Wednesday, April 22 2015
Have you ever traded sex for things that you need? Have you ever sold sex for money or drugs? These questions might seem hard to ask, at first. But, what if we asked? What if asking lifted the veil of secrecy around commercial sexual exploitation and helped women?
At CASH we served almost 200 women last year. Of those women, more than half had never talked about their involvement with sex work, even though a majority have been involved in the criminal justice system, experienced homelessness, or had mental health issues. Over time, there were so many opportunities to ask these women if they wanted help with this aspect of their life. But, I understand why it didn’t come up. For more than a decade, I worked in transitional housing for women. All of the women we served were homeless and many were dealing with an addiction. We also had a former foster youth component. Each of those situations can be a pathway to commercial sexual exploitation. Combined, the likelihood of being commercially sexually exploited greatly increases. But, I never asked. It didn’t even occur to me. I don’t even know what I would have done with the information. No one was talking about it.
Unfortunately, silence is a problem. Women leave the familiar and go to distant cities without telling anyone that can help them if they need it. Sometimes they are stranded, hurt, arrested. They don’t have anyone to talk to when “the life” takes a toll. Others trade sex to have a place to sleep for a few nights because they are exhausted and without options. They don’t want to trade sex with strangers to meet their most basic needs, so they keep it a secret. The impact is very real. Commercially sexually exploited women attempt suicide at an astounding rate and health problems far outpace similar demographics of women.
Today, all I do is talk about sex, prostitution, trafficking, trading – commercial sexual exploitation. I have found that women are relieved to be able to get it all out. When we go to college campuses and present in classrooms, without fail someone comes up afterwards, self-discloses, and says there was no one to talk to. We have to imagine that their transition might have been easier, and happened sooner, if we weren’t afraid of this conversation. One young woman that just completed our Safe Passages program said she didn’t think she had any feelings around prostitution. But after a number of weeks in the class she realized that she did have a position. She had never had the opportunity to talk openly about it or had so much information. This is empowering to women. Please be encouraged. These conversations matter.