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Escape from the street
Former prostitute leads movement for survivors
Noel Gomez tried to escape the streets many times. But something always drew her back. Her pimp would find her, or Gomez would convince herself that the prospects weren’t much better outside the life – a dependency she likened to domestic abuse.
“Every day I didn’t know if I’d live to see the next,” recalled Gomez of her 15 years in prostitution. “I’ve been hit with baseball bats, raped so many times [I’ve lost count], and had to jump out of cars. You don’t have time to deal with it...It feels like being in a war.”
Gomez was a teenager when she first became entangled in the sinister life of prostitution. A young mother, she’d been kicked out of her Kirkland home and was living with her boyfriend of the time. Gomez remembers meeting her pimp at Bellevue Square. He enticed her with promises of a relationship and fame.
“I had nothing. He sold me a dream,” she remembers. “He was offering me what I thought I needed at the time. He ended up being a hardcore pimp and abusing me to keep me in line.”
Gomez’s story isn’t unique.
After a series of busts in the last decade, media and federal agencies pegged Seattle as a hotspot for prostitution and human trafficking. Its criminalization in 2003 has brought greater awareness, but many parts of Washington remain a destination because of their border locale and port city status.
Though prostitution is often given the most attention, the types of trafficking vary, from sex slavery to forced labor in restaurants, homes and businesses. The latency of the crime makes it difficult to understand its scope.
A 2008 study by anthropologist Debra Boyer estimates that somewhere between 300 and 500 youth are domestically trafficked in King County, alone. That number doesn’t account for the many adult men and women forced into the life, or the equally alarming number of people trafficked into the country. Nationally, that number jumps to 14,500 to 17,500 annually.
“It’s in the shadow of the Space Needle,” said Kirkland-based producer Jason Pamer of “Not for Profit,” a wrenching documentary about underage trafficking in Seattle and the Eastside. “It’s down Denny, Dexter and John streets, within a six block radius.”
Human trafficking happens everywhere
Once, when Gomez, tried to leave her pimp, he put up missing person posters of her son. As soon as she spotted his pixilated image on the telephone poles, Gomez knew that if she tried to run, he’d surely go after her family, too. Other nights, he made her stay out all evening as punishment.
“I was afraid to leave my house,” said Gomez of the mental captivity she endured, even after leaving prostitution. “I was afraid all the time, of everything.”
Despite its progressive reputation, the Eastside has also seen a string of human trafficking cases in recent years, many of them involving the city’s foreign born. In 2004 Bellevue’s Apple Spa was determined to be a front for prostitution. Hundreds of used condoms were found in the massage parlor’s garbage. Two years later, a federal investigation arrested nine in an international trafficking ring that smuggled women in cargo containers from across Asia. Of the nine charged, seven were arrested in Seattle.
Again in 2009, arrests were made in a massage parlor investigation that involved SeaTac, Kirkland and Bellevue. Royal Spa and the Chada Thai Bodyworks of Bellevue, were among those raided. Most recently, a nine-month investigation last year closed a dozen businesses and arrested 55 for charges ranging from prostitution to practicing without a license.
“This is a crime that happens [here] that affects people from all over the world, regardless of background, where they grew up, or what community they live in,” says Marie Hoffman of Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network, adding that: “When talking about cases in Bellevue, we’re not talking about the ‘wrong side of Bellevue.’”
Hoffman cautions against the usual stereotypes applied to prostitution and trafficking. For one, many of those caught in its web – particularly on the Eastside – are immigrants, brought to the U.S. as “mail-order brides,” or with the promise of salaried labor. Abuse and threats, coupled with language or cultural barriers and the withholding of identification papers create an environment of fear. In other cases, says Bellevue resident and former Attorney General Rob McKenna, trafficking has shifted to online platforms. During his time as AG, McKenna campaigned to shut down sites like backpage.com, an online advertising service, which was linked to the prostitution of underage girls.
In a 2011 Bellevue human services commission meeting, a panel presentation identified trafficking cases as a nearly everyday occurrence. Patrol officers were said to routinely knock on hotel doors on the Eastside. “It is not uncommon for them to find underage girls,” reads the commission minutes.
“We have to be aware this is a problem in our own city in Bellevue, in our state and our country,” said McKenna. “We need to rethink the whole nature of prostitution. Popular media, Hollywood and others, promote this depiction that prostitution involves happy-go-lucky entrepreneurs trying to make a living. That’s false. We know from the research that the vast majority desperately want to get out of the life.”
Further complicating things, says Gomez, prostitution is often a fluid industry. Gomez can remember her pimp picking up and leaving for California or Arizona, every time he sensed the cops might be on their tails.
“People still think that we choose this life,” she said. “No little girl grows up and says I want to be a prostitute.”
Gomez’s memories of the life are complicated. She felt both contempt and affection for her pimp. As Pamer notes in his documentary which opened at Lincoln Cinemas last December, many pimps prey on the vulnerabilities of girls, leading them to believe that their relationship is one of love.
“Still, at times I think about going back,” she explains. “But I have to remember that if I go back once, I go right back to where I was. It’s just like drugs or alcohol. You’re totally giving it up, or you’re not.”
She counts those emotions as an advantage she has over other resources and organizations. Her understanding of the complicated relationship between girls and their pimps has helped her serve as a victim’s advocate.
Gomez wouldn’t escape the life until she turned 32. To this day, she struggles with symptoms of PTSD and severe anxiety. But helping others provides some solace.
For three years, Gomez facilitated a sex industry workers class with the city of Seattle. And last year, she founded the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), a nonprofit that uses art projects and workshops to help women who’ve left the life, heal their wounds. Having walked the streets at much the same time that the Green River killer was loose in Seattle, Gomez and members are creating a memorial for his victims, which they hope to eventually display in a public space like Seattle’s Denny Park.
Though Gomez has since moved to Seattle, she says the very reason prostitution flies under the radar in parts of the state like the Eastside, is because residents and community leaders never suspect it could happen in their own backyard. She pauses to think, estimating that there are about 20 girls from the Eastside she is now working with.
“I think it’s important that survivors lead this movement,” says Gomez. “Like domestic violence survivors or the civil rights movement, it needs to be led by them.”