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Helping Prostitutes Change Their Lives

Jackie McReynolds, a former prostitute who is HIV-positive, talks to prostitutes as part of her Angel Project Power program.
Jackie McReynolds, a former prostitute who is HIV-positive, talks to prostitutes as part of her Angel Project Power program. (Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post )

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Keith L, Alexander and Jackie McReynolds
Washington Post Staff Writer and Administrator, Angels Project Power
Tuesday, May 12, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Keith L. Alexander and Jackie McReynolds, a former prostitute who now runs a four-month diversion program called Angels Project Power which is for women arrested for prostitution, was online Tuesday, May 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the growth of HIV in the District, prostitution in the city and how the economy, as opposed to just drugs, is fueling the growth of women going into the field.

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Keith L. Alexander: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. We have Ms. McReynolds who is anxious to hear from you. And we already have several questions submitted so let's get to them. Ms. McReynolds, thank you for taking the time again to speak with us. Do you have any opening thoughts or comments?

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Jackie McReynolds: Hi, Jackie McReynolds here. Look forward to your questions.

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Rockville, Md.: What can we learn from legal prostitution?

Jackie McReynolds: I don't believe in legal prostitution because they they don't show all the pain that comes along with prostitution, they glamorize it to make it enticing -- people that believe in it, mostly government, people who want to tax prostitution.

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Washington, D.C.: How is your work similar or different from what HIPS does? I know there are different non-profits -- always curious to see how they do or don't work together.

Jackie McReynolds: HIPS is a program for transgenders and prostitutes. The way we are different is that HIPS takes a harm reduction approach which means that they don't tell the prostitutes to stop prostituting but only that they should be safer when they go out, as far as prevention is concerned. Angels (Project Power) does not take that approach. We encourage prostitutes stop prostituting forever to become productive members of society.

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Arlington, Va.: What percentage of the women use the Internet and craigslist compared to working the streets? How many are indies and how many have pimps or madams? I don't believe the cops in the area are targeting the high-class so-called call girls Elliot Spitzer types but going after the girls at the lower end of the business!

Jackie McReynolds: It's definitely a growing entity but right now it's not a large percentage that we're aware of. I guess right now it's probably about three percent.

In today's world we call our prostitutes survival sex workers, which means that they don't have a pimp and they're basically working daily to get their basic needs met. They prostitute to get drugs as well. So the percentage of prostitutes who have pimps today is again a very low percentage. And in the summer the pimping gets worse because more women come to the District from all over because they know we have the government here and politicians and the weather's better.

It's true that the cops go after the women on the street more than what you would call a high-class prostitute because most of the time when women are call girls they usually have clients or "johns" that pay a lot of money and they have someone to protect them if something happens (get arrested) so they'll be able to go right back out on the street. It's very political; a lot of them deal with politicians and government officials and it's kept secret.

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Prostitution in the Suburbs: People may think that prostitution is only a city problem but prostitution exists in all communities.

Keith L. Alexander: I want to piggy back on this question. How does prostitution look in the suburbs Ms. McReynolds? Is it mostly via the Internet or are there actually women walking the quiet, tree-lined streets late at night there as well?

Jackie McReynolds: Maryland is pretty quiet as far as prostitutes walking on the streets. I do believe the Internet is more popular there. Virginia, the same way.

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Jackie McReynolds: We have quite a few prostitutes who come in from Maryland to work here in D.C.

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Larusso, Va.: Approximately a year ago I started a relationship with a woman I later found out to be a prostitute (she originally claimed she was a bartender and worked nights). She eventually fessed up about her profession and after some soul searching and discussion, we decided to stay together on the condition that she stop working as a prostitute. I offered to support her financially and emotionally and provide her an educational assistance needed. Things seemed to be going fine but about a month later she confessed she had started prostituting again without an explanation of why. Do you have any insight into why one would continue working in this business when provided another option? Is there anything I can do to get her to stop? Is there any aspect or issue I'm missing?

Jackie McReynolds: The lifestyle of prostituting is very addictive. Because it is addictive, there needs to be a process of reprogramming before a prostitute can actually let that lifestyle go; she has to see the value in herself, to believe that it is belittling herself to do so.

She needs to get into a program like Angels that guides her and helps her see the reality of the life she's living.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you offer foreign language services and do you provide services to women from foreign countries who are brought in illegally and against their will, or under fraud, into this country?

Jackie McReynolds: No, not as of yet but we do plan to be able to hire a Spanish speaking counselor but it is a funding problem to be able even to get any money for a special language program. That is one area we would like to improve.

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Kota, India: Helping prostitutes will definitely change their lives, because the reason which makes them to do such things is not sex but money to survive in this selfish world. Instead of ignoring them, if we will take some steps to improve their status then it might change something for them.

Jackie McReynolds: Yes, it is other issues surrounding prostitution, including trauma in one's life. It's a real deep-seated issue and that's what you have to get to. We call it survival sex work because it's really a way to provide for women who have no place to go, women who have left their husbands or the husbands have left them, or homeless women or women who have substance abuse problems and who prostitute for money.

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Keith L. Alexander: Let's talk about the John's School program that is held on the first Saturday of each month at D.C. Superior Court. What most struck me out of the 53 men that there in the audience, about 20 or so were wearing wedding bands. So I'm curious, what percentage of married men make up these clients in general?

Jackie McReynolds: Probably 80 percent, absolutely, mostly married men, generations back. Even the prostitutes feel more comfortable with married men because often the single men are more abusive. Most of the men are married.

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Jackie McReynolds: Married men usually come out more so to fulfill a fantasy that they're not getting a home.

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Washington D.C.: I am very happy that this topic is being discussed. Ms. Reynolds mentioned "celestial beings" as the inspiration for the name Angel Power Project. Why does she think black women who have been traumatized usually have a spiritual experience when they are on their way to recovery? Can the black church help prostitutes without imposing judgmental and dogmatic forms of therapy?

Jackie McReynolds: I think that anyone has a spiritual experience when they begin to want a relationship with God because somehow they realize they need something to be able to count on. Most people know and prostitutes know that people will fail you and they need to be able to depend on someone greater than themselves. I believe that the spiritual awakening doesn't happen just for the prostitutes but for anyone who is looking for something they can depend on.

The church actually is helping. We have a spiritual group on our program and it is a spiritually based program -- by no means do I think I'm doing this all by myself. God gave me a mission to accomplish in serving him to help these women. It wasn't by choice; it was for the love of God that I have. There is only one entity that the prostitutes learn to depend on and doesn't judge them and that's God.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any data on how successful your diversion program is? E.g., how many women who graduate are re-arrested after graduation and how many remain out of jail? Similarly, how successful is the program for men?

Keith L, Alexander: This was a question that I tried to nail as well. Neither Superior Court, nor the US Attorney's office, kept such information. Do you?

Jackie McReynolds: We have maybe 55 percent that don't come back. I don't have the numbers in front of me and there is no other entity following these numbers so we do the best that we can with the people who graduate from our program.

We have a number that women can call about the programs: 202-621-7339. We don't yet have a Web site; it's currently in the making.

The Johns School program is very successful. The majority of the men do not return back to school. These are men who have solicitated a woman.

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Keith L. Alexander: Can you talk about your own health issues. With 3 percent of District residents living with HIV and or AIDS, I am sure many would like to hear from someone such as yourself as to how your are living with the disease and what you do to maintain your health.

Jackie McReynolds: I've been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS since -- this is my 25 or 26th year of living with the disease -- and I take care of myself by trying to follow my doctor's rules and what she tells me to do. I have a very close relationship with my doctor and that helps a lot. I take my medication; I go to therapy (psychological); I've been in it for 17 years. And I'm 17 years in recovery from drug abuse and alcohol. I seek things to fulfill my spirit with peace, love and joy. And I stay busy.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think is the underlying reason for the high HIV rate in the nation's capital? Is the reason poor sex education, or is the reason the reluctance of either guys or women to use contraceptives? Are the reasons a little darker than the ones offered here?

Jackie McReynolds: I believe that the infection rate in D.C. has not gotten better because of a couple of things: Number one, a lot of the women in the city have low-self esteem, whether in a high (work) position or a low position. Number two, I believe that everyone is looking for love and there is not a logical answer to what a person would do for love which may put them at risk. Number three, people need to put their health first as well as their sanity so if you don't use a condom when having sex there's a gateway for an opening to become HIV positive and people are really not understanding how dangerous this can be if taken for granted. The disease does not affect everyone the same way. Some die quickly and some hang on longer.

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More on Angels: So, does Angels work with male prostitutes as well? I'm curious, do you see many of the same problems for both male and female prostitutes? And do the same problems occur for the street walkers vs.. the out-call or in-call types?

Jackie McReynolds: We work with transgenders, meaning male to female. We see the same problems with the transgenders and some extra ones. The additional problems are finding work, finding an employer that would take them in as an employee based on their judgment about the transgender population.

What I tell the transgenders when they come to me is to be the best [in their lives] they can be no matter whether someone else approves or not but seek to be the best in everything you do.

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Jackie McReynolds: The difference between a call girl and a survival sex worker is that most of the time a call girl has someone to protect them and the survival sex workers mostly do not have anyone protecting them on the street.

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Jackie McReynolds: I want to thank everyone for the questions and comments. If you would like to reach us at Angels, it's 202-621-7339 and feel free to join us in the collaboration of helping these women heal from their wounds and become productive members of society.

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Jackie McReynolds: And we'd like to thank the Washington Post too.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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