Prostitution is a dangerous way of life, often characterized by violence and drug abuse. The violence is so widespread that roughly 68 percent of prostitutes will be sexually or physically assaulted while working. One group aims to reduce the violence by providing support, including a list that tracks dangerous johns.
Angel is an area prostitute living with drug addiction and violence. This petite sex-worker in her late 30s has long brown frizzy hair with red highlights, and deep wrinkles from too much sun and stress. She turned to prostitution 12 years ago, after poor choices led to heroin addiction and felony convictions. But before she dropped out of school and started getting high with her father, she had chosen a tentative career path.
“I think I wanted to do hair and nails. My whole life I wanted to do that, but I just … ” she said.
The divorced mother recently came home to New Mexico from Las Vegas, Nev. and returned to prostitution after her third marriage failed. Her ex-husband attempted to reconcile their relationship, but she deepened the rift by smoking crack with the $6,000 he sent her to get back to Nevada. During her time on the streets, Angel has seen the ugly side of life, but doesn’t let that influence how she treats others.
“If I have it, I will help you because I know how it is. If I say I’m going to do something, it may take me a couple of days but you damn well better be sure I am going to get it done,” she said.
Besides high rates of sexual and physical assault, prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered than their non-prostitute peers—a statistic that is rarely given much thought.
“I think that it does make a bit of good,” she says of knowing the risks, “but I don’t think it makes a bit of good for some of these girls out here because they just want their quick money anyway. So they are not going to pay attention to that. The drugs run people’s lives,” Angel said.
That is why every Friday afternoon, Christine Barber and her volunteers converge on a parking lot near Central and Tennessee to pass out condoms, pepper spray and “bad date lists.” The lists warn about specific men who have reportedly assaulted prostitutes, both physically and sexually.
Barber is director of Safe Sex Work, an organization committed to reducing the harmful consequences associated with prostitution through non-judgmental street outreach.
“We are accepting that this is what has to happen, and this is what they need to do. Let's protect them and help them as much as possible, so we don’t have another West Mesa,” she said.
Barber is referring to the unsolved grisly 2009 discovery of 11 women, most of them known prostitutes, who were murdered and buried in shallow graves on Albuquerque’s West Mesa.
The work Barber and her volunteers are doing is based in the harm-reduction philosophy—the goal isn’t to tell people how to live, but to offer options that will promote safety for both the individual and society, according to Martin Walker, outreach program coordinator for Albuquerque’s Health Care for the Homeless.
“Working with sex workers, a lot of it is not just about helping them to be safer around what type of sexual activities they are doing, what type of drug activities they are doing, but also trying to help them stay physically safe,” he said. “Every week we get at least 10 new reports of ladies that are out working that are raped, accosted, physically abused and mentally abused by people who use their services.”
Barber says all of her approximately 400 clients have reported being raped or assaulted on at least one occasion and some as many as 30 times, spanning several years.
“I end up being the first person—and maybe the only person—they report being raped to. And they never are going to see anyone else. They don’t trust the system, and so I get to be the one who, uh, kind of tries to help them as much as possible.”
Angel has been clean for two years, except for the three week run where she smoked up the $6,000, but continues to “toy with her life” and work as a prostitute. She said she doubts things will change for her and others unless they quit getting high. Could anything else help?
“Honestly, really nothing, because drugs are going to have you no matter what, and unless you choose to quit, then you are always going to be in that rut,” she said.
Barber said she hopes to establish a system that will help officials find those who disappear from the Albuquerque streets.