A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.
By Kelley Perez
Some people say that prostitution is a victimless crime. My position on the subject is that prostitution is a catalyst for human trafficking, which subsequently creates numerous victims. As a human trafficking survivor, I have firsthand experience and knowledge that prostitution creates victims not only in other countries but in our very own neighborhoods. Prostitution is breeding human trafficking right under Tampa, Florida’s nose through the internet and brothels disguised as spas.
If prostitution were to be legalized, human trafficking would become easier because women could be trafficked in plain sight with no fear of repercussions. The argument is that if prostitution is legalized the industry can be regulated, but how does one regulate an industry where people in positions of authority are victimizers? Prostitution is defined as the act of engaging with someone in sexual activity for payment. Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor. Sex traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into commercial sexual exploitation. In efforts to combat human trafficking, the lower house of French parliament passed a bill that decriminalized prostitution but instead went after anyone responsible for hiring a prostitute. This has been implemented in other countries and is successful because the women who are selling sex are no longer afraid to report crimes against them.
Slaves are all around us, hidden in plain sight: the dishwasher in the kitchen of the neighborhood restaurant, the kids on the corner selling cheap trinkets, the man sweeping the floor of the local department store. The people responsible for this modern-day slavery are not the typical pimp depicted in movies with a fur coat and challis in hand. They are somebody who fits the description of a neighbor, as a 27-year-old middle-class Tampa housewife.
How does the girl next door get trafficked? Is she kidnapped? Is there a gun to her head the whole time? Most of the time, the answer to these questions is no, and the process is much subtler in nature. My story started off with me trying to get out of a domestic violence relationship. I went to The spring domestic violence shelter in Tampa, Florida, and stayed there for five of the allotted six weeks. When the sixth week was approaching, a woman I had known for a while (Ally) called me out of the blue and asked me to come to her house for a visit. I showed up at her house which was a beautiful condo in an affluent neighborhood. I began explaining my dilemma to Ally, who quickly asked me to move in with her. I went and got my belongings that day and moved from The spring domestic violence shelter into Ally’s condo.
Ally told me that she would be happy to help me renew my cosmetology license and help me get basic tools so I could get back my life I had lost due to my abusive relationship. Before moving in, I knew that Ally was an escort, and I had no problem with her lifestyle because she seemed to be OK with it, even glamourized it. The first night I moved in, we partied all night. Then, the next day, Ally said that if I wanted her help renewing my cosmetology license, I would have to escort with her and earn the money. I was completely broken from being in the two-year domestic violence relationship and felt I had no choice. When living in someone else’s home, it is almost like there was a gun to my head to do as I was asked so I had a place to stay.
As I began doing “dates” with her, I would want to go to sleep, but life was moving all around me, so I had no choice but to smoke speed with her. I couldn’t sleep for days, not because I didn’t want to but because I wasn’t allowed to either because of the drugs or her. Finally, I was exactly where she wanted me to be, and she said, “Don’t worry sniff this and you will be able to sleep.”
By this time, I was seeing things that were not there, such as Drug Enforcement Administration ninjas all-around me and people coming through walls.
I snorted what she put in my face at that point with no questions asked and fell asleep shortly after. At some point, I was awakened with speed. Even though everything was so blurry, I remember Ally and her boyfriend standing by my bedside, and as I woke up, they immediately got me high. She and I worked for another couple of days before I was given whatever downer was available to help me come down and sleep.
One time, Ally and I got into a fight, and after that, she took my purse containing my Social Security card and identification. I remember having thoughts and even saying to myself “This feels like human trafficking”; however, even in the center of being trafficked, I didn’t believe that it could happen to me. I was so broken and so drugged up and then down that, I never realized that I was much stronger than Ally. I could’ve easily kicked her door in and got my purse back with my makeup, Social Security card and identification. The trafficking went on for a total of two or three weeks, the time span is fuzzy, but when I was awakened by someone trying to inject me with something in my foot that was my limit of patience. I got up and informed Ally that she needed to give me money so I could leave, when she refused, I was told to leave.
I went downstairs as things were spiraling out of control and locked myself in a half bathroom to begin the detox process. The first day, periodically, Ally would knock on the door to tell me to make money or leave. The second day is when things started to heat up; I was very sick from drug withdrawal, and Ally began banging on the door. I was still in a chemical fog, but I was gaining mental strength. The third day Ally banged on the door, I opened it, and she swung a vase at me I ducked and laughed at her. By now, much of the fog was lifted, and I remembered I was a human and had rights. I told Ally, “I want you to hit me.” I then explained to her that, in the state of Florida there are domestic violence laws that if a homeowner is arrested for domestic violence, for as long as the person assaulted lives in the home, the homeowner would not be allowed on the premises. This bad news was almost too much for her to handle.
I then told Ally this is what was going to happen: “You are going to give me some of the money that I earned, and then your boyfriend is going to drive me to the hotel of my choice. Every single item that you have taken of mine will be returned before I leave. Otherwise, start the eviction process because this is going to be a fun month.” I was strong enough at this point to walk around and went to the kitchen to grab something to eat since I had not eaten for the three days prior. Ally phoned her attorney. At this point, he told her the only thing she could do was evict me.
Ally’s next move was to call several friends over so they could do drugs in front of me. Ally then said to me “I know you want some.” With a big smile on my face and a peace about me, I told her, “No, I don’t. I’m not you, and this isn’t my life.” I am not going to die alone as a hooker in a hotel room I am going to be a mom to my children.” At this moment, Ally realized all the chains that she had bound me with were broken. She called her boyfriend to come downstairs and told him to take me wherever I wanted to go. Ally gave her boyfriend money to give me, and money to put on a prepaid debit card so she could continue to post ads for escorting on Backpage. After Ally returned all my stuff, I got in the rental car, and Ally’s boyfriend TJ began driving me to a hotel.
I had nothing against TJ because he was just a duck that she was using for his condo, but my saturation point had been met. TJ was high on speed rambling about nonsense because he had been up for several days, and I couldn’t have been more irritated. TJ went into a Walgreens to load money onto the prepaid card, but when he came out, he looked confused and said that he didn’t remember how much money he was supposed to give me. I reminded TJ of what we agreed on, and he then tried to call Ally, and she didn’t answer.
Soon, TJ and I were in front of the hotel where I was going to stay. I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said, “I don’t want to have to hurt you, but I’m going to take that card from you then light the headliner of your rental car on fire if you do not give me my money.” He still wouldn’t give me the money, so I pried it out of his hands. I checked into the hotel and Googled “how to quit being a prostitute.” Something popped up, and within a very short time, someone named Emily from the Zonta Club of Pinellas called me and asked me if I had been trafficked. I replied “no,” but she then started asking me questions related to the elements involved in prosecuting human traffickers. At the end of our conversation, she said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but you were trafficked.”
It started to click in, but I still felt like everything that happened was my fault for using drugs. We hung up, and I didn’t really expect anything from the Zonta Club because I felt like everyone else failed me. Emily called me three days later and asked me how I would feel about going to a safe house in Texas. By this time, my ex-boyfriend had found me, and when I refused to go with him he punched me in the face. To this day, I still have a ball of scar tissue there.
Texas sounded great! Hell, Saudi Arabia would’ve been fine!
By the end of that afternoon, a stranger who I had never met purchased a plane ticket for me to go to Texas in two days. Since I was out of money for the hotel room, I called my ex and told him I was leaving town. He asked if he could come to pick me up, and I said yes. After getting back to his house, the woman from The Zonta Club of Pinellas called me and asked if I was safe for the next two days until my flight left. When I told her no that I was back at my abusive ex’s house, she said, “I’ll call you right back.” About 10 minutes later, she told me that I had a hotel room booked at the Beach Hotel in Clearwater and asked if I could get there.
When I asked my ex to take me, he said no. I knew if I stayed at his house, he would sabotage my departure in some way, possibly by taking my identification. I dropped my pride and called my parents. They left immediately to come to get me to take me to my hotel. I waited until the last minute to tell my ex I was leaving. I told him my parents and two children were already on the street that we lived on.
For some reason, he didn’t put his hands on me, he just told me how dumb I was and that we should be spending this time together. I didn’t hug him goodbye. I don’t even remember saying bye to him, just the shocked look on his face. I got into my parent’s car and my two children were there waiting to greet me; I hadn’t seen them in two years because of the drugs and abusive relationship. They greeted me with open arms, and after we ate, I was dropped off at my hotel. I checked in, and laid on the bed, took a deep breath, and knew that my life was just beginning. It occurred to me, though I had no money for food and called Emily from the Zonta Club and asked her what I should do. She said that she would call me back. Five minutes later, a lady named Donna Lancaster called me and told me that she had paid for everything that the room was on her credit card to order whatever room service I would like.
The next step, I boarded the plane to Texas to start my life over. I still talk to Donna and go to antitrafficking events with her, hoping to help others with my story. I have been sober for two years now and haven’t looked back.
Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Even willing participants of prostitution are victims. Prostitutes are raped every day, literally by johns and metaphorically by society’s stigma and unwillingness to help. Until prostitution is regulated through decriminalization, countless victims will suffer in silence with the fear of recourse. It is time to go after the people who purchase the service of a prostitute and not the women. For the people who are still OK with prostitution, I ask you what if it was your mom or your 10-year-old sister? Because no matter what bad life choices landed sex workers in this life, they were someone’s daughter or sister before becoming a prostitute. If it isn’t good enough for a family member to do it, then why is it OK for anyone else?