Sometimes, although we struggle with an issue for years, there is one final piece of the puzzle that snaps into place that provides the entire picture. For me, that final piece was the death of Marcia Powell.
Last week, Marcia Powell, a convicted, imprisoned prostitute who suffered mental illness, was left for over four hours in an unshaded prison holding cage in the Arizona heat that reached 107. She collapsed and was taken to the hospital where the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) warden had her removed from life support. The New Times reports that "Court documents listed Powell's 'alleged disabilities' as 'disorganized schizophrenia, polysubstance abuse, and mild mental retardation.'" So why was she in prison for prostitution?
The mug shot DOC media chose to run was one of a one-toothed, wild-eyed woman. Comments, some supportive but many hateful like one on Arizona Central that said, "Good riddance," began to flood blogs reporting the incident. Even though DOC released a different photo a few days later, the hate-filled comments continue.
I found it ironic as I watched the news that night: Marcia Powell's hideous death did not lead the local news, pushed down by the death of a Phoenix ball player's wife. In fact, the police dog that recently roasted in a patrol car seems to have generated more publicity than did Marcia Powell.
Although I have known firsthand how most feel about prostitutes for almost 30 years, her death only emphasized this fact: when sex workers are beaten, raped, strangled, bludgeoned, maimed, thrown out of cars and into rivers, disfigured, mutilated, murdered, tortured, it does not matter. They are whores, hence disposable. Marcia Powell was the rule, not the exception.
After a harrowing decade of debasement, I narrowly escaped the sex industry over 20 years ago. Today, I hold a masters degree, am a productive member of society, am respected in my career and volunteer with women attempting to leave the life. But I know that I am not doing enough to help other women, at least not on a policy level, where I can be most effective.
Yes, I can give a hand, one at a time, to a woman fleeing the life. Yes, I can share my experience perhaps because I was fortunate enough to have parents who never abandoned me and family who supported me in my efforts to change. But what about the women and children, male and female, who have no one to turn to?
In the United States, there are only a handful of centers that assist women in leaving prostitution, fewer still for those under 18. The average age of entry into prostitution in this country is less than 14 years old. I, too, ran away at 15 and became a prostitute at 16. It is only through Grace that I was able to claw my way back to sanity. And today, 20 years later, I am still damaged, suffer post-traumatic stress and live, for all purposes, a double life because I cannot talk openly about my past. Yet I am fortunate, I know that.
Marcia Powell's death was a clarion call for me, a call to begin to help change the paradigm that surrounds the sex industry. I may lose my anonymity in the process, but I am no longer so important. The pain of my silence is now greater than my fear of speaking out.
Tomorrow I will attend Marcia Powell's vigil, sponsored by a church that seems to understand the word "justice." There is no one to bury Marcia Powell, no one found to claim her. But I and many others will be there to honor not just her memory, but the memory of the thousands of slain prostitutes who died without justice. I am finally standing. I am no longer afraid to speak out.
God bless you and keep you until we meet again.