Financing an addiction: Prostitution has its own cost

HOOKED: Kirstin shot up heroin to get through her first trick

June 23, 2010 

Kristin Alexander looked great one morning in April when we met for coffee at our usual spot. Her eyes seemed clearer every time I saw her after she got out of jail, but that day she had on makeup and a new outfit. I noticed she had a new designer purse.

She bought it at resale store in Spenard, she said. She'd gained a lot of weight in jail and her clothes didn't fit. Shopping helped take her mind off shooting up, she told me. She laughed. I laughed. But an uneasy feeling settled in my gut. Kristin didn't have a job.

I asked her where her money was coming from.

Friends, she said.

What kind of friends? I asked.

Just friends, she said.

Damito Owen, a therapist who contracts with the Mary Magdalene Home, a social service agency that helps women get out of prostitution, told me that sex workers with addictions in Anchorage sometimes sold themselves to make ends meet while they waited for treatment. Some did it to pay for treatment. Prostitution often pays more than other work they're qualified for, she told me. It can seem like easy money, because they're used to ignoring the spiritual toll.

I asked Kristin if guys were giving her money. She teared up. She wasn't sleeping with them, she said. She couldn't when she wasn't getting high. They said they wanted to help her, she told me. I looked at her across the table. I wondered if she was telling me the truth.

Wouldn't they eventually expect something from her? I asked. Could one of them get mad and hurt her?

"They might, but I'll just have to deal with it when it comes," she said.

She hoped she made it into treatment first.

I asked when she started prostituting. She said it began before she ever took money for sex. It started when she dated a drug dealer she didn't really like. He bought her clothes. He took her out. They had sex. He gave her drugs.

Addiction changes all your relationships, she told me. Soon the real you gets lost in the person you pretend to be to get money to get high -- the concerned daughter, the down-on-her-luck friend, the flirtatious escort. First, you're an emotional prostitute. Then, in time, you're a physical one.

The first time Kristin took cash for sex with a stranger she was terrified, she said. A friend who had been prostituting for a long time set it up. The friend was trying to get clean and was getting out of the life. She thought she was doing Kristin a favor by giving her clients. The john worked on the North Slope. Kristin shot up in the parking lot of the Dimond Center Hotel beforehand. Getting high took her outside of herself, split her mind from her body, she said. She went inside, rode the elevator up and knocked on the door.

I asked what kind of guys hired her. Sweet ones. Desperate ones. Cruel ones, she said. She never really understood how much need there was in the world before men started paying her for sex. Even the mean ones needed to feel like they had power over someone. Some just didn't want to be alone.

"The first thing I'd do is make an assessment of the situation and try to figure out what they wanted from me," she said.

And then she delivered. She learned to become an object, she said. To make herself alluring on the outside and dead on the inside.

Sometimes men hurt her. Sometimes they disgusted her. Sometimes she became familiar with them. Friends in a way. There were proposals and invitations to move in. But there were no "Pretty Woman" plots, no romance. No equality. Only the interplay of manipulation and need.

At first, prostitution was just something Kristin did, but at some point it became her, she said. A hooker. A whore. She couldn't shake the damaged feeling even when she was clean. A few days before our meeting, she walked home from the Barnes and Noble along Northern Lights, she said. A car slowed down. The guy inside asked if she needed a ride. It was like he could just look at her and tell.

About then, Kristin got distracted looking at someone behind me.

"I used to spend time with the gentleman by the door," she said.

I waited and then looked at him. He had gray hair and a black zip-up fleece. He looked at ease, affluent. He wore a wedding ring. I watched him sip his coffee.

Kristin's addiction did a lot of damage, but prostitution left her scarred on a deep level, complicating everything by making her feel worthless.

She could stop using, she could go to treatment, she could eventually see the world clearly. But prostitution hurt her ability to be honest and to believe that someone could love her without conditions. I asked her if she thought she could have a regular relationship. She said she didn't know. Then she started to cry.

A few days later, Marc Lester, a Daily News photographer, and I met her at her apartment. She was going to see Owen at the Mary Magdalene Home. Mary Magdalene reached out to her when she was in jail, and Kristin remembered them. She only had a short time left in her apartment. She still didn't have a plan for what to do next. She wanted help.

We walked a few blocks to the office, where we followed her and Owen into a small room with a couch and folding chairs. They talked treatment. Owen suggested she try to get into a program for women with children. Studies show women do better in treatment when they can continue their relationships with their kids.

And, for a woman who had been a prostitute, a single-sex program seemed like a good idea. But that would require another assessment. An earlier assessment had recommended two facilities, Akeela House and Nugen's Ranch in Wasilla -- both co-ed, and neither allowed children. Kristin said she didn't have the money. Owen asked how Kristin was buying food and cigarettes and the Kaladi Brothers coffee she carried to the appointment. Kristin told her she relied on guys to give her money.

"Even though you're not having sex," Owen said, "it's still prostitution."

Kristin didn't agree. Where, she asked, do you draw the line? Even if you're a waitress, you have to smile and be nice when you don't want to because you want a tip.

Kristin could live in transitional housing, Owen said, but she would have to make her own money. Kristin had taken classes to become a highway flagger. She knew how to make espresso. Those were honest jobs, Owen said

But, Kristin wanted to know, what would she tell her boss? That she might have to quit at any time because she was waiting to get into treatment? Owen didn't have an answer.

"Everything costs something," Owen told her. "You're gonna wake up one day and feel it."

On the walk home, I asked Kristin what she thought about living in transitional housing. She lit one of her long, thin cigarettes. She said she'd rather live in a youth hostel. Or with her mother.

Did she think what she was doing was prostitution?

No, she said. She just needed to get by. For now. Until her name came up on one of those treatment lists.


Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

Should we offer drug treatment to prostitutes? Should penalties for both prostitutes and men who pay for sex be higher? Join the discussion on Julia's blog adn.com/jomalley