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New help quitting the oldest profession

Sean Cole Aug 8, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: George Kuykendall lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee and he’s got kind of an unusual job.

GEORGE KUYKENDALL: There are 11 topless clubs. There are three massage parlors. There are 157 ads in the paper for escort services.

Kuykendall runs a group called Citizens for Community Values, the first Christian ministry in the country to work directly with women in the sex industry. Not in their chosen line of work, but by helping them find more mainstream jobs. It’s a story that might not be appropriate for younger listeners. Sean Cole’s in Memphis.

SEAN COLE: I’m in the passenger’s seat of George Kuykendall’s truck, learning a lot about prostitution. For example, and you just don’t think of this, streetwalking is one of those weather-dependant jobs.

KUYKENDALL: The reason you don’t see anybody out here today is because it’s 95 degrees and humidity is probably 95 percent. It’ll be early in the morning or later this evening when it cools down that you’ll see girls out here. And everybody says ‘Well how do you know ’em?’ Carol, tell him how you know ’em.

CAROL WILEY: They don’t carry purses.

Carol Wiley, CCV’s Director of Victim Assistance, is in the back seat. She says pimps don’t allow purses. And that they check in on the women every hour to collect the money.

WILEY: They have quotas that they have to make. We had one girl, she had a little baby boy, and she had to make $1,000 a day or the pimp would take her son away from her and she wouldn’t know where he was ’til she brought him the $1,000.

Citizens for Community Values started as an anti-pornography organization in 1992 and began ministering to strippers three years later. Now it helps all sex workers leave the business. Carol and George get referrals. Sometimes the girls call them directly. And sometimes they drive right up to a hooker on the street and hand her a business card, which is dangerous. Both for them and for her.

WILEY: You can’t talk to em very long. The pimps are watchin’. And they’ll come up and beat ’em up because they don’t have any money for ’em.

Carol and George tend to talk about prostitution and stripping as one and the same. In part they say because lap-dancing is considered prostitution in Tennessee. And strip clubs in Memphis tend to blur the line between the two.

KUYKENDALL: OK this club right here — there’s Internet sites that rate topless clubs — this is one of the top five in the nation for getting what you want out of.

In fact, a consultant group hired by the city said there was more physical contact in Memphis clubs than usual, that Memphis was the wildest out of the dozen cities it’s seen. I thought ‘How bad could it be?’ But then I went to one of the clubs and saw things I could never talk about on the radio.

Hundreds of dollars literally rained down on the stage. Part of joining CCV’s program, which is called “A Way Out,” is learning how to earn a lot less. The women get group therapy and drug counseling but they also get job and financial counseling. And learn how to budget. Also, Carol encourages them to go to church, but she doesn’t force them she says.

WILEY: And my faith-based motivation for this is that I believe with my whole heart that every human being was created with a dignity that nobody has a right to touch. Not even themselves. And so we come in and say ‘you don’t have to go out here and make $1,000 a day and not have a dime to your name. It would be better working for minimum wage wouldn’t it and having a little money in your pocket when you get right down to it’ and see they don’t see that.

A couple of days later Carol takes me to a house that CCV helped set up for one of the women. Her name’s Melinda.

WILEY: Melinda everything is looking great.

MELINDA: Yeah we had family dinner today. So. But we cleaned it up.

Two toddlers play on the floor, ignoring the TV which is at full volume. Melinda’s 14-year-old is in the next room, which is probably why she speaks so softly when telling me about her former life as a stripper. She said she stripped for 10 years starting when she was 18. She was known as a moneymaker, but most of her money went to cocaine. And when she got older, the clubs didn’t want her anymore.

MELINDA: If you haven’t turned a trick you will eventually. I did not turn tricks while I stripped. After I hit 27 I did. I started working for massage parlors then I went on to escort services. It just leads to that. You get older, what else are you . . .you think that that was the only thing that you can do.

Of course it wasn’t the only thing Melinda could do. These days, she’s working as a secretary and going to college. She works 30 hours a week, makes $10 an hour. She gets assistance from the state and a little from CCV still, but she lives hand-to-mouth, making less in two weeks than she used to make in one night.

MELINDA: I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s real easy to get a check every two weeks and it’s $500. But I’ve been over here in this lifestyle for three years. And I can’t tell you one day that I’ve been treated like trash or I have been looked down upon or I have been told ‘scuse my French “Bitch go get my money.” I don’t have to go through that anymore.

Again, Carol Wiley.

WILEY: And actually in this particular arena. Recovery is recovery to life. You know? I mean from survival to life. And there’s a lot of life skills that they don’t have.

It’s recovery to the banalities of life in a way. Commuting to work. Paying bills. It’s hard to fathom, but for a lot of these women those are brand new experiences, which makes them pretty exciting.

In Memphis, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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