Many start as strippers. Some "work" out of a car, a club or by way of the Internet. And since they’re not walking the streets of Anchorage, they don’t consider themselves prostitutes. They see themselves as "sex workers." But despite the varied settings and nuanced terms, it’s still commercial sexual exploitation, said Nancy Cole of Mary Magdalene Home Alaska, in an interview with the Anchor.
Cole directs the ecumenical Christian, nonprofit organization that provides "a network of care" to women leaving prostitution and sexual exploitation — a monumental task in Anchorage, where the oldest "profession" in the world is thriving.
Old and new problems
"There’s always been a prostitution problem in Anchorage. Period," Cole explained.
According to Sgt. Kathy Lacey, head of the Vice Unit for the Anchorage Police Department (APD), city law enforcement makes well over 300 arrests each year for prostitution.
And now, prostitution is moving stealthily into cyberspace. Cole spoke of one teen girl whose pimp had recently advertised her and others in personal ads on Craig’s List. She told Cole that men who like the profiles "just order us."
"It’s a new kind of pimping," Cole said.
Then there’s sex trafficking – in which a person is induced into prostitution or is maintained there by force, fraud or coercion. According to federal law, this includes prostituting girls under age 18, regardless of their willingness.
Sometimes, these girls and women are brought into an area by sex traffickers. As a result, Mary Magdalene has worked with women from Russia, Mexico and South America.
But five years ago, when the FBI began ferreting out networks in Alaska that prey on foreign-born women, it started uncovering a number of domestic sex trafficking networks, Anchorage FBI special agent Jolene Goeden told the Anchor.
The so-called "escort" service run by Don Webster (aka, Jerry Starr) is one example, said Goeden. After "years" of investigation by the FBI, Webster was charged with and convicted of multiple counts of sex trafficking. In April, Webster was ordered to pay an unprecedented $3.6 million in restitution to 11 women he had coerced to prostitute.
Beyond Webster, Goeden said she was not at liberty to disclose the "hard numbers" on the FBI’s sex trafficking cases in Anchorage, but only that "we have active cases right now."
Meanwhile, from Mary Magdalene Home’s office in Anchorage, Cole said her group provides counseling and social service referrals to 50 to 60 sexually exploited women at any one time – through a "rotating door," she explained. "It’s a massive amount of people that need help."
No place to run
"There really is absolutely nothing in Anchorage for the woman at two o’clock in the morning who says ‘I need to get out, I want to get out,’ — there’s absolutely no place for her to go," Goeden explained.
Often those caught by authorities are cited and released with a ticket and a court date. But Goeden added that "in order to get a woman clean enough — off of drugs and alcohol — sometimes, jail is the only option we have."
Meanwhile, Lacey said the APD helps connect each arrested woman to what she needs to get off the street, including drug and alcohol treatment, work and housing. But most of the women won’t immediately accept the help.
"They don’t trust us because we’re arresting them," Lacey said. Sometimes, "their trafficker or their pimp has literally physically beat it into them" that the law is the enemy. For some, the life of prostitution is "all they’ve known."
Enter Mary Magdalene Home Alaska. Founded in 1998, the group aims to help sexually exploited women transform their lives "spiritually, mentally and physically." It is named after St. Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner and devout follower of Jesus. Clients range in age from 18 to late fifties.
"As Christians, we believe that people can and do change," Cole explained.
For many women, that starts in voluntary group meetings with Mary Magdalene Home volunteer case workers who visit Hiland Mountain Correctional Center each week. After prison, women are invited to attend a support group outside, while Mary Magdalene workers help them find a "safe, secure" place to live – which is especially difficult for a penniless woman and ex-convict.
"Our primary concern and problem in Anchorage is when women come out of jail, they have nowhere, zero housing that they can go into," Cole said.
The area’s few shelters pose dangers and few beds for women, she explained. Many end up "couch surfing." Some of those go back into the business "just to eat."
But after 11 years, Mary Magdalene Home Alaska has raised enough funds to purchase a safe home for these women. Cole said the home — opened in April in a "nice, residential neighborhood" in East Anchorage — accommodates up to seven women at a time. Transitioning to self-sufficiency, women may stay for as little as three months and up to 18 months or a "little further" in special circumstances.
Within the first 30 days of arriving, she must have a job or be actively looking for a job and performing 20 hours of volunteer work a week. To her ability, each contributes a "household support fee" to foster the responsibility of living in community with others.
"The women there are working so hard, they’re getting jobs," Cole stressed. Meanwhile, in a "family environment," Mary Magdalene Home helps them secure bus passes, finish school, build job skills and find a permanent home. One woman, in her early thirties, is, for the first time, earning a driver’s license, Cole said.
Facing the trauma
On top of life’s normal challenges, these sexually exploited women deal with "all the trauma they’ve been through," Cole explained.
That includes childhood abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse, life on the street and mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
Many are mothers trying to regain custody of their children in the state’s charge — or mourning the loss of children.
"A lot of the women who come through are having to deal with the grief and loss of having had abortions," Cole explained. "Having had so many different losses in their life it’s now, if they don’t get out, they get dead, pretty basically. It’s that bad."
‘They’re our ladies’
So, in addition to arranging outside help to heal those wounds, Mary Magdalene Home offers in-house spiritual guidance and soon, a regular Bible study and prayer service.
Sister Lorene Griffin, an Ursuline sister and retired psychologist, volunteers as Mary Magdalen’s spiritual and psychological director. She counsels women about their way of thinking, "what freedom means" and how to make good choices. And a caseworker reviews with a woman her sexual and drug and alcohol histories to identify what triggers relapses.
"It doesn’t matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been," Cole explained. "They come into our office, they’re treated with respect."
She added: "They’re our ladies. They’re women who are choosing to change their lives (and they) need people to care."
As Christians, she explained, "you offer love and support. We recognize there’s more to a person than just their physical injuries and their emotional abuse."
"They’re women who are really hungry for God," Cole observed. The first thing that shuts down with most abused people is spiritually, it is also often the last thing that comes back, she added.
Mary Magdalene’s prescription: "Just love them back to God, I guess is what you say."
For more information on Mary Magdalene Home Alaska, visit mmhalaska.org.