August 15, 2014

Street Prostitution and Choice

by Tara Quinn

Tara Quinn, MPA ‘16 is working at Amos House Project RENEW through the iProv Summer Internship Program.

My iProv internship took place at Amos House’s Project RENEW (Revitalizing Engaging Neighborhoods by Empowering Women), an innovative program established in 2005 that seeks to reduce prostitution in Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Providence.

As I learned about the client base of Project RENEW, I was most surprised to learn that the average age of a woman engaging in street prostitution in Pawtucket/Central Falls is 40 years old. Most of these women actively prostitute on their own volition, without a pimp. This offered me a new perspective on commercial sex, power and gender roles. Unlike the stories I share about sex trafficking, the exploitation of minors and coercion; local street prostitution has the nuances of individual choice and incentives for the women who are selling sex.

A woman who is now a peer mentor, who had formerly been involved in prostitution, shared that once crack-cocaine was introduced to the streets in the 1980’s, the need for the drug started superseding the fear of violence or control threatened by a male pimp. Women instead started working for the drug, and became freer agents. Addiction led to a longer-term relationship with the profession, as evidenced by the older ages of local prostitutes.

Prostitution is a social problem of local urban communities. What is to be done? Project RENEW staff know their client base, which is the first step to any real change. RENEW’s niche can be found in its public health education, prevention and intervention services: HIV testing and condom distribution. The strength of RENEW is found within its long-standing, innovative collaborations with local police departments, service providers and the justice system. But RENEW also offers another choice, a way out: its new Diversion Program will offer women a second chance to choose rehabilitation over addiction. Working with the Rhode Island justice system, substance abuse and mental health service providers and peer mentors, RENEW will offer women who are arrested for prostitution the option to enter into a one year rehabilitative process versus serving jail time.

Will women involved in street prostitution choose diversion? Yes, it has been done in other cities, such as Philadelphia’s Project Dawn. Will women successfully gain self-sufficiency within that year? Yes, and some will require less time, as evidenced by some of the RENEW clients. Is RENEW offering a safe, healthy choice for women to turn their lives around? Undoubtedly, yes.

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