Helping Women Leave the Sex Industry

By Elizabeth Palmberg 7-06-2010

Editor's note: Selling Our Children by Letitia Campbell, in the August issue of Sojourners, talks about the growing problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children -- and the growing movement against it. But there is also a need to help adult women leave the sex industry; earlier this year, Sojourners spoke with Lalla Shackelford of New Friends New Life, a nonprofit which assists women and their children as they forge a new life and deal with the aftermath of working in sexually-oriented businesses.

Sojourners: Could you tell us about the work that you do?

Shackelford: I'm with New Friends New Life in Dallas, Texas, and we help women leave the sex industry. We do that with a two-pronged effort: an intensive case management piece and a weekly support meeting.

In that support meeting, we do some fellowship and some training around life skills, but we also do a Bible study component that is really key to helping women understand that they are loved and valued by God. We look, in God's word, at issues around which women might be believing things about themselves that are not true. For instance, in looking at the creation story, when the Bible talks about "men" in those verses, it's not talking about a male; it's talking about humankind -- which helps the women understand that they were not an afterthought. They were part of the original creation that was celebrated as good.

We look at other verses or stories about women in the Bible, and have our women interact with us about what those stories might mean, and what the history of those women was like. The Rahab story is a beautiful story, where we're talking about a woman who made her living as a prostitute. What did that mean in that time? What did it mean that in that story, there are lots of characters but the only two names we know are Joshua and Rahab? Doesn't that give her some dignity, something special, that we use her name in that story and that she's listed over in the New Testament as a woman of faith? We try to look at things in ways that will challenge women to really think about God's loving care for them.

What effects have this Bible study and other parts of your program helped women to achieve?

Well, that's really the fun part of the job: seeing women change and celebrating their courage. It takes us 18 months to two years to really see a woman turn her life around -- which in some ways is a really short time for the kinds of things they've come from. We see a lot of courage and the women [facing] challenges that are really unique to their situations. Having to deal with the kinds of abuses that precipitated their choice to move into the sex industry -- having to leave a way of life that, although not enjoyable to them, did provide for their needs, did give them some sense of relationship to others. Seeing them make changes, being challenged to learn how to budget their money, how to take care of their kids in new ways.

The basis of that is we see their thinking change; we see their emotions start to heal. And we see them create relationships with the staff members as well as with other women in our support groups on Wednesday night.

Many of these women have kids; could you say a little bit about what it's like for them?

Well, of course most of their jobs in the sex industry were evening or weekend jobs, so the family schedule was very disrupted. A lot of the children didn't know, particularly, what their moms did, but they were exposed to some unsavory characters who were showing up at home or participating in what might be family events. The children experienced a lot of anxiety; they've often moved a lot, they've been in different schools. Even with the preschool children we see they haven't had the basics

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