Written by: Jamie Strickland, Stephen Harrison and Laura Pollack
In a year when the Violence Against Women Act is once more being discussed in Washington and individuals like Malala Yousafzai are making headlines around the globe, what is the status of sex workers on our streets here in Trenton?
“I might have a 23 year old who’s living at home, can’t find a job, and she’s prostituting on Saturday nights for money,” says Ellen Veagle, Director of Counseling and Support Center at Womenspace, a local non-profit that aids women who are victims of sexual and domestic abuse. She continues “but [that women] may be a trauma survivor, so I’m trying to make her stop doing that, but I can’t get her money for car insurance…You’re dealing with all of these levels of oppression.” In an interview with The VOICE, Veagle explained that there are several economic and psychological factors that drive a woman into sex work.
Veagle explains that these women are trauma survivors, victims of sexual abuse, drug addicts, or women who just need to make enough money to provide for themselves and their children.
PROSTITUTION IN TRENTON
A former Trenton sex worker, Sarah (a pseudonym, she asked that her real name not be used), told The VOICE that prostitution in Trenton is “not surprising… at any point in time after the sun sets, Hoffman [Avenue], Oakland [Street] in Trenton, you can find at least four or five prostitutes walking around with a cop literally sitting on that corner…It’s so ridiculous, you have to see it to actually believe it.” Sarah worked as a prostitute in Trenton from 2005-2009 and was willing to sit for a lengthy interview with The VOICE about her experiences. [Listen to the interview online at mcccvoice.org]
Trenton resident and Criminal Justice major at Mercer Jalmeel Conway told The VOICE he witnessed what he assumes was a prostitute “on duty” about a month ago. According to Conway, he observed the woman standing outside the Trenton court house, late in the evening, when a guy in a Lexus drove up. She leaned her head in the man’s car window and they had a brief exchange before she got into the car and they drove away.
“I knew he wasn’t picking up his wife from the corner that late at night,” he said. “The guy must have been quick because about 10 minutes later they came back and he dropped her off.” This stereotypical example of street walking, however, is not necessarily the norm for Trenton.
Communications major Kevin Parham has lived in the West Ward of Trenton his whole life and says he has never encountered a prostitute looking for work on the street. “I know they exist in Trenton but I’ve never seen one first hand,” he said.
Leonard Aviles, Detective Lieutenant of Trenton’s Tactical Anti Crime unit, said in an interview with The VOICE that prostitution was something more likely to occur in brothels than on the street. He said: “[We] discover brothel tips from pissed off neighbors,” said Aviles. According to Aviles, typical complaints include: prostitutes lingering around outside someone’s home, suspicious activity such as people constantly coming and going from one house, and a van pulling up and emptying a bunch of women into the building.
A CLOSER LOOK
In Trenton, there are specific factors that drive women to work in brothels rather than conducting business on the street, according to Aviles.
“Women in brothels may be there by choice or because of trafficking…street walkers are less organized and usually are out there because of drug use,” he said. Aviles also said that where prostitutes are found has a direct correspondence to access to drugs, and that many resort to sex work to support drug addiction.
“Some get desperate and may charge $3 for their services just to get money for a fix,” Aviles said.“Is that drug addiction or prostitution?” said Veagle, who believes that the reasons women go into sex work are far more complicated than drug addiction alone.
Sexual abuse and trauma is another contributing factor that can cause women to get involved in sex work. “There’s all these women who come in who have histories of sexual abusive and they’ve been stripping or prostituting…They’re doing sexual activities that are not healthy for them, but they’re in this cycle of trauma,” she said.
She continued, “When people become overwhelmed they want to do something to distract.That’s why people cut, or drink, or use, and the sex serves the same function. It’s a complete distrac- tion even though it’s retraumatizing them it feels like something they need to do sometimes.”
Not all women who get involved in prostitution do so because of trauma. According to Veagle, the economy is also a factor because “people really don’t have money.” “We’re just seeing more common everyday women prostituting because they’re desperate for money…” she said.
Alison Daks, Coordinator of Sexual Assault Services at Womenspace, said, “There are lots of women who get money for sex because they need to pay for things for their kids. There’s lot of different ways that it can happen, and it looks very different,” Daks said.
Leaving the sex work industry presents numerous challenges. According to Daks at Womenspace: “Trying to get out of prostitution and human trafficking is not an easy step. It could be dangerous and we understand that and that’s one of the reason that Womenspace and some other agencies around the state have really started to look at human trafficking as a component of the work that we do.” She continued, “It takes planning to do is safely. Our hotline is available to talk that through with. It is confidential. It can be anonymous if people don’t wanna give their name. We do whatever is necessary to keep the person safe.”
Womenspace offers counseling for women along with providing emergency shelter for those who need a safe place to stay. Through the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Womenspace had 35 women in their emergency shelter. According to Daks, everyone who stays in the shelter has their own room and is able to get treatment for whatever they need.
“They work with a case manager on whatever needs they may have. So it may be looking for housing, applying for social services if they’re eligible… If they need medical attention we would work with them on that. It really is dependent on what the individual person needs,” she said. The women do not have to be out of prostitution or the abusive relationship in order to go to Womenspace. “If they’re not at a place where they’re ready or it’s safe for them to stop doing that they don’t have to do that in order to come for counseling services,” said Daks.
Womenspace does ask for the women to pay whatever they can, but no one is turned away because they don’t have money and they report that only 25 percent are able to pay. “If somebody wanted to meet with a team member they can do so by going to anyone of the local police departments and ask to speak with a domestic violence response team member who can then talk about their options and help them with some safety planning,” Daks said.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Inceset National Net- work (RAINN), there are 207,754 victims of sexual assault in the United States each year. Prostitution Research and Education, a non-profit organization, interviewed 130 prostitutes and found that 82 percent had been physically assaulted, 83 percent had been threatened with a weapon, and 68 percent had been raped while working as prostitutes.
While the risk of injury is high, roughly half of the women who seek counseling are able to get out of sex work, according to Veagle. In an interview for a 2011 article in New Jersey News- room Asha Vaghela, the former deputy state attorney general and director of the New Jersey Human Trafficking Task Force. “North Jersey is a hub; (there’s) a lot of prostitution in Newark and Atlantic City, but no county is exempt.”
In the same article Kate Keisel-Stagnone, program coordinator of Polaris Project New Jersey –a non-profit that works with state and federal law enforcement to end human trafficking– told reporter Jillian Risberg that “half the clients they work with are do- mestic citizens trafficked into the commercial sex industry between the ages of 12 and 14.”
Keisel-Stagnone went on to say “I think it’s a very com- mon misconception that these are people coming from other places, not right down the street from us, whereas that’s what’s happening,” Keisel-Stagnone said. “It’s the girl next door.”