For Prostitutes, An Alternative To The Streets

Apr 25, 2011
Originally published on June 17, 2011 2:49 pm

First in a three-part series.

Nashville, Tenn., is hardly a mecca for prostitution. But it thrives there just as in any other major American city.

It's also trying to break the cycle of prostitution, and often that begins with an arrest.

One afternoon in February when the vice squad went out on an undercover detail looking for prostitutes, it almost immediately found Brittany Messina.

Messina is a 21-year-old prostitute. She's been arrested four times for prostitution in five years; she has a boyfriend who may be a pimp; and she's a drug addict.

The police found her on a relentlessly forlorn stretch of Dickerson Pike, home to low-slung motels, bail bond joints and payday loan storefronts. And it's the strip where prostitutes can easily be found walking.

"I'll do whatever you want," she told the vice squad cop as she got in his Ford Mustang. But there is something that she wanted first: crack cocaine. It bumped this sting up a notch, particularly since the drug deal ended up going down near an elementary school.

Messina is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. Pretty, with long flowing red hair, Messina has a delicate, narrow face, but the half-moon shadows under her eyes give away her addiction. As the bust unfolded, it seemed somewhat routine for Messina. But then, under the weight of felony drug charges, she seemed to grow desperate, and her alarm was evident. She tried to bargain with police and ended up ratting out her best friend, the suspected drug dealer.

"I'll tell you her whole entire name," she said, her voice breaking. "She's got a warrant out for her arrest and everything."

When the police started asking follow-up questions, she asked fiercely: "Will this benefit me?"

But she was going to jail, and she admitted to the police she's not ready to leave this life. She said she makes about $500 a day as a prostitute, $700 on Valentine's Day performing oral sex. She said she likes the fast pace and easy money.

Madgalene And Thistle Farms

Nashville arrested more than 1,100 people for prostitution and solicitation last year. Maybe someday Messina will decide she wants to go straight and clean up. And if she does, there's a program in Nashville that can help. It's called Magdalene.

It was founded in 1997 by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who grew up in Nashville and who had been abused as a child. Magdalene is a two-year private residential rehab center for women with criminal histories of prostitution and drug addiction.

Over the years, Magdalene has graduated more than 150 women and has raised about $12 million in private funds.

Magdalene offers an intensified program of housing, counseling and training, based on a 12-step model. Women stay free for the two years they're there. It is becoming a national model for others trying to help women trapped by prostitution.

Stevens contends that women don't get into prostitution alone and they won't get out alone.

"I have never met a woman coming off the streets of Nashville, Tenn., who chose prostitution as their preferred career at the age of 6, 7, 8 and 9," Stevens says.

The therapy happens in one of Magdalene's six group homes, where the women live unsupervised. The women also make bath and body oils and candles at a workshop called Thistle Farms — products that Stevens says promote healing.

The thistle flower is the women's emblem.

"Like rough weed, like we are when we were out there on the streets," says Penny, who's in the program. "We just survived through the cold and drought, just like the thistle does. It don't need no water. It comes up out of the concrete and transforms there into a beautiful flower."

John Schools

Magdalene also helps run "john schools," programs aimed at educating male clients who are arrested for hiring prostitutes about various aspects of prostitution. Only first-time offenders may enroll.

"A john could be anyone," says Kenneth Baker, a counselor who volunteers to run the john school. "You know one of them." Each john pays about $300, and then gets his record expunged if it's a first-time offense. All proceeds go to Magdalene, and last year the program contributed $100,000.

Magdalene sends former prostitutes to talk to the program to confront the men who paid for sex.

"Alexis" — who prefers to use her only street name — is a Magdalene graduate. She faces the johns defiantly on a recent Saturday morning. She talks about a life of abuse, rape, brutality and drugs, though now she's clean and sober.

She tells the men something about herself, a stand-in for many of the women they pick up.

"At 9, he started finger-painting on my body," she says, referring to her stepfather. "At 10, I lost my virginity."

She's been arrested 89 times. She says she hopes to be a lighthouse for someone else.

"Whatever you're looking for ain't gonna be found in a bottle, it ain't gonna be found in a pipe, it ain't gonna be found in a drug, it ain't gonna be found in women who don't care nothing about you," she tells them.

She also talks about their mutual need, the need to fill an empty void.

Staring back at her are men of all colors, class and age. There are a law student; a man in a polo shirt typing on an iPad; and a father of a 3-year-old.

"I never once thought that they weren't people," the father tells NPR. "It was just a supply-and-a-demand thing. I was demanding something, and they were the supplier. It's up to them to change it."

Maybe though, it's up to a community.

And that's where Magdalene comes in. It's only the beginning.

The audio for the story was produced by Rolando Arrieta.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


NPR's Jacki Lyden recently went out with the vice squad on a sting operation and she reports that for street walkers in Nashville, sometimes the way back into society begins with arrest. And first, though, a warning about this story. It contains graphic language and imagery.


MATTHEW DIXON: We're approximately about three miles from the center of downtown Nashville.

JACKI LYDEN: This stretch of Dickerson Pike in Nashville is relentlessly forlorn - a string of low-slung motels, bail bond joints, payday loan storefronts.

DIXON: I'm out front.

LYDEN: And it's the strip where prostitutes walk. I'm with photographer Stephen Alvarez. And we're out with Detective Matthew Dixon, who heads a vice squad unit here. On a scratchy radio, another undercover cop in a different car is wired up as he trolls for street walkers.

SOTO: Hey, Lorraine. You just working?

LYDEN: And although we just left the precinct, it didn't take more than a couple of minutes to find one.

DIXON: He's got a girl, flagging her over at (unintelligible) Market.

LYDEN: We can hear Dixon's partner. He goes by the name Soto. And soon, we can even see the girl waving Photo down.

SOTO: Where are you walking to?

BRITTANY MESSINA: You have a nice car. I'll do whatever you want.

SOTO: You sure?

MESSINA: (beep)

LYDEN: She says she'll do whatever he wants. But there's something she wants first. Dixon understands immediately what it is and it's going to bump this sting up a notch.

DIXON: So she's going to buy crack cocaine, allegedly, and come back out, smoke it and give the officer some of the crack and sex.

SOTO: (unintelligible) just about to go in there too.

LYDEN: At a dreary motel, Soto parks his car. From it there emerges a pretty young woman with flowing red hair. She looks almost collegiate in a white T- shirt and jeans. She darts into the motel and back, oblivious of the sting operation about to ensnare her.


SOTO: Where do you want to go?

MESSINA: There's a nice inn straight down.

SOTO: You gonna be good?

MESSINA: (unintelligible) of course, man. I'm not...

SOTO: I see that.

LYDEN: And then it's over. She's busted. Soto grabs the drugs.

SOTO: Come on, gimme. She had it in her mouth. I was trying to get it out of her mouth.


SOTO: You so dumb, girl. Why you want to stick it in your mouth for?

LYDEN: Her name is Brittany Messina. She's 21, a mother of a four-year-old girl. She's been a prostitute for five years. Messina has a delicate, narrow face but the half moon shadows under her eyes give away her addiction. What follows at first seems almost routine for Messina and Detective Dixon.

MESSINA: I have no money on me. You can check my pockets.

DIXON: You understand your rights?

LYDEN: That girl over there is someone you're working with or just a friend or?

MESSINA: My best friend. My best friend.

LYDEN: She rats out her best friend trying to bargain with Dixon.

MESSINA: I'll tell you her whole entire name. She's got a warrant for arrest and everything.

DIXON: OK. What room is she in?

MESSINA: Will this benefit me?

DIXON: What room is she in?


DIXON: 129.

MESSINA: Let me ask you a question. Is there any way that I'm not going to jail?

DIXON: Let's step outside for a minute.

MESSINA: Yes, sir.

LYDEN: And when they do, moments later, she sees her best friend, who's just been handcuffed.

MESSINA: Amanda, I love you. I'm so sorry. I didn't know, Amanda.

LYDEN: In handcuffs herself, she turns to Dixon, her emotions cascading.

MESSINA: So is there hope (unintelligible).

DIXON: There's always hope everywhere.

MESSINA: All right, thank you. All I want...

LYDEN: Her boyfriend calls and she's allowed to answer. She refers to him as daddy.

DIXON: Dixon says that he's most likely also her pimp.


MESSINA: Daddy, please pick up for me, please. Please buy me out, please.

LYDEN: But she's going to jail. And frankly, as Brittany Messina tells Detective Dixon, she's not ready to leave this life. She's addicted to the lifestyle.

DIXON: Lifestyle? What lifestyle?

MESSINA: This one.

DIXON: What...

MESSINA: Minus the police.

DIXON: Describe it for me.

MESSINA: That is (unintelligible) easy money. You'll have an easy job searching me. I don't have nothing.

DIXON: How much money do you make a day, Brittany?

MESSINA: $500.

DIXON: $500 a day.

MESSINA: I made 700 on Valentine's Day.

DIXON: Is that having sex with guys or is that - what is it?

MESSINA: Sorry, my pants are falling.

DIXON: Is that from having sex with people is that...

MESSINA: Blow jobs.

DIXON: Blow jobs.

LYDEN: So, you have a drug habit.


LYDEN: And you've been street walking for five years.


LYDEN: And you have a four-year-old.


LYDEN: So what's that picture look like to you?


LYDEN: Now, do you think you have big problems?

MESSINA: Yeah, but I mean, nothing that I can't fix. And right now - now is not the time to be criticized about it. Please don't.

LYDEN: Only when she realizes that she might face serious prison time does it all seem to sink in.

MESSINA: And this is for all the girls who are thinking about doing this (beep), it's not worth it in the long run. You'll eventually lose everything you got, little by little.


LYDEN: For prostitutes like Brittany Messina, when they're ready to give up - and it can take years - there's a place in Nashville where she might be able to get help. It's called Magdalene. Founded 14 years ago, it's a private recovery program for women with criminal histories of drug addiction and prostitution. One of its components is that it sends ex-prostitutes out to talk to the men who solicit them. This former prostitute prefers to go only by her street name, Alexis.

ALEXIS: At 9 years old he started finger painting on my body and at 10 years old I lost my virginity.

LYDEN: Welcome to the John school, where Alexis is speaking. The John school is a place where, for a fee, first-time offenders can come and attend a group session and get their records expunged. Alexis is defiant in front of her audience - men who pay women for sex.

ALEXIS: I'm no longer a prostitute and, yes, it is a part of my story. And your consequences of your actions - there will be - but it's all about choices. I choose today to come here and tell you my story because I hope to be a lighthouse for someone else to say that, you know, whatever you're looking for ain't going to be found out in a bottle, it ain't going to be found in a pipe, it ain't going to be found in a drug. It ain't going to be found in a woman who don't care nothing about you.

LYDEN: The money these money have paid to go to John school, 300 bucks each, helps sustain Magdalene and women like Alexis.

ALEXIS: But, you know, it's all about why you were out there and what - the consequence of our action is, I ended up in jail having (unintelligible) shot, stabbed, raped, beaten and been in jail 89 times. And you're in a classroom in here looking at me.

LYDEN: And who is looking at her? Men of every color, class and age. A law student polishes his silver moon and star necklace. A man in a polo shirt types on an iPad.

KENNETH BAKER: And that's the thing, a john can be anybody, Jacki.

LYDEN: Kenny Baker is a licensed addiction counselor and he voluntarily runs the john school for Magdalene.

BAKER: You know one of them, I guarantee you. I mean, it's - I mean, I went to college with these guys. So, I mean, it doesn't exclude anybody.

LYDEN: Baker's been doing this for 10 years. This is one of the most active john schools in the country.

BAKER: Hopefully, some of that stuff will stick and maybe you won't get rearrested again. I believe we certainly give you a foundation to want to address any of your issues while you're here at the john school.

LYDEN: Unidentified Man #1: I've learned quite a bit. You know, there's a lot of people here. We all got here for the same reason, either a weakness, you know, seeking something that we wasn't getting, you know, from the people that we were with.

LYDEN: Unidentified Man #2: No. No. Just there for my own reasons.

LYDEN: Well, once you hear these women's stories, it's hard not to think about them as people.

NORRIS: Yeah. I mean, I never once thought they weren't people. Just a supply and demand thing, I guess you would say. I mean, I'm demanding something and they're a supplier. I mean, I'm sorry that they ended up like that. And it's up to them to change it.

LYDEN: Becca Stevens, Magdalene's founder, says it's her contention that women don't get into prostitution alone and they won't get out alone.

BECCA STEVENS: I've had a lot of women who have cared about and served - not a lot, but several of, you know, been murdered horribly.

LYDEN: One of the former prostitutes, Penny Hall, who lived under a bridge for 10 years, said the thistle flower is the women's emblem.

PENNY HALL: Like rough weed like we are when we're out here on the streets, we was rough and tough, went to hell and back. And, you know, got in situations and we just survived through the cold, the drought like the thistle does. It don't need no water, comes out of concrete and it transforms there into a beautiful flower.

LYDEN: Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

NORRIS: And to see a video about the women of Magdalene, go to our website, Jacki's series continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with the stories of two women who've completed the program, but only one succeeds.

NORRIS: Could you imagine walking alone out here by yourself getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know and having sex with them? We were - I think about that stuff now and, like, I was crazy.

NORRIS: That's coming up tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.