Reflections On Reporting On Nashville Prostitution

Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR's Jacki Lyden about a new NPR series airing this week, "Nashville: Up from Prostitution." Lyden and National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez spent two months reporting on women trying to break the cycle of prostitution. This segment contains language and graphic descriptions that could be offensive or disturbing. You can find more stories from the "Nashville: Up from Prostitution" series on All Things Considered Monday, and on Morning Edition Tuesday and Wednesday.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in this week's Can I Just Tell You commentary, we'll remember two journalists who gave their lives reporting the news. My guest commentator Arsalan Iftikhar has that.

But, first, we go behind closed doors as we often do on Mondays to talk about issues people usually keep private. And today we are joined by NPR's Jacki Lyden, who, along with National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez, spent two months reporting on prostitution in Nashville, Tennessee. Or, rather, she reported on efforts to help people get out.

Her stories will be airing on several NPR programs this week. And Jacki's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios to tell us more about.

Welcome, Jacki. I should say welcome back, since you also substitute for me from time to time. So thank you for that.

JACKI LYDEN: I almost sat in your chair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: (unintelligible) studio.

MARTIN: So, first of all, why this project? And why did you pick Nashville?

LYDEN: Nashville, Michel, is not a prostitution mecca by any means. There's no more or less, I think, anecdotally prostitution there. It arrested just over 1,100 people last year for solicitation and prostitution. What is special and distinctive is that the community there has figured out a way to break the cycle of prostitution and that's why we wanted to be there.

MARTIN: Well why do you call it a cycle of prostitution, first of all?

LYDEN: Because for many, many people who get into prostitution, it is coupled hand and hand with drug addiction. And the extent of that, the near uniformity of that really surprised me.

MARTIN: You interviewed dozens of women as part of this series. Tell us about Becca Stevens.

LYDEN: Well, Becca Stevens is really the reason that we went to Nashville and it is the program she founded that we're focusing on. It's called Magdalene. And it is for women with criminal histories of prostitution and addiction. And she is an Episcopal priest who began this program about 14 years ago when she was a young church - younger in the church. She's also a chaplain at Vanderbilt University.

And she wanted to focus on women and she created this program in part because she herself had been abused by a church deacon as a child. Let's listen to a bit of this remarkable person, Becca Stevens.

Ms. BECCA STEVENS (Founder, Magdalene): I have never met a woman in 20 years coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, who has not been raped. I have never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, that, you know, chose prostitution as their preferred career at the age of six, seven, eight and nine. Never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, who had a penny to her name. And I never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, who hadn't seen the inside of prison walls, the short side of all the justice we have to offer and the underside of bridges.

And those are girls that started out, you know, a lot of them, you know, maybe it's a strip club, maybe it's going as an escort with a doctor. But, you know, the circumstances and some of the choices have led to a really dangerous and hellish lifestyle.

LYDEN: That's Episcopal priest Becca Stevens who founded Magdalene, which is a recovery program for women with a history of prostitution and drug addiction in Nashville. And it offers women - here's what else, Michel, is distinctive about this program. Women can go and live for free there for two years. That is a long time. I haven't found anything in other places quite like that. They also, of course, get food and medical and dental needs and therapy. And Magdalene's also started a companion work program where they make bath and body care products called Thistle Farm. So it's very comprehensive.

MARTIN: Well, you talk about this as a recovery program. The reason I'm interested in that phrase is that there are those who say that these women don't have anything to recover from, that this is a job like other jobs. And I - that's why some people prefer the term sex work. And that they say really the issue that the work is criminalized as opposed to that there's something wrong with it to begin with. And I take it Becca Stevens does not share that point of view.

LYDEN: I perhaps might have shared that point of view before I went down and reported this story. It really opened my eyes because when people begin this work - you just heard Becca Stevens say maybe it begins with being an escort. But the drugs are so prevalent along with that that it seems very, you know, women said, look, I started out, I thought I could handle this life.

Our series begins with a young woman who even as she is being arrested, thinks she can handle this life. And the assistant district attorney down there, a woman called Rachel Thomas, said, by the time I see these women, it doesn't feel like any sort of a choice.

MARTIN: And you also point out in the piece how there are two things that seem to correlate very highly with prostitution: One is drug addiction, and the other is a history of child sexual abuse.

LYDEN: Becca Stevens thinks it is, again, almost 100 percent. I mean, we didn't have a story from any of the over a dozen women we interviewed that didn't include that component.

Let's take a look at Nina Phillips. She was just 13 when she ran away from home. She began dancing in a very well-known club called The Cheetah Lounge in downtown Atlanta. Nina's 26 now, and she said she felt absolutely powerless to change that addiction, even when people were trying to help her. It's not easy to kick habits.

Ms. NINA PHILLIPS: I would - when I would stand out on the street, or if I was with someone with a trick, I would like - my mind would like drift off and just dream about me getting married, or someone saving me from the streets, or someone just coming to just rescue me, because I didn't know how to get out. It was just like - I felt like I was trapped. I was trapped in this circle and I couldn't get out of it. So I always dreamed that someone would save me.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if this affects some people more than others. What did you notice, was there a constant?

LYDEN: What I noticed was that there was a real constant in terms of extremely chaotic early childhoods, whether it was sex abuse or uncertainty. People talked a lot about that. They talked about childhood molestation a great deal. And also histories of violence and the kinds of violence that we found against women, I found that I had heard in places of conflict and war being sought in the act of sex, stabbed, hung.

I mean, I'm sorry to, you know, this is not an easy thing to talk about, but this is their lives, and this is the - this is also a constant.

MARTIN: So all this glamorization in movies like, you know, admittedly Pretty Woman is, you know, some time ago, but these films that seem to glamorize it, have it way wrong.

LYDEN: That was another - yeah. I think so. I mean, that was another reason I felt really pleased to be able to report the story, because I think that in American life we really don't hear from these people about what their daily, hourly life is like. And in this series, you do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR correspondent, Jacki Lyden. She also occasionally hosts this program. We're talking about her series on prostitution in Nashville.

So, Jackie, tell us about - a little bit more about the program and how it helps women change their lives.

LYDEN: Well, photographer Stephen Alvarez and I were really, really pleased to be able to be meeting a lot of these women as they were in fact changing their lives around. They are taken into the Magdalene program, which provides for them, and they do basic 12-step recovery program, the circle time, the group therapy, things that you've seen before.

Thistle Farms, its companion work program is also a wonderful program for them, because the women are able to make bath and body oils, products that they say heal others. They've also developed a way to make paper from the thistle flower, which is a weed I think we've all seen.

And when I went to Thistle Farms, I met Penny Hall. I spent a lot of time with her, and she says that the thistle flower is her emblem.

Ms. PENNY HALL: Like rough weed, like we are when we're out on the streets, we was rough and tough, went through hell and back and, you know, got in situations, and we just survived through the cold, the drought, like the thistle does. It don't need no water. It comes up out of the concrete and it transforms there into a beautiful flower.

MARTIN: One of the things that you were telling us earlier, Jacki, that's unique about this program is that these women can live there for two years.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And is that about how long it takes for people to recover?

LYDEN: I think it does. Perhaps it takes the rest of their lives. I mean recovery is a fragile, fragile process, as this series will demonstrate. Not everybody in this program makes it. And it has a very high success rate, but it by no means is 100 percent.

I want to say too, Michel, that this is a private program. In 14 years, Becca Stevens has been able to raise $12 million to fund this. There is no government funding involved, 150 women have come through the program. They get a call almost daily. There's a long waiting list for it.

MARTIN: What about the men? You know, obviously, we've been focusing a lot on women as part of this conversation, and the women who are, you know, selling their bodies for sex, but obviously that requires a two-sided transaction, somebody to buy it, you know. So what about the men?

LYDEN: I'm really glad that you asked about that, Michel, because that's another feature of what Nashville is doing. It has one of the most active John schools in the country, and that's what they call it. And the John school is where men who are first-time offenders and are arrested can go to get their records expunged if they pay $300 and engage in a day of what amounts to group therapy that works on their issues, that talks about sex abuse.

They hear from people, from Magdalene, former prostitutes, who tell them about the degradation of the lives that brought them to either the Internet where women can be solicited, or the street.

Kenneth Baker is an addiction counselor. He's been running this voluntarily for 10 years. He's company is behavioral treatment providers. He thinks women have a lot of power. And I'd like to play a clip from my talk with him, and I'd like also to note that it contains language and graphic descriptions that could be offensive or disturbing to some people.

Mr. KENNETH BAKER (Addiction Counselor): Once money exchanges hands, the dynamics totally change. So you got a John who's a first-timer, never been arrested, engages for his very first time, never done it before in his entire life, say hypothetically. I think all of them have, they just hadn't got caught until now obviously.

But once money exchanges hands, then it gives an image of faulty belief, you might say, faulty thinking, that he's in charge of this now because, you know, I can control this with this amount of money. But what's bizarre is she's thinking the same thing, because she's the one that's actually in charge because it all goes on you got to give me this in order to give you this.

I'll give you $10 for a hand job, or I'll give you $100 for sex, or $200 for this and that and the other. So there's a weird sort of control issues on both sides. It's never as it really appears, and that's a problem with a lot of this kind of stuff.

LYDEN: So that's Kenneth Baker, the addiction counsel who runs the John school.

MARTIN: But what did you find about why men are paying for sex, and was there any through line with the men you met who have been through John school and who are paying for sex?

LYDEN: That is another fascinating aspect of this. I mean, there isn't just one reason. It was difficult to get the men to speak to me. But some said, look, there was something in my life I wasn't getting. Some said, I was angry. But most of them said, I was just giving her a ride. I mean, many of them were in complete denial about the fact that they were standing there at John school. One man talked about, you know, how angry his wife was that he was going to have to spend the 300 bucks on John school and not on groceries, for example.

But one felt empathy with these guys because, you know, sex isn't like cocaine. I mean, sex can feel natural. It is natural. When it has been used in this way then something else is going on, and that's why it's a cycle really of prostitution and sex, and not just a one-off.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Magdalene's model is, quote, "love heals." Why do they use that as their motto?

LYDEN: Because this is Becca Stevens' contention. What she says is that women don't get into prostitution alone, and they don't get out alone. And that's what Magdalene is all about, helping them get out. She thinks that love can heal. It's the model of Thistle Farms and it's what these women tell each other. They live alone. They don't supervision in these group homes, and it's an hour-by-hour, day-by-day challenge for them. Not a happy ending love heals, it's a challenge.

MARTIN: Jacki Lyden is an NPR correspondent and guest host. She sometimes sits in for me on this program. Her new series is called, "Nashville: Up From Prostitution." It's begins today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and it continues next Tuesday and Wednesday on MORNING EDITION, and then also on TALK OF THE NATION. Jacki, thanks so much for joining us.

LYDEN: It has been a real pleasure to be here and bring this to you. Thank you.

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