Ann exercises caution when it comes to her 14-year-old daughter.
Her concern is rooted in her experience of being bought and traded for sex as a teenager.
The 38-year-old Akron area mother now describes herself as “a woman who belongs to Jesus,” dedicated to sharing hope with other women who are struggling with prostitution and drugs. Anonymity was granted to her for this article to protect her family.
“God brought me through. He washed me clean. In Christ, we become a new creation. I am still growing as the new woman that he made me,” she said. “I actually grew up in the church. My family was very active in the church. I was from the suburbs. I grew up in a home with both parents in a white, middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. I got decent grades. I was a good kid.”
Her life changed when she was 13 years old — the average age of entry into commercial sex trade in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I was raped by an older [nonrelative] man while on a family vacation. I kept that secret because I didn’t know what to do with it. I felt really ashamed,” she said. “I felt that I couldn’t tell my parents. I was desperately looking for my father’s approval. I got angrier and angrier about what happened to me.”
Not knowing what to do or who to turn to, she started running away from home. When she was caught, she was charged as a runaway and locked up in a juvenile facility. Her days in juvenile detention included drug and alcohol treatment.
“I wasn’t on drugs or alcohol. My problem was that I had been sexually assaulted,” she said. “Nobody ever bothered to ask me what was wrong.”
Once out of juvenile detention, she would run again, finding shelter wherever she was accepted. One of those places was with a friend whose “mother didn’t care what she did. Her boyfriend, who was 19, would spend the night at her house. One night, I woke up and he was on top of me. He raped me,” she said.
Fighting back tears as she recalled experiences from when she was 16 years old, Ann said she felt a need to get out of the Akron area. She broke into a relative’s piggy bank, took less than $200 and got on a bus, ending up in the Pittsburgh area.
“I ended up sleeping in the bus station,” she said. “This street pimp picked up on me and engaged me in a conversation. I confided in him that I had run away from home. He told me that he could help me make some money.
“He said he would handle all the transactions and that I could approach men and promise to have sex with them. He coached me on what to say and to tell them I was 19. He said I wouldn’t really have to do anything because we would get the money and trick them into going up to a hotel room. Then we would leave and move to another street.”
The man worked the plan exactly as he said he would, and she didn’t engage in sex with any of the men she approached. Then, he took some of the money and got a hotel room, telling her that she could stay there and that nobody would bother her.
Once she got settled, he returned — with crack and a knife.
“He made it very clear that if I didn’t do what he said, he would use the knife. He made me strip in front of him and smoke crack with him. It was very degrading. He raped me all night. He would leave the room and come back. He would go from being apologetic to being evil,” she said.
Couldn’t say no
She doesn’t remember how, but she escaped the next day, only to be approached by another man. He was older and appeared to be concerned about her. He promised to take care of her. Instead, he forced her into prostitution.
“I felt I couldn’t say ‘no.’ It’s so easy for them to get into the heads of young girls. I was so vulnerable. It was never my intention to end up doing that,” she said. “I remember most of the men who paid the money weren’t street people. They were white men who I kept thinking didn’t belong. That’s the major part of the problem: If they would stop buying sex, the demand wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually, Ann called police from a pay phone. Officers arrested her and the older man.
“I was arrested for being a runaway and shipped back home. I remember one of the officers telling me that this is what you get when you run away from home,” she said. “I made a bad decision to run away, but I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.”
Back in Ohio, she ended up with a man who was abusive.
“He was a sex addict, but I stayed with him for 12 years. When you’ve been sexually abused, you think that’s what your body is for,” she said.
After he was arrested nearly 10 years ago, she started reading her Bible again.
“I was tired of my body being used as a vessel of sin,” she said. “I started responding to the Lord, and he put my life back in order.”
More than a year ago, she became involved in a jail ministry, talking, praying and studying the Bible with incarcerated women. Looking back, she said, she believes the pain she felt when she was forced to trade sex for money is helping her understand the plight of the women that she is working with.
As a mother, she strives to keep the lines of communication open. Her advice to other parents is to talk with their children and know where they are going when they leave home.
“It’s OK to say ‘no’ and be the bad guy. Put filters on the Internet. You can order women on Craigslist and Internet sites like you’re ordering a pizza.
“And don’t let porn come into your home, because it fuels trafficking by awakening things that shouldn’t be awakened yet. Fathers need to work at winning their daughters’ hearts so they aren’t looking for love somewhere else,” she said.
Her advice to others is to report things that look unusual, like a teenager hanging out at a truck stop. She said educators should look for signs with students who are chronically absent.
“If someone sees something, they should report it to the tip hot line at 888-373-7888. We have got to get our heads out of the sand,” she said. “This is a serious problem and it doesn’t just have Asian faces. It has American faces, like mine. There are 11,000 runaways a year here in Ohio, and a runaway is likely to be forced into prostitution within 48 hours.
“God brought me through this for a reason, and I am going to do what I can to help others. Some of the pain never goes away, but I have purpose now.
“There is no shame. I’m whole.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org