Half of me wants to continue this interview in hushed whispers, because, even while the topic of our conversation is as American as apple pie, baseball, and even Julia Roberts, it still remains too large and incriminating a taboo to discuss publicly over jazz and turtle monk mochas. Yet, here Joy Friedman and I find ourselves, amid the bustle in this intimate St. Paul café, openly discussing prostitution, money, tricks, johns and drugs.
“Prostitution is not the oldest profession,” Friedman quickly corrects me. “It is the oldest oppression.” And while she explains that it’s been 10 years since she’s escaped “the life,” the man seated nearby quietly stirs his coffee and too obviously leans in as she reveals to me the raw details of her sordid past.
“I’ll never go back,” she says. “Prostitution and drugs are completely over for me.” Friedman is currently working as a program manager with Breaking Free, advocating for victims of prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
A local organization providing aid to female victims of prostitution and sexual exploitation, Breaking Free works mostly with girls and young women from 15-30; they’ve accepted girls as young as 12.
Prostitution is part of a billion-dollar sex industry that includes clubs, massage parlors, videos, escort services, and forms of human trafficking. “It’s glamorized by our media and culture, and people say girls choose this,”
Friedman says as she shakes her head. “But nobody willingly chooses this.
It’s not a choice; it’s a lack of a choice. Prostitution is slavery.”
“Women tell me they have to do it for economics,” says Sergeant Curt Sandell of the St. Paul Police Department’s vice unit. “They can’t find jobs, have children, and need to raise money for their kids or to support a drug addiction – meth or crack, usually.” Women often feel trapped – bound, even – to the life because of a pimp, an addiction, the money, and other demons.
Vednita Carter, founder and executive manager of Breaking Free, explains this is why too many women too often pass through her program multiple times, some never completely making it out of the life. Salvation is hard, but success is measured by a different rubric here.
“As long as we can get her to think about getting out, we don’t care how many times she leaves and comes back,” says Carter. “She’s thinking about it because we’ve helped to put that possibility in her head, and that’s success to us.”
Incremental steps are essential to progress on the grand scale as well.
International advocates for women are fighting hard to implement new terminology and avoid the word “prostitute.”
“We try not to refer to the women as prostitutes,” Friedman says. “We call them victims, because that’s what they are.” The term “victim” more evenly distributes the fault and converts a girl from being a societal menace, a throw-away and perpetrator, to being a sexually manipulated individual, a target, and thus a scapegoat in this largely male consumerist market.
“In no other industry is the product and not the consumer prosecuted,” Friedman says. Yet, girls today are grossly overrepresented in the legal and prison systems regarding crimes of sex and prostitution. The biased term “prostitute” connotes criminal and predatory behavior and primarily stigmatizes the female participant, who may be as young as 12 years old.
The johns are completely dissociated from any stigma or blacklisting and are often able to avoid criminal punishment as police officers more frequently detain and prosecute females (janes). “Since the first of January we’ve arrested eight johns and 10 janes,” Sandell says, and as the warmer weather approaches, that number is expected to dramatically increase.
“I don’t know about this year’s so far, but last year’s stats were up from the year before,” Sandell reports.
“I think those numbers will go higher. In my personal opinion, I think it’s gotten worse,” says Carter. “It’s a problem, and it’s hurting our community. I’m calling it an epidemic.”
Joy insists that a lot of the exploitation remains camouflaged behind guises of “adult entertainment.” “Foosball is adult entertainment,” she says – not prostitution. “There’s nothing entertaining about degrading a woman sexually or otherwise. If this is adult entertainment, then we need to take a closer look at our adults.”
“We’ve got to make an effort to look at people who buy [sex], because our community is the new auction block,” Carter says. “This is a human rights violation, and it is not OK to buy, sell or trade human beings.”
Sheila Ford, author of Love Letters to Him, echoes this sentiment throughout her book of poetry and her survivor workshops with Breaking Free: “I teach the women to not be deceived by the culture of sexual exploitation and the devaluing of women,” Ford says. Part of the treatment Breaking Free offers to women includes spiritual guidance.
“When I first started, I wasn’t getting a lot of help from churches,” Carter says. “One pastor actually said the church had better things to do with its money. But now we’re getting a lot of support in donations and housing, and they’ve been great partners for us.” Ford works with the girls on developing a spiritual identity and self-worth to encourage healing and growth, as a lot of these women have so much to overcome emotionally and psychologically.
According to Carter, the girls have responded well to Ford’s book and have really come to understand the messages of respect and self-worth she’s teaching them. “This is an issue kept quiet in the Black community, so it’s harder for African American women to get help,” says Carter.
“Women in prostitution are outcasts, and this population can not continue to be ignored. This makes a statement about all women – that we can be bought, sold, traded – and doesn’t that mean that we can also be raped? If we want to end this, then we all have to get involved.”
Breaking Free is holding a fundraiser event at Bethel University on April 23 at 7 pm; see Breaking Free’s website for further details and ticket prices: www.breakingfree.net.
Sheila Ford’s Love Letters to Him is available on amazon.com and missiontomobilization.com.