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"I Expect to Die Because of a John:" Local Sex Workers Fear For Safety But Wary Of Asking For Help

(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 photo, a worn mattress lays on the floor of a brothel during a police raid on a nearby wildcat gold mine in La Pampa in the Madre de Dios region of Peru.

When asked about the greatest risks in sex work, one Peoria-area sex worker bluntly replied with one word: "death."

"I'm always worried someone will turn out crazy or violent or stalk me," said another respondent. 

"My life and well-being. I expect to die because of a john," said a third. 

"I guess getting an STI or being assaulted again," added a fourth sex worker. 

A recent survey of Central Illinois sex workers shows most fear for their safety and lives. The survey of about 100 people engaged in sex work in the region was conducted by JOLT Harm Reduction's outreach workers over the last six months. Names of respondents were withheld. 

Dr. Tamara Olt founded the JOLT Foundation in Peoria after her son, Joshua, died of a heroin overdose in 2012. The group offers free STI testing for those at high risk. It also offers a needle exchange and services for those using drugs.

JOLT's "harm reduction" philosophy holds that reducing the negative impacts associated with these activities is an evidence-based approach which has a net positive effect on overall individual and community health. 

Credit (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
In this Aug. 9, 2018, photo, Laura LeMoon, a former sex worker and trafficking survivor, displays her tattoos, reading "Harm" and "Reduction" on her forearms, in Seattle. LeMoon, who co-founded Safe Night Access Project in Seattle to provide harm reduction services to sex workers on the streets.

About 85 percent of those surveyed in the local sex worker survey are women. Ten percent are men, and 4.5 percent are transgender. More than 70 percent said they have children, and eight in ten say those kids are still under their care. 

Chris Schaffner is program director for JOLT Harm Reduction. He said the community should acknowledge sex work is happening, whether it's legal or not, and said offering public health interventions like more sexually-transmitted infection testing and condom distribution would reduce harm both for those involved in the work and their clients.

"We can also address growing problems like the high rates of STI's in our area, and violence and crime that's surrounding all of that. And we can help people stay safe when they're practicing it," he said. 

More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they're involved in sex work to pay their bills. Housing insecurity, battles with drug or alcohol usage, mental health issues, and abusive childhoods are common. More than 40 percent were involved in sex work before turning 18. 

More than three in four of those surveyed said someone has used physical force or a weapon against them during sex work. Respondents described being punched, kicked, pistol-whipped, restrained, drugged, thrown down stairs, or raped. 

Many local sex workers say they're reluctant to report these incidents because their work is illegal and carries a heavy stigma. And for those who said they have gone to local law enforcement, 54 percent said they were victim-shamed and told it was their fault for choosing the line of work. Another 18 percent said they weren't believed, and 18 percent said they were charged with a crime themselves after coming forward.

About one in four said they received help. 

WCBU asked Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell for his thoughts on the survey results.  He said his agency treats everyone reporting sexual assault equally regardless of their circumstances. 

"We will treat everyone the same. Anytime that we have an investigation, we're not asking an individual what their profession is, what their habits are, or what they're doing in their social life," he said. 

Asbell said he can understand the reluctance of some to report sexual assault if they're engaged in illegal activity, but said his agency will investigate a crime reported by someone involved in sex work just like any other. 

The survey showed most sex workers in Central Illinois are connecting with clients through online sites or apps. Strip clubs and hotels are also common venues. Most involved in sex work estimate they have more than 300 paying partners a year. 

"These are people, real humans, with real stories, that have led them to this place in their life," said Schaffner, JOLT's program director. "And just because they're doing these things that people don't understand, or see as immoral, doesn't mean they don't deserve dignity and care." 

To learn more about JOLT, click here.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.