When a pimp approached 16-year-old Jessica Richardson at the Portland diner where she was working in 1995, Jessica was primed to accept his offer. She had been sexually abused at age 5, and then her dad was murdered when she was 10. "I desperately needed to be accepted and loved. And when I didn't have my father and was already used to being sexually exploited, it just seemed to fit that all I was good for was sex," says Richardson.
Soon after meeting the "incredibly charming man," Richardson was turned out, first in Portland, then at sporting events and hotels up and down the I-5 corridor, the West Coast's track for trafficking. After 15 months of the nightmare, then an unplanned pregnancy, Richardson fled her pimp at age 18.
Now a Christian and member of City Bible Church in east Portland, she is one of the best-known survivors in the city, speaking to churches and schools to expose the lie that says anyone is only good for sex and testify to Christ's transforming love and acceptance.
On site in Portland, CT video producer Nathan Clarke and associate editor Katelyn Beaty spoke with Richardson about her story of survival, documented in a stunning short film for CT's This Is Our City project. Richardson spoke of the connection between trafficking and pornography, the multibillion-dollar-a-year industry, 89 percent of which is created in the United States. Her story impresses upon Christians the importance of treating pornography as more than a personal discipleship issue.
You experienced the sex industry from the inside out. How does that experience change the way you see it?
All around us we see this glamorized image of the sex industry. We see that it's something amazing, this "porn star lifestyle." What we're seeing is just the surface. We don't see the damage that is really happening, that the sex industry really is trafficking, that the vast majority of people that are in the sex industry as a whole are there because they were sexually abused as children, that they didn't have any other option or choice.
A pimp got to them when they were young … when they were a young teenager and he sexually exploited them, and they found themselves just like me, with nowhere else to go and no other hope. And you know that money is hard to come by. So instead of running to Christ, sometimes we stay in the abuse, because there is no other option and because it does appear glamorous.
Our culture has created this myth that the sex industry is appealing, that you'll be beautiful and that you're sexy and you're attractive. They don't show the horrifying nature of being raped day in and day out.
You also had experience in pornography?
I didn't do a lot of pornography, but I did some. The effects of pornography in my life were so damaging. We don't normally think of pornography as trafficking. It's so painful to me to know that those images and those pictures are out there. That we can pull a girl off the streets and I can leave the streets, but those images - once they're online, they never go away.
I had been out of the life for three years, and a Christian for one. I was in a 12-step group that was mixed-gender. I had been there for a month or so, and one night a man came up to me. He gave me that creepy smile and nodded his head backwards and looked down his nose at me, and said, "I know who you are. You wear red, don't you?" And I knew exactly what photo shoot he was talking about.
He didn't realize that I was trafficked. He didn't realize that I was being exploited. But that pornography is always available, and I will always continue to be exploited at the time of those pictures being taken.
How did you cope with that realization?
In hindsight I didn't know what was happening, but at that moment I started gaining weight, I chopped all my hair off, I started dressing differently, and it hasn't been until just in the last 8 months or so that I've been able to identify: "The reason I'm fat is because I don't want to be recognized." It's my security blanket to protect myself from this outside world. Looking back, I don't know of a single survivor who doesn't struggle with food. All of us have food problems because it's the one level of control we have over our bodies. So we either protect ourselves by overeating and gaining weight to be unattractive to people … or it's anorexia and bulimia, as an element of control.
Is pornography worse than prostitution?
In my mind, pornography is a lot more harmful than even prostitution, because you take a picture or video of someone, they are forever exploited at the age and time that they are, so you can take a girl off the streets, and the exploitation stops, but their photos and videos are out there forever, and people who have done extensive pornography, they have to move, hide, have facial changes, name changes, just so they're not recognized, and it's so traumatic.
It seems like one step the church could take is to help congregants avoid pornography or stop using it.
We are kidding ourselves if we think that men can just stop. It's an addiction like anything else, and with the way our world is today, pornography seeks you out. It's very common, pastors and people in the church having pornography issues. But helping them overcome the addiction is a good start.
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