Detroit Program Helps Women Exit Sex Work

Detroit-based Alternatives for Girls' New Choices Project helps women exit prostitution and other forms of sex work, like exotic dancing. Program administrators say getting out of prostitution can be a challenge for career prostitutes, many of whom have criminal pasts and little professional work history.

In its current form, the project was launched in January 2003. It is funded in part through the Michigan AIDS Fund, the Skillman Foundation, the McGregor Foundation and other foundations. It is modeled after the San Francisco-based project Standing Against Global Exploitation, which has helped 800 women exit sex work.

Celia Williamson, an assistant professor at the University of Toledo's social work department, has researched street prostitution in various cities. The longer women are in prostitution, the harder it is to leave -- especially since many women have cut ties with their families, she said. Because it is fast-paced and pays "everyday you are willing to work," the life of a prostitute can be exciting at first, Williamson said. But this seduction wears thin as women become depressed or are abused.

New Choices provides services such as life skills training, recreational and cultural activities, educational workshops, mentoring and counseling. Many of the women with whom Alternatives for Girls works are recruited through its street outreach. Volunteers offer condoms, food and support. Deena Policicchio, director of the outreach and education services department, which includes New Choices, said the program has reached some 1,500 female sex workers in Detroit, though only a handful come to the three-times-weekly meetings. Most of the women are poor and in their 30s. Many women who commit to the program eventually drop out. Because many of the women lack phones or permanent addresses, staying in touch can be tough.

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