You become a different person when you’ve been in this.
When you’re choosing between two bad options, it’s not really a choice. I grew up in Seattle with an abusive and alcoholic father. When I got pregnant he kicked me out and from then on I was on my own.
I was 15 years old at that time. I can still remember that feeling of being cold and wet and alone on the streets of Seattle. Even today when it rains, it sort of takes me back.
People will say “You were so young when this started.” That’s one of the least unusual things about my story. Most of us were that young when we started.
You don’t feel young for very long.
I didn’t think I’d met a pimp. I thought I had a boyfriend. I met him in a parking lot. He was older and wiser, much more of the world. I thought I had gotten so lucky that he had found me. I thought he could help me get out of poverty. When he said I would only have to do a little work and it would be easy, I believed him.
The more vulnerable you are, the more powerful they become. Pimps give girls the things that are missing in their lives: Love. Self esteem. Belonging. It’s a lie, but at first it doesn’t feel like a lie. Especially if you are homeless and on your own.
He asked me to go to Hollywood. When we got there he had a motel room on Sunset Boulevard. He took my ID and told me he’d kill me if I didn’t do what he said. I tried to run away, but he kept finding me. I was a teenager, isolated from my friends, alone. And he knew it.
It’s bad when they threaten you, and worse when they threaten what you love. He said that he would kill my son if I didn’t do it and I believed him. I still do believe that. It is one of the ways he exerted so much control over me.
You become a different person when you’ve been in this. You start to believe that this is where you belong. You don’t realize how much damage it is doing to you emotionally and spiritually, not right away. It hits you later.
For me, it was 15 years later. It took that long for me to get back enough strength and save enough money to get out. I lost those years, but I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Was I beaten? Yes. Was I raped? Yes. But I am still here.
You can’t talk about prostitution without talking about homelessness. One of my first real jobs after getting out of the life was doing drug and alcohol assessments at a homeless shelter in Seattle. So many of the girls were in prostitution. If you don’t have food, if you don’t have a home, you don’t have a choice.
Women don’t get out if they don’t have a place to go. I co-founded The Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) in 2010, so that survivors could get drop-in counseling, jobs placement, help with housing – all of the things that can allow someone to get out of the life.
Resilience inspires me. To survive this, you have to be resilient. I always say to the girls who come to OPS, “You hustled then. Now hustle to build something better for yourself.” But you can’t force that. People leave when they are ready to leave, not because you tell them to.
Never forget. Right now one of the things a group of us are fighting for is building a memorial to the victims of the Green River Killer, who was convicted of killing over 58 women and children in Seattle. Most of them were runaways or prostituted. When that many people lose their lives to a crime or a violent act, there is usually a memorial. People honor or remember them. But it’s like these prostituted women just disappeared.
Maybe because most people never really saw them in the first place.
Just keep coming back. When someone trying to get out of prostitution comes to OPS and says to me, “I don’t know if I can do it,” I always tell them that they don’t have to decide that right away. Just keep coming back. Get through the night, come back tomorrow, and see how you are feeling.
If they do that for enough days, things can change.
Noel Gomez is the Co-Founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors and is also a state certified Chemical Dependency counselor. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a degree in Social Justice.