Profiles In Desperation

The average age for entering prostitution is 13 or 14, Stark says. It’s easy for those girls, running away from home, to turn to truck stops as a source of money and transportation, experts say.

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Who are the women willing to rent their bodies to strangers driving big rigs? Truckers call them lot lizards, commercial company and other slang terms. They range from teenage runaways to aging, battered spouses. Some work with pimps; some operate solo. Most solicit on the CB or knock on truckers’ cabs; others travel in a truck for a while in exchange for sex. Many turn tricks part time; for others, it’s virtually a full-time job. Many want money to buy drugs and show a frightening lack of concern about sexually transmitted diseases.

But one thing common to most of them, say those who have worked with prostitutes, is that they have tragic backgrounds of abuse.

Truck stop chaplain Jay Lerette says most truck stop prostitutes he’s talked to were “molested by their fathers or someone they trusted at a young age. From that point, they came to think that somehow in life that’s how they’d be accepted.”

Largely because of abuse, “Eighty to 90 percent of the women in prostitution have been homeless or are currently homeless,” says Chris Stark, director of the Prostitution Prevention Project in Minneapolis. “It’s not uncommon to find women who have an eighth grade education. It’s definitely an issue of class and race. You’re going to find a lot of women who don’t have basic living skills. Some of that includes a real lack of knowledge about one’s own body.”

A 29-year-old woman in a West Memphis, Ark., truck stop, who declined to identify herself, says physical abuse led her to leave her husband after seven years of marriage. Lacking self-esteem and desperate for money, she says, she turned to drugs and truck stop prostitution last year.

“Sometimes I’d get, like, $100,” she said. “Sometimes I’d get, like, $20. It really depended on how drunk I was.”

A 39-year-old woman in Birmingham, Ala., wearing jeans and a brightly colored T-shirt that says “Christ is Alive,” says she works as a prostitute for one reason: “I got a drug habit.” To pay for her crack cocaine and to help support two grown daughters, she gets $25 a trick, giving $5 to the man who helps her get “dates,” says the woman.

She says her name is Janice, and her CB handle is Luscious, which she uses when she or a pimp solicits on the CB, drawing customers from a truck stop to a nearby parking lot where other prostitutes and pimps service the truckers. The woman says she’s been working there for three years, five nights a week, but hopes to quit. “One day I want to get a job,” she says.

Sharon Mitchell, the nurse at a truck stop clinic in South Jessup, Md., says many prostitutes with a sexually transmitted disease have come to see her over the eight years she’s worked there. “The girls can range from very young to very old, but most of them are turning tricks to pay for a drug habit,” she says. “An STD is a very low priority, and they are usually not humiliated in the least when I tell them what they have contracted and transmitted.”

It’s not unusual for women even in their 50s to try prostitution out of financial need. The problem is especially bad in rural areas when the economy falters and a woman loses her job but lacks the transportation or job skills needed to rebound. “Those women end up going down to the truck stop in order to make their bills,” Stark says.

The average age for entering prostitution is 13 or 14, Stark says. It’s easy for those girls, running away from home, to turn to truck stops as a source of money and transportation, experts say.

Stark herself was a runaway, at 19, following years of sexual abuse. By the time she was 5 or 6, she was prostituted to truckers who had made arrangements with her grandfather, a part-time trucker, she says. They would meet at farms, motels or truck stops in rural Minnesota.

“To this day, I have a hard time being around the smell of gasoline and grease,” Stark says. “It really does bring me back.”

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