Prostitution: Living in the Danger Zone

Interview with Laurin Crosson by Francine Sporenda

Laurin Crosson is the founder of RockStarr Ministries, a US charitable organization for helping victims of human trafficking. She runs a Safe House for those who want to exit that life. She is a survivor herself, having been trafficked for over twenty years throughout the United States. […]

Traduction Française

F: What triggered your decision to leave prostitution?

L: Considering that being trafficked wasn’t something that I wanted in the first place, it wasn’t so much a single trigger as a constant need to escape. I was always trying to keep my head above water, never being able to see beyond a single day—it was day-to-day survival mode most of the time. Streets are tough. It’s not as if I had a way out that I was constantly choosing NOT to take—I was in fear for my life from one interaction to the next.

What does it look like when you don’t know if you’re going to make it from this street corner to the Jack-in-the-Box down the street ?  You can’t afford to look like a victim—you can’t hide under a blanket and hope not to be seen: the meek and the quiet are the ones that are the easiest prey. So you do the exact opposite, you get loud, you get brash and you advertise. You look tough and unafraid, so you make survival look like a choice. To admit anything otherwise is total defeat, and the sharks smell that blood. So you walk the walk and talk the talk and get in the cars like you’re tough. And you’re scared every second of your life. One time I got in that car—and there was a severed finger on the floor. So yeah you’re scared.

Toward the end—and I would still fall back into my pimp’s control after this time—I thought I had made it; I was making a lot of money (not that I saw any of it), and I was trying to get other girls—this is so sick, but I wanted to get other girls into the penthouse style call-girl life and off the streets. I thought that was the best choice any of us would ever have. So I was not as urgent about escaping as I had been, because when you’re at the top of a garbage heap it feels like you’re on top of SOMETHING, right? A series of events happened that led me out. But again, it wasn’t a clean break. There was one particularly violent trick, a horrible, horrible sadistic fucker, who hurt me so badly I was on the verge of death.

And I know this next part isn’t going to be popular with some of your readers probably, but at the point of death, was when I heard the voice of God. And the voice said, “This is the last time I save you from yourself.” And I understood then that I had to get out of the life entirely. Not get into a better part of it, not get out of turning tricks but stay in touch with all the people who knew who I was and what I was, but just leave. The whole thing.

The doctor that attended my injuries listened to me—when I begged him not to send me back to the streets where I’d come from. He sent me to a doctor friend of his, states away, another part of the country, where I didn’t know anyone, and it was winter. I stayed in a hospital—couldn’t pay for it—they are probably still looking for me to pay my bills!—and at the end. I couldn’t stay in the hospital any more, so I went to a battered women’s shelter thinking they’d take me in. So I’m in there in winter, with a grocery bag of clothes, wearing a miniskirt, torn stockings, a ripped men’s flannel shirt I had to hold together because the buttons were torn off. They sized me up pretty quick and said they couldn’t take prostitutes because prostitutes never change.

F: Were there other tricks you felt were dangerous?

L: Every damn day there could be a trick with a lethal fantasy. One thing porn
has done is to create a fantasy world of violence and murder, while making it not seem like murder. It’s FANTASY! Exciting, right? Not when it’s real.

I had tricks that made me soak in a tub of ice water and then lie perfectly still on the bed because they had to believe I was a corpse. There were pimps who made girls with their period have sex on white sheets so the blood would show up better, so they could post those pictures in ads to attract the blood fetishists.

I had to learn early on that if you see a knife, you kick, you never lean in to expose your hands or abdomen. You kick the knife away and run. Yes, there are dangerous tricks. Every damn day.

F: You worked different types of flesh trafficking—street prostitution, escort, porn—and you had a pimp. What are the main difficulties you faced trying to leave?

L: The main part is being stripped of your identity. Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg; the pimp takes everything away. When you have a pimp, he’s your keeper. He does everything for you, and he takes everything from you. ID? First thing he takes. Any credit cards, anything that could place you as a person independent of him—anything that gives you a self or any kind of autonomy, he takes.

So you can’t get an apartment. You can’t get a job (other than turning tricks—try to think through the logistics of working a McDonald’s job when you have no place to shower, sleep or eat your own food). Without ID in this world, you can’t get a job, you can’t get an apartment, you can’t get a hotel—you can’t get a room in a crack dive hotel in the city’s worst neighborhood without ID; it’s illegal. So you say, “just get another ID”–and where do I tell them to send it? When I have no address?

For over 20 years I had no ID. No address. I’ve never had my own bank account. Even when I was a high-end call girl, raking in money for him, he managed all of it. HE bought my clothes and my food; HE paid my hair and makeup person; HE took care of legal hassles; HE arranged my entire life. And to me that was normal. I had never lived any other way. My entire adult life belonged to someone else.

The pimp is a relationship of control. It’s Stockholm Syndrome on acid! He instills a belief—so, so deep—that he’s a protector, a good man, on your side—the only thing standing between you and the end of everything. And yes, I had a pimp who shot somebody who was attacking me. But he’d just as soon turn that gun on me if I stepped out of line too far, or once too often. I had no control over what became of my children—I have children who have never met me since birth. Because taking my babies away was one more way he had of controlling me, of showing me he would always remain cold-hearted.

F: You mention that there are about 300 000 boxes for stray dogs in US shelters whereas there are only 300 beds  for trafficking victims. Why do you think that is?  

L: People are aware of stray animals because there is emotion and an idea of innocence attached to them—the animals can’t help it! So we help them. And I don’t object to that, I love animals! But for the majority of the public, when it comes to prostitution, the idea is that it is always a choice. That these women are choosing this life, and acting arrogant and tough because they are so “empowered” by controlling the supply of sex in their world.

Nothing’s farther from the truth. Nothing. They are not controlling the supply. They ARE the supply, and the control is not theirs. There is all this shame attached to it because everyone is taught to assume it is a choice—when that assumption is wrong to begin with! If you can find me a job that pays a trafficking victim as much as a blowjob for the same amount of time (seven minutes), I don’t know one person alive on this earth that wouldn’t take it. I have yet to be offered such employment myself!

F: You started ‘Rockstarr Ministries’ in 2013. It’s an association that helps trafficked/prostituted woman to exit, and you recently opened a refuge. Can you tell us more about the activities of this association ?

L: When I started RockStarr in 2013, I didn’t even know the term “human trafficking.” I’d only been away from my pimp for a year, and all I knew was I had had a really screwed up life and if I could help anybody get out of that life, I wanted to help them.

So we began near Christmas, with an outreach to 15 cities, working through internet social media connections, to give out “goody bags” to girls (and boys, if we found them working too) in cities I knew had a lot of trafficking because I’d worked them myself.

Then I started reaching out to the women and girls we met through the outreach, sometimes taking a big bowl of spaghetti to hotels just so some of them could have a home-cooked meal and know there was a way out, even though I was homeless myself—couch-hopping in friends’ basements—and only one step ahead of them.

This was the start of why I called it “Ministry”—don’t get it twisted, we don’t evangelize at ALL!! We don’t care if you are atheist or religious or whatever. “Ministry” just means to serve, and that’s what I wanted to do. Our safe-house started in April of 2015.

We had a fundraiser for enough to pay deposit and a few month’s rent on a house that had a room for some scrappy “Ministry” operations—that would be me and my cell phone! And some additional bedrooms for human trafficking survivors that want out.

The way we work is to distribute goody bags with a business card with my number, and then I get the calls. We have a donated car and we will come get you if you want to get away from your pimp. And we will give you a soft place to land. It’s not a recovery center or a hospital; we are not equipped for anything long-term; we just have a safe place, plenty of food, and access to emergency care as needed. We have had more than thirty women come through, two with children.

It’s not perfect—we know of at least two of the young women who did return to the life, but the majority have gone on to better things. And considering it takes the average abuse victim—of any kind of long-term relationship abuse, which certainly includes pimps—an average of seven to twelve attempts to leave before they succeed at leaving, those are good numbers. Again, humble numbers—we can’t do it all—but overall good.

F: How do you get in touch with the victims? Do you get attacked by pimps?

L: I do keep one foot in the life, but it’s on the other side of that street! I go to the places where I was trafficked and I pass out cards and sandwiches and bottle water and my phone number. I drop them off at gas stations and liquor stores. I have cops who used to arrest me, passing out my card to victims! We’re just one grain of sand that’s trying to get under the skin of this evil business and irritate enough people to make some pearls out of it! We want to meet you where you are, no judgments, and help you get somewhere else. We love you enough to reach out to the gutter, but too much to leave you there.

And I haven’t been attacked by a pimp—except for my whole life (ha!). It’s a risk I take but it’s not going to stop me from helping the victims get away.

F: In one of your texts, you speak about a ‘bottom bitch’. What is a “bottom bitch” and what is her relationship with the pimp and the other prostitutes ?

L: It’s the woman who is usually chronologically in a pimp’s “stable” the longest. She is usually beaten more and forced to put hotel rooms and property in her name so the pimp can’t be traced to the girls’ activity. She is charged with keeping the money, keeping the girls meeting their quotas, she drives and picks up, etc. When she fails at any of these tasks, she’s abused and humiliated in front of the other girls.

The pimp behaves as if the position of bottom bitch is enviable and prestigious, but it’s really the slave-master’s puppet position. The risks are huge, the rewards are nothing. The pimp wants the other girls to envy her, but it means nothing. We still were all for sale. When I was a bottom bitch I still had to meet my own quota and I had a ton of other pressure on me or else I’d get beat down again.

F: Who are the pimps and how do they get into trafficking women? Do they come from the same background as the prostituted women?

L: Well first, you’re making an assumption that the woman who are trafficked all come from a similar background, and they don’t. I don’t. I was from a middle class family, went to college, was active in athletics in high school. It doesn’t take a background, it takes destitution, and that can happen to anyone. ANYONE. I met many women out there with backgrounds safer and more secure than mine. A bad marriage, a turn of luck—in the U.S., a medical disaster can bankrupt you, put you on the street. Really it can happen to anyone.

I am not an expert on pimps. I only know what I saw in my world, which was generational pimping, like mob families, like on “The Sopranos.” The men know that their sons will follow their example. The sons see their fathers abuse women—their moms, their sisters. They may know about the other women the dad has, and they learn that’s what expected of them, they see it as the way men and women are. They don’t know anything else, so they get caught up, and competitive. It’s best to be the best at something, so that’s what they compete at.

I used to see a lot of young men who would turn up on the street bragging that they were pimps, but who’d believe them? “Pimp” is a term of sick prestige, in America. It’s a word that brings some attention; it’s used as a verb—to make something better or blingy, like “Pimp My Car,” a real title for a TV show. Look at the double standard there—it is still a thing, here, that the words to describe the abuser are prestige words! “He’s a PIMP!” Like he’s all that, or “Yo dawg,” like dogs are better things to be than humans—but the words for the PRODUCT sold by the pimp, those words are so bad you can’t put them in a family newspaper.

F: Who were the johns/tricks/punters (you seem to indicate they were mostly middle/upper class, and white). Were they the lonely men portrayed in the medias ?

L: This is the most neglected aspect of the entire phenomenon of human trafficking, this is the thing that sets me off most. We spend so much energy and time training people—ER room doctors and nurses, travel agents and flight attendants—to recognize VICTIMS. Can I ask why? But better, can I ask Why are we identifying them? Why not identify the DEMAND? Why not identify the ones who are the source of the problem? Cause yeah I can profile them. Yes I can.

Yes they are well-off. Yes they are usually white. Yes they are usually married. They tell you about their wife, sometimes. They tell you about their kids. They send their kids to you: “Here, my kid’s a virgin and he’s eighteen; happy birthday kid!” What kind of a man would do that to his child? When the dad would leave, I’d always ask the boys : ‘if you’re uncomfortable, I get it. I get that your dad wants you to do this, but if you want to just hang out and watch TV, I’ll tell him you were great, you were the shit—I’ll tell him you just torn it up’. Lots of times the kid took me up on it, dad would pay and give me a tip, and I get a wink from the kid. So that lesson, encouragement, that expectation of women as available for pay, and the sense of entitlement to gratification in exchange for money, passed down in families and in the bigger culture—these are the monsters we need to identify. The tricks are the root cause of the whole problem. Without them, everything would go away.

The fact is, many people—including a lot of feminists—who have not really understood what it’s like to be prostituted, have been calling for legalization of what they call “sex work.” They do not know all of what they are talking about. They know just enough about what they are talking about to think they know all of it—they do not know.

Let me tell you, “work” is a word that means something you do that, in an ideal functioning system, is good for three people: it’s good for the customer, who exchanges money for services; it’s good for the provider or employer, who gets a portion of the profits from the transaction, and it’s good for the worker, who is given pay for the transaction or service, for making something or doing something the customer prefers to pay for than do himself. In “sex work,” it’s not like that. Some people may believe that the exchange is demand for services, but there are two big, big problems with this (just to begin, there’s actually more.)

The first problem is that, in the majority of cases, the “worker” is NOT actually “working” but being subjected to violence, for pay. And that pay, all of it, is NOT distributed back to her (or him) but goes to the pimp.

Second problem, especially for people who hate rape culture: rape is defined now as unwanted sex. Any unwanted sex. If I say “no,” if I say “yes yes yes but really no,” and it still happens, that’s rape. EXCEPT if money changes hands. If there’s money, then it’s suddenly not rape? I would beg to differ. A lot. It is rape. Legalized brothels, it was rape. Cameras rolling, it was rape. Nice Italian dinner first, “Pretty Lady” style? It was rape. BECAUSE I DIDN’T WANT TO FUCK YOU. And I got fucked anyway.

Every time you handed me money, you took away my consent. You don’t hand people money if they want you. I didn’t want you. I didn’t want it. The script was for me to take the money and SMILE, so it looked like I wanted the SEX. Because I accepted the money. I’d get beat if I turned you down. I’d get beat if I “ruined your mood.” I was “working” at lying to men so that they could stay horny and not feel any remorse, or guilt, or sense that underneath, I was actually a human being.

This interview first appeared in French in Révolution Féministe. We are grateful to Laurin and Francine for letting us publish the English version. 9 June 2016.

Laurin Crosson