I NEVER THOUGHT I would be sitting at a table full of women comparing their daily quotas of paid sex. Linda, a former top madam in Australia, who once grossed $30,000 per week, remarked that in her days on the street the "girls" serviced around five clients a day; now they have to accommodate ten to fifteen. Juanita, from Costa Rica, looked shocked. "Fifteen? I did a hundred a day, on a double shift! The men lined up outside the door and we had only ten minutes with each one."
I was attending a conference of 45 Christian groups involved in ministry to women in prostitution, with 30 countries represented. Ostensibly, I was interviewing the ministry leaders, but they mostly stayed silent. Instead, former prostitutes themselves told heart-breaking stories of degradation and transformation.
Juanita, for example, was sold into sexual slavery by her own mother at the age of four. While other children went to school, she worked in a brothel, earning for her mother the higher rates paid for young girls. Eventually she had two children of her own, whom her mother took from her. With no education and no other skills, she continued working in the brothel, in the process becoming addicted to alcohol and cocaine.
One day a customer grew enraged when she wouldn't do what he asked, and hit her on the head with a baseball bat. She lay in a hospital bed, desperate. "I got on my knees and pled with God. I wanted somehow to escape prostitution, to become a real mother to my children. And God gave me a vision. He said, 'Look for Rahab Foundation.' I didn't even know the word Rahab." She found the organization's phone number, though, and a few days later Juanita showed up, bruised and bandaged, at Rahab's door.
"I need help," she said, sobbing. "I'm dying. I can't take it anymore." A kindly woman named Mariliana took her in and told her about God's love. "I couldn't believe the hope on Mariliana's face," Juanita recalled. "She smiled and hugged me. She gave me a clean bed, flowers in the room, and a promise that no men would harass me. She taught me how to be a real mother, and now I am studying a trade to live for the glory of God."
Of the estimated 25 million women who work in prostitution worldwide, the vast majority, like Juanita, come from developing countries. Some are bought by traffickers in places like India, Thailand, the Philippines, and the former Soviet Union, and installed as virtual slaves in strip clubs and brothels in Asia and in Western Europe. The United Nations estimates that 4 million women are trafficked worldwide each year, more than a million of them younger than 18.
Sandra, from Australia, told a story more typical of wealthy countries. "I knew I was beautiful because in school guys always wanted to sleep with me. So why not charge for it? I signed on with a pimp, and for six months it was great. He put me in a nice hotel, and I had more money than I could imagine.
"But then I got addicted to drugs and alcohol. I cannot tell you how unutterably lonely I began to feel. I sat on my bed and watched Tv all day until the men came in at night. I had no friends, no family. I lived with a deep sense of shame. For a solid year I never got out of bed, I was so depressed."
Sandra found her way to Linda's House of Hope, a Christian organization run by the former top madam. "I'm still struggling, after six months off the streets. I got addicted to the power and money, as well as the drugs. Yet I know what God wants for me. I need to be healed."
A tiny woman from Thailand, where a sex trade flourishes infamously, spoke next. "I know. I was such a sex addict that-I am so ashamed-I tried to rape my own sons." She paused to catch her voice. "It isn't easy to be healed."
No, not easy, but possible. In the next few days I heard remarkable stories of healing and transformation. The very names of the ministries hold out a promise of hope: New Life Center, Scarlet Cord, Project Rescue, Lost Coin, Hagar's Project. I asked the group how many prostitutes would honestly like to get out of the business. "All of them," they replied.
"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you," Jesus announced to the religious authorities of his day. After puzzling over that provocative statement, C. S. Lewis concluded, "Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: The proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger." After hearing stories from women who have come out of prostitution, I had to agree.