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Ending the demand: Ex-prostitute escapes pimp and reclaims her life
A local woman's life took a turn for the worse when she encountered an escort service.
The couple who ran the escort service took her in, and the man became her pimp.
At first, he offered protection and fed her drug habit. He groomed her with a dream of money and security. She sold sex at ritzy parties and rode in flashy cars around the Puget Sound region.
Eventually, the pimp brainwashed her into submission and ruled every aspect of her life. He collected all of her earnings and kept track of her whereabouts at all times via cellphone.
If she failed to earn a daily quota of $1,500, she was beaten and humiliated. He would urinate on her. He whipped her with an electrical cord.
"That was his way of showing me this is just the beginning of what will happen," said the woman, who requested anonymity for this story out of fear the pimp could retaliate. "I was more afraid of the pimp than the johns."
The pimp found customers (known as johns) through ads on Backpage.com, Craigslist and alt-weekly papers. Her earnings paid for a house in SeaTac for the pimp and his wife. Thousands of dollars in tricks paid for hotel rooms around the Puget Sound region, including Federal Way and the infamous Aurora Avenue in Seattle. She also worked to pay back the cost of those ads, or pay back bail money if she went to jail.
The johns hailed from all walks of life. Some johns reviewed her services online. Johns would ask for particular kind of girls, which was useful information for pimps.
"I had wigs," she said. "Sometimes they'd say, 'I want a blonde.'"
In a typical transaction, the prostitute took care of business with a john while the pimp waited in an adjacent hotel room to collect the money and monitor the time.
The lifestyle left the woman with no choice but to hustle for more money, or face the wrath of her pimp. She recruited other women into the lifestyle to shoulder some of the workload when johns were seeking services at the same time. Several sessions with johns doubled as drug deals. Pimps pressured women to exploit naive customers with blackmail, for example, such as threatening to tell a john's wife unless he paid hush money.
In total, she had eight prostitution arrests on her record, including an undercover bust in Federal Way. Abused as a child, she was walking Pacific Highway in search of paying customers by age 15. Drugs like heroin became a way to numb herself and cope with the streets, where she had sex to survive.
"I had to be high," she said. "I had to feel nothing."
In a twist of fate, a heroin overdose inadvertently marked the turning point in reclaiming her life. While she was hospitalized, the pimp was jailed after a violent spree in search of her.
She formed relationships with people who empowered her. Now in her mid-thirties, she is no longer a victim, but a survivor. She is married. She lives clean and sober with a career in the mental health field. She regained custody of her three children from foster care, and now helps other mothers in similar situations. She hopes to see more reforms in the child welfare system to ensure that youth avoid these abusive relationships.
"My thanks goes to God for sending a man who was a defender of women," she said, referring to Nick Lembo, who with his wife, Jo, provided a support outlet through Overcomer Covenant Church in Auburn.
"The more eyes and ears on the ground," said Jo Lembo, "the smaller a pimp's world gets."
A grass-roots movement is under way to end the demand for prostitution, which is tangled in a web of pornography and cultural attitudes.
Prostitution has shifted away from the typical streetwalkers. Nowadays, johns arrange meetings online. Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson said officers can put an ad on Craigslist, meet with a potential john and make an arrest, all in a span of two hours.
In 2012, there were 12 prostitution-related investigations in Federal Way, Wilson said, with nine of those initiated by police and one involving a 15-year-old girl.
"It's much more underground now," Wilson said during a forum on human trafficking Jan. 9 at City Hall. "This is not a Federal Way issue. It's a regional issue."
According to the former prostitute whose story was told above, the deck is stacked against police. An officer must witness a transaction before making an arrest. When police arrest one prostitute, her pimp will find a replacement and take business to another part of the region.
"There's not much the police can do," said the woman, suggesting a solution for ending demand: spread awareness among youth.
One place to start is by reshaping the perceptions young men have toward women. Some argue the negative influence of pornography on the male sexual identity, including the accompanying message of objectifying women leads to the creation of unrealistic expectations from sex.
While there is nothing wrong with sex, young men need to be educated on how to use and understand it, according to Nick Lembo from Defenders and Shared Hope International.
"Sex is the most powerful stimulant and bonding agent on the planet," he said at the Federal Way forum. "We need to teach men to respect, honor and understand women and build wholesome relationships."
Peter Qualliotine, co-founder of Organization for Prostitution Survivors, said a boy's average age of exposure to pornography is 9. Prostitution and pornography are inseparable, he said at the Federal Way forum, and "one does not exist without the other."
The key to overcoming this obstacle, he said, is to teach young men to eroticize the mutual and consensual parts of sex, instead of the objectified images found in porn.
• At the local level, the Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking (FWCAT) has brought programs like "Deceptions" into local schools to educate teens about the dangers and trappings of the prostitution underworld. Students at Thomas Jefferson High School and Sacajawea Middle School have participated, with plans for a session in the coming weeks at Federal Way High School. To learn more, visit www.fwcat.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Federal Way issued a proclamation that declares January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month. For its service project this spring, the Advancing Leadership class of 2013 has selected FWCAT. Advancing Leadership (AL) will add the muscle of 30 volunteers to assist FWCAT in its efforts.