Helping Women Help Themselves

More than 20 years ago, Jackie McReynolds was a prostitute gang-raped in an alley. It took her four more years to leave street-level sex work, and now she helps other women do the same.

She runs a program called the Angels Project, which gives prostitutes a chance to avoid prison sentences by attending classes, working, getting job training and getting clean. Most of her clients bear little resemblance to Ashley Dupre.

Many of these women, ages 18 to 60, are mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers. They would blend in easily in a grocery store line or at midweek church services. Their clothes are baggy, not tight. Instead of high heels, many go to work in tennis shoes. Most find their clients on the street, out in the open, with little protection from sexually transmitted diseases, violence and arrest.

Most of the women are trying to support their drug habits, and others are engaged in "survival sex" to pay the bills or buy food for their children, McReynolds said.

This is the other side of sex work — not the woman who does it to fund a lifestyle, but the women who are forced or coerced into it for food.

McReynolds knows of what she speaks.

The women know the outlines of her story: She was 11 when she started smoking marijuana and drinking J&B scotch. When McReynolds was 13, a 60-year-old neighbor paid her $40 for sex. Five years later, she was using heroin and selling her body in alleys, cars and abandoned buildings. She quit school and started punching a street clock, split shift, 5 to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., charging $20 at a time when crack addicts were getting as little as $5.

McReynolds tells the women that low self-esteem is behind their behavior, and she embraces the role of disciplinarian. She hugs a crying woman who says she missed classes to tend to her sick mother but added a month to the woman's required stay. "You have one last chance," McReynolds says. "You can't help your mother if you don't help yourself first."

Her goal is to save them before their behavior catches up with them. In 1985, McReynolds learned she was HIV-positive.

But she doesn't coddle the women who take the diversion to have an easier time than jail: she and her fellow counselors report women that don't show up for class, storm out and return to prostitution. She understands, but she doesn't let them walk all over her

.Not everyone is receptive to spending four months of her time going to classes, three or four hours a day, and staying out of trouble. The program graduated 129 women between October 2006 and December of last year. But 209 others were booted out for failing drug tests or missing classes.

One recent afternoon, after classes, two women got into a car instead of the van waiting to take them to their residential program. Staffers ran screaming after them, but the women did not return.

She recognizes that, despite therapy and a nearly twenty years away from sex work, it still has effects on her.

Eventually, McReynolds got therapy and found jobs as an HIV counselor and outreach worker for women trying to get their lives together after prison. She got married, but the relationship didn't last. Among other things, flashbacks from the streets made intimacy difficult, McReynolds said.

The program itself is deemed effective by D.C. police, prosecutors and judges, as few that finish the program end up returning to prostitution, in no small part due to McReynolds' insistence that women get their GEDs and that they are provided with basic job training (like how to dress appropriately for an office). One woman says:

Simmons, who didn't leave prostitution even when she had a broken leg and was on crutches, has nothing but admiration for McReynolds. "She taught us how to be ladies. I thought of myself as a woman, obviously, but never a lady," she said.

That's the self-esteem McReynolds was trying to get her to find.

On the Street, Selling Hope [Washington Post]