Sex Workers Anonymous (SWA) is for anyone – male, female or transgender – who has a desire to leave any part of the sex industry (stripping, porn, prostitution, etc.), whether trafficked or not. SWA was the first hotline and program for adults looking for assistance in leaving the sex industry. It brought attention to the modern day movement which recognizes sex trafficking as a serious problem. January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. For more in- formation about SWA, visit sexworkersanonymous.com.
I find myself arrested for prostitution a second time, but I have three kids under 18 years old, all of whom I’m raising by myself. I don’t want them to wind up in foster care, so I ask for alternative sentencing.
For most of the people in this country, 2008 has been a rough year. All of my kids are in school. I have no job and an upside-down mortgage. So, I decide to try my hand at hooking out of the local casinos – and get busted. Twice!
So here I am. Not without some fear, mind you. I couldn’t stop picturing a room full of streetwalkers. The hotline isn’t at all what I thought it would be. Because they don’t list the phone as Sex Workers Anonymous (SWA), I ask if I have the right number and am told yes. If any pimps check my call log, it will appear that I’m just calling a friend. I’m frightened of what the other SWA members are like, so the hotline operator suggests I listen to some of their interviews on the website. It helps.
I tell her my situation, but I’m curious. I ask, “What would you do if I said I have a pimp?” She explains that sometimes they have to arrange an escape before they can even get people to the point where they can attend weekly meetings. Wow. I really am lucky that I’m not in that situation.
But I just don’t see how a Twelve Step meeting would solve any of my problems. Fortunately, I live in a big city that supports a weekly meeting. For smaller cities and for those who are housebound, SWA offers phone meetings. There’s also a mail program for those who are incarcerated or hospitalized, and even an audio version of their Recovery Guide for those whose vision or reading skills aren’t so hot.
When I walk into the meeting, I have to admit I’m surprised. To be honest, it could have passed for a PTA meeting. “Welcome to Sex Workers Anonymous. In order to protect your anonymity, we ask that you not mention your last name, your past, where you work or where you live.”
I lean over and ask the woman next to me, “Why don’t they want me to speak about my past?” She replies, “That’s to protect you from anything you say that could possibly be used against you.”
The first person to share is Jaime. She is the typical street-walking junkie. She says she called the hotline after “being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She started attending SWA and decided to work on becoming a licensed counselor. Once she had a few years clean and received her license, she thought she didn’t need SWA any longer.
Her post-traumatic stress had her trying medical marijuana. That just stimulated her appetite right up to 400 pounds. Jaime says she came back to SWA because she knew that many members experienced this same situation. They could quit sex work; but their relationships with money, sex, food or other people were still dysfunctional.
Sandy pipes in, “Yeah, when I first started attending, it was a lot like that for me, too. By the time I grew up, the only sex I really knew was drunken trysts in cars. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous to get sober, but the tricks just wouldn’t leave me alone. That’s one thing when you’re a teenager, but when you’re hitting 30 years old, it’s just sad.” She pauses and then continues, “Yeah, funny thing about when you start getting sober and actually begin finding out who you really are – not who everyone else is saying you are. And you’re not what you’re doing in order to survive.”
I’m now officially lost. I came here thinking this was about finding a job. The secretary, Rosie, sees this, leans over and whispers, “We all go to coffee after.”
At the restaurant, Rosie asks, “Ah, so you’re one who thinks we’re like Alcoholics Anonymous. So let me ask you something. Do you think prostitutes suffer from a disease? I mean, are you realizing that you turned tricks and you couldn’t stop yourself?”
“Well, of course not. I made the choice to do what I did,” I ex- plain.
“Okay, well what about those who didn’t make a choice? What about those who had a pimp forcing them to get on that stage or in front of that camera or else? What about people like Sandy who had to turn tricks in order to eat or to put a roof over her head because she was too young to get a regular job? Those people have a completely different motivation and relationship with the sex industry. Different from your experience and even from mine, because frankly, I loved the sex industry.” Rosie leans back smiling, almost as if she’s talking about an old lover.
I have to admit, that shocked me. Turns out, she had been arrested and sentenced to three years of probation. Not wanting to wind up violating probation, she’s forced not to go back to the sex industry. “After suddenly being thrust into a life I didn’t want, SWA literally taught me how to walk, talk, dress and cope.”
“Why don’t you go back now?” I asked.
“I now have a daughter who is sick. I’m a convicted felon and can’t work at a legal brothel. If I go back, I could get arrested again. If I get arrested again, who is going to take care of my sick daughter? I come to meetings so I don’t relapse,” Rosie explains.
“Relapse?” I ask.
Karen pops up, “Oh, let me field that one.” She tells me that, un- like the others, she thinks she is classically addicted to the sex industry. Having been arrested 57 times, she couldn’t seem to put any clean time together before coming to SWA.
“It wasn’t about drugs or a pimp – but the excitement and the adventure. I just couldn’t give it up. Society, the law, my family, everyone was telling me that I had to; but I just couldn’t give up the high,” she explains.
“Death is why I left the sex industry,” says Amy, a 60-year-old Jewish woman. She opened a massage parlor so she could have regular hours while her three kids were in school.
As a teen, her daughter got into drugs because Mom was always at work at night. It was a good enough lifestyle for her mom, so why not her? Meaning her daughter could go work the streets on her own – or mom could put her to work in her parlor where she could keep an eye on her.
Thinking it was the best way to keep her wild kid out of trouble, Amy started taking calls with her so she could protect her – at least that was her thinking. However, her daughter died of an overdose one night. That was it. She realized she had to quit and change her life.
Amy explains, “Alcoholism and addiction talk about ‘powerless- ness,’ meaning they are using alcohol and drugs against their will. We are not against the sex industry. If you want to be doing what you’re doing, fine. More power to you. But there are those of us who are not there by choice.”
“I wanted to quit,” Amy continued, “but it’s like Rosie said – it’s like quitting an abusive relationship. I needed some extra help to learn how to stay out of it. It’s too easy to focus on the money and forget about things like that case in Texas where a man beheaded a prostitute when she refused to give him a refund.”
“So what’s the first step?” I ask.
“You tell us,” Amy responds. “The sex industry is just a job. But we each keep finding ourselves back there – in some form or an- other, for one reason or another – against our will. You say you ‘made a choice’ to do it, but you wouldn’t have done it unless you lost your job, so you didn’t really want to. You need to find out why that is for you.”
“Why can’t I just go and get another job and have that be the end of it?” I ask.
“Was it the end of it before?” Karen asks.
As if reading my mind, Rosie adds, “Look, I’m not going to tell you where this road is going to take you. For an alcoholic, at- tending Alcoholics Anonymous is about staying sober. But each person’s sobriety looks different. The Twelve Steps universally uncover self-destructive behaviors and powerlessness in our own lives. The choices you made brought you here, and yes, caused you to endanger the very things you say you want to protect.”
Wow, she’s right, I thought. Silly me, I assumed attending SWA would be all about the sex industry. It really does boil down to me no matter what program I’m in, doesn’t it?