Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why do Women Become Prostitutes? Part I.

I suppose that most of you have heard Mackenzie Phillips' claim that she had a ten year sexual relationship with her father, beginning when she was 19. Her father, a musician with the Mamas and Papas, can't deny it because he's dead. Mackenzie Phillips has a long history of serious drug addiction and doesn't present particularly well. And the claim itself -- well, by now, we're used to hearing the stories of young children who've been made the victims of incest or preyed upon by daycare providers. We know how we're supposed to react to them. Mackenzie's claim, that as an adult she had an affair with her own father, is something else. People don't seem to know how to react to her. As far as I can tell, she's become a very, very public object of embarrassment. You can't help but look at the red haired, slightly ravaged looking woman, tossing her head, smiling ingratiatingly, and talking, talking, talking about how she spent her 20s sleeping with dad. At the same time, you don't want to look at a person like that any longer than you have to. She's probably sick, after all, and, given the incest, maybe a victim, but in a lot of ways she's just plain repulsive for having participated in her own degradation.

It's her family I find most interesting. Both her dad's ex wives have denounced her, even Michelle, with whom she was supposed to have had a close relationship. Neither of them mentioned the father's role in addicting Mackenzie to drugs before she reached her teens. Her youngest sister has unleashed a series of snide remarks, supposedly meant to be neutral, acknowledging Mackenzie's need to "come clean." Little Sister also sounded angry that Mackenzie had left her alone with the father who could have done the same things to her -- if he had done them to Mackenzie -- which probably he didn't. It was Mackenzie's other sister, Cheyenne came to Mackenzie's rescue, proclaiming her belief in Mackenzie and her love of her sister. Cheyenne's support consisted of the following: 1) a statement that she believed the affair happened, 2) repeated emphasis on the consensual nature of the affair, 3) a description of what an idyllic time she had with their father the few times he visited, 4) a lengthier discussion of how hard Mackenzie's revelation had been on Cheyenne's family, and, finally, 5) forgiveness for Mackenzie for having told her story. At no point did Cheyenne or anyone else express any interest in Mackenzie's claim that the "affair" began when her father raped her, that their sex frequently took place when Mackenzie was too stoned to know what was happening, or that her father had allowed one of his friends to rape her when she was a child. For this display of sympathy, Mackenzie gratefully and enthusiastically professed her love of Cheyenne.

Perhaps she was right to be grateful. Nobody at all came to Ellen's defense when she turned over evidence against her husband the rapist. We had a client whose uncle went to prison for the years he spent raping her while she was in elementary school. When he came out, the family welcomed him back with open arms. Decades later, when the woman's father died, a YANA staffer took her to his funeral. Nobody in the family would let her ride with them. When our women are battered, even by a stranger, they want to protect the man who attacked them, the way their mothers protected the men who attacked them as children. Very few of our women have ever denounced a family member who beat them or raped them, and of the ones who have, I can't think of any who got even as much support as Mackenzie got from Cheyenne.

Why do women become prostitutes? I don't have the answer, at least not all of it, but Mackenzie Phillips' family gave us all a nice, on-air demonstration of the culture that produced many of our clients. All the attention, all the concern is focused on maintaining the family just as it is. There just isn't any room left to worry about what's happening to the victim. The result sometimes seems to be a woman willing to participate in her own degradation. Long ago, I began to think of the women at YANA as the obedient daughters. Well into adulthood, they keep doing what they've been taught long ago.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Faces of YANA

I think getting to know the overlooked people is good for almost anyone. Both my sons have volunteered at YANA, and both are compassionate, thoughtful men. My younger son, Daniel, was there this past summer. There are now three pictures of him with the women he met at YANA on this blog and another picture of three women posing together.

All of the women posed (enthusiastically) for pictures that they knew might be on the internet promoting YANA and its work. Most of our clients are proud of their affiliation with YANA. Still, pseudonyms are used in the posts, and nothing learned through counseling or my legal work with clients is ever used.


Tina is another of our tiny, dying clients. She has a stick figure body and a face that makes me think of a child's little drawing: mouth, nose, and eyes all sketched with a few straight lines, a fringe of short bangs on her forehead. It's a sweet, slightly quizzical look without much force behind it. Often, as she feels the effects of her methadone -- considerably enhanced by high dose xanex bought on the street -- she moves like a little stick figure losing its animation, swaying and bobbing, eyes shut and mouth open, taking minutes to raise or lower the Styrofoam cup filled with lukewarm coffee. Even her hands are like something a child would draw, although, in this case, we're talking about a bored or slightly malevolent child. She has some fingernails that stop short of the end of her fingers and then grow straight up, so that they're perpendicular to where they're supposed to be. They can get quite long, and thick, and rather yellow. These witchy growths on her otherwise unmarked body are caused by a virus.

Tina, who is in her late 30s, spent much of last winter sleeping in her boyfriend's mother's garage. She has AIDS, which she says was acquired through being regularly injected with heroin at the age of 14 by her aunt. She has many of the diseases and the fungal infections that typically go with it. Her t-cell count (often 800 or more in a healthy person, dipping below 200 for someone with AIDS) tends to remain below 40. She is, appropriately, on none of the AIDS medications. She couldn't maintain the regime, and the drugs do more harm than good if they're started and stopped, mixed with everything else she buys on the street. She says that her doctor is frustrated with her, and it's obvious that she doesn't blame him. Tina's blood pressure is also extraordinarily low, and she speaks matter of factly about her body's lack of oxygen. When she goes to the E.R. she's like a t.v. character going to Cheers -- everybody knows her name.

And everybody seems to like Tina, or feel sorry for her, or tolerate her anyway. She is so much like a little disabled child that it's hard to remember she's a woman, but she is. She has a boyfriend. She has a two-year-old child she adores (don't worry, too much, anyway, the dad's family has custody). She can get very angry when she thinks she's been insulted, and she will apologize at length weeks after an incident if she sees a person she thinks she spoke to rudely. She is aware enough of what her life is to feel despair. Suicide is a recurring consideration.

It was both reassuring and depressing to listen to her yesterday talk about her past. Boys in the Hood was on our little V.C.R., and Tina, looking over at it, remarked that if the characters got revenge they'd go to prison. Then she continued in her soft, slightly gravelly, no-preliminaries monotone to tell about her own revenge history. "In my family," she said,"When anything happens to anybody, mom, sister, brother, grandma, doesn't matter, the first thing we think about is revenge." I can believe that. Not too many months ago, her mother hit her in the face. Tina didn't react because her little daughter and niece were in the room. Tina's mother called her a "pussy" for not hitting back. Normally, the women would fight.

Tina told me that when she was in a half way house when she heard that someone had hurt a close friend. The first thing she did was call a cab, then go on trash can duty so she could get outside. The cab came, and she ran for it, but somebody at the halfway house stopped the cab from taking off. Didn't matter to Tina. Nobody had hands on her yet, and she went flying down the street in a bright green sweatsuit, ducked in an alley, unzipped it, and reappeared in the red sweatsuit she'd hidden underneath, flagged down another cab and kept moving. "You'd of thought I did murder someone," she said. "The way they kept showing my picture on the T.V. They said I'd escaped from prison, but it was a halfway house." I asked if she got revenge while she was out, and Tina made one of her mild adjustments of expression, tending towards surprise. Of course she had gotten revenge. And later, when she and the offending woman were both in the same jail, she got it again.

And she didn't get caught anytime soon, either. Police came to her home, and helicopters circled the skies above it. She ran to the roof of her stepfather's club, white trash bag in her hand. Tina hid in the snow, beneath the white bag, unseen. I'm (inappropriately?) delighted by this image of her determination, her foresight in grabbing the trash bag, her winning something for once. Perhaps with some of the same feelings I'm having, Tina went on to talk about her little sister who, as a teenager, tried to jump out of a moving police car. She named the two police who had her at the time, one of them, Officer Smith, is a man I've heard quite a bit about. Officer Smith and partner took the little sister into a walled alley for a discussion of her escape attempt. While Officer Smith was cracking her ribs, Tina's little sister managed to blacken his eye and give him a bloody nose. Tina modified her expression again towards slight amusement. "I heard the other police made fun of him for that 'cause she didn't weigh but a hundred pounds."

Tina quietly chatted a bit more. She said she didn't mind prison except for the first few days she spent in drug withdrawal. Otherwise it was fine. "I skate all over there," she said with a tiny smile. "It's because I was locked up so much when I was a minor. I became institutionalized." A fair enough assessment, I suppose. She'd probably be better off in prison now, but there's life inside that little doll-like figure and surprising sweetness too. I hope she'll keep coming back.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


There's now a link to the YANA website in the right hand column. I hope you'll take a look. Tomorrow's blog may not get written until Friday morning, but it will be written. Sorry I'm being so slow with the pictures. Eventually, there'll be a video too.

Remembering Amy

Today I was asked if we would be doing anything in recognition of Domestic Violence Month or Sexual Assault something or other, and I had to admit that we weren't. If I'd been more forthcoming, I'd have admitted that I didn't know what either of those things are, but instead I just mumbled something about domestic violence and sexual assault being ongoing issues for our women. And then I remembered that we did have a client once who had briefly become the symbolic face of domestic violence for one local govt. agency, and I remembered what it had meant to her to recognized the way she was, to be held up as an example of success, to be praised, to be used.

Amy was a long term YANA client. She was one of many to come from astounding levels of incest and violence, but unlike the other clients, she hid her vulnerability well. To me she was just a dumpy, middle aged white woman, with bad clothes, a flippant sense of humor, and what turned out to be some real aesthetic leanings. Unsurprisingly, I felt very comfortable with her. Sid, who easily saw how broken Amy was beneath the all the wisecracking, loved her.

Years after Amy began with us, YANA partnered with a prestigious university for a jewelry making project. I wasn't volunteering at YANA then, but I understood the jewelry making to be tremendously popular, and, of all our clients, Amy was the one who became most excited by it. She was good at it, really good, and invented necklaces that were strange enough to look like something a character out of Dr. Suess's books would wear, and still conventionally pretty enough to be sold as decoration. She dragooned other clients into making jewelry with her. She worked, obsessively, on what became her new business, and she learned that telling her story helped her make a sale.

One of the very first days I began at YANA, the Baltimore Sun ran an article on her, artsy picture and all, chronicling her success as a jewelry maker. The twist on the article was that this particular jewelry maker had climbed out of prostitution and addiction through the love of beads. Amy walked through YANA with that article like somebody waving a campaign poster on election day. And beaming, absolutely beaming, she announced that she never would forget YANA, no matter how famous she got. She was right. She never did forget YANA, but she was taken, rather dramatically, out of the life she had always known. Amy became the prop for the academics who had "saved" her. She made appearances. She starred in a fund raising movie and attended a showing. One time she went on network t.v.

Of course, the academic whose project had been her salvation was the main speaker for that segment. She praised her own project, her school, and Amy's redemption. I believe she said something about the important economic benefits of having learned a trade -- that was certainly a point made at other presentations. Around the time of the t.v. show I bought a beaded necklace at a chain clothing store. It had 10 strands and many hundreds of tiny beads which were interspersed with more elaborate ones. It cost 12 dollars retail. I wondered how an American, paying American prices and working by hand, could ever make a living at a trade like that. The professor did not elaborate.

She had enough other elaborating to do with Amy's (and her school's) astonishing success. Amy, naturally enough, sat staring at the professor with the kind of look a very young baby will sometimes give a parent -- unqualified love, unqualified devotion. Very possibly, my memory of this is distorted, but it seems to me that she was actually staring upwards at the academic, like a rather large, but grateful, pet.

And who am I to begrudge her that? Someone said she was special. Someone said she had done well. That's what all of us are supposed to hear when we're children, and if she was just hearing it now in front of the whole country, why shouldn't she be thrilled? Especially since, now that both of her parents were dead, she was repeating her incestuous relationship with her elderly stepfather and his new wife. The woman she called mom collected money from the man she called dad and paid Amy to have sex with him. "Mom" often watched. Later she'd call Amy a whore and wheedle a good portion of the money back from her. A number of Amy's friends believed that "mom" and "dad" were Amy's biological parents, apparently because Amy herself never thought of them as anything else. The day we drove her to the t.v. station, Amy told us she had recently gone to her parents' house to clean for her mom.

She wasn't walking the street, though, and her few other clients were "boyfriends" she generally saw in their homes. She also had periods of sobriety, and even when she was on the drug line she hid it well. Amy disguised her misery, in other words. And she got more than televised praise from the people who used her to promote their own success. She got free beads, restaurant dinners, a chance to sell her work at Baltimore's Visionary Arts Museum, and a new view of herself. At one point she rented one of the nearby row houses, and all of YANA knew Amy now had a house of her own. When one client asked her how she managed it, Amy proudly answered, "Beads! Beads, beads, beads. It's all about making jewelry!"

She collected blankets and linens from YANA donations, and got a church group to donate a used washing machine. She never really moved in, though. With her history, she wasn't able to get the utilities turned on. She paid rent for a few months, then quit, soon got formally evicted. She spoke about how she'd turned her life around at an anniversary party and gave the address of her rented house when a visitor asked where she lived now. The visitor was obviously taken aback. She knew that successful entrepreneurs at any level lived somewhere else. Amy didn't miss a beat. "You stay where you're needed!" she announced, and there was a collective murmur of approval. Business lady and neighborhood saint.

Pretending to be a success took a heavy toll on her, though. Amy disappeared for weeks at a time. She confessed tearfully to me that she felt like she was letting everybody down. As much as she courted -- and knew how to manipulate -- the attention, it also overwhelmed her. An extremely well dressed lady from one of the government agencies came to our place once to talk to Amy about displaying her jewelry at a domestic violence function. I sat down with the two of them and told Ms. Well Dressed that Amy had been sick quite a bit, so much so that making another appearance might be too much for her. You'd think most people would at least fake a little concern. Not Govt. Lady. I don't think it even occurred to her. She booked Amy for her display and left.

Amy never made it to her display for domestic violence gig. I can't imagine Ms. Well Dressed Govt. Lady felt concerned, but I hope she was at least mortified by her procurement failure. We've had several very different sorts of professional women come to YANA lately. They're professors from other colleges, and they spend a lot of time with our women, listening, asking questions, doing small things to help. I think they like our woman, and I feel convinced that they actually want to know who they are. With their help, maybe we'll eventually do something for Domestic Violence Month and whatever that sexual thing is too. God knows our woman would like to be told they're special, that they've done something well.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Speaking of stereotypes. . .

I've described our women as being the victims of brutal childhood rape, poverty, and isolating stereotypes. This is how I see them, but it would be a mistake for me to portray them as nothing but child-like victims who loathe every minute of what they're "forced" to do. They are quirky and sometimes strong. They can take some strange routes to prostitution, and when they find what they consider "goodness," such as motherhood or God, they can lord their discovery mercilessly over anyone in their path. They often look nothing at all like frightened teenagers, and, like Diane with Edgar, they can get some pleasure out of the street life, or at least from their idea of what that life is supposed to be. Here are some moments from today.

Today was the last day for Ellen, a quiet woman who has only been coming for a couple months and whose story I don't know well. Ellen is probably in her sixties, extremely obese, with waist length hair, and the dazzling blue eyes so many of our white clients have. She looks a little like someone who should be living in a forest with the Keebler elves. Asked how old she was when she became addicted to crack, she broke into a grin that was half embarrassment, half elven merriment. "Fifty-five," Ellen answered.

Ellen had been smoking pot intermittently since she was 19, but apparently didn't start on crack until her sister, "Miss Crack-head of the world" moved in with her. Then her life went to hell in a handbasket -- not that it was all that great before. Back in the 80s, her husband was arrested and convicted of serial rape. He was given three consecutive life sentences, but it was Ellen who was the pariah among their friends and family because she had given the police the evidence they needed. She has said that sometimes she feels guilty because she didn't turn her husband in earlier and protect some of his victims, but then she says she remembers what the man did to her, and her voice trails off.

Did she have a background of child sexual abuse? Did she start prostituting as a little girl, before she even had the comfort of pot? How can anyone stand to put their face in a stranger's crotch, be sodomized by someone who has no reason to care how rough he gets, go off with man after man not knowing if this is the night to become a murder victim -- without at least a little dope? Did she wait to start prostitution until her crack addiction, in her 50s? The fact that several of her siblings have serious drug addictions and that they turned against her, rather than her husband, when she gave evidence of his brutality suggest that she came from a severely abusive family. For that matter, the fact that her sister's presence triggered her addiction suggests it too. But the fact that she reports long periods of no drug use and stability while raising her children (and while hubby was out raping the neighbors) shows control, doesn't it? And apparently she waited something like ten years between the husband's conviction and her crack spree, so it sounds like more than simply trading off one form of degradation for another.

Maybe if I'd gotten to know her better, I would have seen that her background fitted a predictable pattern. Maybe not. Maybe I would have seen a weird, meandering path, blazed partly by her parents long ago, and then continued with whims, odd chances, conscious bad choices of her own. I doubt much of it was meant as a highway to adventure, though. She drew a picture of her dreams once -- a picture of a little house on a hill with sunshine and a lake "for swimming and fishing." She told me that having an image like that in her mind was "a survival technique." She said that when people wondered "where she had gone" when she stared off into space, they didn't know she'd left them behind to go to that peaceful home.

Ellen, of course, did not fill the whole day. We had the ravening hordes in for their clothes and "personals." They're an issue to be addressed later at YANA and in the blog. We had a very sweet, young volunteer, one who's loved by the clients, who talked to me about how trendy "sex work" has become among college students who see it as feminism and power. I hope that, like so many fashions, it mostly talk, mostly temporary. I managed a few words about the need for hurt people to master a bad situation -- trying to glamorize and conquer it. Feel bad about sex, get raped, get humiliated even, and maybe you have a great need to get control over the whole thing by making somebody pay. I don't know whether that's the driving force behind the feminism/power business, though. Maybe it's just all those idiots singing songs about pimps and 'hos.

I was bothered by the idea of it, anyway, and bothered by the fact that our t.v/vcr with its outdated tapes has been hijacked to play a single movie every day, nobody paying full attention to it, but everybody looking over at it from time to time. The movie is "Coyote Ugly." It's full of very sexy women dancing on a bar, in a half-way strip. They look kind of feminist and powerful, to tell you the truth.

We also have another little outburst of nasty religion. Generally it's snide one upmanship as to who knows the bible the best or who really knows how to pray. The remarks are kept more or less neutral, delivered with a smile, but they get their point across. Today, however, we had a new client who went into an intense, full-out harangue, first trying to use her grandmother status to tell other people what to do, then trying for the same domination using the Jesus & prayer rationale. If she does that again, I expect I'll be writing my first post about throwing a client out.

We also had Liz, another woman pushing 50, who came in, crying as usual. I have become very fond of Liz, though I'd be hard put to tell you why. Perhaps it is partly because what she repeatedly says about herself is true: she is dying or very close to it. Telling all about Liz would take far too much space for this blog, but I will say that she fit her usual pattern today. She came in, weeping and announcing her latest hardship. What's difficult about Liz is that they really are hardships, very serious ones, often visible in the bruises and abrasions on her face. Today she said she had cirrhosis of the liver. Given her astounding level of drink, liver damage was pretty much a given. After she cried and got hugged and received, once again, far more than the theoretical quota of donations, she went to the bathroom to wash up and put on her new clothes. Liz emerged, as always, triumphant. Weeping little old lady gone, somewhat faded beauty-queen stripper returned.

Lots of "I love you's" from Liz, lots of talk about surviving and kicking ass, and looking sexy. Mentions of her newest "friend." This one wants to commit her to a psych ward until she goes in for her interferon treatments. We nod when she says the psych ward might be a good idea. "I might go psycho on someone!" she says, waving her hands threateningly and laughing her Liz laugh, filled with bravado. The cure for Liz's mind boggling array of problems is always the same, and it always works. Give her a hug and help her look pretty. The rewards of being a girl are like jet fuel for Liz. She comes in, gets refilled, and takes off soaring.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


First of all, Diane is o.k., at least for now. Edgar, however, is living with her. He had a mild stroke while at her apartment. Diane got help, and, now that he's back home with her, seems to be taking care of him. She's back at YANA, reining in my profligate ways with the donations, coming up with good, new ideas for services, buying food for her cat, and apparently taking care of all the old women in her neighborhood. She also recently strangled Edgar into unconsciousness. I think this was before the stroke, but I'm not sure. "I choked him out," she told me, embarrassed and grinning at the same time. He had been messing with her ("just playing") when she didn't want to be messed with, and Diane got one of her "anxiety attacks." She choked him until his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out. As you know, I've seen Edgar. I believe he to have been very drunk or very stoned for that to have been possible.

"There are some women who abuse men too," Diane told me. I agreed wholeheartedly. "I guess I became one of them then," she said. No agreement there. A batterer and rapist "messing with" with one of his victims deserved a lot worse than that. Still, there you go: intermittent moments of power, the occasional revenge, the occasional good natured reward. String enough together, and I guess you get enough to keep a person going.


Drop in at YANA is on Wednesdays and Thursdays. These are the days I volunteer and generally the days I'll be posting, though other posts may appear from time to time. The easiest way to know when there's a new post is to become a "follower" by clicking on the follower button in the right hand column and following the directions. Within the next few days, we'll be adding pictures and maybe a video. Keep reading!

Being "on the side of" Prostitutes

The women we meet in this blog are the adult sort- of survivors of childhood abuse. Thirty, forty, fifty, and older, they are still struggling with the things that happened to them as children, faithfully recreating the abuse that was inflicted upon them when they were three, four, and five. Sometimes YANA works with the children themselves, though. Sid and her determined little band of volunteers collaborate with police and prosecutors, providing comfort and advocacy for those the government has chosen to consider the victims of human trafficking. By definition, anyone under the age of 18 who has prostituted is a trafficking victim, whether they cross jurisdictions or not. Often, by definition, they are also criminals and are prosecuted no matter how young they are. We will undoubtedly talk more about the children in later posts. Today, though, was a good reminder of where the grown up YANA women come from.

Sid and I talked before the women came in. Sid was still shocked and supremely frustrated by the treatment a teenage girl had received from some rural police. The girl, who was being prostituted by her father, and who was pregnant by one of her tricks, was interrogated at length by an officer who apparently knew both the father and the trick. She was told, repeatedly, that she was an habitual runaway and liar (wonder why she would be that?). She was told that, despite the fact that her father collected money from the tricks immediately after they screwed her, she was engaging in consensual sex. She was told that the victims services workers who were waiting for her in the building were nowhere around. She was told that they only wanted to help her in order to get her baby from her.

As far as anyone knows, the officer wasn't a rapist. He didn't have a thing for little girls, and he didn't profit from the prostitution. He had just chosen which side he wanted to be on, and it damn sure wasn't the side of a prostitute. In a sense, it's not an unreasonable choice. Being "on the side of" a prostitute, any aged prostitute, is painful, involving, as it does, the thought that mothers and fathers will sometimes do horrible things to their children, and that people can be hurt so badly that they will eventually start hurting themselves. What does that say about free will? Nothing most of us want to hear. Perhaps worst of all, it means that people we know, nice people, might have taken part in something evil when they decided to find out what being with a hooker is like. It's so much easier to believe that the homeless women wandering down Wilkens Ave. just decided to prostitute because they were too slutty and lazy to live normal lives. Besides, if you don't think being "on the side of" any aged prostitutes is just plain weird, tell all your coworkers that you read this blog. See what their reaction is.

And then, after you do that, maybe take things one step further, and tell them a benefit of reading. Without intervention, the isolation that little girl felt alone in an interrogation room with the sneering cop is something she could carry with her for the rest of her life. After what had been done to her by her own family, the contempt of the outside world could simply destroy her sense of being part of the human race. When we meet the women as individuals, not stereotypes they get to be human again. First they're human on the screen, then in our minds, then in the way we talk, eventually in the way that they get treated. The women I've met could use a few people on their side. They'd like to be seen as human again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Worried about Diane

Thursday we talked about clothes and whether nuns are virgins and the drive down Wilkens Avenue, but something else was happening that day. Or, to put it more precisely, something else was not happening. That something else was Diane's not coming to YANA. She didn't come in at all Thursday, and I still don't know why. I'm worried about it enough to be writing about it now and to wonder if I can contact her somehow before we open again.

Diane is a client-volunteer who's made herself in charge of donations and the general physical order of YANA. This is no small task, and it means that she incurs the resentment of some of the other women -- the ones who don't want the rules quite so reliably enforced and who certainly don't want them enforced by another client. Conflict is hard for Diane. She walks away sometimes. She tells me she knows she has to work on her "attitude." I believe she suffers from chronic anxiety, and I know there are times when she wants to lash out. She sticks to the rules, though, and, almost always, she does so with real kindness. Without the hugging, the professions of love, the gushing and the weeping we get from so many, Diane takes care of our space and everyone within it. She quietly, but deeply, enjoys the respect she has earned, and maybe because of it, or maybe for some other reason entirely, she is dramatically remaking her world.

Other women happily do our craft projects, but Diane is the one who tells me that she "woke up at 5 o'clock this morning thinking about my collage." She is learning to cruise the internet, wants presentations about current events, goes on retreats to the mountains with the nuns at Hezekiah House, seems to be helping every needy old woman in a one mile radius of her home, lobbies for a YANA trip to a museum. She's gone from dressing almost as badly as I do to developing her own very tasteful style -- slightly afro-centric, more black and tan than any bright colors, the details, assembled from donated clothes, generally dead on.

So, after decades of drugs, poverty, sexual abuse in one form or another, she's eagerly building a new life for herself. She'd be another YANA success story if her old friend, Edgar, would just leave her alone. I imagine her apartment is a big part of the attraction. He moves in. She gets a protective order to keep him out. He leaves, and she worries about whether he has clean clothes. She borrows my phone and spends hours calling the hospitals, imagining he is hurt. The protective order lapses, and he moves back in. He rapes her, then cleans the apartment, figuring that makes them even. She considers another protective order. I realize why the police, in a city as violence plagued as Baltimore, have been driving by her home, trying to keep an eye on Edger.

The day after we found out she'd been raped, Diane was late coming in. Sid and I abandoned YANA to the medical volunteers from Health Care for the Homeless and drove to her home. It was Edgar-the-Rapist who answered the door and told us that she had gone to Hezekiah House. "Oh, no!" Sid trilled with the kind of feminine alarm that assumes a sympathetic listener. "She hasn't come in! Can we leave a note?" He allowed us entry, and found Sid a piece of paper. It was a beautiful day. The apartment was well decorated and well kept. Early Michael Jackson music flowed out the open windows, greeting the neighborhood with its innocuous innocence. Edgar sat in easy possession of it all, eating his rather substantial breakfast.

Sid scribbled a word or two, then asked to use the bathroom. Edgar nodded. I sat in the corner of the dining room, secure in my (accurate) assumption that the indomitable Sid was searching the closets, under the bed, any place that Diane, or Diane's corpse, could be hidden. Exchanging a sentence or two with Edgar, the only real surprise I felt was that Diane could have ever worried about a man like that. Not that there was anything obviously wrong with him -- other than the sense I got that he'd rather run somebody over with a car than to ever, ever be considered so inferior as to need assistance. Polite, in other words, but wound up rather tight. We parted, cordially.

Diane was waiting for us when we got back, wondering if we'd brought the police to her home and if Edger was upset, chagrined when she found out that Sid had looked in her messy closet. She'd set her own plan into place for getting rid of Edger. She went to the home of one her neighborhood old ladies, then waited for the police to pick her up and remove Edger for trespassing. She'd already arranged for someone they both knew to pick him up and take him away. It was a good plan, but I knew by then that she wouldn't be consistent with it. The next time she was late, I went to her home again, but the doors were all locked. She was waiting for me, once again, when I returned. I felt ridiculous. I told myself I wouldn't do it again. I wasn't helping, anyway.

So, I didn't go to her home this past Thursday when she didn't come. She's been taking care of a lot of people in the neighborhood, including a kindergartner sometimes, and the most likely reason for her absence was that she was helping someone else. Still, the day before, she told us that she and Edger were both in court-ordered domestic violence classes. She wasn't sure whether they'd be attending the same one. She was, however, sure that Edger was allowed back to her apartment because his clothes were still there, and he got mail. I don't know what the judge actually told her in this latest go-round, or what she had told the judge. I only knew that she believed Edger's attitude had changed in the two weeks since he had raped her, that a judge had told her he was allowed back in for his things, that there was no chance she would heed my nervous advice and throw his clothes out. I also knew that, whatever other feelings Diane had, she was miserable, wandering in that blank space our women live in, a universe away from a world that can be remade just because someone wants to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Day at YANA

For me a YANA day starts before I reach the building. I drive up Wilkens Avenue in Baltimore between Monroe and Gilmore Streets, peering into the faces of the women who sit slumped on the steps or walk the streets of the neighborhood. Prostituted women in Baltimore rarely dress for their jobs. They wear the same no-makeup, hair pulled back, jeans and t-shirts look that every other woman there does. Even so, just driving by, I usually have a pretty good idea of whether they prostitute or not. Our women are often seriously underweight. At 10:00 in the morning, they can be so exhausted or so doped up that they stagger. Look into their faces, and there's the sort of vulnerability a child might have if she were forced to do a grown-up's hard job and had no hope of relief. Recognizing the prostituted women on Wilkens doesn't take any great perception -- or if it does, then the middle aged men who wash their new cars and excitedly cruise the same strip are all gifted intuitives.

Today, I didn't stop for any of them. I didn't recognize any of our friends, and, though I saw several women who would probably be prostituting later in the day, I didn't see any who looked approachable at the moment. I went on to Hezekiah House, where YANA is currently located, and where I was soon swamped by women from the drug rehab. program next door. These women who came were all pretty new to YANA. For the moment, at least, they weren't prostituting. Many hadn't prostituted for a long time; almost all are sober. They were poor, though, and fragile, and they knew we had good things to give away. Keeping a semblance of order when you're the only person between five such women and fresh bags full of unsorted donations isn't easy.

Crabby, clerical start to the day, in other words. I heard myself saying, "I've told you repeatedly to write down the toiletries you need. . . " and heard a forty-something African American woman apologizing like a child for having touched without permission. Instead of cringing, all I could think was I was glad a fight wasn't breaking out. In over 12 years of dealing with clients who are often seriously traumatized, emotionally disturbed, and drug addicted, we've never had an actual physical fight, though there have been plenty of threats. The closest we ever came to one was when a lot of donations came in. I somehow imagined it would be a good idea to let everyone grab what she wanted.

The only part of the morning I enjoyed was introducing the concept of YANA itself. I told several, seriously interested women that YANA was formed when a social worker, Sid Ford, noticed that there was a population of women who were isolated from the rest of the world -- prostitutes. I tell them she wanted to create a sense of community. While it was very hard for me in the beginning to believe that this was the thing they needed most, it is never hard at all for the clients to understand. They nod like they're in church when I talk about isolation. "YANA stands for You Are Never Alone," I tell them, and some don't react in the least. Others look like they've just found out they're getting a pony for Christmas.

I go on to tell them we offer services: lunch, clothes, Thursday visits from the Health Care for the Homeless, a volunteer psychologist on Wednesdays, help with referrals into treatment programs, a place to rest on a hot or cold day. I finish by telling them that the main thing we offer is the community so many never had. YANA women themselves make up the program, and they make their own decisions to survive the way they always have or to make new decisions about their lives.

The rest of the day, we talk, we eat pizza, Health Care for the Homeless does its magic for the many women in need of care. The women try on warm clothes, and all admire the one young girl who models a gorgeous new suit on her tall, healthy body. "I can wear this to church or a job interview," she says several times, then leaves with a boyfriend. One woman tells me she often sees our "old clients," the ones who came more often when we were located on Pratt Street, close to the part of Wilkens I drove coming in. She mentions several women, including Trina who has not come to YANA in the year since we've moved. Trina believes she can't -- or else she is angry. It isn't clear, but somehow her not coming has something to do with a man who was dangerous. I break the rules and talk about Trina to another client. "We've missed her!" I tell the woman. "We want her back! Tell her to come." The other woman says she'll bring her next week. I'm not holding my breath. There's something else going on with Trina, and how could things not be complicated, angry, filled with a sense of abandonment for Trina? She began living with her molesting uncle when she was still a child. I believe her parents decided to give her to him, knowing why he wanted to take a young girl off their hands. She's middle aged now, and still lives with him. She'll be the first to tell that she made the choice to live the way she does.

When there are only a few of us left, Dolly (a new client, in rehab, sweet, obviously a little emotionally disturbed) turns her attention to Sister Mary, one of the Sisters of Mercy nuns who helps us. Dolly wants to know if "Sister" means Mary is a nun. Mary answers that she is. Dolly has a lot of questions about being a nun, but she gets through them rapid fire until she reaches the main one. "Are you a virgin?" she asks. She has to ask it several times because she is mouthing the words, with her hands cupped dramatically around her mouth. Once Mary understands her, she readily answers that she is. "You are?! Really! I've never met a virgin before!" Dolly can barely contain her delight.

Endlessly good natured Mary, who celebrated her 50th year of being a nun a few years ago, answered all the questions that followed. No, she'd never slept with anyone. She wanted to be a nun. She couldn't marry and still be a nun even if she only slept with her husband. If a man asked her out for a drink, she would explain that she was Sister Mary, and that would probably keep things from going any further. One man had asked her to marry once, but she thought he just wanted to get a green card. Mary was soon laughing. Dolly, realizing at last, that Mary really meant the virginity thing, suddenly began making desperate efforts to console her.
"There are some advantages!" Dolly said. "Child birth hurts! You never had to do that. And, and you never had to mess with men that don't treat you right. Those are advantages!" Dolly repeated her list several times, then thought of another, and pointed out to Mary that she never had to bother with birth control either.

"That's right!" Mary agreed. "I never had to!" She was still smiling. So were Dolly and the rest of the room. In my nearly five years at YANA, I've never heard virginity discussed or a nun grilled on her choices, but it was a YANA moment just the same. A weird little moment of delight as we all got to know one another a bit better.

* * *

Next Posts: We'll meet many more of the individual women and continue to follow them, and we'll talk more about Hezekiah House, Health Care for Homeless, our many volunteers, and the indomitable Sid Ford who founded YANA by driving the very mean streets of Baltimore at night, talking to prostituted women and believing that something good would come of it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I'm a middle class woman who's been volunteering for years at YANA, one of the few programs in the country for prostituted women. In a state of something close to shock, I wrote the following a few months after I began:


I don't want to sit this close, or else I want to sit closer and put my arms around her or do something else that could actually be of some help. Her name is Tasha, and she's telling me again that she hasn't used drugs in five months, and every time she says this, she runs back through the same script, the same gestures; she puts on the same big, plastic mask of an expression. "And now that I'm clean," she says, "new doors are all opening up for me." And her mouth gapes open; her lips stretch up to her cheek bones in a pantomime of delight. "The doors are all opening!" Tasha raises both hands to demonstrate, pushing her palms outwards and parallel to her rather than bringing them in, so that in her pretended ecstasy she closes everyone of the doors that hang invisibly in the air before her. In another instant she will show me sadness again.
She'll say that she's lonely, and then her face will suddenly come very close to mine, and her features will contort into something like an open mouthed wail. There are never any tears, though. She asked for a tissue early on, but the ones I brought her are for wiping the mustard off her hands as she eats free bologna sandiches. Tasha has also told me that she is three months pregnant and that she stopped using drugs one month into the pregnancy for the baby's sake. She says that she's HIV positive and that she has hepatitus C. Her mouth makes its soundless wailing shape again after she tells me that she's afraid for the baby's health, but that expression is swiftly supplanted by the suprise and delight she has to display when I tell her that prenatal care can help. When she asks if it's all right that the baby tickles her, I only say that it is. I don't ask how long she's been able to feel the baby move. I'm only a volunteer here. It isn't my job to catch her in a lie.
In the course of the next 30 minutes she tells me a story that's like an afternoon movie on the lifetime channel. A girl falls into prostitution and suffers every indignity but arrest. ("I hear you can get locked up for that? Is that right? Does that really happen?" And when I tell her it happens quite often, she opens her mouth like a frog's again to show me how amazed she is, how terrified.) In a part of town where the price of sex can go as low as two dollars, this woman says she averaged $500.00 a night. That's the prostitution you see on T.V., where women wear make up, leather mini skirts, knowing smiles. It isn't our women, walking their damaged bodies out of public housing or abandoned buildings in the morning, looking for drugs and maybe a free meal or some donated clothes. It isn't the woman sitting beside me either.
She tells me about her past, too, the childhood typical of a prostitute. But even the men who raped her, all friends of her father's, she says, are confused with the rapists on T.V. I suppose she's trying to make her plight more important and her attackers more dangerous when she says that she still sees them on America's Most Wanted.
There is no description, dramatic or otherwise, of how she left drugs and prostitution; there isn't much of one in popular understanding either. Very dramatic things just happen, and then you quit because some one thing gives you hope. Tasha tells me that she gave up the drugs and the prostitution when she found out she was pregnant. And now she lives with the baby's father, and the doors -- she makes the same series of closing motions, smiles the same unreal smile -- are all opening for her at last. She is a success, in other words, in a way that almost no woman who first comes here is. She's told her life's story the way it's supposed to be told.
I don't remember what I said to prompt her next remarks. Maybe my alarm or my approval didn't seem great enough; more likely she just wasn't finished with everything she could think of saying. Tasha pulls the edge of her tee shirt down and shows me a darker, badly wrinkled place on her chest. She says that when she was prostituting a customer held her by the neck and burned her with a cigar. The place she shows me is a child's clenched fist; it's a mass of chaotic scars; it's my whole field of vision when I try to look at her. And when I move my eyes, I see that something has happened on both sides of her neck as well. They're discolored and symmetrically marked, so that she looks like a statute that someone has marked with a pattern. Tasha, seeing me look there, tells me this is from a customer's choke hold.
I wonder what really happened to her neck. I imagine someone holding her down and using a knife or a nail to put the grid of small scars there. I think of someone burning Tasha, and her skin just cracking open that way. We don't discuss it further. She goes back to telling me that she's been clean five months, adding that she lost her family's trust when she became addicted and that gradually she's earning that trust back. The images evoked by these words -- "trust" and "family" are worse than all the rest. Because what kind of family produces a girl like Tasha?
What did they teach her about trust and how did they manage to send her out into the world broken into so many pieces that she doesn't know how real people smile or how they look sad? Who made her think she had to put on a performance like that, like a little wooden puppet of a woman, bugging her eyes, flopping her mouth open and shut, waving her hands all the wrong way? I want to get away from her again, and it's not because I think she's lying.
It's because I'm sure she's telling the truth. She really is as lonely as she says she is. She really has been choked and burned, raped as a child and prostituted and diseased as an adult -- and probably before she was an adult as well. The "father's friends" really do keep appearing, at least in her mind's eye and very possibly on the streets of her neighborhood as well. And the doors really do hang invisibly, in the air before her, and she really does raise her hands towards them,not knowing the difference between opening and closing.

* * *

Like I said, I wrote that after a few months of volunteering. Was it an insightful piece? Not really. The trauma, the childhood sexual abuse, the poverty -- they're all real enough, but they're far from anyone's whole story. It took me almost a year to start seeing our clients as three dimensional people, and when I did, they became fascinating in a whole new way. This blog is story of prostituted women in all their dimensions: trite, annoying, funny, kind, defeated, and triumphant. It's a privilege to work with them. I hope people will want to expand their own worlds by getting to know the women of YANA. Write to me and tell me what you think.

Tomorrow: A day at YANA