Vednita Carter knew the women, and what their typical day entailed. She knew the numbers. And she knew things didn’t add up.
Every prostituted woman, Carter said, “is with five to 10 [johns] every day,” said Carter. Yet, many more women were being arrested than men.
“This is not fair,” Carter said flatly.
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She was in a position to do something about it: Carter is founder and executive director of Breaking Free. The unique St. Paul-based agency helps African American women and girls escape prostitution, and educates the community about commercial sexual exploitation.
For years, Breaking Free had conducted a “john school” for men referred by the courts. Men hear from police, prosecutors, health professionals and formerly prostituted women about the impact of their actions on prostituted women, the men’s family members and the community.
Carter and Breaking Free decided it was time to take things further upstream, and launched a new initiative called “Stop the Demand” (“STD for short,” Carter said with a laugh) in January 2007.
Why now? The need became clear partly due to the unexpected death of a friend: St. Paul Police Sgt. Gerald Vick.
Vick was killed in May 2005 while working undercover. As a vice unit member, Carter said, “he was trying to arrest men as well as women.” But in the year or so after he died, Breaking Free noticed that St. Paul police “weren’t focusing on men at all anymore,” she said. “We said: This is not OK.”
Breaking Free secured a state grant to work with police and prosecutors on holding men accountable. They told St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington they wanted change. “We told him that for every woman, we want at least two men arrested,” Carter said. “In my opinion, that’s not asking a lot.” While she recalled that the proposal brought “raised eyebrows” from the chief, Carter is mostly satisfied with the working relationship they’ve forged.
“I thought we’d have more obstacles than we’ve had,” said Carter. “The chief has been pretty understanding.”
Among STD’s other goals: to get the photographs of women arrested for prostitution off the police website. Photos of both women and johns are posted, which started under former Chief William Finney.
Harrington, though not ready to remove women’s photos, suggested adding a link to Breaking Free. “That way, before they get to the photos, people have to take a tour of our website,” Carter said. “I thought that was pretty good.”
Carter’s passion for her work goes back to age 18, when she and a friend answered a “dancers needed” ad to earn college money. Disturbed by how the women were treated, she said, “I got out in about six months.” Her friend didn’t. Ever since, Carter has helped others escape and plans to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Women need to know they deserve better,” Carter concluded, “and there are so few people doing this work.”