t weakness, it’s biology. Trauma changes your brain. Your hippocampus, where you form narrative memory in the brain, shrinks. This is a symptom of PTSD – a neurophysiologic response to repetitive trauma – not evidence that you deserve to be in prostitution.
In the middle of the winter in the middle of the night when that guy in the Doubletree suite invites you to sit while he pours you a seltzer trust your gut and back out of there before the five guys you can’t see who are waiting in the bedroom have a chance to get between you and the door.
Being vulnerable means you’re alive. There’s no shame in it. It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. You don’t have to apologize for doing what you must to survive.
When Samantha stops working for your pimp, Johnny, find her and make her get out of the city. Otherwise two weeks later Nicole, the madam who works with Johnny, will show you Samantha’s diamond initial ring and tell you Johnny murdered her. Though you’ll always hope she was lying, you doubt it.
You’ve lost all sense of the linear — time disappeared and you felt it leave. Now you’re living in the immediate and eternity. It’s scary and bewildering, but you need this — you need each moment to stretch infinitely so that you can be acutely aware of each man’s tiny movements and shifts in expression, which can reveal a threat before it happens. This hyperawareness will save your life. One day you’ll see this being untethered from time as a kind of grace.
When that shiny classical pianist you meet at Au Bon Pain says he wants to know everything about you don’t believe him.
A lot of what’s happening doesn’t make sense now but it will later. That habit you have of writing poems in your mind to the beloved you haven’t met yet as you’re riding in cabs to calls? There’s something to it.
Your ability to perceive beauty is part of your resilience and survival. When a man is on top of you watch the wind-swirled leaves out his window. Seize the gusty joy you feel as you run three blocks to a bodega to buy condoms between calls at 3 AM. When you think for a minute you see that friend, who’s death you never got over, standing in the brassy light under a weeping linden, be grateful. All this has a purpose.
Being a hooker can seem to mean you’ve lost everything you hoped to be, but that’s not true. You’ve splintered into a million pieces, but you’re still you. You’re alive. It’s in the spaces between those pieces where you learn to feel how other people are feeling. It hurts so much you’re sure it’ll kill you, but it won’t. Later when you’re out of the life it’ll be so easy to be happy. The mundane will buoy you.
When your madam sends you to the Parker Meridien at 3 AM and you meet a British professor who says he wants to help you, believe him. He will set you up in a beautiful condominium across from Lincoln Center that he deeds in your name. Of course you’ll have everything to do with this — you are so “good” at being a hooker, so “good” at fucking that you can make a guy want to buy you a condo. Shame is a hollow stone in the throat.
During the two years that this voracious man ‘keeps’ you as his private prostitute the condo will come to feel like a platinum trap. But it’s still your chance to get out and heal. Take it.
After you’ve sold the condominium and are living in a graduate dorm at Columbia University, a man with eyes like blue shattered glass will sit beside you in the cafeteria. When he begins to speak you know he’s the unmet beloved you’ve been writing poems to all these years. You’ll try to run away, but he won’t let you. Fourteen years later the two of you will be hiking through pink granite outcroppings with your Labrador retriever. You’ll feel like the freest woman in the world.
One afternoon when you’re twenty-one you’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with your best friend Gabriel, who’s a hustler, a male prostitute. When he says you ‘remind him of his death’ don’t lash back. Even though he told you the doctor said he didn’t have that rare new virus named AIDS, it would behoove you to realize he’s still coughing.
Stop thinking about your own hurt. Don’t lash back with that vicious phrase your mother’s said to you so many times – “I hope you die a slow death.” Don’t tell Gabriel you never want to see him again and storm out of the sculpture gallery. Or it will be the last time you see him. Gabriel will die of AIDS five months later. When he said you reminded him of ‘his own death’ he was trying to tell you he was dying. You’ll regret what you said for the rest of your life. But even more you’ll regret running away from his friendship.
Say forgive me.
Say I love you.
This was originally posted By Stella Marr @ Secret Life of a Manhattan Call Girl and is reposted here by permission.
Some people get into sex work because it just seems to make sense to them, as I described last week. But more often the entry is brutal, whether poverty, drug addiction, or kidnapping force the involvement.
One prostitute writing “A Personal Refutation of the Concept of Choice” says:
Choice does not always present as balanced; it does not always offer a different-but-equal alternative. When I think of my choices they were simply these: have men on and inside you, or continue to suffer homelessness and hunger. Take your pick. Make your ‘choice.’
Another former prostitute says her grandmother unsuccessfully tried to keep her manic-depressive son from marrying his schizophrenic girlfriend. “What,” she wanted to know, “would happen to any children born into that union?”
“She was right to worry,” her granddaughter says. “It left us in state care, one after the other. And as a young teenager it left me homeless, hungry, and prostituted, in that order.”
Sometimes prostitution arises from poor choices, as one drug addict describes, “My addiction is so bad I sell my body to pay for it. I never thought I would end up like this… I wanna get clean.”
Others are promised a better life through employment, education, or marriage. Instead, they are kidnapped and thrust into international sex slavery. Nick Kristof traveled to India and found that every prostitute he encountered had been forced into it by a trafficker, her parents, or her husband. Having studied and observed trafficking over the years, Kristof says his sense is that prostitution is deeply enmeshed in coercion.
In the U.S. girls often end up walking the streets by way of pimps who “befriend” them and then enslave them. You may have heard of Sara Kruzan. Her mother was drug addicted and abusive, and she didn’t know her father. After years in foster care she became depressed and by age nine she began attempting suicide.
At age eleven, 30-year-old G.G. became a father figure, showing her affection, taking her roller skating or to the movies, and telling her she was special — “so special” that she should never give away sex for free. Pimps like G.G. know that girls like Sarah are emotionally needy, and offer a sense of love from a “father” or a “husband” figure. And, like most pimps, he added terror for good measure. He raped her repeatedly and forced her to walk the streets everyday from six in the evening until six in the morning.
Sara eventually killed her pimp. She got a life sentence.
Or, there is Stella Marr who has fortunately escaped prostitution. She grew up in a troubled home. Her mother beat her all the time for things like trying to steal her friends (when Stella was 4 years old!) or for “making noise that woke her up when I came home from school.” Sometimes abuse took a sexual turn. And she was confined to her room much of the time.
Stella eventually went to Columbia University and got good grades. But the better she did in school, the more violent her mother grew. Finally, her mom threw her out of the house.
Broke and desperate, Stella says her grief created a micro-climate around her that drew pimps. One tricked her into sexual slavery:
I met Johnny (who said) he had a friend who needed a roommate, and that her family owned a restaurant and could give me a job. When we got to the apartment Johnny and two other guys who were waiting there jumped me, beat me up and raped me. They locked me in a tiny room without a window. They broke me like you’d break a horse. It was systematic. They’d rape me, beat me up, and then they’d be ‘nice,’ and give me a tuna sandwich. Again and again and again. It was torture. They dislocated my shoulder, and gave me codeine. I didn’t know if it was day or night. I didn’t think there was anyone I could turn to.
Some wonder why she didn’t run away. But trauma affects the brain, and Stella became brainwashed into believing escape wasn’t possible. And she saw society as complicit in her slavery. Early on, her pimp took her to a party with fourteen policemen because he wanted her to know he had cops in his pocket. Stella felt there was nowhere she could turn.
Unfortunately, despite all of the brutality surrounding prostitution, we too often blame the victims instead of helping them. In future posts I’ll discuss what might be done.