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Though misconceptions about prostitution often lead to mistreatment in hospitals and law enforcement, in Worcester, that story is slowly changing. Officials and community leaders say that the city is increasingly looking at prostitution as a public health issue, rather than a moral failing. Nationwide, women are much more likely to be punished for charging for sex than men are for buying it.
Between and , prostituted women were around twice as likely to be arrested than the men paying for sex with them, according to statistics from the U. Bureau of Justice. But recent data show that Worcester is starting to buck this trend. In , 98 women were arrested for prostitution, while only nine men were arrested for paying for sex. In , 33 women were arrested compared to 96 men.
Medical professionals in Worcester are also starting to change their training to reduce bias against prostituted women and provide better care to help women exit prostitution. This shift follows — and may be partially thanks to — a shifting mindset towards people struggling with drug addiction in the midst of the opioid crisis. Prostituted women often face discrimination and bias when interacting with doctors or members of law enforcement, according to Nikki Bell, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation in Worcester.
During the 10 years she was trapped in prostitution, Bell said trips to the hospital and interacting with police were traumatizing. Once, in her late 20s, she went to the emergency room after being raped, and a nurse suggested that treating her was a waste of time. Bell is the founder and director of Living in Freedom Together, or LIFT , an organization in Worcester that helps women exit the cycle of commercial sexual exploitation.
Bell said women stuck in the violent cycle of prostitution need help and recovery services — not judgment or punishment. Most prostituted women in Worcester struggle with poverty, homelessness and addiction, according to Marianne Sarkis, a professor at Clark University who researches sexual exploitation in the region.