Leaving ‘the life’

Kathy Magnuson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Terry Forliti says that he stole her self worth. An employer raped her when she was 15 years old -at that age, she was not even sure of what intercourse was. He was young and handsome and gave her a drink – another new experience. She blamed herself for years for what happened that night long before she identified his act as rape. 

I met Terry in September 2014 on a bus tour to an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) rally in Washington D.C. In September 2015, Terry took me on a tour of her former life of drugs, violence and prostitution in the Twin Cities. 

We drove down University Avenue in St. Paul to Franklin Avenue and back on Lake Street in Minneapolis. As we crossed the intersection of Snelling and University – a corner with one of the highest rates of car traffic in the Twin Cities – Forliti pointed out that this area has a high rate of sex trafficking as well. 

On our drive, she showed me where she had lived in her car, broken into homes to do drugs and worked “in the life” of prostitution. She pointed out a woman wide-eyed from drugs going from car to car in line at a stoplight – stopping at cars that had only one male – probably looking for a john. 

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Value and worth

Today Forliti lives in a nice St. Paul neighborhood. But her life from the rape until now includes three felonies for theft and fraud, losing custody of two of her three children, drug addiction and years of working in prostitution. 

She cites the “worth” of women in “the life.” “It’s all about supply and demand,” she says. 

In Minnesota’s good economy, a woman working in prostitution might be sold for 6-10 sex acts per day, yielding $500 to $1,000. She compares that to brothels in Cambodia where women might have 40 customers per day for the equivalent of $20-$30 per day. 

According to data from Breaking Free – an organization that helps women escape systems of prostitution and sexual exploitation – about men who have come through their Offenders Prostitution Program (more commonly known as “johns’ school”), the average customer, or “john,” in the Twin Cities is a 47-year-old white male who is married, has two children, lives in the suburbs and has an income over $75,000. 

“Most women need to do drugs in order to do the work of prostitution,” she says, but for Forliti, it was the other way around – it was her drug addiction that led to prostitution. 

When she could no longer tolerate prostitution – even with the help of the drugs – she turned to theft to support herself, stealing about $3,000 in merchandise per day to net $500 on the street.

Starting “the life”

Shortly after her rape, Forliti’s best friend was killed in a car accident and her parents divorced. She didn’t know how to handle the trauma in her life. 

At the same time, she was a big sports fan and met professional athletes who were doing drugs. She figured if they were doing drugs, it must be OK. She loved that the drugs helped her to lose weight and her inhibitions and gave her more energy. So began her 30 years of drug addiction. 

Forliti worked hard and played hard. She was functional in her life, working for 15 years at a major health care institution as a systems analyst. She married and had two children – and her drug use escalated. 

When her husband asked for a divorce and took her children away from her, she didn’t want to live any more. Her drug dealer was busted, and she was laid off about the same time. She lost more weight and started using crack. 

She went through drug treatment several times but mostly what she learned was from the other addicts in recovery – who the local dealers were and where to get drugs. 

Each time she left treatment she had no viable exit strategy. The resources she needed to make it on her own – most importantly safe, permanent housing – were not available then so she went back to the same friends and same life. 

She was so ashamed that she cut off ties with her family. She was homeless and living in her car – until it died. She lived on the street and started getting involved in “the life.” 

On the streets

Life on the street on drugs and in prostitution was tough – and didn’t do much to raise her sense of self-worth. Forliti remembers being raped with a bottle. She tells of not eating for days. She had several incarcerations in Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin Counties. She remembers her pimp beating her while a neighbor stood on her chest. They both spit on her and left her in a hallway. 

She remembers standing on a bridge and trying to jump off. 

Deep in trauma, there were times when she could not remember her name. “You start losing your mind,” Forliti says. 

“I’m getting beat up. I’m getting sold. I have a huge cocaine addiction and I’m thinking ‘how can I get out of this life? What happened to me?'” Forliti asked herself. 

“I felt like dirt, like garbage. I was living like an animal. I wanted to die. I felt hopeless and helpless because I didn’t know where to go.” 

While incarcerated she attended programs because they served cookies. One of the programs was presented by Breaking Free. She was pregnant with her third child, and she thought that Breaking Free might be a way out and give her a possibility of keeping the baby. 

When released from prison, she entered a 12-Step drug rehabilitation program and started a program with Breaking Free. She went back to college at Bethel University for a degree in organizational development. 

Today, Forliti is raising her 13-year-old daughter and has a relationship with her other two adult children. She served on the board of Breaking Free and is now on the staff. She speaks to groups about her story regularly. She gives much credit to a higher power in her life as a driving force. Forliti has been out of the life for 13 years and off drugs for 8 years. 

“It took years and years and years to get a sense of self-worth – and it’s not completely back,” she says. “What helps me is helping other women who are in the same situation. And, knowing that not everyone in the world is involved in prostitution and drugs – because that is all I had known for years.” 

Then she reflects, “I don’t know about self-worth, but I know about wanting to live, at least. Getting mental health counseling and sobering up helps us [women in prostitution and addicted to drugs] to think clearly and reasonably. Then we can start to get our lives back and our kids back and a relationship with our families and that is everything. That is all we really want.”