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


  1. Thank you, for sharing that, and I wish you well in this blog. I volunteered at a crisis intervention center years ago, where like at your center, one finds people like broken birds on the street. My task was much easier in that we served a broad range of problems, with only a few being serious. The minor problems created a break from the rest. I wonder if you get any breaks.


  2. Thanks for your comment, JG. You're my first commenter who isn't married to me! It sounds like you had a very interesting -- and important -- experience at the crisis center. As for me, I get plenty of breaks. YANA women are fun, and part of the experience of volunteering there is learning how people in the worst of circumstances still find ways to enjoy themselves.