She thought she was about to die. Lying on the hotel room floor, her face was red and swollen from an hour-long beating, and the man responsible was now strangling her. “God, please let me live through this,” she pleaded. “And I promise I won’t be a prostitute anymore.”
She broke her promise.
Like thousands of Americans, Lacy (not her real name) had sunk into the cesspool of the sex industry.
Lacy grew up in a high-income family in West Coast suburbia. She was a bright girl, but with a short attention span. Her first problems emerged in high school when she struggled with anxiety and started skipping school a lot.
Her parents thought a boarding school for youth with special needs might help. But she felt they were sending her away. Rebelling, she found a suitable bad-boy boyfriend and he introduced her to a “bad crowd,” including drug dealers and prostitutes.
Her impulsive and thrill-seeking nature took over. Her boyfriend convinced her to try petty thievery, and she started smoking marijuana and occasionally took ecstasy. With little self-esteem, she wanted to prove her worth to the crowd.
One summer night in 2009, she made her way to the notorious part of town and, conspicuously, started to walk around. Two men pulled over, and she got in the car. A while later, they dropped her off with $100. She was 18.
“I felt dirty,” she said.
But there was $100 in her hand, and she also felt like a “badass”—what her friends would approve of. So she did it again, and again.
She stopped for a while when she landed an administrative job at a law firm. But the temptation of quick money always lingered in her mind. She landed a side job as a stripper and, from time to time, exchanged sex for money.
Over the next year, she developed bipolar disorder, a condition marked by bouts of depression and mania, and lost her job.
Shortly after, she met her first pimp. He showed her how to get clients on the internet and took her to Las Vegas to “work.”
One of her clients turned out to be an undercover police officer, and she was arrested for prostitution. She spent two days in jail.
With a court case pending against her, she needed a lawyer, but didn’t have enough money, and the pimp couldn’t care less. Desperate, she spilled the beans to her sister. And her sister told her parents.
Despite deep disappointment, her father agreed to pay for a lawyer. The case against her was dropped, and her family tried to push her to get treatment.
But their efforts backfired—which is often the case, according to Jody Williams, who founded Sex Workers Anonymous, a volunteer network of support groups for former prostitutes and others in the sex industry.
Instead, Lacy found another pimp.
“I thought he was such an interesting person,” Lacy said. “He had this charisma about him. I was just very sexually attracted to him.”
She became obsessed with the man. “I felt like I just wanted his approval so badly,” she said.
Pimps develop skills of psychological influence that can be described as brainwashing, said Williams, who is an ex-prostitute and has 30 years experience counseling ex-prostitutes.
The pimp convinced Lacy to become a full-time prostitute, promising she could make $400 a night.
But he kept all the money and only gave her enough for groceries or clothes. “We’d go to the mall, he’d give me $50, and he’d come out with $700 worth of stuff for himself,” she said.
The pimp started criticizing her and pushing her hard to make more money. She was miserable. “I felt like I had no control over my life,” she said.
First Attempt to Escape
After less than four months, she decided to escape. “I felt so sad from being ostracized by my family,” she said. Wanting to patch things up, she called home and asked for help. Her family agreed to take her back, but only if she went into treatment. She agreed.
Her family hired an interventionist, who concluded Lacy was addicted to sex. She was placed in a class for sex addicts, with mostly men who had been caught having affairs, watching child pornography, or with other sex addiction problems.
“It was an absolute disaster,” Lacy said. “I ended up having sex with one of them.”
She was kicked out in less than three weeks.
Her family put her in another sex addiction rehab program, for women only. She spent 50 days there, with little effect—it turned out that sex addiction wasn’t her problem.
“There is an element of that too, but I don’t think that’s the main force that drives a prostitute to be a prostitute,” she said.
In retrospect, Lacy identified two factors that pulled her to prostitution: the ability to make money fast and a lifestyle of not caring about anything.
Her biggest problem, however, was that she was still obsessed with the pimp.
Gone and Back Again
“I kept calling him. I missed him,” she said. “I wanted to be his friend. I didn’t want to be his prostitute. I just wanted to have a relationship with him.”
Shortly after she left rehab, she met up with the pimp, and sure enough, he convinced her to prostitute again. “It was back and forth for years,” she said. “I would quit, and then I would go right back to it again.”
Once, she took a cab to her parents’ house and asked for help again. But she felt they didn’t believe her anymore—she lost hope.
Then in 2015, while prostituting in San Francisco, she met an intriguing client.
Face of Death
“He was absolutely gorgeous,” she described the 28-year-old U.S. Marine veteran. They were getting along, so she stopped charging him for sex, ditched her pimp, and started to live with the man.
Five months into the relationship, things turned toxic. On one hand, he tried to convince her to quit prostitution, but on the other, he was an alcoholic and was happy to spend the money she made through prostitution.
One day, they got into an argument, so she took her car and stormed off. But he’d left his gun in her car. When he came to her hotel room to pick it up, he started to beat her. After an hour of beatings, he started to strangle her. She was afraid he was about to kill her. “I’ve killed people in war,” he used to say. “I know what it’s like to kill somebody.”
It was then that she promised God she would stop prostituting.
She survived, albeit with a badly injured face, and returned home again. This time, perhaps due to her injuries, her family was somewhat sympathetic.
But, soon enough, she started to think of prostitution again. “I couldn’t just let it go.”
There was always an excuse to crave more money: to pay off a credit card debt, or to get an apartment or plastic surgery. “I was just so greedy,” she said.
She relapsed again, but this time the idea of quitting was more solid. “I was just tired of it,” she said.
In June 2016, she called the Sex Workers Anonymous hotline and reached Williams.
Finally, there was someone who understood. And there was hope again. Lacy started to call in for weekly phone meetings, gradually opening up to Williams.
Lacy joined the group’s 12-step program and is now working as a freelance beautician.
Now 26, she still has thoughts of returning to prostitution, but is determined to fight them off. “I don’t want to give up on my life.”