There is no country on earth in which women are not prostituted, and in many — perhaps most — countries, prostitutes are severely stigmatized. Stereotypically, these women are frequently seen as trash. Yet, bigotry is only the first — and in some ways the least — of the problems faced by prostitutes.
Worldwide, the leading causes of women and girls entering into prostitution are most likely poverty and lack of economic opportunities compounded by a lack of education. And those factors also seem to play a role in why American women enter into prostitution:
Results of a recent study of women in Toledo involved in prostitution revealed that 81% hadn’t earned a high school diploma. Forty-eight percent, nearly half the women interviewed, had no previous work history. All of the women were eligible for welfare benefits and all came from families where their parents lived in poverty or fluctuated from poverty to working class throughout their childhood. None of the women were currently married, nor did any of the women who were parents consistently collect child support for the children they were attempting to raise. Therefore, street prostitution is largely representative of the poor, single, and less educated. With very few skills, a limited education, and minimal, if any, work experience, these women saw prostitution as a way to succeed in otherwise blocked entrances to conventional opportunities.
Yet, poverty, lack of opportunities, and lack of education are not the entire American story.
Numerous studies have found that over half of the women and girls working as prostitutes in America have a history of childhood physical and sexual abuse. In one study, for instance, 57% percent of the prostitutes interviewed reported childhood sexual abuse, by an average of three perpetrators. Thus, it seems plausible there might be a causal link between abusing a child and her later becoming a prostitute.
Other factors — such as substance abuse — also seem to play a part in why women and girls enter into prostitution in America:
Some prostitutes’ explanation for becoming involved in prostitution include “having a history of sexual abuse, having grown up without love from the significant adults in their lives, being enticed by a male of female friend or by peer pressure from a group of friends, and needing money. Those who used drugs prior to their involvement in prostitution activities mention their addiction as a major reason for trading sex for money or drugs.”
So it would seem the typical American prostitute comes from a fairly hellish background. That might go far to explain why one study found that some prostitutes — specifically, those who work in bordellos or as outcall girls — actually gain self-esteem after entering into prostitution. If you are coming from hell, a bordello might seem a good place to be. However, no studies suggest working on the street is a good place to be.
Precise statistics on how many women in America walk the streets cannot be found. The National Task Force on Prostitution suggests that over one million women have worked as prostitutes. But that figure — which is merely an estimate — includes both women who walk the streets and women who work other venues, such as massage parlors or bordellos.
To complicate matters, the percent of prostitutes who walk the streets varies from city to city. Where the police and courts have suppressed bordellos, massage parlors, outcall services, and other venues, the ratio of street walkers to all prostitutes can be as high as one in two.
In at least one study, 88% of street walkers wanted to leave prostitution — and with good reason:
Prostituted women have long been considered “fair game” for sexual harassment, rape, gang-rape, “kinky” sex, robbery, and beatings….A 1991 study by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives, in Portland, Oregon, documented that 78 percent of 55 prostituted women reported being raped an average of 16 times annually by their pimps and 33 times a year by johns. Twelve rape complaints were made in the criminal justice system and neither pimps nor johns were ever convicted. These prostitutes also reported being “horribly beaten” by their pimps an average of 58 times a year. The frequency of beatings…by johns ranged from I to 400 times a year. Legal action was pursued in 13 cases, resulting in 2 convictions for “aggravated assault.”
Even if some folks find that working in a bordello or as an outcall girl increases their self-esteem, that surely cannot be true of most people who walk the streets. For one thing, walking the streets correlates very highly with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and women who walk the streets may display the same symptoms displayed by some returning combat veterans.
All of the above, if taken together, might lead one to believe life is somewhat hard on prostitutes, especially street walkers. Some years ago, after first coming to Colorado, I was befriended by a young woman, Jennifer, whose life struck me as rather hard-knock. The first time Jennifer was raped, she was six years old. At eight, she was placed in a foster home where three men — including her foster-dad — repeatedly raped and beat her over the course of a year. At 11, she witnessed her older brother shot in the head by accident. And, as she once put it to me without any sense of irony in her voice, “after that, things got tough.”
Jennifer, when I met her, had two young children, few job skills, and was divorced. I hired her for a low paying job — which was the only job I had available to offer her — but she quickly proved unable to cope with the duties and quit. Nevertheless, we stayed in touch for a while, and I learned quite a bit about her. The more I learned, the more I came to admire her. She was a survivor. She’d been through just about everything from drug dependency to a violently abusive boyfriend and, yet, she was a pretty upbeat person. She did not consider herself bad off because she knew people who had it worse. As she said to me one time, “I’ve been lucky because I’ve never had to whore.”
I didn’t figure out how to really help Jennifer, or figure out how to help anyone who, like her, has had an especially hard-knock life. Fortunately, there are people who do know how to help. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by one of them. Carolyn emailed me about a book written by a group of former street walkers who now live together in a communal home they call “Magdalene”. It seems Magdalene is both a community and a two-year residential recovery program located in Nashville. Women are brought in off the streets and over the course of a couple years given the support, love, and skills they need to escape from prostitution.
Magdalene is supported both by private contributions and through the work of Thistle Farms, which is a non-profit bath and body-care business run by the women themselves. They just began a blog that you can check out here.
The book Carolyn wanted to interest me in is called, Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart. It’s a short book of about 120 pages, and the prose and layout make it easy to read. It is also the kind of book I hardly ever read. That is, a book intended to inspire. So, I really don’t know much to compare it with.
Almost the only other inspirational book I’ve read is a work by James Dobson — and Find Your Way Home is far superior to Dobson’s book. Dobson’s book was intended to push a political and social agenda under the guise of advising and inspiring people. Find Your Way Home, on the other hand, is not intended to hoodwink its audience or make fools of them. Nor is it censorious and condemning like Dobson’s book. Instead, it is very much accepting and non-judgmental. And, last, it does not seek to motivate the reader through fear, like Dobson’s book. Instead, this book asks for your empathy and compassion. For those and other reasons, Find Your Way Home strikes me as a remarkably better book than the only other inspirational book I can recall reading.
Having said that, I found the book fascinating for the insights it provided into the Magdalene community. Judging from the book, the community seems founded on two pillars very important to it: God and love.
The god, in this case, does not seem to be the petty — and perhaps dead — god of fundamentalism, but a somewhat greater god, one given to a radical acceptance and love for her creatures. And the women of Magdalene seem to practice what their god preaches:
I have not been a perfect person in Magdalene. After a relapse I was welcomed back into the Magdalene circle. I was not as forgiving to myself as others were to me. People accepted me without judgment and it overwhelmed me. It was the first time in my life I felt unconditional love. All that is expected of me is to do what is right for me. Sisterhood is welcoming no matter what (p.93).
The book is full of similar testaments to the love the women have for each other. It might seem the community is well named, then, after Mary Magdalene who is the woman once identified by the Catholic Church as a prostitute, and by a Gnostic gospel as the favorite and most beloved disciple of Jesus.
All in all, I think Find Your Way Home will deeply interest and inspire anyone wishing to help someone who’s had an exceptionally hard-knock life. I’m personally glad I read it.