Every woman's story is different, but a common thread runs through those working in the sex industry - abuse. Whether it be sexual, physical, emotional or domestic we did not encounter a girl who's story didn't include it.

"Growing up I had been molested, sexually molested," Kasi said, expressionless.

Kasi said the abuse started when she was about 8 years old. It happened repeatedly by a group of boys older than her and lasted for over a year.

"I never got to lose my virginity," Kasi explained. "I was doing what I was told. I was being one of the "cool kids" and was getting to hang out with older guys."

She grew up faster than a pre-teen should.

"I was always scared. I always knew someone was watching over me," she said. "I just started rebelling. I started having sex when I was 12 or 13 years old."

When asked about how those experiences shaped her feelings about intimacy and sex, her face showed no emotion.

"You're supposed to have meaning behind sex," Kasi said. "You're not supposed to be numb about it."

Nikki, also being held in the New Hanover County Detention Center, had a childhood shadowed by addiction. She went to thirteen different schools by the time she was thirteen years old.

Nikki didn't share many details of her home life, but noted that both her mom and dad had heroin addiction issues. She also mentioned her dad was rumored to be a career criminal who had girls of his own working in the sex industry.

With her parents occupied in their own issues, Nikki was left to her own devices.

"I pretty much went from a strict household where I couldn't do anything to being able to do whatever I wanted," Nikki remembered. "My mom was never around."

Nikki recalled trading sex for drugs when she was 15 or 16 years old.

"Just regular working, middle-class guys with money. All different types of guys," Nikki said.

She's been in the industry for years now, citing low self-esteem for keeping her in it. Nikki still feels like this is the only thing she's "good at."

"Right now I don't want to quit doing what I'm doing, but I'm going to have to quit soon," she said.

Patty quit the streets in 2004 thanks to the "Streetwalker Program" in New Hanover County, which no longer exists.

She came from a middle-class family where her dad was a lawyer and her mom was a paralegal. Her parents were involved in her life, sending them to private schools and taking regular vacations.

"I remember I was molested when I was 8 years old by a neighborhood boy," Patty said. "I never talked to my parents about it."

Later in life Patty became involved with a man with a drug problem. He suggested she have sex with their drug dealer to help fund their joint habit. So began her career as a prostitute.

On the other end of the spectrum is Taylor.

"My mom would drink. She was around, but she always had a lot of boyfriends. So, she would be gone a lot and my dad wasn't in my life," Taylor said.
"You're supposed to be there for your kids and stuff, and I shouldn't have been the one having to raise other kids in our house."

Taylor began to journal about her childhood to help put the pieces back together that she had tried to forget. She remembers the night she slept over a friend's house and awoke to the father beginning to rape her.

She was only 14 years old.

After that, Taylor began trading her body for money. She picked up tips from friends and was surprised to see just how "easy" it was.

The stories of these women are not unique in the sex industry, which calls into question the misconception that prostitutes "love" having sex or pragmatically enter prostitution as a career path.

"These girls don't just grow up as little girls saying, 'Well, I just can't wait to be a prostitute,'" pointed out Louise Coggins, a licensed clinical social worker at Trinity Wellness Center.

Attorney and former assistant district attorney Lindsey Roberson believes prostitution is the manifestation of desperation and exploitation. She says the better question to ask is, 'What started it?'" In most cases the women are unlikely to offer up the answer.

"You'll never know what you'll do until you get into a situation where you have no other choice but to take care of yourself," said Tonya, who was arrested for prostitution. " I had to do something fast, you know what I'm saying? It wasn't like I wanted to. I kinda had to. To try to get my life together."

Tonya has a full-time job.

More of her story unfolded over time, including a history of domestic abuse and a hasty "get out" plan that left her with little financial means.

A friend of hers prostituted on Backpage and showed Tonya the ropes. Listening to her talk about the last few years, it was obvious there was nothing about The Life that Tonya ever enjoyed.

"I basically kind of blank it out," Tonya shared. "Just close my eyes and wait for it to be over. I take showers after every client and scrub my body. I feel horrible after, I have to be honest."

"How does your brain go to that place?" Roberson questioned. "I'm going to sell myself so I can feed my family so that I can make ends meet."

"We are all one crisis away from falling down into the ravine, but when you are talking about people with no support structure, no education, [and] physical abuse in their history, they're not just one crisis away from falling into the ravine, right? They're one day away," Roberson warned.

How you perceive the issue of prostitution largely depends on how you look at it. If you just see the woman walking the streets, Roberson says you are missing the picture. Peel back the layers and you begin to see just how complex and confusing the crime is.

"The job is on society and law enforcement and prosecutors. It's on first responders. It's on teachers in school. It's on school nurses to learn what signs to pick up on," Roberson advised. "[It's] not just on addiction and the back-end of Market Street like we're talking about. [It's] way earlier, when that first episode of abuse or sexual exploitation takes place. To recognize it then, to intervene then, that's when we will really see a change in The Life or a fork in the road, so they don't end up being that disassociated jaded person on Market Street."

"I think it's the 'Bible Belt' and it just gets ignored because 'out of sight, out of mind,'" explained Shelly Martinez, owner of Ace Bail Bonding and board member of the Lower Cape Fear Bail Bonding Association. "Its not my problem until it's your kid, your parent, your sister does it."

Martinez has bailed out more prostitutes than she can recall. She's gotten to know several of them and has noticed a deep sense of shame in all. So deep, the woman see little purpose in trying to be anything other than what they've become.

"We're all little girls," Patty smiled. "We're all hurt inside and that little girl needs to be loved. It all goes back to dealing with the issues that got us to where we are, to put us in prostitution."

"I think people need to realize that too, we are human," Nikki said. "Most of the time drugs and alcohol are a big factor."

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