Chrissie Cheng | Editor In Chief
No girl wants to be a prostitute: The story of a sex industry survivor
On a cold Easter Sunday in Colorado, 23-year-old youth pastor Jessica Neely went outside to heat up her car. Suddenly, her head was bashed against the window. When she woke up, she found herself on the ground, the snow beside her spattered with her blood.
Neely had been scheduled to speak about abstinence at a youth conference that week, but after becoming a victim of rape, she believed she was no longer pure. She felt that a raped girl couldn’t possibly talk about saving yourself for marriage.
“I threw away everything that night,” Neely said. “I was so angry, not at the dude, but at God…I just remember my hate at God. I’m not the girl wearing the short skirt, high heels, not flirtatious. I didn’t ask for this as our media will tell you. So I threw away my books, I resigned everything and walked away from that entire life.”
Left feeling worthless and impure, Neely decided to cope with the injustice of rape by entering the sex industry.
“My trauma, my self harm and want for justice wasn’t seen in bulimia, anorexia or cutting,” Neely said. “I took it out on sex.”
She began in escort services, specializing in fetishes. She then entered the porn industry and became the most Googled porn star in 2009. She even started trafficking young girls herself, teaming up with other high-end women in the industry to start their own brothel.
Neely tried to escape by reaching out to several Christian organizations and trafficking movements, but she received no replies. After multiple suicide attempts and fights with drug and alcohol addiction, Neely finally called it quits in 2013 when she was told she could face 30 years in prison for human trafficking.
Neely entered treatment at the safehouse Refuge for Women, a faith-based organization that provides long term care for women abused and exploited by the sex industry and human trafficking.
According to Refuge for Women’s website, victims begin with an extensive healing process; they provide victims of trauma with an environment of “safe, sustainable relationships, rebuilding trust and maintaining a lifestyle of structure that promotes recovery and maturity.”
Once they’ve committed to the healing process, women are given tools and training for practical life skills and employment. Neely found this incredibly helpful as women who have escaped from the sex industry find it very challenging to establish financial security.
“When I moved back to Colorado to be normal, I didn’t know how to be normal,” Neely said. “I didn’t know how to go balance a checkbook or what do with a hundred dollars. Like saying, ‘Oh, you’re not going to do your nails, you’re going to pay your bills.’ With the girls’ economy in their hands, there is no Dave Ramsey Financial Peace [University] in their heads. The first thing is to flip a burger, and then what?”
Neely graduated from Refuge for Women in 2015. Today, she has answered God’s call to ministry, speaking across the country to share her story of redemption and raising awareness about the truth behind the glamorized sex industry.
“Stay informed, stay survivor-informed, and you’re in,” Neely said. “I always say this at the start of my talks––no girl wants to be a prostitute. No girl.”
Survivor-informed and doing something about it
In the past year, 28 Azusa Pacific University business students conducted extensive research on helping women who escape the sex industry and seek redemption in safe houses, just like Neely. Their project goes by the name of Project Cultivate, an Enactus project through APU dedicated to cultivating restorative communities which affirm identity in survivors of the sex industry.
Through Project Cultivate’s research, external sources and conversations with survivors like Neely, they’ve found that most people involved are being trafficked, exploited or physically coerced into the industry.
“The language of the sex industry is pretty unique because people usually think of sex trafficking,” Project Cultivate project leader Shay Suiter said. “But we’ve spent the last year researching this whole industry, and our biggest findings in our research is that sex trafficking and working in the sex industry are not separated, but overlapping.”
But you don’t have to be a pimp or a prostitute to be trapped by the beast of the sex industry—the viewers in front of the screen are enslaved as well. While it’s usually a taboo subject, Neely points out that pornography addiction is a prevalent issue on college campuses, including Azusa Pacific University.
“It’s really controversial to say that 70 to 90 percent of students [at universities] watch porn, but that’s just a true fact,” Suiter said. “So to come out and say that 70 to 90 percent of students here are contributing to sex trafficking is awful, but we’re confident that it’s true…The sex industry is an over-glamorized, broken, hidden, dark world that is very much built on coercion, brainwashing and hurt of men, women and children. It’s a bold statement but we have to say it because it’s true.”
Despite the controversial statement, Project Cultivate believes that we are called as Christians to embrace the controversial and meet the survivors where they are.
“There are very few people who are going to meet these [survivors] because of the world saying ‘they chose it,’ ‘they’re cool,’ ‘they’re awesome and doing it for their body’ or saying ‘they’re sluts’, ‘they’re gross’, ‘they shouldn’t do that,’” said Suiter. “Christians are even saying ‘they shouldn’t be doing that.’ So we are a very small group that says, ‘Wait, we get it, there’s a lot of pain here, let’s get as close as possible to the darkness because we have God with us, and they need a light, and we can be that light.”
Bringing professional development to the table
Project Cultivate plans to be a part of the redemptive process by bringing their own skills and strengths to the equation, providing survivors of the sex industry the resources for professional development.
“We saw that we’re a Christian university filled with professors, staff and resources who are Christian and passionate about doing good,” Suiter said. “We have all these educational resources, so why not bring that sustainable aspect and go do that professional development training?”
Through a six-module program, students of Project Cultivate will visit local safe houses similar to Refuge for Women to teach the professional skills program survivors need, such as resume building, communication skills and how to write emails and answer phones.
Building the restorative community
Project Cultivate’s other mission is to help build the restorative community locally and at APU. Through their bi-monthly event, After Dark, students gather at Seven Palms to bring awareness and engage the community in conversation about the sex industry.
“A lot of people think these women are in the industry because it’s a choice, and they put themselves there, but a lot of the times it’s not,” After Dark team leader Taylor Knebel said. “It’s gotten a lot of people aware, which is a step towards helping these survivors move on and building a community that is educated and comfortable in it.”
From covering topics like the history of the sex industry, pornography addiction and “Who Pays For Sex?,” Project Cultivate starts the conversation on topics not usually discussed at Christian universities.
“At first, I think people were a little hesitant about After Dark, thinking, ‘This is weird, this is APU, we love Jesus, why are we talking about this?’ But once you’re there and sit and talk about it, it’s not awkward at all,” Knebel said. “People are comfortable and open-minded, and that just shows a lot about the APU community.”
By offering vocational training to survivors and starting necessary conversations on campus, Project Cultivate is creating a community of restoration and affirming the identity of individuals not typically embraced by the Christian community.
“And it’s Christians doing it,” Suiter said. “It’s just God-intertwined so perfectly.”