When men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults. It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men. Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.
There’s a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food. “He gets every penny,” Simpkins explains. “If you get caught with money, you get beat. … I was his property,” Simpkins says bluntly.
Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren’t for the Magdalene program, founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University. Magdalene is a two-year residential program for prostitution survivors who want to overcome addictions and start new lives. To help the women earn a living, Rev. Stevens also started Thistle Farms, which employs dozens of women making products sold on the Internet and in stores like Whole Foods.
Shelia Simpkins went through the Magdalene program and overcame her addictions. In December, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then she plans to earn a master’s in social work. She regularly brings in women off the street who want to follow her in starting over.
Magdalene and Thistle Farms fill part of what’s needed: residential and work programs for women trying to flee pimps. We also need to see a much greater crackdown on pimps and johns. If there were more risk, fewer men would buy sex, and falling demand would force some pimps to find a new line of work.
Sheila Simpkins has married and has two children, ages 4 and 6. The older one has just been accepted in a gifted program at school, and she couldn’t be more proud. “I haven’t done a lot of things right in my life, but this is one thing I’m going to do right,” she said. “I’m going to be the world’s best mom.”
Learn more at Nicholas D. Kristof’s New York Times article: From the Streets to the ‘World’s Best Mom’.