There is an increasing awareness that most of the girls and women who are bought and sold for sex in the United States are darker skinned and come from poverty.

Half of that was true in my case. I grew up in a middle-class setting with a big, beautiful home, and I was an honor-roll student in my early grades.

It was “emotional poverty” that made me vulnerable. My mother didn’t value me. She beat me. I took verbal abuse from other children because I was light skinned. I didn’t fit in and I yearned to blend into the black culture.

So I went on a mission to prove that I belonged in that community. That path brought me into contact with the wrong people. The kids who had harassed me came from the “other side of the tracks.” They struggled. They were on welfare. I began to hang out with them.

That’s how I met my daughter’s father. I was 15. He was handsome and charming, and I fell head-over-heels in love. Soon I was pregnant. But it was OK because we were in love. Eventually, my man wanted me to do things to bring in money—first stealing, then working at strip clubs.

The scene that attracted us was called Boston’s “Combat Zone.” Around us we saw jewels, furs, fancy cars, and other tempting luxuries. I was going to do anything to be with my man. Whatever he wanted me to do or asked me to do, I did it, and I found myself trapped in the Combat Zone for 15 years. I worked every strip club in the zone. But the shame of what I did for love made me even more vulnerable. Like other women whose bodies are used to make money, I became drug-addicted—to cocaine, at first—just to cope.

My man had a cousin who was a pimp. This was where the big money was. He began talking to me about all the nice things he and our daughter and I could have if only I would get into “the life.” My self-esteem was gone. My life and my choices had been taken over by the man who told me he loved me.

These were the days before prostitution had moved to the internet, so I was turned out onto the streets. I found myself on a corner, with no clue what I was doing. Soon a guy pulled up. I climbed into his car, only to have him show me a badge that identified him as a plain-clothed policeman. I was terrified, and of course he knew it. So he told me he’d let me go if I’d perform a sex act on him. I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. He let me go with words I will never forget: “I’m gonna let you go this time. But do you know you could have done this with another guy who could slash your throat?”

The men who bought me treated me like trash. One came after me with a sawed-off shotgun. Another robbed me. And another held a knife to my throat telling me all the ways he would rape me. Violence is a constant threat to women and girls in prostitution.

Eventually I was imprisoned by addiction to heroin. I gave birth to two more daughters. But my story took a miraculous turn. A detox program helped me get clean and turn my life around. I’d had to give my first daughter to my mom to raise, but I was able to take care of my second and third girls.

Today I lead a mentoring program in Boston for young women who are at risk like I once was. I work to keep them out of a life that nearly took mine and could take theirs. I’ve been clean for over 20 years, and soon one of my daughters will have her master’s degree in occupational therapy.

Again, my story isn’t typical. Most of the girls bought and sold for sex have no hope. And there’s an endless supply of them. Why? Because the demand is endless. But we can try to stop those doing the demanding. We’re starting to see law enforcement go after the men instead of the girls. If men really suspect they’re going to get caught, they’ll think twice. We need more “john schools” for men who are arrested. And we must help boys understand that a woman’s body is her own and must be respected.

Is this possible? I know it is, because of my own story. Things can turn around. Things can change. We must make it so. And we will.