A look into a destructive cycle of sex work and addiction

  • Outside a fast-food restaurant in SeaTac, Wash., Lisa brushes off an encounter with a man. A “renegade,” she has no official pimp, but is always on the lookout for men who are either “dates” or pimps looking to recruit her. For Lisa, a pimp represents a needle full of heroin.
  • Lisa walks down Pacific Highway South, known as “the track” in SeaTac, Wash., after turning a trick and visiting her dealer. She was heading to a fast-food restaurant to buy some dinner and get high in the women’s restroom. 
  • After turning a trick, visiting her dealer, and getting high in a fast-food restaurant bathroom, Lisa orders some dinner. She left angry and frustrated. She said the restaurant staff first ignored, then mocked, her as she stood, half asleep and swaying, at the counter waiting for her order.
  • The Boulevard Motel in Tukwilla, Wash. where Lisa sometimes stays with a friend who lives there.
  • Lisa, high on heroin, at the Boulevard Motel.
  • While hanging out at a friend’s long-term residency motel room, Lisa negotiates with one of her regular tricks (sex buyer) for a “date.”
  • On her way to a detox center, Lisa stops at a friend’s motel room to grab her stuff and smoke some crack.
  • Detail from a room at the Boulevard Motel in Tukwilla, Wash.
  • Lisa, 19, looks in the motel fridge of her friend Jane’s room in Tukwilla, Wash. On the mirror it says, “Solo yo, nada mas” or “Only me, nothing more.” At 13, Lisa was kidnapped and forced to prostitute. She makes enough money from sex work to feed a heroin addiction and pay for the occasional motel room. “Jane” is one of Lisa’s few friends on the streets. When Lisa was 16, Jane lost her motel room and was broke. Lisa handed her the key to a room paid for a week in advance through prostituting. Now Jane does the odd job and runs her room as a crack den, allowing people to get high for a fee. She says she’s not a dealer. There are plenty of others; the motel, one of three responsible for 17% of police calls, was later raided and shut down by more than 200 officers.
  • Lisa is handcuffed by SeaTac Detective Donyelle Frazier while Detective Brian Taylor (at back) interviews the sex buyer, or “john.” Once it was determined there was an offer and agreement for sex, the SeaTac Street Crimes Unit offered her the opportunity to go to jail or divert to a drop-in center that could provider her with access to services. The john was uncooperative and went to jail for the night.
  • Followed by SeaTac police detectives while she was walking up Pacific Highway South until she was picked up by a “date,” Lisa waits, handcuffed in the cold winter night, while her date is interviewed. While he was uncooperative and went to jail for the night, she expressed interest in a drop-in center founded by the police officers as an alternative to incarceration. The center functions as a first point of contact for social services and long-term care. It was Lisa’s first time hearing of it. Police took her there.
  • Detective Brian Taylor with SeaTac’s Street Crime Unit talks with Lisa at the Genesis Project, the drop in center he co-founded with Deputy Andy Conner and Detective Joel Banks, as he waits for the on-call staff to arrive. At the time, the center was operating on a shoe-string budget and relied on volunteer staffing.
  • Lisa rests on a couch at the Genesis Project while the detectives wait for an on-call female staff person to arrive.
  • Lisa warms herself on a cold winter night at the Genesis Project drop-in center on the night the detectives followed her and arrested her date for solicitation of prostitution. Turned out by a pimp at 13, Lisa has sold herself for the past six years in order to maintain a heroin addiction she picked up along the way.
  • On her way to a detox center with the help of Genesis Project staff, Lisa stops at the Boulevard Motel in Tukwila, Wash., to say goodbye to some of her closest friends, (from left to right) Ashlie, “J” and Jay, who stay in long-term rental rooms. Detox means leaving a life, and the community, supporting addiction. In August of 2013, the motel was among three raided by over 400 officers in a joint task force with tactical gear and armored vehicles, shutting them down and arresting the owners for profiting off of drug and prostitution activity on their property. During 2011 and 2012, authorities said 17 percent of Tukwila’s police calls originated from the three motels. 
  • Lisa with Genesis Project staff person LaDedria Griffin-Stallworth. LaDedria was trying to keep Lisa focused on going to a detox facility. Lisa was looking for a place to get high.
  • Lisa waiting to go to a detox facility.
  • On her way to a detox facility, driven by Genesis Project staff, Lisa tries to call her mom. She stayed in the facility only an hour.
  • Lisa with a needle, about to get high again before being admitted to a detox facility. 
  • Lisa appears in the SeaTac courtroom by video feed from the regional jail, South Correctional Entity. The judge rules on Lisa's prostitution charges and a violation of a "stay out of prostitution" order.
  • Unable to stop using heroin, or the prostitution which is her only form of income, Lisa is arrested again. In jail, serving part of a 90 day sentence, Lisa talks about her fear of not using heroin, and how she’ll have to face not only her current reality, the prostitution she hates, but also her past. “Black is my everything,” she said, referring to how heroin lets her forget so she can continue to exist.
  • After being arrested for prostitution, Lisa talks about her fear of not using heroin, and how she’ll have to face not only her current reality, the prostitution she hates, but also her past. She was turned out by a pimp at 13. That pimp is now in prison for murder. 
  • After being arrested for prostitution, Lisa talks about her fears about stopping heroin and facing the reality of her life sober.
  • Having just gotten out of several days in jail — long enough to pass through the physical effects of heroin detox — Lisa waits for a friend to pick her up so she can get high again.
  • Relatively sober, Lisa visits her mother, Windy. The two stay in regular contact but Windy, who works for a doctor treating chemical dependency, knows that heroin will win until Lisa chooses to be sober.
  • Late at night, Lisa is unable to sleep through the physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal and turns to texting on her phone. The only work she knows is prostitution, having done it since 13, and now she uses it to feed her addiction. If she doesn't use heroin, she says, she won't need to prostitute. But she has no idea of what to do then. She made it less than 48 hours on this attempt before her street friends lured her back out where she used again.
  • Lisa at Genesis Project starting to detox.
  • Lisa in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Although her visits are infrequent, Lisa stays in regular contact with her mother who says she’s tried everything in her power to help Lisa get out of the life she’s living and quit her heroin addiction. Their weekly calls and irregular visits are important for both; Lisa seeks recognition and her mother wants to know her daughter is still alive. She knows how Lisa was turned out by a violent pimp at 13, and the risks her daughter takes to maintain the resulting drug habit that now rules over all else.
  • Lisa’s mother Windy shows Lisa how to use the coffee maker in her home. Windy, a recovering addict, has a stable life, marriage and a job in the medical field working for a doctor who treats opiate addiction. She keeps the door open for Lisa and tries to help her as best she can, but knows from personal experience that leaving the life is a choice Lisa must make on her own.
  • Lisa holds Chad, her boyfriend, behind his mother’s house, where he was visiting while on work-release from prison. Chad had served seven years for dealing meth, but in work release he’d found a steady job in construction and was attending daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He was encouraging Lisa to leave the life and her addiction, helping her get to a detox center and providing emotional support. Chad realized the risk to his sobriety he faced in being with Lisa. For her part, she said she’d stopped turning tricks, which is the only way she knows how to make money, and was only using enough heroin to keep the worst of the detox sickness at bay. But it was a struggle because she was in pain and had no money. 



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.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography