Getting Off The Streets And Out Of The Sex Trade
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
This week on MORNING EDITION, you may have heard a vivid series from NPR's Jacki Lyden on the lives of prostitutes who work the streets and truck stops of Nashville, not, as she noted, because Nashville is especially notorious for its sex trade but because it's home to Magdalene, a program to help prostitutes work out of the life.
It often involves help to beat drug addiction and to cope with their childhood history of violence and abuse. It works, sometimes, and Magdalene has become a national model.
If you work in the sex trade or used to, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later, some birthers see President Obama's long-form birth certificate as fresh evidence of fraud. Why can't we accept facts that prove us wrong? But first, we're going to talk about up from prostitution. We're going to get to Jacki Lyden in just a moment, but there's a caller we want to start the program with, and that's Sam(ph), Sam with us from Belleville in Illinois.
SAM (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Sam.
SAM: Hi. I started telling my story. I did work when I was 20 to about 22 in cathouses.
SAM: Everywhere from Honolulu, New York, Hilton Head, a few spots.
CONAN: And you say until 22. You got out?
SAM: I met my husband. I was lucky. I met a man that didn't want anything to do with it, though he was a john. They always say don't fall in love with your johns, but I did. So I was lucky. I walked away from it.
CONAN: As you look back on it, you must think how incredibly lucky you were.
SAM: I was. I was. I worked for madams. I had nothing to do with pimps. Pimps are very bad news in the business for girls that want to stay clean and have their own money.
CONAN: Yet some don't end up with that kind of a choice.
SAM: No, no, a lot of the girls don't. I - you know, we would have pimps drop off girls and try intimidation, you know, asking where your family is.
And one thing I was going to say is that a lot of the girls, when they are with pimps, they feel like they have family, you know, they have somebody watching over them. But what they're doing in reality is just taking their money and using them.
CONAN: And what do you tell your friends now who ask about your past?
SAM: They don't know about it. I - it's nothing I want to disclose. A few close members of my family and friends know about it, but it's nothing we discuss. It's nothing I'm proud of.
CONAN: No, I understand that. And as you look back on the life, do you keep in touch with anybody you knew back in the day?
SAM: No, no, these were - you know, whenever you go in, a lot of times you don't even meet the madams. They just have a house set up. And you go, and you work, and you make your money, and then you go on, go to the next place. It's almost like a little circuit in a way.
CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.
SAM: No problem.
CONAN: Sam calling us from Belleville, Illinois. Jacki Lyden is here with us in Studio 3A. And Jacki, not all stories work out as well as Sam's, and not all prostitutes have it so easy. You began your series with an arrest. Tell us what happened to Brittany Messina.
JACKI LYDEN: Well, I began my series in Nashville. We began - Stephen Alvarez and I, the documentary photographer from National Geographic who was with me every step in the way and who is from Tennessee and who brought us this story - with, I think, I began with a notion before I ever got to the arrest of the young woman who began our series on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
I think my notion was that there was some element of choice. The women that we saw and met and who I expect we'll hear from shortly, I wouldn't have said that there was an element of choice because this begins so far back in a woman's personal history. It begins in childhood, the kind of mindset that you need to absorb this much abuse.
We went down in early February, Stephen and I, he lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, and he had met Becca Stevens when they were both at school at University of the South. And set up this remarkable program called Magdalene.
And what I was interested in looking at, Magdalene's a recovery program for women with criminal histories of drug abuse and prostitution, was the cycle. I didn't really just want to look at who's working in what is called the sex trade. I wanted to look at: How does the cycle of life of prostitution work, and how do you get out of that?
And that's what Stephen and I did, and he videotaped this all the time. And these are the kinds of women we met. It doesn't always work. Any kind of recovery program will never work 100 percent.
There were some spectacular relapses even after we had left, and that's kind of how our series went, from the arrest that you talk about with Brittany Messina, who we went out with the vice squad in metro Nashville one day, and we were out in a place called Dickerson Pike. Stephen was in the front seat, I was in the back, and he had his video camera, and I had the microphone.
And within seconds, Neal, we saw a woman walking, and the cop in the other car was wired. We were able to tape-record that because we were given permission. And what followed was this remarkable conversation where this young woman really did not want to be arrested, really did not want to be going to jail, but because she also bought crack cocaine, which goes so hand-in-hand with streetwalking and prostitution, and I don't know if you've even touched on the drug use that goes with a lot of this and keeps a lot of women in this life for a long, long time, she was just doing anything she could to get out of that.
She asked: Is there hope? And the detective said: Well, there's always hope. But, in fact, she's still in jail.
CONAN: She's still in jail. But along the way, she...
LYDEN: Well, who knows?
CONAN: Well, she also provided evidence against her best friend, who also was her dealer.
LYDEN: She did. She did. She almost immediately - her emotions, I think the phrase I used in the piece was her emotions are cascading. The very first thing she did was betray the woman who she called her best friend.
She said: Amanda, I love you, I love you. But she also said: I'll tell you everything you want to know. And I'll give you her full name. She's got a warrant out and everything.
The last thing she said to us as she was going through this hour or so of twisting and turning and trying to figure out how she could get out of this - she was 21, she had been prostituting for five years, she had a four-year-old, she had a boyfriend who's most likely her pimp and most likely took any money she made.
She - pretty girl, long, flowing red hair, white T-shirt, jeans, looked like a college student. The last thing she said to us was: This is for all the other girls out there. Tell them it ain't worth doing this.
And then she was taken away. Because she was involved in drug charges in a school zone, it's a felony charge. Prostitution itself is often, or usually, a misdemeanor.
CONAN: Jacki Lyden mentioned Becca Stevens. She is the founder of Nashville's Magdalene House, where former prostitutes try to escape their life on the streets. And she joins us today from member station WPLN in Nashville. Good to have you with us.
Ms. BECCA STEVENS (Founder, Magdalene Program): Thanks, it's good to be here.
CONAN: And wanted to raise that point that Jacki made just a moment ago, where prostitution and drug use go almost hand in hand. Indeed, it's hard to find chicken or egg.
Ms. STEVENS: I think that's right. And I think it's also the reason there are so many felonies on the records that when Jacki was talking about the cycle that women get in that's hard to get out of, it becomes vicious, and there's no way to get housing, and there's no way to get jobs when you get out of jail for both the prostitution and the drug use.
So it goes over and over. And when we first opened up our very first house in 1997, and we invited five women in, no one had less than 100 arrests on their record. No one had been on the streets for less than 10 years. And it was the idea of: What was it going to take to break that cycle that Jacki was talking about and to bring women back into community?
And it ended up taking, you know, the whole two years and working on issues that went back to childhood, sexual abuse. The average woman was first sexually raped between the ages of seven and 11 that came into Magdalene. And there was very little work history, and there was, you know, tons of other mental health and physical health issues that we started addressing.
And finally in 2001, we had - we got to, maybe not had to, we got to open our own bath and body care manufacturing places called Thistle Farms so that women could start working.
When Jacki and Stephen came down, and they followed Penny Hall back under the bridge where she lived for so long, and she wanted to break the cycle, you know, it brought tears to all of our eyes of when she tells the story of what it means to be trusted and brought back into community and to feel loved and beloved for who she is.
You know, after this story aired, and so many people around the country responded, we had, you know, 200 orders at Thistle Farms yesterday. Yesterday was the first day Penny worked overtime.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STEVENS: You know, she worked overtime at Thistle Farms, and we all celebrated. Like, she was exhausted, and it was the happiest day. And that's breaking the cycle right there.
CONAN: But that facility had to be set up because it was so difficult to find jobs anywhere else for these women.
Ms. STEVENS: Absolutely. I mean, it was - we had something like 92 percent unemployment rate for women who were, like, climbing Mount Everest in their recovery. I mean, they were doing amazing work, clean and sober eight, nine months, have gone through intensive outpatient, you know, therapy.
They've gone back, and they're doing one-on-one counseling about some of the brokenness from their childhood and some of their own choices and going back to the courts and cleaning up their records and seeing their kids. Still can't get a job.
CONAN: And how big a part of that mountain, getting people to come off crack cocaine is not the easiest thing in the world.
Ms. STEVENS: Sheila, do you want to say something about that?
Ms. SHEILA SIMPKINS (Graduate of Magdalene): No.
CONAN: With us is Sheila Simpkins, a graduate of Magdalene, a former prostitute. She's also there at WPLN. Do you want to say something about that?
Ms. SIMPKINS: No, it's not the easiest thing in the world to do, but I can say that it was harder supporting the dope habit than it was coming into the program and receiving unconditional love and receiving the treatment that we needed and getting the intensive outpatient drug treatment.
And then we definitely are involved with the 12-step program office. We use outside programs along with what goes on in our program to help us in our daily recovery.
CONAN: Didn't you have a phrase, though, I heard in Jacki's piece your description of crack cocaine?
Ms. SIMPKINS: It's the devil dressed in white.
CONAN: The devil dressed in white and, well, seductive devil, as well. Stay with us, if you will. We have more questions for you after a short break. We'd like to hear from those of you who have experience in the drug trade or used to. Excuse me, in the sex trade. Well, it could have been both. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Jacki Lyden is with us here in Studio 3A. Becca Stevens, the founder of the Magdalene Program, is with us in Nashville, along with one of her graduates, Sheila Simpkins. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Jacki Lyden spent several weeks in Nashville for her series of reports, "Rising Up From Prostitution." She spoke with women who hope to put that life behind them, get off the streets and break their drug habit.
She focused on one of the most innovative programs in Nashville to help women do that. Many make the transition. Others, though, wash out.
The series ran this week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. One of the women we heard from is Tara Adcock(ph), who used to find clients, johns, in an area of south Nashville called the Bottoms.
Ms. TARA ADCOCK: Could you imagine walking alone out here by yourself, getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know and having sex with them? We were - I think about that stuff now. I'm like: I was crazy.
LYDEN: Tara says the crack they were all hooked on made her feel 60-feet high.
Ms. ADCOCK: This is where I would work, in apartments.
LYDEN: What do you mean, you would just, like, knock on doors?
Ms. ADCOCK: Knock on the door.
Ms. ADCOCK: And there would be, like, five or six, and I'd hit every one of them.
LYDEN: What would you say?
Ms. ADCOCK: (Unintelligible) dinero.
CONAN: Tara Adcock, one of the women featured in Jacki Lyden's series, Jacki with us here in Studio 3A. Becca Stevens, the founder of the Magdalene Program, and Sheila Simpkins, a former prostitute and graduate of Magdalene, are at WPLN, our member station in Nashville.
Sheila, that voice may be familiar to you. Of course, you brought Tara into the Magdalene Program, and you also witnessed her having some difficulties of late.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Yes.
CONAN: Can you tell us what that was like?
Ms. SIMPKINS: It was sad, very heartbreaking for her, and also me. I lost a good friend. She got the same opportunities as everybody else in the program, and I'm just sorry that she didn't get it the first time.
Relapse does happen, and it's not about falling. It's about picking yourself up. And I'm just going to pray for her right now.
Ms. STEVENS: Neal, this is Becca.
CONAN: Go ahead, Becca.
Ms. STEVENS: Yeah, I was just - one of the things that is innovative about the program, when you were saying that this was an innovative program, is that it is a very small community of women, and women do bond.
And the - you know, the statistics over the last 15 years, we have grown so slowly. I mean, we started out for the first two years with five women. So you know, the relapse or the going back out on the street of one person is - it's hard for the community, and then everybody just rallies and you keep going.
And we have about 100 women on the waiting list right now to be in our -in this small community of women. So we have six houses, and women can come in and stay for two years at no rent. And while they have all the discipline, and they have, you know, people helping them with social work and mental health and dental issues and all of that, there is no authority that lives in the house with them.
So that, you know, people really do create community. And, you know, there's no federal or state funding to this program. So women really get that people are giving gifts to be together. So it's hard. It's hard when somebody leaves.
Ms. SIMPKINS: But then life does go - but then we still have to wake up the next morning and make sure that the women that are still in our program go on and continue to work on their selves. And so we try not to dwell on what's happened and just pray for her, because we have women that are going to continue to keep on working on their selves.
LYDEN: Well, this was a story that - you know, often when you're looking at things in a documentary fashion, as you, yourself, know, Neal, you spend more time and things can happen.
Sheila and Tara have been close as sisters. For many years they checked each other's, watched each other's back on the street. I think I said in the story that Tara was the wilder one. She had felony charges. She had, in the past, used an unloaded weapon.
She had also relapsed much more recently. Sheila has been on the recovery, the day-by-day, hour-by-hour thing that Sheila's been - she's a wife and a mom and a college student and an assistant resident manager at Magdalene. She's been clean for seven years.
Tara had had four years clean and had relapsed in January. And the quote that you heard, the clip that we just heard, was from a tour that we asked the women where they had use to work, Stephen Alvarez and I, and you can see this entire video on our website, Stephen Alvarez's video of these ladies.
And I - it was a very interesting - it was fascinating and terrifying because I say this a jack-o-lantern neighborhood. It just felt ominous, the Bottoms of south Nashville.
And I felt a kind of fragility in Tara particularly, because she was talking about her relapse. And none of us could have foreseen that within weeks of that interview, Tara stopped calling her best friend. And in this case, that's a real best friendship, Tara and Sheila.
And sadly, sadly, we all learned that she had been - is alleged to have been involved in a murder and criminal homicide. It is the most stunning relapse Magdalene has ever had. Women have gone back out on the street from time to time.
Three-quarters of the grads do not. That means one-quarter do. And Becca has counseled some women through a lot of stuff. But I think what they were just saying about continuing to work the program, to flower, to love each other, to care - that did not perish because of the frailty of this cherished member.
CONAN: And three-quarters is a success rate. One-quarter is hardly a failure rate. It's wonderful for a program like that.
Let's get Sylvia(ph) on the line, Sylvia calling us from Interior in South Dakota.
SYLVIA (Caller): My question is: Wouldn't women not be prostitutes if men didn't use this sexual outlet?
CONAN: Becca Stevens, I wanted to ask you about that because I know that, well, john programs are part of what you also do there at Magdalene House.
Ms. STEVENS: Uh-huh. I'm not sure what the question exactly means. But you know, I mean...
SYLVIA: It's about men doing this activity.
Ms. STEVENS: Right. But I mean, I think that we are all still part of a culture that in some ways, you know, tolerates the idea that we buy and sell other people. And we think we do that at no cost to that person. In some ways that's one of the myths that we live under.
And so, you know, I mean, a lot of times when you're talking about some of these issues, you know, 90 percent of the people want to talk about: What does it look like to welcome people back into a community that have been through so much hell?
And then, you know, sometimes people want to talk about the legality of prostitution itself and what would it mean. And it would mean - you know, I mean, I'm kind of uninterested in that conversation in some ways. It would protect the johns for sure. But you know, we would still be dealing with some - we would still be having the same community of women, unless you're going to legalize, you know, child rape, or you're going to legalize crack cocaine and robbery and all kinds of violence on the streets.
And so it's a deep and it's a hard issue, but for us, I mean, the idea of the john school and trying to teach the johns - you know, it's humanizing the women that they're talking - that they're buying and selling and that there's a backstory to it. And sometimes it's a pretty painful backstory, and it might have started when they were little, and that it's not about sex. It's about cash. And there's - you know, it's part of what keeps people on the streets.
And for some women the prostitution comes first. For some women the drugs come first. But they usually come together pretty fast, and that's when people hit the streets. And we talk about the difference between safe and legal sex versus unsafe and illegal sex. Go ahead, I'm sorry.
CONAN: I was just going to say: Jacki, I think you saw some of these john programs. And it's important to say only first-time johns are eligible.
LYDEN: Right, a man who has been arrested can go and get - basically it amounts to a day of group therapy and get his record expunged.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: You're laughing because...
Ms. STEVENS: I like the group therapy model.
LYDEN: It is that. It's session after session. But the most - and I saw every sort of man there. I felt like I was on, I don't know, you know, Times Square, because everybody was there - every color, every class.
Anyway, the most empowering moment was when one of the Magdalene grads said: You know, you're looking for something out there on the streets you're never going to find. And now you're - and she described a life of, as Becca just said, hell, of being, you know, molested by her stepfather at age nine.
And I think also we have to talk about the violence against these women - shot, stabbed, strangled, hung(ph). You know, it's unpleasant to hear, but this is part of prostitution.
And she survived all that. And then she turned to them and she said: And you're in a classroom, and you're looking at me. And I thought that was really quite something.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kennan(ph), Kennan with us from Venice in Florida.
KENNAN (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Kennan.
KENNAN: How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
KENNAN: I guess I just tell you my story?
CONAN: Yeah, you do.
KENNAN: Well, I was involved in a women's group therapy in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I got introduced to crack cocaine by one of the women that was in the group who actually happened to be a nurse. And I was instantly hooked.
I had a really good job. I'm college educated. I've had executive positions. And I lost my job, mostly from being tardy because I was using crack.
And I got to thinking: You know, well, how can I make money? How am I going to make money fast? I've got this habit. What am I going to do? I lived in a great home. And I thought: Hey, I could go to an escort service. I used to dance for the Virginia Ballet Theater. I know how to dance. I can handle this.
So I went to an escort agency. I was a little bit intimidated by the owner. He told me what the rules were. You know, it's strictly dancing. There's no sex allowed. Although they know it happens. They never say it. You know, they never say it out loud. So I went over a few calls and just did some dancing and came to quickly understand that men wanted more, and that I could probably make a lot of money at this.
So I talked to the secretary, and she gave me a few tips on what to do. And before you knew it, I thought I had this game down. You know, I dressed to the nines. I wore expensive lingerie. I was making $3,000 a night sometimes. I never made less than $1,000 a night.
CONAN: And how much were you spending on crack?
KENNAN: At least $300 a day on crack. I had to have - well, actually 380. It was about close to $400 a day on crack. And I never got hurt. I think one time I got - somebody drugged me because I woke up and there were scratches on me. I never - you know, I would always tell my clients that I carried a .38, so they're - and I wasn't afraid. I was very straightforward. You know, this is what I charge. This is what it is. This is what you can do. This is what - I glamorized the whole thing. You know, I thought I was this Beverly Hills hooker.
CONAN: And when did it get out of control?
KENNAN: Well, I hadn't slept for about three or four days. And I was -it was nighttime and I was in another city, and I had worked two jobs. And I was very sleepy. So I stopped in a parking lot to sleep in my car, and I left the lights on and I left some crack in my lap. And the police pulled up, and I was arrested. And I didn't go to jail that time, but the arrest, it did scare me, but it didn't scare me straight. I went back to working again.
It was in about six months, the same thing happened. I hadn't slept in three or four days. This John kept calling me, calling me, calling me. I kept saying, you know, I can't come. I'm too tired. I can't come. I'm too tired. Went and got some crack. Went to a 7-Eleven and fell asleep on the parking lot, and the same thing - left it in my lap and I got busted. Well, that time I went to jail. It was the absolute worst experience of my life.
CONAN: I wonder, Sheila Simpkins, if any of this sounds familiar.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Yes, it's very familiar. I didn't have it as easy as that, though. I started off in a strip bar and worked a little bit of escort off of - online, but I was more of a streetwalker. And I wouldn't - I would have never been prostituting if I wasn't supporting a drug habit. It's kind of like - it's a vicious cycle. It all goes together.
CONAN: $400 dollars a day, does that sound right?
Ms. SIMPKINS: Yeah. That - she was doing good at 400 a day, because I probably smoked more than that. I was - it was just a nonstop kind of thing. I would turn a trick, go spend my money, smoke the dope up, turn around, turn a trick, smoke the dope up. It was just - it's a really vicious cycle.
KENNAN: When I looked back on those days, it scares me to death that I ever lived that way.
Ms. SIMPKINS: I'm really, really happy that you are able to stop, and that that was your bottom, where you were...
KENNAN: I did hit the bottom.
Ms. SIMPKINS: ...where you actually had a car and you could...
KENNAN: I did hit the bottom.
Ms. SIMPKINS: ...fall asleep in your vehicle.
KENNAN: I never - and now, I swear I'd never get in trouble again, that I wouldn't - I don't speed, you know. I thought, too, I couldn't get a job when I got out of jail. I had no place to live. And now (unintelligible).
Ms. SIMPKINS: Now we do have women in the program that have come in with college educations and stuff like that. Addiction doesn't discriminate...
Ms. SIMPKINS: ...you know? It's not just for people that are living in poverty.
CONAN: Sheila Simpkins. Also with us, Becca Stevens. They're both with the Magdalene Program. Becca Stevens founded it. Also NPR correspondent, Jacki Lyden. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to - this is Alice, Alice with us from Des Moines.
ALICE (Caller): Hello. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.
ALICE: Okay. I was listening to your program, and I was very moved. A little bit about my life is that I was a - I started working massage parlors when I was 19 years old. I saw these women make all this money real quick. And I thought, man, I want some of that because I basically gave up on myself. I've been on my own since I was 15. And I worked Chicago and I worked the streets and I worked escorts and I worked massage parlors. I came to Iowa in 1982 and worked escorts. And I mean, I was exposed to a lot of stuff, a lot of women that were strung out on heroine and the crack, and smoked it. And I mean, it was - yeah.
CONAN: How did you get out, Alice?
ALICE: What I did was I had a gun charge coming back from Missouri. Got pulled over, and I was with the man who was my pimp. I took the wrap and the light came on. I went to - I had been going to Overeaters Anonymous here in Des Moines because I thought I was fat, which I (technical difficulties) and what I did was I met some people that were very caring and comforting. It scared me because I didn't trust nobody. But I got to see what these people (technical difficulties) going back. And what ends up happening is I - the lady that was my sponsor said, you need therapy. And I got into therapy and I've been in it ever since. And god, I quit learning when I was 13, and I left home at 15. I did go back to school, and I now have my master's and I'm a therapist.
CONAN: Well, Alice...
ALICE: I want to help women.
CONAN: Congratulations, Alice, and thanks very much for the call. I don't mean to cut you off, but I do want to give Becca Stevens - we just have a minute left, and I wanted to give Becca Stevens a chance to summarize the stories that we're hearing. Incredibly difficult to get out of the life and that cycle that Jacki Lyden was talking about. What works?
Ms. STEVENS: Well, one of the things that she just said was, I was 15 and I was alone. And one of the things that reminds me of, over and over again, is that women do not go to the streets by themselves, so it's crazy to think they're going to just come off the streets by themselves, or out of the jail systems and to the whole cycle by themselves.
Really, loving people without judgment and welcoming people and being a community that is open to people, you know, starting again and making, you know, good choices and working hard is such a gift, and if we can all do that, we're all going to be safer. I mean, the whole community is safer and better together.
CONAN: Becca Stevens, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Ms. STEVENS: Thank you.
CONAN: Becca Stevens, the founder of the Magdalene Program. Our thanks, also, to her graduate, Sheila Simpkins, there at the studios of WPLN, our member station in Nashville. Appreciate your time.
Ms. SIMPKINS: Thank you.
CONAN: And Jacki Lyden, thanks so much for the series.
LYDEN: Thanks. You can check it out online.
CONAN: NPR's Jacki Lyden with us here in Studio 3A. Up next, President Obama hands out the long version of his birth certificate. Some still aren't convinced he's a citizen. Will any amount of proof stop the conspiracy theories? Stay with us. NPR's David Folkenflik will join us from New York.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.