Audrey Porter is the assistant director and coordinator for My Life, My Choice. Now in her forties, she was a teenager when she was steered into prostitution in Boston, and stayed there for a while because of a drug habit developed on the job. As part of Phillip Martin's investigation into Sexual and Human Trafficking, Audrey Porter talks about the work of her organization and her own history.
Q: Describe the organization briefly.
A: The mother organization is a JRI, a Justice Research Institute, and that’s where we house, My Life, My Choice. It’s run by Lisa Goldblatt Grace, who is the director and founder, and myself, as assistant director and coordinator of Survivor Services. In order to get funding, to stand alone just as My Life, My Choice would have been difficult. That’s why we’re housed in a reputable, big organization.
Q: And you work with young women under eighteen. Tell us about the women you work with.
A: I’ll start by saying that most of them have been dealt not such a good hand. Most of them are in group homes. One of the things that I find with all of them is their mother is not in their life. For whatever reason. It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of addiction, that’s part of it, sometimes it could be mental illness. They were young parents who gave the kids up. It’s various reasons. Mom doesn’t want to be a mom or they just don’t get along. But that is a piece that they all have in common. It could be death. The bottom line is there is no strong mother figure in their lives. That’s what I’ve noticed most about them. And they’re all in DCF [Department of Children and Family] custody, in group homes, juvenile detention centers, foster homes and that sort of thing. So I work with very vulnerable young girls who, as I said, have been dealt a really bad hand.
Q: You’ve spoken all over the country. Let’s concentrate on Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Have you found with any of the young women or even young men that you’ve spoken with that any of them have been “trafficked.”
A: Here in Massachusetts if a pimp is pimping a young girl under eighteen, you no longer have to take her across state lines. Here in Massachusetts, you are charged with trafficking. But to give you a better example, I’ve had girls that have been moved from New York City, Connecticut, Atlantic City, Las Vegas. Definitely if you’re thinking in terms of being moved around from state to state, it’s like the same route that drugs are traveled, up and down 95. A lot of times I meet girls from Maine, who are brought from Maine and then they’ll come in to Boston and then go to New York, Atlanta, Florida, Las Vegas. I know girls who have been anywhere that there’s a major event, Superbowls, any big event, any worldwide events, where pimps know there will be money. New Orleans, Mardi Gras. These children have been to these different places.
Q: People in this industry seem to be getting a lot smarter, the pimps and the traffickers. One thing they’ve started doing is placing girls in nail salons. That doesn’t surprise you though. Why?
A: It doesn't surprise me. I don’t have experience with that, but I’m clearly not surprised- things are sophisticated. Most people would say, “Oh we don’t have a problem with underage girls on the street” because they don’t see them on the street. It’s not the way it used to be. Everyone has a cover. That is how they’re setting up. One of the things we already know is Craig's List. Everybody knows about Craig’s List. In this business you have to get smarter. They know everyone knows about Craig’s List so they have to come up with different ways for these girls to make money. And I could definitely see a nail salon with underage girls, pretty girls, I do know that some of them have back rooms for massages. I can see that happening. I am not surprised. I think the more sophisticated we become, they always try to step ahead of us. As soon as we’ve thought we’ve caught up and found the answer and the source and how these things are happening, they come up with something different.
Q: You said it’s an easy way to bring girls in.
A: I can see girls who are not U.S. citizens coming in, and we’re all used to nail salons being full of Asians. As Americans we don’t question that. We know that they’ve cornered the nail salon market. As Americans, we’ve accepted that. We feel like that’s they’re business. They're spread out worldwide because any state you go to Asians have cornered the nail salon market. So, I’m not going to think it’s unusual to see a bunch of pretty little young girls in the nail salon. I’m not going to, as a detective, go in there saying, “Let’s card these girls. Let’s make sure they’re U.S. citizens,” because it all fits. Who do they employ? Asians. I have yet to go in to an Asian-owned nail salon and seen an American working there. I’ve seen Asian girls who were born here, but I’ve never gone in one and seen an African-American or a Hispanic woman working there. It’s an excellent cover.
They’ve always had their brothels and they’ve always kept it separate. When I was on the street, you would not see not one Asian girl. They were always housed. They were always somewhere undercover. I remember being in a combat zone and you would go in to an apartment building down into a basement where complete casinos were set up, ideal place for their girls. So they’ve always kept their prostitution rings separate from us. So I see that could be an excellent cover. I’m not going to question a 15-year-old girl in the summertime doing nails and feet. And she could be trafficked and I’m not going to question that because I see nothing wrong with that. I could see that going over someone’s head. Myself being someone who did come from the street, always had to come up with a plan, a different hustle, a slicker way to do things, I could see this happening.
Q: Where did you grow up? And how did you end up, as they say, “on the street?”
A: I grew up in Dorchester. Hard-working family. My parents owned a big, beautiful home. And I just- I took a lot of abuse. I dealt with racism within my own community and I lived in a black community. But at the same time my experience was being a lighter-skinned black child. Being called things like “white girl,” “puss color.” The other children I know, today, were jealous because we did have that big home. I came from a middle-class black family. What happened was my self-esteem was torn down so low. I wanted to be real black and have real nappy hair. Early on, from the other kids, I was told that I wasn’t okay that it was not alright to look like me. And so I basically, for myself, I went on a mission to prove that I was black and that I belonged in that community. Because I went on that mission I came in contact with the wrong people because the kids that harassed me really came from the other side. They struggled, they were on welfare. So I began to hang out with them. It was them that I needed to prove something to.
So I got mixed up with people that, had I had some self-esteem, I would not have been around. It was just an innocent thing. My first experience was my daughter’s father. I had a baby, I got pregnant at fifteen, was a mother at sixteen. He started wanting half of my welfare check, then I was going in stores stealing for him, then the talk of dancing and strip clubs. He had a cousin that was a pimp. I remember my first experience standing on a corner, still didn’t know what I was doing. The car that pulled over was a police officer who pulled out his badge and told me that I had to give him a blowjob or he would arrest me. That was my introduction, and at that time it dawned on me that, “Oh my God, I don’t want to do this.” We see our children and people will say, “Oh, they know what they’re doing.” I was clueless until I was in that car with that strange man, and when he said that to me all I could do was cry like a baby. He did end up letting me go without doing anything. I guess I cried so much he said, “Whatever.” That was just the gateway to me. It just opened the door for me.
I was in love, it was my daughter’s father, at that time I was going to do anything to be with him. The love I had for him was real. To this day I have to say that it was real. It was that teenaged first love. What he wanted me to do or asked me to do or suggested, I did it, and I found myself trapped in a combat zone for about 15 years. I worked every strip club. I got smart dealing with him, that kind of ran short. Then, I was so embarrassed of what I had become I ended up doing all the strip clubs. I became addicted to all substances just to cope.
I need to clear this up too, when I went into the life I had experimented with drugs like most kids, but I did not go in with a habit. The dependency came after being in the life. I know now that it was a means to cope, and if it were not for the drugs I probably would have lost my mind. I was underage in the strip clubs. Nobody asked for an ID. Once in a while the vice [police unit] might come in and do a little raid and ask girls for their IDs, but if we were inside and we didn’t have an ID they just might say something like “Get out and if you come back here I’m gonna lock you up!” It wasn’t “This could possibly be someone’s child. She can’t prove her age.” That’s just how it was.
I’ve had the experience of sawed-off shotguns to my head. Knives to my throat. Rapes. Cars trying to run me over. It was just very, very ugly. It was a nightmare for me. So I stayed there. Down the line I met another guy. At the time I was 20 I met a guy that was 36. He told me he was not a pimp, he was a “player.” Older guy, hustler. Hooked up with him. Took care of him. He said he wasn't a pimp, he was a player. To me, anybody’s a pimp who would have someone they would call “their woman-"" If he really cared, he could have said, “You don’t have to do this.” He was down for the cause just like anybody else was. So it was beneficial to him also.
Q: When you were down in the combat zone, which some people might not be familiar with today, you were adjacent to Chinatown. Did you have any interaction with Chinese or Vietnamese people?
A: Absolutely. You were in Chinatown. It was actually a smaller Chinatown at that time. The combat zone was where all the strip clubs were. That’s where all the girls and women worked the street. You were surrounded by Chinatown. They came in the clubs. They were johns just like anyone else. Very cheap, I’ll say that. I had a few regulars that were my own personal regulars that were Asian. I was in the combat zone, I was supposed to know everything that was going on, but again going a few times with Asian men, I found myself in underground casinos right in Chinatown. They always had undercover stuff going on. I’m sure anywhere there’s gambling there’s prostitution. So that’s how I ended up in a lot of their underground spots because they were paying me to go out with them.
Q: Did you ever meet Asian prostitutes in any of these?
A: Oh no. Oh no, no, no. Absolutely separate. I don’t even know what pimps would do if they had Asian girls back then. If an Asian girl was on a street corner, if the Asians walked by and seen it, they would beat the crap out of her and throw her in the car. They did not play that. I guess the message was clear across the board that they were not allowed to be out there. Even in the strip clubs, I probably seen maybe one or two. We know that they have their brothels and their women, but even back then as Americans we didn’t know where they kept them. They were somewhere. They were somewhere.
Q: In terms of the young ladies that you talk to, do you have the occasion of talking to Asian women.
A: No, no. I just met a young girl that is Asian. I heard bits and pieces of her story. I just met her. I don’t work with her one-on-one, but right now I don’t have an Asian girl on my caseload.
Q: Is she Asian-American?
A: No, she’s not. She's from Taiwan.
Q: I mentioned that in San Francisco you have something very unusual going on according to the Sergeant with the Sex Crimes Unit. What is unusual he says is the notion of stabling African-American and Latina women together. Have you ever heard of such a thing?
A: No, I haven’t, but back when I was out there remember, they were from the old country. Now you have a whole generation of American-born Asians that were brought up here, go by the same rules, break the same laws that we do, and I have been told that young girls, American and Spanish-speaking, have been put in Asian brothels. What I’m told is these girls who were born here, US citizens that are put in these brothels, out of state or what have you, for them the feeling is no different than a child being trafficked from a foreign country brought into the US because they’re in brothels that don’t speak a bit of English. Imagine twenty Asian girls, none of them speak English and you put a Spanish-speaking girl or an American girl in that brothel in another state. You’ve picked the girl up in Boston, and put her in a brothel like that in New York. It’s no different than someone coming from a foreign country being put in an American brothel.
Q: In talking with the young women you work with, some are going to continue doing what they do, but some also want to get out. What do you say to those that want to continue what they do? What do you say to those who want to get out and what do they do actually?
A: The ones who want to do what they want to do I let them know I’m there for them no matter what. Wherever you go they all have my cell phone number. One of the things I try to do is plan a safety plan. Maybe say something like, “Honey maybe you should leave some clothes or a little extra cash with someone you trust because I’m gonna tell you, it’s gonna get ugly.” I just give the girls the information and all I have is my experience to share with them. I tell them how it was glamorous for me, I thought, in the beginning, but if they stay in, how they’re gonna end up. But I support my girls. My back does not turn if they go back to their pimp, at all. My role is I’m here for you no matter what. And I have girls who are still in the life who still call and check in with me. As I was walking with you, a young lady who I love dearly, still in the life, left the state. I go and visit her. That's the type of relationship that we have. She does check in with me and run things by me.
I just tell them the truth. I don’t co-sign anything. You ask my opinion, I give it to them, but I'm there no matter what because I know I’m just one person and I know the hold that a pimp will have on these young girls. My role is just to stay put, keep the same cell phone number, make sure they know it, memorize it, make sure that I give them the resources that they need, make sure that I educate them because my group is a prevention group. I just give them that information. As far as the girls who have gotten out, I have girls that have gotten out. I have a young lady who is graduating High School June 13th, and I’m so excited, who’s going off to college who was exploited at age fourteen and just got out over a year ago.
Q: How did she get out?
A: She was fourteen when she got in when a pimp trafficked her, Atlantic City, New York. How she got out was she was in my group. She knew about me. All the information that I had given her early on, she knew she had somewhere to go. After she was picked up as a minor, she was brought back to Boston. She knows that the resources are there. See, I didn't know. I didn’t have any resources. Nobody gave me information. The girls who have gotten out or back and forth come back to me and tell me the same thing, “Audrey everything you said would happen to me has happened to me.” My job is to give them the foundation and the information. The proof is in the pudding because the information I give them, again, when they go back out, happens.
We’re fortunate enough here in Boston to have a really strong network of folks. These are our girls. We’re fortunate in Boston because our Department of Children and Family services have now said, “These are our kids.” They were one of the first people to give us money to say, ""there’s a problem and let’s figure out what we can do to prevent this from happening."" So all our girls that are in the child protective custody or in the system in any kind of way, most of them are educated. I go into the group homes and DCF offices and run groups. Some of the DCF offices are running them on their own. Our girls are really educated, so even if they do go back out, they do have the information. When they come back it’s not a question of “What do I do?” When they say, “I’m tired” or “I’ve had enough,” they have an option. They know that we’re there for them.
Q: Where is underage prostitution taking place in the state? Where mainly is this taking place and how does it take place considering just how extra illegal it is?
A: Well it takes place because we have the trusty old Internet now. First of all, pimps can use the internet, they’re recruiting girls from the internet. They are setting these girls up with websites, ""let’s put some make-up on you, some nice clothes, take these professional pictures."" The reason we never see our children is because they’re on the internet. What they do now is just place these girls in a hotel room. Instead of where I come from on a street corner, that’s how they’re doing it now. They are in major hotels. For the most part, they’re not in sleazy hotels. They might book a room in a hotel, let’s just say the Cambridge Hyatt for a week, and because they have a site, the johns will know where they are.
I had a girl say to me that she was “on tour,” that was her term, because on the internet she can say “Next week I’ll be in New York,” and then johns will schedule appointments with her. So then she can leave Boston and she’ll already have the dates lined up, and when she gets to New York she’ll go on a site and put her location. When she gets there through a cell phone she’ll tell the john exactly what hotel she’s in. It's all internet based. It's just not on the streets. It’s really undercover. They’re really tricking the kids because they look at magazines and they see these airbrushed girls and they want to be like that. The pimps set them up with hair and make-up, and then, ""why don't you take your shirt off. Let's get a topless shot."" Before she knows it she’s in a hotel room.
Q: The funny thing is you rarely hear media press refer to the men who prostitute these girls as pedophiles.
A: I used to call them pedophiles too, but the reality is most of them have sex with young girls because they can. We have since educated ourselves to know a pedophile is somebody who fantasizes about children. These guys don’t fit that bill. This is more because they can, because they can. Don't get me wrong, there are those in Thailand who go out with the little children and know they're little children too. In most cases, the majority is because they can. The problem with that is nobody wants to look at the demand. They did a bust outside of Boston some years ago and the police chief said, “We used the johns to bust the prostitutes. We let them go because we didn’t want to further embarrass them.” And I have to say that anywhere there’s an adult sex industry there are always children in there. Always, always, always.
Q: Thanks, Audrey. Anything you’d like to add before you have to fly?
A: It’s serious. It can happen to all children. Because you live in the suburbs does not mean that it will not happen to your child. All of our children are sitting on the internet, even myself, I said, “My daughter’s so good. She stays in the house. She’s eighteen. She’s just in her room on the computer.” The people that these kids can meet on a computer – it’s ugly. So none of the children are safe. It’s not just the vulnerable children. And we need to really look at this as a community. The average age of entry is twelve to fifteen. No one can convince me that a twelve year old on her own said, “I want to be a prostitute.” There’s always somebody behind that child. Like anything, somebody has to teach you how to do it. "
MORE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.