Prostitution A Difficult Job To Escape

For many prostitutes, the prospect of escaping the industry seems impossible or at the very least too dangerous to endure. Jackie McReynolds is a former prostitute and now executive director of the Angels Project Power, a program that helps women leave prostitution. McReynolds explains how the program works and Nakita Harrison, who is enrolled in the project, shares her experience and her attempt to turn her life around.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share some thoughts in my Can I Just Tell You commentary. But first it's time to go Behind Closed Doors, and this is one that parents of very young children might want to exercise some caution about. We just want to let you know that going in. This is the part of our program where we try to tackle issues that people hide or don't talk about much because of stigma or shame.

Keeping quiet is exactly what Jackie McReynolds was used to doing, and that's what she did back in 1987, when she was kidnapped on the street and gang-raped while working as a prostitute on the streets of Washington, D.C. But even after all that, it took Jackie four more years to get out of the business.

Now, though, her life is all about speaking out. She is the founder and executive director of the Angels Project Power. It's a program to try to help women leave prostitution. Women who've been detained on prostitution charges are given the option of serving time or going through Jackie's program.

The program also reaches out to sex workers working on the streets. Jackie McReynolds joins us now from her home in Maryland to talk about her life and work, and also joining us here in our Washington, D.C., studio is Nakita Harrison. Ms. Harrison is also a former sex worker. She's currently going through Jackie's program. Thank you so much for joining us, ladies, both of you.

Ms. JACKIE McREYNOLDS (Executive Director, Angels Project Power): Thank you for welcoming me.

Ms. NAKITA HARRISON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jackie, everybody always wants to know the same thing, I'm sure, up front, which is how did you get into the sex industry to begin with?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: I was around 13 years old, and there was an older man that lived in the neighborhood. As a matter of fact, he lived across the street. He asked me to come to his house, and when I got there, he offered me some money for sex. So that was my first introduction to prostitution.

MARTIN: Why do you think you went over there to begin with?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: Well, I was used to going over there to visit his wife, and I thought, you know, they was having something or something like that, and when I got there, he was alone there.

MARTIN: Why do you think you said yes?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: I really don't know. It wasn't that I was hurting for money or anything. I'm the only child. I probably was just curious more than anything.

MARTIN: And it just kind of went on from there?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: Yes, after that first introduction, I got with my girlfriend and we began to kind of go to the older men in the community and was beginning to prostitute with them.

MARTIN: Did you think of yourself as a prostitute?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: I really didn't. I thought I was just having sex for money. I didn't relate to the title at all. I had watched movies before about prostitution and the glamour of it all, and I kind of believed that the glamour would come later, the diamond rings and the fur coats.

MARTIN: Did you ever get the diamond rings and the fur coats?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: I'm sorry to say that I didn't. All that I thought would happen as far as glamour was concerned, I never reached that level.

MARTIN: What made you finally leave or get out of the life?

Ms. McREYNOLDS: I really, really just got tired of getting up every day, trying to find some means of getting some money and prostituting and using drugs.

MARTIN: Nakita, I want to bring you in. How did you get involved in sex work?

Ms. HARRISON: Well, my story's kind of different. I started off when I was - you know, I'm 34. So I started off when I was much younger, going to clubs and dancing and enjoying the party scene. And at first it wasn't just for money. It was just for merely the compliment. I was just going into and having sex with these guys.

MARTIN: How old were you when you started having sex?

Ms. HARRISON: I had started having sex when I was 12 years old.

MARTIN: Twelve. You were going to clubs when you were 12?

Ms. HARRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: Did nobody ever tell you that this is not good for you? Forgive me for asking. I have to ask, where were your parents?

Ms. HARRISON: Well again, I'm the only child, too. And my mom, she was there in my life, but when she was working at that time, I would do what I wanted to do when she was at work because I was a latchkey kid.

MARTIN: How did the sex-for-money part start?

Ms. HARRISON: Well actually, I progressed it with my social life, while I was still partying, and I started wanting things for myself, material-wise. And you know, whenever I suggested, the men was willing to pay, and that's how it went for me.

MARTIN: Did you see yourself as a prostitute?

Ms. HARRISON: No, actually I didn't see it as being a sex worker. I didn't see it as being a prostitute. I just saw it as, you know, just having it offered and going to chill with a guy or two, at this point in time, and just doing what I wanted to do or doing what they were asking me to do and leaving it as that. I didn't see it as being, having some type of forming a problem, eventually.

MARTIN: Now Ms. Jackie was telling us that she thought it would get glamorous at some point. Did you think that it was going to get glamorous?

Ms. HARRISON: I thought that I was going to be able to receive things that was going to make me independent and have all the glamour things, yes. Far as me being an independent person not just going out, I thought that I was going to be able to have some type of manageable thought over the situation and be able to controlling over the situation. But obviously the situation controlled me.

MARTIN: What happened? Is it that you got involved in drugs? Or did you get involved with...

Ms. HARRISON: Yes, I got...

MARTIN: ... a pimp? Or what happened where you realized you were not really in control of the situation?

Ms. HARRISON: Well, the whole situation just got where I needed to do, as me being a sex worker, I needed to do it more often. I needed to do it to provide for just the little things, my living arrangements. You know, me being material at the point in time, I started picking up a habit, alcohol and drugs. I started needing it more and more and more. And it had became just a natural, just became a part of me. It was out of control.

MARTIN: Now, Ms. Jackie, how did it go from trading sex for gifts and trading sex for money to where you were out on the street, where it became a job? It became what - your full-time thing. It wasn't a side thing anymore. It was what you were doing. How did that happen?

Ms. MCREYNOLDS: I was with a girlfriend and we was getting high on heroin. And I told her after we finished getting high, I said, well, I want some more. So she told me to go on the corner and find a guy to date, which was tricking, and have sex with him, and get some more money and come back to her. So that's what I did. I went up on the corner, got a person, brought him down to the basement of that apartment, had sex with him and took the money, and went back to her and got some more heroin. I didn't never leave that corner for 15 years.

MARTIN: So how did you get the idea for your program? And how does it work?

Ms. MCREYNOLDS: I actually prayed about it and I prayed about it for a while. The how Angels work, it's definitely, it was started out to be a prevention program only, to provide prevention services for women that are at risk for HIV. And so that's how I first got my first grant through the Department of Health. And after doing that for a while, and the courts recognized how well of a job I was doing and then they decided to give me some funding. The U.S., I think the U.S. Attorney's Office through the Justice Department. And so we flourished.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Jackie McReynolds and Nakita Harrison. Jackie McReynolds runs, is the founder and runs the Angels Project Power Program, which aims to help sex workers stop that work and get off the streets. Nakita Harrison is currently enrolled in that program. She's also sharing her experiences with us.

And as I want to remind our listeners, this is a sensitive topic for some listeners. So if you don't consider this appropriate for your - the folks who are listening with you, this is probably a good time to make a different choice.

Nakita, what made you get out of it? And as I understand it, it took you a couple of tries...

Ms. HARRISON: Yes, it did.

MARTIN: ... to...

(Sound bite of laughter)

Ms. HARRISON: Yes, it did.

MARTIN: ... to break this...

Ms. HARRISON: It took me plenty of tries. I've know Ms. McReynolds for over a couple of years now. I was not successful in the beginning. I was very defiant. I would come in when I wanted to. And it took two or three tries with me before actually…

MARTIN: What do you think - what was you attitude?

Ms. HARRISON: Well, I wasn't ready to stop living the life. You know, I wasn't ready to stop finding the easy - find a way out of things. You know, I wasn't ready to sit down and be a mature, responsible woman. You know, I just wanted to - hoping and wishing that that "Pretty Woman" picture would come back to life. And, you know, as I get older things don't come as fast. So that's what happened.

MARTIN: Was there any one thing that made you want to stop?

Ms. HARRISON: Well, what's so amazing was I actually had got into Ms. McReynold's program. She received me from the court in the back, in the holding cell, where she say, before she even took me, she said, she told the judge, she asked like, let me speak to this client. I know her from a while back.

This one time, she asked me, she was like, Nakita, if you play games this time. I'm telling you... She didn't have no problem - and I saw the sincerity in her eyes. And I kind of like just was living off her sincerity, far as me being honest with being with the program. But as time progressed, I went on and I was seeing the sincerity in the program and what it was offering me. And that's what, I mean that's why I'm here today.

MARTIN: Nakita, how are you doing?

Ms. HARRISON: I'm happy today. I mean, you know, going through Ms. McReynold's program has helped me to deal with situations. Not actually run, run to people or run to a substance, or just want to just seclude myself from people. You know, it's very hopeful for me. It gives me the incentive to want to deal with situations that come up.

MARTIN: What do you think you learned in the program that you would not have gotten on your own? What is it about it?

Ms. HARRISON: Well...

MARTIN: Is it the fellowship with other women who've gone through what you've gone through? Is it the talking it out or what is it?

Ms. HARRISON: Well, I must say, in the beginning, you know, my self-esteem was very low. And for me to start working on the outside part of me was a big plus for me. And for the ladies, when I ride with the group, the ladies would give me compliments. It wasn't from men. It was from the ladies. You look nice, or this and that, this and that. It boosted my self-esteem up. It was not from a man and I could see that what the women were saying was genuine. They didn't want nothing in return. I didn't have to do anything. And that's what I received from the program.

As I was receiving the information, I kind of allowed myself to open up. And it helped me with learning how to, you know, no situation is going to occur on the street that I don't have to listen to a man. Or I don't need a man to tell me that you look good. I don't need someone to pick up and ask me, do I need a ride, I can get to where I'm going without that. You know, always finding a short cut. You know, and the short cut does not - for me leads to me always going back to the same old life, partying, drinking, having sex.

MARTIN: And Ms. McReynolds, we're down on our last couple of minutes. As I understand it, that since October of 2006, if I've got my numbers right, you had 129 women graduate through the program completely concluded. And I understand, though, that another about 200 women have, you've had to ask to leave for failing drug tests or missing classes.

And what do you think makes the difference for the women who are ready to succeed, who can succeed, and for those who do not? Is there some key that you've seen over the time you've been doing this work?

Ms. MCREYNOLDS: Well, the sad thing is that some women don't want to change. And they, you know, and then in their mind they tell their self that it's okay to prostitute. It's not a big deal. And then actually what happens is a lot of the women get addicted to their lifestyle. 'Cause it is addictive. Standing out on the corner, getting in somebody's car, all the things that go with prostitution gets very addictive.

We can't spend a lot of time on those that just turn their backs to us once they come to us and don't want treatment. We have to spend our time with the ones that really, really want to stay clean, want to do something different with their life. Because it's not enough money nor staff to be able to do all we want, really would like to do.

MARTIN: There's one thing we have not talked about, which is the role of the clients in all this, the men.

Ms. MCREYNOLDS: Well, we are also the facilitator of The John School. The John School is when the guy solicits the woman for sex and they come through the courts, as well. And they have a one-day session that they have to go through, with different components of intervention through that whole day. But they only go one day. And the women have to be in our program for four months. And this seems a little unbalanced to me. But that's the way it is.

And we do have trans-genders come through our program. And we do our best to help them, as well. We don't treat them any different. We want them to be the best at who they - they think they are, but be the best at it. So there's no judgment there, as well.

MARTIN: Jackie McReynolds is the founder and executive director of the Angels Project Power, which helps women leave sex work if they want to. She joined us from her home in Maryland.

Nakita Harrison is a former sex worker who's currently enrolled in the Angels Program, successfully, she tells us. And she was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. HARRISON: Thank you.

Ms. MCREYNOLDS: Thank you for asking.

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