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What It's Like to Be 17 and Having Sex for Money

The number of girls forced to sell their bodies in the streets and in casinos and hotels keeps rising, even as their age keeps dropping.

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For twenty years, Mitchell stuck with her abusive pimp partner, through the beatings, arrests, and humiliation. Finally, in 1980, Mitchell decided she was tired of turning tricks for someone else’s profit and opened up her own massage parlor and escort service. She became the very successful madam of a very successful brothel. “I had mink coats and fancy cars,” she says. “I had all the jewelry you wanted to have. I made a lot of money.”

She tried to assuage her guilt about exploiting other women by watching out for the ones she employed. She hid any woman who was running from an abusive pimp, and she would rush out to rescue those who found themselves trapped with dangerous clients. “Kicking down hotel room doors. Throwing hot pots of coffee on people to save the girls,” Mitchell says. “I’d even bring guns. Crazy stuff.”

Yet she was conflicted; she was sending girls out to do a job she no longer wanted to do herself. “You can’t have it both ways,” she notes. Mitchell’s angst was solved the hard way -- she got busted. In 1989, she was indicted on fourteen counts of receiving the earnings of a prostitute, for leading an organized-crime syndicate, and for conducting an illegal enterprise. She pleaded guilty to the felony charge of operating a prostitution enterprise and spent a year in the Durango County Jail. But the short sentence was long enough to be a life-altering experience.

It began with a passage in a book she was reading. She can’t remember the book’s title but will never forget the words: We live in a world of lies, and the most degrading ones are the lies we tell ourselves. Mitchell sat straight up in her jailhouse bunk bed.

“That was my epiphany,” she says.

All of a sudden, it was clear that her life was built on falsehoods and fears, on her fear of abandonment by men, her search for validation through prostitution, and her hope for riches through a brothel. She was forty-six years old, and she wanted to change. She needed help.

But in jail, Mitchell found, there was no help for women caught up in prostitution. If you were a drug addict behind bars, there was assistance if you wanted to get clean. If you were an alcoholic, there was a program for you, too. But not for her. And not for all the other women like her.

“I sat in jail and watched women involved in prostitution come and go, a revolving door,” she says. “I needed to do something.”

She lobbied jail officials to let her set up a support group for prisoners who wanted to get out of the sex trade. She dubbed it DIGNITY, for Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself, and she started the weekly meetings with only two or three women. At first it was hard going. Guards teased the women about “going to ho class.” Other inmates, no matter how heinous their crimes, looked down on them, too, dismissing them in jailhouse slang as flat-backers. Says Mitchell, “If you’re a prostituted person, you are just nothing.”

Over time, attendance at the meetings grew, sometimes with as many as twenty women present. Mitchell was committed, even returning once a week after she was released from jail to help lead the group. But outside the prison walls, she discovered the problem was worse, that contempt for women who walked the tracks was greater and the services even more lacking. She would eventually expand DIGNITY into a wide-ranging program that provided outreach services for the women working the streets and a housing and rehab shelter to help those ready to make a break from their pimps.

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