Helping women escape 'the life'
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
- Vednita Carter founded Breaking Free to support women who wish to escape prostitution
- She believes the women her nonprofit helps are victims of sex trafficking and not criminals
- Breaking Free provides food, clothing, housing, counseling, job skills training and more
- Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes
St. Paul, Minnesota (CNN) -- As darkness falls, Joy Friedman hits the streets -- the same ones she used to troll for customers while working as a prostitute.
"My last trick was turned behind that storefront," she said, gesturing to a nearby building.
Now the survivor of sex trafficking cruises these neighborhoods with a different purpose. She's looking for women and girls who are caught up in this lifestyle so she can offer them free condoms and hygiene products.
She is also delivering a message: There is help for them if they want it.
Friedman works for Breaking Free, a nonprofit that helps women escape prostitution. It's where she got help 13 years ago.
"(Prostitution) has been happening forever. And forever, women have just been the victims of it," said Vednita Carter, the organization's founder. "They deserve better."
|CNN Report: 95% of the women Vednita Carter helps struggle|
with addiction, abuse, trauma, financial instability and shame.
Since 1996, Carter says she has helped more than 6,000 women get the support they need. In the process, she's built an army of survivors who have joined her crusade to end sex trafficking.
Lured into 'the life'
Carter personally knows about this world. At 18, she was hoping to make money for college when she responded to an advertisement for "dancers." At first, she danced fully clothed, but her bosses and then-boyfriend soon pressured her into stripping and, eventually, prostitution.
It was more than a year before Carter called a friend who helped her get back on her feet. Later, she realized how lucky she had been.
"The majority of women don't have anyone to call. There is nowhere for them to turn," said Carter, now 60. "That's why I do this work."
For many of the women Carter helps, "the life" is all they've known. Studies show that the average age of entry into child prostitution is 12 to 14, and many of the girls have been sexually abused or were runaways.
Carter works to educate the public and law enforcement to see these women as victims of sex trafficking rather than as criminals.
"Prostitution and sex trafficking really are the same thing. It's about buying and selling a human being," she said.
Leaving 'the life' behind
Carter says 95% of the women she helps struggle with addiction as well as physical abuse, mental trauma, financial instability and shame.
"It's a process. If (they've) been in it forever, it's all they know," she said. "They think it's their destiny."
Carter's drop-in center provides food, clothing and emotional support to any woman coming off the street, no strings attached.
For many women, the first significant step is to participate in a 14-week class called Sisters of Survival. Graduates are honored in a ceremony, marking the start of their new lives.
Prostitution and sex trafficking really are the same thing.
It's about buying and selling a human being. - Vednita Carter
"They learn that they do have other choices that (they) can make," Carter said.
The group also provides permanent and temporary housing, addiction counseling, job skills training and legal assistance.
Most of the staffers who work at Breaking Free are survivors of prostitution, making it one of just a few organizations like it in the United States.
"I have a purpose now," Friedman said. "I'm a fighter, and I'm going to fight 'til I die for each and every person involved in sexual exploitation."
Fighting the demand
Carter believes that sex trafficking won't end until men stop purchasing sexual favors. She established one of the country's first "John Schools" that educates men arrested for solicitation about the impact of their actions.
"I'm not here to make you feel like a piece of sh*t, but you've got to feel something," Doris Johnson, a survivor, told a group back in 2012. "That's somebody's daughter."
According to Carter's group, only 2% of the men who complete the course reoffend.
Carter is considered by many to be a pioneer in the anti-sex trafficking movement, and she is determined to keep fighting as long as she can.
"We are really raising an army here. And this is a battle," she said. "It's not OK to buy and sell us. We are not for sale."
Want to get involved? Check out the Breaking Free website at www.breakingfree.net and see how to help.
* * * * * * * * * *
Inside the underground sex economy
By Jeanne Sahadi @CNNMoney March 12, 2014: 10:27 AM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)
Until now there hasn't been a lot of data to help law enforcement and policymakers better understand the economics of the illegal sex trade and trafficking.
But a study released Wednesday by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center analyzes the size and structure of the underground commercial sex economies in eight major cities: San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Washington, D.C., Miami, Atlanta and Kansas City, Missouri.
The three-year effort, which began in 2010, was funded by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which supports research that can aid in the prevention, detection and prosecution of human trafficking.
Researchers interviewed pimps, traffickers, sex workers and child pornography offenders, as well as local and federal law enforcement officers.
Of the eight cities studied, Atlanta had the largest cash-based underground sex economy at $290 million a year and Denver the smallest at $40 million, based on 2007 data. (There was insufficient data available for Kansas City, so it was dropped from the estimation analysis.)
The way in: Often pimps and prostitutes get into the business because they had a relative who worked in it or a friend who encouraged them. Neighborhood influence, poor job prospects and childhood trauma also played a role.
Coercion: It's often assumed that sex workers are physically coerced to work for and stay with a pimp. But researchers found that psychological manipulation played a major role, too -- whether it was the promise of attention from the pimp or more tangible incentives.
Likewise coercion through psychological or emotional abuse was used as a form of punishment to keep employees in line.
The report recommends that states should include coercion -- not just physical but also the more subtle, non-physical forms -- in their definition of sex trafficking.
Gang involvement: Gangs are increasingly involved in prostitution and sex trafficking, especially in San Diego.
Often rival gangs will temporarily put aside their differences to work cooperatively to maximize their profits -- for instance, by sharing the same hotel out of which their prostitutes work.
Pimp circuits: Some pimps form networks across cities and regions, operating more as a brotherhood than as rivals. When transporting their sex workers to another city, their networks keep them apprised of law enforcement activities and offer advice on finding clients.
|Pimps 'friend' victims on Facebook|
Pimps interviewed also indicated that they thought pimping was a less risky crime than others, such as drug trafficking.
And many felt that "no one actually gets locked up for pimping," according to the report.
Role of the Internet: The cash-based sex trade has traditionally been street-based. But now the street is just one part of the trade, which has been greatly expanded by the online sex market. Participants told researchers they perceived the Internet to be less risky in terms of detection by law enforcement and it let them vet potential clients more easily.
Family, friends and legal businesses as facilitators: The underground sex economy is aided by above-board businesses. For example, a hotel's employees may look the other way when a pimp does business out of that hotel, and may even accept payment for doing so.
Meanwhile a pimp's friends or family may serve as drivers or security detail for his prostitutes.
No profit in child porn: Researchers found that there's an increasing amount of child pornography being produced in the United States, and it's increasingly graphic and violent.
But it's often available for free and offenders interviewed said they were part of online child pornography communities.
"Why pay?" one respondent told researchers. "I guess I just assumed that anyone asking for money was a sting."
Those incarcerated for non-contact child porn offenses -- such as possession and distribution -- said they consider it a victimless crime since they weren't producing the pornography.
Offenders did, however, indicate that they want treatment but said there are few options for it in prison.
Among the report's recommendations: Laws should hold criminally responsible anyone who facilitates or hosts online child pornography content and communities.
First Published: March 12, 2014: 12:19 AM ET
Interview with Vednita Carter of Breaking Free on Sex Trafficking
Interview with Vednita Carter of Breaking Free on Sex Trafficking