For sex workers, ‘a little understanding can go a long way’

They are hit hardest by dangerous rise in STDs

(MGN Online)

The Minnesota Department of Health has documented a dramatic, dangerous rise in STDs in the state over 2016: Syphilis increased by 30 percent, gonorrhea by 25 percent, and Hepatitis C infections by 38 percent. Numbers aren’t in for the past year, but there are two certainties: They’ll increase, and this health hazard, already ravaging Black communities, particularly women and girls, will worsen.

Among the most vulnerable are urban females who sell sex, although no one is immune. “Respectable” ladies who do contract asexually transmitted disease discreetly see a doctor and that’s that. They don’t lead highly at-risk stigmatized lifestyles.

Who, as a wide-eyed youth, ever dreams of growing up to debase her dignity and self-respect for a living, much less risk health-threatening, even fatal disease? Rose C. surely didn’t. She can’t recall when she wasn’t in emotional pain, indeed in agony, which she eventually eased by smoking crack.

As Rose speaks with the MSR she is standing out of the winter wind behind hedges at Spectrum on Chicago Avenue crowded in with drug runners and associates also dodging the cold. She’s soft-spoken with a ready smile and kind eyes — considerably kinder than life has been to her. The hurt disappears for a while, but it always comes back.

Rose’s story, which is all too common, literally stems from birth. “My mom walked out, left me in the hospital [at] three days old. The lady who adopted me wanted to look good as a pillar of society. Behind closed doors, it was hell.


“I wanted to work with women leaving sex trafficking. The best way to help someone is to lead by example.”


“Every day, the abuse [was] torturous. Locked in the basement. Beat ’til the blood ran.” Why?  I don’t know,” she replied. “Never found out.”

Rape routinely is part of these women’s past. Was Rose C. molested as a child? Probably — something took place at age 12 so traumatizing to her that she forced herself to forget. “I wasn’t raped…that I know of. I had surgery down there. Might’ve blocked it out. If so, I’d like it to stay blocked out.”

What she can’t block, driving her to roam Minneapolis streets day and night, is the pain from which she seeks relief, merciful medication, incessant craving that keeps a stranglehold on her self-esteem and finds her doing things she’d rather not discuss. Rose C. is 58, has been hooking for the past 20 years, and doesn’t foresee a future for herself without a pipe in her mouth.

Recently, not far from where Rose spoke to us, a gal stepped into a van, was beaten, robbed and gang-raped. It doesn’t have to be that way for Tonique Ayler, 37, who traveled a hard road and, ultimately refused to lose. She prevailed against a past of abuse and a stay in Shakopee Correctional Facility, not only saving herself but also helping others to help themselves. “Mine was a form of generational prostitution,” which she states is not uncommon.

“A lot of girls, soon as they hit 14, 15, their mom’s like, ‘You need to start kickin’ in. There’s no reason to be broke when you’re sittin’ on a gold mine.’ My father was a pimp. I grew up with three stepmoms [whom he] called ladies of the night. Growing up, it seemed normal. I stayed in that lifestyle about 17 years.”

She describes it as survival sex in exchange for somewhere to sleep, eat and wash her clothes. “A lot of times if someone gave me a snort of cocaine and offered a hundred dollars [to] not use a condom I would do it.” She caught and was cured of STDs, luckily avoiding HIV.

In hindsight, she’s actually grateful for the prison sentence that intervened when she was caught dealing drugs. “It was a blessing. I remember for a long time thinking I would die, feeling hopeless. That boot camp changed my life the most. I learned accountability, honesty, integrity, discipline.”

Upon release, she received another blessing, albeit mixed. She transitioned to RESOURCE, Inc. (now Avivo), which provided strong support right around the corner from drug infested, prostitution-plagued Peavey Park at Chicago and Franklin Avenues. Often, she couldn’t walk to the store without being propositioned.

“That was hard,” she says. “It comes down to how much you want to change.” Change she did, graduating from Avivo and going on to her present position as housing advocate at Breaking Free, Inc., which empowers women and girls to escape sexual exploitation with advocacy, direct service, housing, and education.

She manages 52 housing units with a caseload of 26 clients plus children, helping with parenting groups, food, referrals, emotional support, relapse prevention and weekly survival classes on issues related to addiction and recovery. “I wanted to work with women leaving sex trafficking. The best way to help someone is to lead by example.”

January 7 marked her second anniversary in sobriety. “I want other women to know, no matter your background, you are worthwhile, you’re valuable. Any [pitfall] that comes to you, you can bypass. Pretty Woman isn’t how it is, being rescued by Richard Gere.”

She characterizes the average john as a slumming, well-to-do suburbanite with a wife and kids waiting at home. Tonique recalls the first date to which a trafficker dispatched her: “We went to dinner, and when he initiated sex I declined.” The trick complained, whereupon when she got back, the pimp beat her to the floor and kicked her.

“I don’t want to see women go down that road.” She can’t prevent their past but works with them on their future. “A little understanding can go a long way.”

Patricia Carter, outreach coordinator at Turning Point, Inc., 52, was a sex worker from age 15 to 21. “The root,” she says, “was a lack of direction from a father figure and a single mother who could only do so much, working, going to school. A lot of times our girls, young women are neglected and go out to the street.”

Patricia Carter, Turning Point outreach coordinator (Courtesy of Patricia Carter)

There, in short order, they’re apt to be propositioned and, like Tonique, have unprotected sex in exchange for that extra hundred dollars. These days, tipping usually isn’t necessary.

Often all a customer has to do is demand sex if the addicted woman expects to smoke his crack, unquestionably a factor in the rising rate of STDs. Carter repeats, “The root is at home, what seems a hopeless situation.”

Even those not addicted are broke and, meeting a female already in the life or a pimp, figures the money beats flipping burgers for minimum wage. “You treat yourself to clothes and makeup. It looks like it’s working. Until things get ugly, at which point you’re already out there.

How did Carter get out? “God,” she said. “He was calling my name, and my mother never stopped praying. [She] never gave up.”

She, too, escaped without winding up HIV+ and counting her blessings. “The streets don’t care.” True enough, if you’re not an upscale call girl with assignments at this or that hotel, if you’re down in the alley, on the stroll, you routinely keep company with the ruthless and brutally vicious to whom victimizing someone comes perfectly natural and you are — plain and simple — an object of gratification.

Citing the power of prayer, Carter adds, “Recovery [from chemical dependency] is a big part. When you’re not drinking, not high, whatever you’re medicating with, practicing sobriety you have a clear mind. [You need] supportive people in your life [at] Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous you can talk to so that you don’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

She adds, “It’s important for Minnesota to take a look at how to be more effective, get the right people in programs, allow [them] to be effective working with African American women and young ladies,” especially professionals like her who know first-hand what the problem is and how to help solve it.

“And the compassion.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403