Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do Women Become Prostitutes? Part II

Concerned staff from an alternative school have asked Sid and me to speak to the faculty next week. Their school is an area with heavy prostitution, and they have two questions: 1) How can they help students whose parents may be prostituting? and 2) How can they help distressed and tearful prostituted women they've seen hurrying in and out of cars near the school? These are absolutely wonderful questions to ask -- and they're horrible questions to have to answer. Today I tried asking the YANA clients what to do. The results were something less than textbook clear.

The women suggested counseling and gaining the trust of local prostitutes. They said that it was important to be listened to and not lectured. All very good, but there were no suggestions as to how to gain that trust or how to start the listening process with a frightened woman who is literally running in the other direction. One woman said something more interesting. She told us that when she was out on the corner prostituting, she didn't consider herself a prostitute. She thought she was "dating." The other women nodded. They talk a lot more freely about prostituting when they're talking in the past tense. They can be pretty open about it then.

What they aren't open about -- at all -- is the subject of anybody's mother prostituting. After someone referred to prostituting women bringing their "dates," i.e. tricks home, a new client named LaTeisha said the following, unprompted, within the space of about five minutes. "Some women bring a lot of dates all up in the house. My mother never did that. I came from a good home! My mother was a drinker!" And then, tearfully, "My mother saved my children, but she never saved me." O.K., I don't want to read too much into what the women say, but has anyone you've ever known told you that their mother didn't bring her tricks home with them? If they just announced something like that wouldn't you think the mother was prostituting?

As soon as LaTeisha said she came from a good home, another woman chimed in to say that she came from a good home too. LaTeisha went on to tell us that young people don't know how to date anymore, that they just hook up to have sex. LaTeisha might have a point there, but then she said that the parents teach the girls not to come home "with nothing but a wet ass" after sex; they should have money too. I don't think LaTeisha is speaking for the larger society there. I don't think she knew that most mothers don't act that way. LaTeisha's recommendation for teaching young people not to prostitute? Men should know how to walk with a lady. They should walk on the outside of the sidewalk near the street.

The other women in the group had little to add. I asked if a girl whose mother was prostituting was herself at high risk for prostitution. Only one person responded, and she said, with great determination, that people can rise above their environments. I can't think of anytime I've known a YANA woman to say that she prostituted because her mother did, or that she led her own child into prostitution. And yet, we see, over and over again, that prostitution in our neck of the woods is inter-generational.

Sid and I went to a national conference on domestic trafficking last year and heard the same thing from people in other parts of the country. One detective led a nationally known unit that has been keeping statistics on prostituted women. Not only did almost all of them report a sexual assault background, but over 95% of their mothers reported the same background. Another woman stood in front of the room and told us that "Incest is the boot camp of prostitution." In the first year of YANA's existence, the counselors documented hundreds of stories of childhood sexual abuse. We've had many mother-daughter pairs come to us, often with the daughter having found YANA first and taking the first step away from prostitution.

Still, the mother-daughter thing isn't talked about. The reasons for prostituting are almost always given as "I just wanted to run wild." or "I'd do anything for drugs." Even when the drug use began after the prostitution, the drug is given as the cause. What should counselors do when the students have prostituting mothers? The answer is confusion, silence, and insistence that their own mothers were good. On the one hand, that lack of awareness doesn't bode well for staying out of prostitution. LaTeisha, who is clean, admitted that while she isn't on the street anymore, she will turn a trick in an emergency. "If I don't have food, I will get in a car to feed my children," she said. Right. LaTeisha hasn't had custody of her children for years. Prostitution may be self sacrifice, but it isn't noble, and it sure isn't done for the sake of the kids.

On the other hand -- and this is very important -- women struggling with prostitution still make progress in their lives. They still find ways to grow, to enjoy themselves, and to appreciate each other. LaTeisha is dating a man with no job and no money at all. She isn't crazy about this fact. ("That mf better get a job" is how she put it.) But she really lights up when she talks about him. They enjoy each other. They talk. He takes her around his family. She says she's enjoying what she should have had when she was young. Most of our women were put on a very hard road when they were children, and they keep stumbling forward without thinking too much about why they're there. A lot of them get amazingly far without taking much of a look backwards.

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