Monday August 18, 2003

Rebecca Bellville
Citizens' Voice Intern

Therapists: Jail time doesn't address prostitution problem

While many say that prostitutes should simply be arrested and go to jail, several area therapists say that doesn't solve the problem.

"It's important to start looking at the underlying issues and looking at them with compassion," said Ells Heij, a therapist with the Family Service Association of Wyoming Valley.

Chances are, the typical prostitute's life has been far from easy.

"A large percentage of these people have a history of drug addiction and sexual abuse, particularly incest," said Bob Griffin, a psychologist from Forty Fort.

One area therapist, who did not want to be named out of concern for her patients, has treated former prostitutes.

She said that their fathers had prostituted some of her patients as early as junior high school. They remained prostitutes into adulthood.

"This is what they were raised to do; this is what they were trained to do, and they're kind of stuck," the therapist said. "If a person is raised to think that this is what she is good for … it's very difficult to imagine a different life."

One study that Griffin cited found between 80 and 90 percent of street prostitutes had been sexually abused. Two-thirds had a history of incest.

For some people who have experienced this sort of childhood trauma, psychologists say, prostitution isn't a conscious choice, but something that just happens. Prostitution may even be a sort of re-enactment of an abusive childhood.

"What men should think about is that they may be retraumatizing someone who, as a little girl, was sexually abused," Griffin said.

Cindy Loftus-Vergari, a therapist from Mountain Top, hesitates to refer to people who have sold their bodies as prostitutes. "I don't think that (word) describes who they are as people.

"It doesn't seem to be something that they choose to do. It seems like something they're compelled to do," Loftus-Vergari said.

Griffin said, "Most prostitutes don't want to be in the trade, but they don't feel secure leaving it."

It is possible for prostitutes to turn their lives around, but doing so requires plenty of initiative and change.

According to the therapist who wished to remain anonymous, it is easier for people to make the necessary changes if others have treated them with respect.

"When someone else sees potential in that person, they start to see potential in themselves," she said.

Several psychologists say that solving the prostitution problem goes beyond arresting and jailing them.

"When we catch these people and we put them in jail and shame their families, I don't know if we're rehabilitating them," Griffin said.

Heij is from the Netherlands and was once a public health nurse in Amsterdam, where prostitution is legal. She sees a world of difference in how people in Wilkes-Barre and Amsterdam view prostitution.

"I think most people (in the Netherlands) view it as a social issue," she said. "What I see here is that it's treated as a moral and religious issue.

"This is not about good or bad or right or wrong," Heij added. "Something is happening that needs to be addressed."

Griffin said that prostitutes need to have social services available, such as job training, health care, safe housing and treatment for drug addictions.

"If you're not going to offer people drug treatment, I don't know how you can tell them how they're going to get their life together on their own," he said.

While Griffin is "totally against prostitution in any form," he said that legalizing it is one option.

"It's not a question of if it should be legalized, but when it will be legalized," he said.

Heij said that since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, it is more sanitary and easier to regulate than it is here.

Brothels there are regulated according to zoning laws.

Prostitutes are regularly tested for sexually transmitted diseases, she said.

"Legalization means regulation. It means control. It's not a free-for-all," Heij said.

"Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world. I don't think you're going to be able to eradicate it," she said.

© The Citizens Voice 2003

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Created: December 1, 2003
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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