Her childhood likely didn’t look like yours or like mine. While I was outside riding my bike in the South Carolina sun, she was staring blankly out her bedroom window as her uncle slid into her bed. I was standing at the bus stop as a new school day began while she was staying home to hide the bruises that were still visible on her face. My mom had prepared my food and my stomach was full. She was hungry. Both of my parents lived in my home. She was placed in the system at the age of four and spent her years in and out of foster homes. She was abused. Raped. Isolated. She was scared. At the age of fourteen I was beginning junior high, my life full of promise. She was tricked and trafficked into a life far worse than what she had already endured.
She is a woman now. Her heart is hard and she has walked the streets for twenty years. Crack is her drug of choice; it keeps her going and it helps her forget. She wears snow-soaked shoes as she walks into a dark alley. It is winter and she is cold. The warm car of a trick is a small reprieve from the elements, but it doesn’t warm her heart. She has sex for money and for drugs. As she lifts her head from the lap of the latest john she tells herself she has power now. It’s not like her uncle or the other men who hurt her. This is her choice and she is in control. She isn’t a little girl anymore. She herself has children, though she doesn’t know them. She misses them, but she would never want her children to see her like this. This is not what she dreamed of when she was little. To protect her heart and her mind she has stopped dreaming. This is her life. She is a prostitute, and a victim no longer.
As a society, we are becoming more aware of the prevalence of trafficking. We know now that it is not isolated to foreign countries; it is a horrifying crime that exists in our own communities. Sex trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act. We see sex trafficking victims with compassion and in us rises an anger at the trafficker and a thirst for justice. We see a victim, and we have an offender on which to place the blame. Adult prostitution, however, is met with a different response.
The woman walking the streets is not seen as the child she was. She is seen as a whore. In a 2015 article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, men reported as viewing prostituted women as intrinsically different from other women. They are seen as less than human. In the city where I live there are websites where men can rate prostitutes, telling other potential buyers who is good, who is too high, who is attractive, and who is ugly. She is seen as a commodity to rate, buy, and sell. If a human being is viewed as a product, then we don’t have to fight for her or feel sorry for her. She is, after all, not a victim. This is the life she chose.
Forty percent (40%) of adult female prostitutes were trafficked into the life as children. Because not everyone can self-identify as a victim, I believe this number could be larger. In 2017 the Cook County Sheriff’s Office produced a report based on surveys and interviews from approximately 3,500 sex buyers and more than 150 individuals involved in illegal prostitution. The data comes from locations across the country, including Seattle, Las Vegas and Boston, among others. It reported that 88 percent (88%) of adult prostitutes reported experiencing violence in her life, such as physical beatings. Separately, 34 women out of 172 questioned reported experiencing sexual assault and abuse as a minor. Forty-five percent (45%) of women questioned reported having mental illness such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Other studies indicate a much higher prevalence among prostituted women of childhood sexual abuse. The differences in percentages may be attributed to a woman’s ability to self-identify as a victim, a lack of understanding about the definition of sexual abuse, and whether or not she was questioned about past abuse.
If the resounding answer to the truths about prostitution is that it is a woman’s choice, then we must ask ourselves a new question. What is choice? Sometimes, not having a choice IS the only choice one has. Often, this life is thrust upon a child or a woman and that is not a choice at all. The fact that a grown woman now “chooses” to engage in acts of prostitution doesn’t negate the reality that she was at one time a victim. She is a human being with a story of her own. That story matters. Her life matters.
I challenge you, if you do not already, to see these women through a different lens. See past the stigma and look beyond the biases. You will find women whose lives began in ways we can’t imagine, who have experienced horrors we don’t want to imagine, and whose lives are still precious and worthy of so much more.