Escaping Prostitution

The Story of Leslie King

The 2008 movie Taken presents a nightmare scenario: a teenage girl (played by Maggie Grace) is kidnapped while on vacation in Paris and sold into prostitution via a human trafficking network. But this fictional victim is lucky. Her father (Liam Neeson) goes to action-hero lengths to find and free his beloved child. He rescues her just in time, before she’s raped by a stranger, and she returns joyfully to a normal life.

Real-life sex trafficking isn’t like that. In real life, many victims aren’t rescued in time. Some are never rescued at all. And in real life, many victims of sex trafficking aren’t kidnapped, but are manipulated into becoming complicit in their own downfall. Children and teenagers are groomed by predators, led to make one bad choice after another, until they find themselves trapped in a dangerous and degrading situation.

That’s what happened to Leslie King.

Running Into the Darkness

In her case, childhood traumas made her vulnerable to being groomed. Her father, an angry alcoholic, frequently beat her mother while she and her younger siblings cowered in terror. Then an older cousin who lived with the family raped her, not once but repeatedly, over several weeks. He said if she told anyone, her daddy would kill her mommy. She believed him. She was eight years old.

Eventually Leslie’s father discovered the ongoing abuse and pulled a gun on the cousin. The cousin escaped unharmed, but shortly afterward Leslie’s father killed another man during a dispute over a woman and was sent to prison.

Leslie reacted to this cascade of traumas in self-destructive ways, as people often do. She overate; she stole; she became promiscuous; again and again she ran away from home.

“Each time I ran, the police picked me up and my mom came and got me,” she writes. Her mother, who knew nothing of the childhood rapes, did her best to help her daughter. She transferred Leslie to a different school; she sent her to a therapist; but the downward cycle continued.

When she was fourteen, Leslie had her first abortion; when she was fifteen she gave birth to a son and left home, taking him with her. How could she afford to rent an apartment of her own? She couldn’t. But a nice man helped her. He gave her money; he gave her attention, and compliments, and gifts. He skillfully undermined her relationship with her mother.

You can guess the rest.

“I ran right into the darkness,” she says, “into the arms of the man whom I thought would love me—only to sell me for years.” “The darkness doesn’t ask questions; it just accepts you and validates you... at least at first.”

The life Leslie describes in painful detail is, needless to say, nothing like the prostitution depicted in the movie Pretty Woman. Leslie became addicted to crack cocaine. She was in and out of jail. She broke a car window and threw herself out of the moving vehicle when the driver pulled a gun and began describing how he intended to kill her. She was beaten with all manner of objects; she was stabbed; she was chased by a john wielding a machete. For several days she was held captive in a dark basement and abused viciously, until she managed to pry the boards off a small window and escape, naked, into the street.

She walked streets, never knowing what sort of person would pick her up, always knowing she was nothing but a commodity; she dressed in business attire and hung out in hotel bars, where the bartenders would send johns her way; she traveled around the country to ballgames, horse races, other events, anywhere large groups of men gathered.

“In all those cities,” she writes, “at all those events, whether I traveled with my pimp or on my own, I knew one thing: I would never, ever not make money, because johns are everywhere.” Those johns were every age, every social class, mostly white. Some of them were women.

She also had a child with her pimp; her mother eventually took the boy and raised him along with the firstborn son. Leslie persuaded at least one woman to become a prostitute like her, and she taught many others “the game.” But sometimes, instead, she gave them bus money and helped them sneak out of town.

Her life was degrading and dangerous, and it wasn’t just dangerous for her. She had, she says, “more abortions than I could count,” and gave birth to two babies whose tiny bodies were addicted to crack.

Eventually she tried to kill herself. Ironically, that’s what saved her life.

Walking Into the Light

As she lay dying of a deliberate overdose, she prayed to the God she wasn’t entirely sure she believed existed. “If there is a God in heaven, if you’re real, please just help me,” she prayed—and was overcome with a sense of his presence.

She threw up the pills and alcohol, and then called her mother to come pick her up. She went into a detox program, following it up with a program run by nuns for former prostitutes. She received counseling and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She read the Bible, listened to praise music, went to church, “caught the Holy Ghost,” and gradually, with great difficulty, learned to “handle living in the light.”

In addition to the struggle of fighting addictions and other destructive habits, she had to find a job—not easy for someone with a criminal record—and as part of NA, she had to make amends to those she’d hurt. That involved talking with women on the streets, women she’d taught “the game,” trying to get them out.

Eventually that became a paying job. After working as a home health aide, she was contacted by the local Police Department and hired to act as a liaison between officers and women on the streets. When that temporary program ended, she founded Sacred Beginnings Women’s Transitional Program, a non-profit that helps women find their way out of prostitution.

Making Choices

In addition to helping the women on the streets, Leslie tries to help law enforcement, social work students, and the general public understand how people end up in such terrible situations. She recounts being at a hospital with a stab wound and overhearing a nurse say, “If she hadn’t been doing what she was doing, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’d have rather have died,” she says, “than hear something so hateful from the people who were supposed to help me.”

And yet the nurse’s reaction is understandable. She pleads for readers to see that “many people don’t have choices,” yet by her own account, in some ways she did have choices. Time and again her mother and other relatives tracked her down on the streets and offered help; each time she literally ran away from them. Two police officers tried to get her off the streets, but she didn’t accept their help either (though she appreciated their kindness). And even after her pimp was put in prison and she “was finally free,” she continued to practice prostitution.

Why? Because “my messed-up brain couldn’t get past the feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness, a perceived lack of options, and miserable self-esteem. Changing over to a new way of life is scary when the life you’ve lived is all you know.”

Leslie seems to struggle with the tangled issues of blame, choice, and free will. “I had always blamed myself for what happened to me,” but then “realized that the things that happened to me weren’t my fault.” Other people failed her, she says; the system failed her; years of her life were “stolen” from her. She prefers the terms “prostituted individuals” to “prostitutes.” And yet she also writes, “Forgiving myself was the hardest thing I had to do. I had done so much wrong, I didn’t think I could be forgiven for any of it.”

When Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6), he acknowledges the guilt of the tempter, but still calls the child’s actions sin. In Leslie King’s life—as in each of our lives—there’s plenty of blame to go around. Fortunately, by the grace of God, there’s plenty of forgiveness as well.

We need to be mindful of the mitigating circumstances people face and be gracious in our interactions and generous in our judgments. At the same time, we need to accord each person the dignity of having agency in her own life, of being more than an object, a passive victim to forces beyond her control. For we do all have agency—maybe not as much as we’d like or as much as we need, maybe not as much as some people have, but always some degree of agency.

If we end up in a pit so deep that we can’t climb out, so deep that all we can do is beg for help—as King did when she cried out to God—that in itself is an act, a decision. It’s a choosing of good over evil.

Fighting Alongside Angels

Whether we’re trapped by our choices, someone else’s choices, or a tangled mess of the two, Leslie is absolutely right in this: “People can change. They may need lots of chances, and they will need to be ready, but know that God can work miracles in anyone’s life.”

And in this, as in all things good, God calls us to be his co-laborers. “The darkness is all-encompassing,” she writes. “For people who live in that dark world, the light is foreign; the light is dangerous and frightening. You, however, can begin to be that light for those who live in the darkness. Love those individuals without judgment, and let your light shine on them.”

When we do that, it’s just possible that we’ll discover angels are fighting alongside us. Twice during her dark years, she ended up on the side of a road, injured and in desperate need of help. Both times an elderly white couple stopped their car and helped her—the same couple, years apart.

“I believe they were angels sent by God to save me,” she says. “The coincidence was so great that it could only have been God orchestrating my life for his purpose.” For, “no prostituted individual deserves to be treated like trash. All of us are treasures in God’s eyes.”

Leslie King's story is told in When Angels Fight: My Story of Escaping Sex Trafficking and Leading a Revolt Against Darkness (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2022).

Further Reading:

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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