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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services

 

Phoenix Rising, Kathleen Mitchell

 

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We live in a world of mendacity, which is dishonesty. We learn early that most people live lies. Some we accept willingly or even eagerly. The worst lies, the most degrading lies of all, are the ones we tell ourselves. I read this at a time in my life when I had learned not to feel. I had learned the lies, and how to build the wall so that no one would know the real me. I kept everyone out. I had entered the world of prostitution. 

Prostitution is a very educational field. Iíd like to share with you what I learned from this so-called occupation. Not the part everyone sees, but the part I dared not show anyone, mostly myself. In prostitution, I felt the loss of power over my own life. I learned about degradation, sadness, anger, hurt, loneliness, and fear. I had no self-esteem. I pretended to be happy and care free. I also pretended not to care what anyone thought about me. I told myself that prostitution is an occupation, just like any other. I told myself that everyone commits an act of prostitution in one way or another. 

Women in prostitution are conditioned to protect those who are benefiting from them financially. Prostitutes protect at all costs, to the very end, whether that is death, drugs or at the very least, jail. I lived this life for over twenty years, ending up in Durango Jail in Phoenix, Arizona in 1989. With the support of the people I came to know, I came to know myself, to believe in myself, and realized I had a mission to completeóto offer support to other women like me who were trying to change. 

Since leaving jail eight years ago, I have earned my degree in Chemical Dependency Counseling, and work in a field that on a daily basis witnesses women empowering themselves by making life changes. I used to believe that prostitution was going to better than nothing. But better than nothing turned into years of despair and hopelessness for myself and many other women. I read an article from a paper in Tennessee entitled, ďJail Offers A Respite From A Dangerous Life.Ē Itís true; the jail docket is a kind of emergency room for the criminal justice system. Part of the daily flow of cases are women involved in prostitution; not the pretty Hollywood portrayal, but drug-addicted, sick women with physical injuries. In Nashville, Tennessee in 1860, the census listed 207 women as prostitutes. That number increased during the Civil War, when military officials put 405 prostitutes on a steamboat bound for other cities. They were shipped back to Nashville because no one else wanted them. More than 100 years later little has changed. Prostitution is still around, citizens are still demanding that something be done about it, and itís still ďnobodyís problem.Ē 

In Phoenix, women are mandated to do fifteen days jail time on their first prostitution offense. They can be sentenced up to six months in jail for three or more offenses. Yet, the process of recovery is not limited to fifteen days to six months or even a year. Realistically, we are looking at a minimum of two years of very supportive intervention for recovery. Recovery requires a great deal of work, and getting community support is its own challenge. Women in prostitution are a group of people society has shunned for years. 

I work with Catholic Social Services of Phoenix. The agency was started in 1933, in response to a need for professional human services in the expanding urban area. Over the years, the agency has grown from its foundation programs for counseling, emergency assistance and adoptions to numerous others, including refugee re-settlement. We have immigration, residential facilities for children, foster care, domestic violence and emergency shelters. With over 125 employees, our agency today is a well-respected service provider with expertise in working with populations representing many different races, cultures and religions.

Dignity House was created in the Phoenix Durango Jail, born out of my frustration with the lack of services for women wanting to move out of the dead end life of prostitution. Upon release from jail, I continued to conduct twice weekly support groups from Durango while reclaiming my life. The jail program has grown in response to the needs of these women, and now includes a variety of support services. 

In 1995, Dignity became a program of Catholic Social Services of Phoenix. Catholic Social Services presented a proposal to the City of Phoenix for a new and innovative program, specifically designed to offer women involved in prostitution alternatives to their way of life. Dignity was awarded a Neighborhood Block Watch grant that funded life skills classes, a telephone hotline, counseling, and hope.

Along with our Dignity program in the County jail, we now publish a quarterly newsletter, Sorry, Weíre Closed. This newsletter is aimed at the community and women still involved in prostitution. It provides them information on how prostitution affects the community and the women themselves. It is also a forum for the women to display their creative and artistic talents in the "Creative Corner." We print educational pieces on various aspects of prostitution, such as how prostitution is a domestic violence issue; the tactics of pimps, and the revolving door syndrome. Also included are resources available for women wanting to get out of prostitution and stories from the women sharing hopes, dreams and frustrations. These stories enable the public to see the human side of women caught in this trap and for the women in prostitution to see a way out. 

In addition, we opened a hotline, where women needing help or resources can call. We received funds to provide transportation for women leaving jail to reach a safe place, counseling or support meetings. We also collaborate with other community providers to offer an ongoing 8-week series of life skills classes for women. Life skills training topics are decision-making, problem solving, goal setting, assertiveness and self-esteem, effective communication, stress management, conflict resolution, ethics and values. 

Our experience in the past year has proved that the Dignity programs are embraced by the community and by the women they are designed to serve. Each month, an average of eighteen women attend per group attends the program in jail. Our life skills classes have twelve to fourteen attendees per session, and are growing in size with every rotation. Utilization of the phone line for information and referrals has steadily increased. Three hundred copies of our last newsletter were printed and distributed to interested individuals and groups. 

Women who prostitute are comprised mostly of women who face insurmountable socioeconomic barriers to becoming contributing members of society through legitimate employment. These women are at risk for poverty, violence, poor health and drug abuse. Data gathered from the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix Prosecutorís Office states that in 1996, a total of 1,508 women were arrested for prostitution or commercialized vice in the Phoenix-Metro area. Unlike domestic violence, women used in prostitution are criminals under the law. We believe intervention strategies must work within the criminal justice system to create alternatives to the revolving door of incarceration, substance abuse and dependency upon the pimp who controls a prostituteís life. 

Dignity has proposed a one-year pilot program to work with the court system to offer first time offenders the opportunity to interrupt the downward spiral associated with prostitution through a 36-hour intensive education program. The City of Phoenix Public Safety Committee supported implementing this program and the City Council approved. Laws were changed, and now women arrested for the first time on prostitution charges are given the option of doing fifteen days in the county jail or attending the 36-hour Dignity Diversion Program. Women who successfully complete the program will have their charges dismissed. The length and content of the Diversion Program is a result of considerable deliberation. It is believed it must be long enough to explore certain issues in depth, yet short enough to create maximum impact for women whose lives are unstable and transient. 

While substance abuse is not a specifically targeted topic, factors leading to and perpetuating this problem are integrated throughout our curriculum. We strongly believe that most participants in the Diversion Program could benefit from drug and alcohol counseling, and stipulate that concurrent substance abuse treatment by community providers be an adjunct component for individuals dealing with drug and alcohol issues. 

Dignity House believes that prostitution is the last piece of the puzzle to the battered womenís movement, and women escaping prostitution deserve all the resources and protection that any woman leaving an abusive relationship has or should have. One of our responsibilities is to educate the public that prostitution and domestic violence share many commonalties. 

From my experience, women getting out of jail with no resources, or women trying to leave prostitution feel their only choice is to return to a life they know. 

I have a lot of information on how to work with women who are victims, because how we work with women is really important. If a woman has any kind of skills, she can, with little support, go ahead and move on, and use an empowerment model to get healthy. A woman who has been extremely victimized, hurt from childhood and now in prostitution, is harder to work with. She needs to work step by step; she needs to be guided along and she needs huge amounts of emotional support.

I could not bring women who have been involved in prostitution with me to this meeting, but I asked the women in jail I work with to send their thoughts. They were more than happy to give their comments and share their feelings. These are excerpts from their letters:

 

What are the obstacles to women and girls leaving prostitution?

"I have been a stripper or prostitute in one shape or another for the past 16 years. I have two little boys ages 1 and 3. I want a way out, but the lack of services keeps me from getting out of prostitution."

 

"We do not have enough shelters or places to detox and there are almost no inpatient treatment programs. The half way houses charge at least $200 to get in. Where do we get this kind of money without turning a trick and starting our addiction all over? Fear of failure, poor education, no communication skills, no social skills, no spirituality, major PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) issues, lack of support and therapy. Lack of social services, lack of resources to help women get over the trauma of prostitution, rape, incest, and emotional and physical abuse make it almost impossible to change."

 

How can the harm of prostitution to women and girls be made more visible?

"Go to jail, juvenile centers and try to reach the young girls just getting into prostitution or who are at risk for it. Have more women in recovery work with us. There are commercials for ďsay no to drugs,Ē drunk driving, no smoking, why canít we have commercials on no more prostitution? Show what it looks like to have run into a crazed trick and give numbers to call for support and help. Have billboards on stopping prostitution. Walks and marches to protest the harms. Local news and TV stations to do public service announcements. Have survivors go to schools and colleges and lecture on the harms and myths of prostitution."

 

EVERY woman that has been in our jail program stated that she has been robbed, kicked, beaten with fists, knives, guns, coat hangers, baseball bats and boards, either by a trick or her pimp. Each girl knew someone who has been murdered while in prostitution.

I have a short poem that really depicts how we work with women and how they feel:

 

Donít be fooled by me.

Donít be fooled by the face I wear.

For I wear a 1,000 masks and none of them are me.

Pretending is an art thatís second nature to me, but donít be fooled.

For Godís sake donít be fooled.

I give the impression that I am secure, that all is sunny and unruffled.

That confidence is my name, and coolness is my game.

And the water is calm, and Iím in command.

That I need no one.

But donít believe me please.

My surface may seem smooth, but my surface is a mask.

Beneath lies no complacency, beneath lies the real me.

Confused, frightened, alone, I panic at the thought of this weakness being exposed.

I frantically create a mask to hide behind,

A nonchalant, sophisticated facade

To help me pretend, to shield me from the glance that knows.

And yet this glance is my only salvation and I know it,

That is, if it is followed by acceptance and caring.

Itís the only thing that will assure me of what I canít assure myself,

That I am worth something.

But I donít tell you this, I donít dare.

Iím afraid youíll think less of me,

That youíll laugh at me,

And your laugh will kill me.

So I play my game, my desperate game with a facade of assurance without

And a trembling child within.

So begins, I pray to mass, I idly chatter to you everything that is really nothing

And nothing of whatís crying inside of me.

So when I go into my routine, donít be fooled by what I am saying,

Please listen carefully to hear what I am not saying.

 

Dignity House is making history for women in the state of Arizona. Many of our lives have burned or been demolished and there seemed no where to go. But like the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes, we CAN begin to live a new life. A life with self-esteem and dignityóbecause what we have done is not who we are.

 

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Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu
http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes