No girl dreams of growing up to be a prostitute
Over the past decade I’ve worked with hundreds of women entangled in prostitution. Too often laws and law enforcement assume that selling their bodies is a rational choice, and a line of work they can exit easily.
Though many well-intended people believe the same things, those ideas are dead wrong. Sometimes, to help people see the light, I ask, “How many men have you pleasured orally today?”
My conversation partners look shocked. Then I say, “You don’t like the idea of performing oral sex on the next five men who walk by? These women don’t want to do that either.”
One human-trafficking victim I worked with was four years old. Another, age 44 and incarcerated, had less mental capacity than the four-year-old. That woman could only rock back and forth and say, “They do bad things.”
Other prostitutes talk about the web of complex reasons they can’t stop selling themselves: addiction, childhood trauma, poverty, dependent children, problems with pimps and johns. I’ve heard women tell how hard their parents tried to help them escape that life, but how they eventually ended up back in it anyway.
True, some prostitutes will say that they want to be “in the game.” Their pimps groom them to say so. A pimp typically beats and manipulates his women, who are not strong enough to speak out against them.
He teaches them that they have no one else to depend on, and nowhere else to go. Too often, he’s right.
Ignores day-to-day reality
Prostitution’s complicated dynamics, highlighted last week in the Houston Chronicle series “The Track,” weren’t considered last August, when local officials took a radical step to drive prostitution from an area called “The Bissonnet Track.” The state and Harris County sued 86 accused prostitutes, pimps and johns who’d been arrested repeatedly in the area, asking the court for a civil injunction. If those 86 people continued to operate in the neighborhood, deemed a “no-prostitution zone,” they could face future monetary damages.
The injunction was done without reaching out to many of us who work directly with the population. Civil liberties advocates say that the injunction violates fundamental human rights. It also ignores the day-to-day reality on Bissonnet and Houston’s other sex markets.
After I saw the social-media blast about the injunction, I looked up the names of those being sued. The vast majority of the names were not pimps or johns, but people being sold. When I worked for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, we had identified many of them as human-trafficking victims. I could see their faces and recalled how desperately we had tried to help get them out of “the game.”
These women, I knew, have “quotas” to make for their pimps; those who don’t make the quota are punished. Working the area forbidden by the injunction is the only way they’ll be able to pay their pimps. The injunction’s potential monetary damages becomes just one more quota they’ll have to make, and Harris County becomes yet another punitive force keeping them on the street.
I fear that the county’s injunction will push these most vulnerable victims further away from law enforcement, the very institution we have spent years begging them to trust. And what else is out there to help them get off the street?
The answer: Not much.
If they leave prostitution, the women ask, how else could they make a living? Did you know you can’t become a cosmetologist - or get a license for many other professions - if you have a prostitution conviction?
And where, if they leave the game, will they find shelter? Women need a place to go. They need basic necessities such as food, shelter and medication. Many need treatment for addiction or mental-health problems. Houston social services offer them very few beds.
Almost by default, they end up in Harris County Jail. Because our local government lacks the political will to find money to treat human-trafficking victims, we continue to shove them into the criminal justice system — which is even more costly.
Victim Recovery Village
So: Where do we go from here?
Imagine a Victim Recovery Village - a public-private partnership combining the best of currently disjointed efforts. would be similar to the Children’s Assessment Center: a central location for law enforcement, legal, and vetted advocacy groups, supported by our many local philanthropists. The complex problems that trap women in a life of prostitution would be addressed with solutions that lift them up, rather than pushing them further toward the margins.
We’ll need shelters — lots of them — for people of various ages and in various stages of recovery. Maybe hot-sheets motels could be turned into shelters for victims of human trafficking. Our laws allow the county attorney to sue nuisance hotels that allow criminal activity to fester. Why are we not doing so?
Once victims are in shelters, they can begin the medical and therapeutic work needed for recovery. Only after they’re safe and fed can they address the fallout of child sexual trauma and abuse, or addiction, or mental health problems.
They can also begin to find new ways to support themselves. There, our medical and social work community and corporate partners would be especially valuable.
It isn’t easy to leave “the game.” It requires both external help and desire from within. And often, it takes time.
It’s worth it.
Years ago, one of the women I tried hardest to help — one of the most resistant women I worked with — kept walking away, time and again getting back into “the game.” But ultimately, after months of resistance, she reached back out to us. She found the desire within herself.
Years after getting out, she found me on social media. She wrote, “You have made such a huge impact and I am forever thankful that you worked so hard to put my abuser away for a long time. I honestly believe you have saved my life because I lived in fear every day thinking today might be my last day on earth.”
Like so many women on the streets, she didn’t need more punishment. She needed a way out.
Johnson, the former Harris County District Attorney’s chief prosecutor for human trafficking, is now an attorney in private practice representing victims of human trafficking and a member of the Children’s Justice Act Task Force. In 2010 she successfully challenged the State’s prosecution of children for prostitution in the landmark case In re B.W. before the Texas Supreme Court.