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Vol. 18 (2005 Spring)

Violence Against Women in Street Level Prostitution: Women Centered Community Responses

June 1, 2023


Becoming a community advocate fighting violence against women in street level prostitution has been a ten-year experience for me. It has been both fulfilling and stigmatizing. Mobilizing and organizing a community to seek out solutions to the problem of prostitution and the associated violence became the impetus which propelled me to become a community leader. My work enabled me to successfully influence both the criminal justice and social service systems, along with local government, to create a program to help women victimized by prostitution. Fighting off feelings of perpetual passiveness and socialized silence, I found my voice. It was a voice that gained momentum over time, a voice that didn’t ask for permission or beg for forgiveness. An unlikely advocate, I established meaningful connections with oppressed women. From these connections a coalition of individuals emerged that stimulated community level social change.

The negative outcomes of women in prostitution was never so profoundly felt as when my childhood friend was found murdered in Toledo, the victim of a serial rapist. Over the years as we aged and grew apart, I focused on college. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, my friend stayed behind and succumbed to the street life. Addicted to drugs, she was forced to finance her habit by selling her body on the streets. Her life ended when she was brutally stabbed in an abandoned parking lot and died a few hours later in a hospital five blocks from our childhood homes.

I was a social worker at the time, committed to the ideals of the profession and devoted to a code of ethics that outlined a social worker’s primary mission to work with the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed. I memorized this section of the code because it gave me focus, meaning and purpose.

I had driven past women in prostitution many times on my way to assist children and families living in the area. I had little knowledge of these women’s experiences and even less empathy for them. I hadn’t realized that my ignorance and unwillingness to engage them prohibited me from fully realizing the meaning of the creed I had so strongly claimed as my own. Instead of working with the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, in whatever experiences led them to their current set of circumstances, I was only willing to work with the needy, the deserving, and the worthy. I was willing to meet that person at the place in life that made me feel most comfortable. In a self serving and non-altruistic way, I wanted to help people as long as I maintained a reasonable balance between what I thought was a deserving population and feeling good about the work I did.

After a bit of reflection and soul searching, I began conducting research to identify the problems associated with this population. I built a relationship with an informant who took me out on the streets where I spent six months, three times a week to learn the language and culture of street level prostitution. Two days per week I spent in the library reading and learning.

I met a woman who would be eventually become my informant the day she came into our neighborhood community center for services. She needed food. It was her son’s fourth birthday and she hadn’t made any money on the streets. For his birthday, her son wanted a blue cake. After finding some cake mix, frosting, and food coloring to add to the standard bag of food items, we parted. Weeks went by and I began to smile and wave when she returned to the center. She would occasionally stop and talk. On one of those occasions, I worked up enough courage to ask her to take me out on the streets and teach me about prostitution.

My days on the streets were spent learning about the people, the language, the culture, the key players, the location of drug houses, and the houses used specifically for prostitution. I learned who local pimps and drug dealers were and how to avoid contact with law enforcement.

Months after immersing myself into this culture in order to learn how help, I found it almost impossible to confront the truth and conceptualize the brutal lives women lived while involved in street level prostitution. I created false rationalizations about why women were sold their bodies, and why I would never be out there. I had to strip away the explanations I conjured up. Once I did this, I was left with the profound realization that this was a social justice cause for women whose lives were a daily nightmare and whose very existence could be snuffed out in a moment’s notice with little community concern. This profound revelation moved me. Indeed, it would move even the meekest from silence and fear to voice and power. Helping these women find a voice was a kind of selfishness that allowed me to harness our collective power and not seek consent or authorization for doing so. It is what propelled me to conduct research, mobilize a community, and respond to a pressing need.