Alison Chopel of CAHC describes her experience working with nonprofit program, Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (MISSSEY).
Last month I was grateful to celebrate with MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), their Interim Executive Director Dr. Aisha Mays, their Senior Advisor Holly Joshi, their staff and some of their clients, not once but twice! First, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of this amazing and unique organization. And what a wonderful time to celebrate, as they’ve recently moved into a lovely Victorian home right next to Oakland’s homeless youth shelter aptly named the Dream Catcher, and at the same time realized a long-time dream of opening an on-site health clinic, also perfectly named the Dream Clinic, a satellite of Roots Oakland. As I plot along with MISSSEY’s leadership to continue our work in partnership, I am so encouraged by their ballooning prevention work. The next celebration was of the beautiful images and narratives created by MISSSEY clients as part of the Photovoice project that CAHC supported and Stephannie Ratcliff led, along with her fabulous mentors Dr. Mays and Dr. Coco Auerswald, entitled Showing Love through the Looking Glass.
And then, as so often happens when working in adolescent health, I think back to my own adolescence and how much I and my peers could have used such programming. Back then I wrote to stay sane and to stay connected to and aware of what was happening in my life. After these celebrations, I went back to those excerpts, thinking that I was exactly the profile of “at-risk youth” that MISSSEY is speaking to when they do their prevention work. While I am a survivor of many traumas, fortunately I am not a survivor of commercial sex trafficking. But as I read back to my adventures and misadventures in youth, it becomes painfully clear how close I was to becoming a victim. Here is a snippet from my journal- at the time a 15-year-old me was hitchhiking to California with two acquaintances because all my homeless crew had been arrested.
On our first morning in Elko, Nevada (after a weird night), we had two major arguments. Ken thought we needed the money that Dahlia could get from sleeping with a hick. I thought we didn't need to let her degrade herself, or if she was gonna do it, it shouldn't be with that guy. He was offering twenty dollars. Twenty fucking dollars! (SHE WASN’T EVEN A PROSTITUTE.) A businessman had offered her four hundred just earlier that morning in the laundromat. In the end, Dahlia listened to Ken, presumably because of her attachment to him. Inside I was furious that she would do this for the guy who couldn’t even decide whether she was just his fuck-buddy or his steady girl. It nauseated me to see her tricked by the patriarchy into being a commodity. It didn’t even occur to Ken or I in the middle of our boiling argument how fucked up it was that we were arguing about what SHE would do, as if we had control over her. I knew that he thought he did, and I felt it my duty as a fellow woman to speak up for what I assumed would be better for her dignity and her body.
So, contrary to pattern, when Ken and I left the room together to give Dahlia and her John time to do business, we got along at first. We had to stick together because whenever I went somewhere alone in that town I was mistaken for a prostitute (but I was actually a virgin). True to our history, we began arguing again. I thought we should take off when she was done, we were only ten miles from Reno, and we’d only ever agreed on one thing, which was that I would travel with LaRoux and Jack the rest of the way once we met up with them in Reno. Neither of us could wait to be separated. Of course, he got his way; we stayed yet another night, and blew most of Dahlia’s hard earned twenty.
The next morning we got off to an early start, at hitching and at sparring. He thought we should wait on the on-ramp, and I knew we should wait a few yards down the line. He was stupid as well as boorish. He figured if we waited at the on-ramp then more cars would pass by and consider giving us a ride. I was sure our chances would be greater if we were a ways up the highway, because both the cars coming off the on-ramp onto the road and the ones already on the interstate would come by. Sure enough, when we did it my way, a truck stopped. As they got on, he informed me that I wasn’t to climb up. I ignored him and started walking towards the truck when he said that if I got on they wouldn’t. What was I supposed to do? He wouldn’t even tell me where we were meant to meet Jack and LaRoux, or where the Rainbow Gathering was. So I was stranded. He told me to head to the town's pigpen where I'd get a free bus ticket home. I was stunned- as much as we argued, he never hinted that he was planning to leave me on my own. And in 10 short miles, we’d find Jack and LaRoux and he would’ve been rid of me for good. I guess he was just so mad that I was obviously right he could no longer take the threat to his, what, masculinity? He wore a skirt to front a surpassing comfort with his feminine side, but then a younger girl being right was just too much.
I went and sat under the overpass, low on the slanted concrete slab, listening to cars speed over my head. When Ken had informed me that he was now ditching me in the middle of Nevada, he spat out this disclaimer: “…and remember, it’s not my fault if someone rapes you.” Said the asshole. I waited in the shade among cement pillars for a brilliant idea to bless me and save me from this situation gone bad. Instead of the idea came a sweaty old truck with a sweaty chubby man and a sweaty wrinkly woman. I told him I was just resting and that I was on my way to the police station (a place I despised in any town), because I had been told that they were obligated to buy a bus ticket for anyone that was stuck in their state, as I now was. I had not volunteered all this information, but he had grilled me and I felt having the cop shop for my destination lent me some safety. Fuming and tearing over being ditched off in a desert, I took that chance when this persistent man asked me if I wanted a ride to the pig-pen. He insisted upon waiting for me to see if they helped me out. When they sent me elsewhere, he offered me a ride to K.A.R.E., where they might be able to lend a Karing hand. Instead of any real help, they gave me a bag of stale glazed doughnuts and a half pint of warm orange Koolaid. So, it was the sweaty truck or back to the guy at the hotel. The guy at the hotel had told me the only reason he’d offered to let us sleep in his warm room was because he thought he’d get laid, since I didn’t have a boyfriend with me. When I refused he got very angry, and slammed his Burger King dinner into the trashcan. Then he offered to pay me, “…after all, prostitution is legal in Elko.” Said the asshole. No, I concluded, I don’t think I’ll go back there alone.
My reality was so different, because of the time, the geography, from that of MISSSEY’s clients, but at the same time it is too similar to what many of them experience. When re-reading this I am ashamed of the shame that I imbued the word PROSTITUTE with, but I am also so encouraged that it is now much more well-known that CHILDREN CANNOT BE PROSTITUTES. I support MISSSEY both for those youth who, like me, are so close but can avoid becoming commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), and for those who do get exploited but are so much more than their trauma, as was demonstrated by the beautiful art and powerful words that touched me at the December exhibit opening of Showing Love Through the Looking Glass. If you get a chance, please go to Athen B Gallery to see the exhibit- you will be inspired and awed!