A look into a destructive cycle of sex work and addiction
Editor’s note: This slideshow contains graphic content which may not be appropriate for all audiences.
In spite of growing national awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children, broad-reaching resources and “wrap services” remain limited. For Lisa, a 21 year-old Seattle-area woman struggling to leave a life of sex work and addiction, this is literally a life or death issue.
At 13 years, Lisa was “turned out” by a pimp. The man locked her in a closet for days, selling her for sex. After he “broke” her, he continued to control her by using violence. He was later arrested and sentenced to prison for murder.
From a troubled home, Lisa was predisposed to vulnerability. After being pimped, her drug use became more serious. By 2012, at the age of 19, she used heroin daily.
“Heroin makes me forget everything,” Lisa said in a 2013 jail interview during the filming of The Long Night, a new documentary about grassroots efforts to address domestic minor sex trafficking.
“Do you know when I shoot up, a lot of its self-esteem?” Lisa said. “Do you know how nasty I feel? I’m f**kin’ 19 years old and I f**ked more people than Ron Jeremy. That’s f**king disgusting. I feel like my skin’s crawling right now. It doesn’t matter how clean I try to get, how many showers I take, it doesn’t go away.”
After being trafficked, her addiction, and subsequent years of voluntary sex work to support her addiction, Lisa is trying to leave “the life.”
“I’ve tried more times this year to get sober than I have in the past five years,” Lisa said. “I need to suck it up and grow the f**k up and realize that a couple days in jail won’t hurt me.”
At the time of her interview, Lisa spent 10 days in jail. Sentenced to 90 days and a $1000 dollar fine, the judge then suspended 80 days and $700 dollars. However, Lisa received no specialized services in jail. Still an addict, she sought out a dealer. To pay for her drugs, and her court ordered fine, Lisa turned to the only work she’s know since 13: Sex work.
In Seattle, efforts to help people like Lisa are taking root. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, the first of its kind in the nation, was launched to refer low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution to community-base services — instead of incarceration. A collaboration of law enforcement and social services, LEAD is a public safety program with the potential to reduce recidivism.
In SeaTac, Washington, where Lisa spends much of her time, is the Genesis Project, a faith-based non-profit founded by a team of deputies. Witnessing an increase of young sex workers, some only 13 years old, they developed a diversion program of their own in 2011.
Although policy and personnel changes have reshaped the Genesis Project, it remains a resource to Lisa and her peers. As do other organizations — such as Seattle’s REST and YouthCare, both of which offer the longer-term housing, access to health care, education, drug treatment, and counseling that define “wrap services.”
As of October 2014, Lisa had been sober for three-and-a-half weeks — a major achievement for someone with her heavy-use habit. But it wasn’t long before “the life” lured her back. With that, she was lost to the streets once again.
Over the course of the many months that Lisa and I spent documenting the story of this time in her life we had a deal: at any point she could say my camera had to disappear and, in return, I trusted her with my safety as she introduced me to her life on the street. She wanted people to see how hard she struggled, how difficult it is to break a heroin habit and face the reality of feeling like she had little alternatives to the sex work that started when she was just 13.
Tim Matsui is multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Seattle. In 2012, he was awarded the first ever “Women’s Initiative” grant by the Alexia Foundation to give voice and meaning to the crisis of minors who are forced and coerced into the American sex trade.