(WOMENSENEWS)—When I was 18 years old, I fell in love. I had met a man near the University of Oregon campus who seemed to love me as much as I loved him.
Even though I was a promising high school student, varsity athlete and on the honor role, I had a vulnerability. I found myself, between high school and college, pregnant, unwed and now suddenly trying to figure out my future. He seemed to have all the answers, promises and security. He hooked me in with ideals of white picket fences and a home where my child and I could thrive.
This is how countless girls and women are defrauded and forced into prostitution, and it’s the story of the vast majority of those whose bodies are bought and sold into prostitution. Many people envision human trafficking as kidnapped children in developing countries, but the reality of modern slavery exists among us in our very own communities.
By the time I escaped from nearly six years as a so-called high-paid “escort,” I was sold between traffickers, had my face broken in five different places, bore other unspeakable physical abuse and was arrested seven times. I was branded twice: my traffickers tattooed their names on my body to indicate ownership, which is a common practice. Post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma bonding became the invisible chains that kept me and my child in captivity.
The myths about prostitution are proliferating. What is inherently harmful is being passed off by Hollywood as a glamorous lifestyle of choice. It is dismaying to note that “The Girlfriend Experience,” the Starz TV series based on the Steven Soderberg film of the same name, has been renewed for a second season. If only the entertainment industry could tell the real story and maybe someday they will.
I was living in a town in Southern Oregon, not in a bustling metropolis. My “boyfriend” persuaded me to move with him to Las Vegas where, he said, he ran a music production business. When we arrived at his home, he had me leave my baby with his brother and took me out to a “night on the town.” He drove me instead to a dead end street where he started pushing and said, “This is how it works here, I need to get my money back.” Insinuating that it cost him to move me there. It took months of abuse, force, fraud and coercion to get me to join my “wife-in-laws” in getting dolled up and dispensed to the seemingly endless stream of buyers in such abundance in Las Vegas.
Prostitution is as readily available as food in that city. It’s commodified. Bellmen have traffickers on speed dial. A casino host will text a trafficker: “You have a whale down here at blackjack” (a buyer with a lot of money). Everyone gets a 20 percent cut. Limo and taxi drivers fuel the trade. It’s hiding in plain sight.
I was forced into degrading acts, often with men older than my grandfather. And it wasn’t only the traffickers who exploited me. The wealthy clientele who bought my body (and my list would make Ashley Madison blush) were no saints. All the while my trafficker could be downstairs in a parked car with my young daughter—for whom he was her only father figure—essentially telegraphing that her well-being, her very survival, was dependent on my doing as I was told.
In time, I was recruited by another trafficker, who negotiated to purchase me. This process, called “choosing up” (though of course the choice wasn’t mine), is essentially a negotiation between two traffickers. As I was leaving my first trafficker and being handed over to the second, he required me to strip naked (because all my clothes had been bought and provided by him) and walk into the ownership of another man. I can remember walking out of the home naked, him yelling “you leave with what you come with. Came with nothing, leave with nothing.” The reality of trying to run, naked, homeless and without child became a fleeting fantasy and yet fueled my calculated escape.
Throughout the nearly six years, my new traffickers and three wife-in-laws schooled me as to how I was to behave with a buyer. I learned from them to make myself act as sexy as possible for the man buying me, because it would make things go faster. That was my costume, and I was essentially an actor covering over my revulsion and appearing submissive, though there was supposed to be an understanding with the buyer about what would and wouldn’t be allowed. My trafficker instructed me that he wanted the buyer to fall in love with me, to “sign his will over” to me, that a simple purchase of an hour of sex acts weren’t enough—my job was to have buyers essentially fall in love with me, thus assuring lucrative repeat business and top dollar and eliminating arrest.
From an initial nightly quota of $1,500 with the man who forced me into prostitution, I was now required to work from dusk to dawn. And with this new trafficker, it was a given that I would be bringing in larger amounts of cash based on his level of experience in this criminal enterprise. But this wasn’t something I was a willing participant in, I had four attempted escapes; once even when he flew to my home in Oregon to find me. I was afraid, beaten and traumatized having to nightly hand over every dollar or get strip searched for any money put aside. As with the overwhelming majority in prostitution, I had to turn it all over to my trafficker. I lived in a constant state of fear.
Trafficker, Not Pimp
I use the word “trafficker” because “pimp” has come to connote almost a cartoon character and is something people casually (tragically) joke about. Halloween costumes now celebrate pimps and “pimp” has become a verb as part of the normalization of the criminal. The FBI defines trafficking as anything involving “force, fraud or coercion.” So pimps are indeed traffickers, and the very people that are posting the majority of the online ads that only appear to be posted by (mostly) girls and young women.
Those who bought me were usually in denial. They wanted to believe I was working my way through school and that I was, in fact, that independent “happy hooker” portrayed most iconically by Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” (By the way, it’s been reported that the film was written as a dark drama before being turned into a rom-com.) They’d say things like, “you’re putting yourself through college, right?” As if they were grasping at any last justification of their own conscience. And now, thanks to director Soderberg, their fantasy is being fueled with lies.
The attempts to glamorize and legitimize prostitution are deeply discouraging. But there’s hope. Prostitution is illegal in the U.S. except for a few places. And around the nation, law enforcement is becoming wise to the fact that those who are sold are not criminals, but victims. They know how difficult it is to prosecute traffickers, whose vast wealth buys them the best legal teams and whose “evidence” rarely sits in an evidence locker. Law enforcement are learning that prosecuting the buyers is a brilliant tactic. In cities across the nation, law enforcement is starting to dish out harsher sentences to buyers, who have indicated to researchers that they would stop buying if they knew they were truly at risk for arrest. Law enforcement is starting to mobilize.
The day of reckoning is on the way. It will be here sooner if the truth about prostitution were known. If men and women would stand up and start changing the way our culture glamorizes and normalizes “prostitution.” We all can do something.