Groups provide way out for prostitutes

Joanna Dornfeld

Jill Leighton ran away from a home of physical and sexual abuse when she was 14 years old.

She quickly became desperate for food and shelter while living on the streets of Ohio. One day a man approached her in a shopping mall and offered her food, shelter and work.

She asked him if the job was prostitution. He acted offended and turned and walked away, Leighton said. But Leighton said she was so desperate for work she agreed to go with him.

The man blindfolded Leighton and took her to his house, where he hung her by her wrists, punched her and penetrated her with a beer bottle, she said.

The man threatened to kill Leighton and forced her to sign a contract stating her sole purpose was to please him and his clients, she said.

“He forced me to take part in hardcore bondage pornography,” Leighton said.

Leighton spent the next three years locked in a closet, let out only when a john – a man who patronizes a prostitute – arrived.

“I was taking three or four tricks a day,” she said.

After three years, police found Leighton blindfolded and bound in the closet while arresting her pimp on an unrelated warrant. To this day, Leighton does not know why he was arrested.

Leighton said the officers told her if she made a fuss they would charge her with prostitution, so she gathered all the money in the house and took the first flight she could get.

She ended up in Las Vegas, living on the streets. Leighton said she didn’t return to prostitution because she was too emotionally scarred to be around people.

“It took me months before I was really able to relate with anyone again,” Leighton said.

It wasn’t until approximately 15 years later that Leighton realized it wasn’t her fault she had become a prostitute. In 1997, she entered a prostitution advocacy program in Oregon, which she credits for her reintegration into society.

Leighton, now 35, said she strongly believes the only way to get a woman out of prostitution and into mainstream society is through an advocacy program.

“Withdrawing from prostitution is probably like withdrawing from chemical dependency,” Leighton said.

She said even though women hate selling their bodies, a void is left in their lives that prostitution once filled.

“There was no place to escape to. Escape to who, escape to where and tell them what?” she said. “Women in prostitution need a place to go, job skills.”

In 1998, Leighton moved to Minneapolis to co-found Escape: The Prostitution Prevention Project, which aims to dispel myths about prostitution and raise awareness.

Several Twin Cities agencies advocate for prostitutes and assist them in escaping the lifestyle.

Minneapolis police and the Hennepin County courts often refer prostitutes to the Minneapolis PRIDE program – from Prostitution to Independence, Dignity and Equality. Ramsey County courts refer women to Breaking Free in St. Paul.

The advocacy programs provide services ranging from housing services to legal advocacy and support groups.

PRIDE doesn’t advertise its location because of concerns pimps could track prostitutes down.

Five women share three offices to administer to prostitutes. One small room at the end of the hall houses a couch and a computer for women to drop in and rest or check their e-mail. PRIDE also helps women create voice-mail accounts.

“Basically, the problem with the women we’re seeing is they’re homeless,” said Melani Suarez, PRIDE Program supervisor. “There’s no safe place for them to go.”

A former prostitute founded PRIDE in 1978. The program helps approximately 40 current and former female and transgender prostitutes per month.

Breaking Free worked with more than 400 women last year ranging in age from 15 to 60.

“We don’t judge women when they walk in the door,” Carter said.

Teen PRIDE works specifically with juvenile prostitutes. Many girls come to PRIDE voluntarily, but others are referred by youth service agencies, said Marney Thomas, Teen PRIDE advocate.

Thomas said she meets with six girls regularly and has between 30 and 35 girls on her caseload.

Thomas said one of her clients, a St. Paul Central High School student, was recruited to become a prostitute by Livelinks, a local dating service.

Each week, PRIDE holds three support groups for adult women and one group for teens.

“We cover self-esteem, domestic violence, empowering, improving ourselves, goal setting,” Suarez said.

A PRIDE advocate is at the Hennepin County Courthouse five days per week to provide legal advocacy to prostitutes. If women tell the court they’d rather go to PRIDE than go to jail, they’re more likely to receive the alternative sentencing.

Instead of testifying, some women accept a jail sentence and bide their time until they can hit the streets again.

PRIDE and Breaking Free
advocates also visit local jails and prisons to provide advocacy services.

“We try to empower women,” said Vednita Carter, Breaking Free executive director.

The advocates determine the former prostitute’s needs and intervene on his or her behalf with other agencies.

The program’s support groups discuss issues ranging from prostitution to self-esteem and chemical dependency.

“Ninety-nine percent of women involved in prostitution are chemically dependent,” Carter said. “They can’t do the sex without the high.”

Breaking Free works closely with area landlords to find housing for the women. The program also has 12 transitional housing units for women while they are recovering financially.

“(Lack of housing) does really hold them up from getting all of their needs met,” Carter said.

The program tries to provide,
on-site, every service a woman might need to make the transition out of prostitution as easy as possible.

“What Breaking Free tries to do is be a one-stop shop,” Carter said.

Medical clinic and crisis-based management personnel and psychologists visit Breaking Free once each week to offer their services.

When prostitutes go to clinics anonymously, doctors often do not ask the right questions to help them.

Leighton was taken to the hospital once with a broken bottle her captor had inserted inside her to induce an abortion. She said she was not allowed to use condoms because her captor thought it was a disservice to the clients.

“He felt that if his customers had to use a condom, the customer was being cheated, so instead he took me to the abortion clinic,” she said.

The doctors and nurses said and did nothing to stop her abuse, she said.

Steve Calvin, University obstetrics and gynecology professor and Program in Human Rights in Medicine chairman, said doctors often are not aware the women they treat might be prostitutes.

“Medical personnel need to be alert to that possibility and not take things for granted,” Calvin said. “It has to be thought of in the back of their mind to at least offer help.”

Leighton said she hopes to open her own advocacy program to help others escape the nightmare she knows so well.

“That’s where most of my healing has come from, is talking to other survivors,” she said. “I would definitely consider myself lucky because I’ve been able to go on to have a relatively normal life.”

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes
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