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Greenville Nonprofit Sets Former Trafficked Sex Workers on the Path to Healing

Shea Sanders
Grace Church, Greenville. Used with permission.

Jasmine Road. Think of it as a path towards healing for women who once thought their lives of prostitution and other sex work were normal.

The women who come to Jasmine Road – a Greenville nonprofit that serves as a kind of rehab for mostly city women caught up in the revolving door of the criminal justice system – have had lives that are anything but normal. Most, says founder Beth Messick, began their lives in the sex trade when they were children; often sold in exchange for drugs when they were still single-digit ages.

Often by their mothers.

Messick frequently uses the phrase, “many women, one story.” The details of individual stories might change – maybe someone was trafficked by parents to get money for drugs; maybe someone else was abused sexually and physically from an early age, typically by a relative.

Either way, it adds up to the same overall story – one of abuse, extremely early sexualization, and a sense that this is just how life is supposed to be.

Messick finds women with these stories in the same places savvy traffickers and sex work customers do – on the streets; coming out of jail (again); hanging around near drug rehab facilities. She knows what to look for in these women – the sense of indifference to their own plight and the sense of shame about who they are – because she’s been through the kinds of things they grew up with too.

“I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse,” Messick says. “I know what it’s like to feel like you’re used and discarded.’

Messick says she was abused for several years as a child, then again in high school. She was also gang raped in college. Her reaction was to ask herself, “What’s wrong with me?” Because, she says, she had been conditioned to think everything she’d been through was her own fault.

She did not turn to prostitution, but knows she easily could have, given that her biggest worth to anyone else, essentially since she can remember, was as someone’s sexual item. She got through it with years of work, family support, and counseling – the latter two being things that a lot of girls growing up in abusive, usually poor environments do not have access to.

Jasmine Road is designed to give women from those same abusive backgrounds that very kind of support network. It’s a two-year residential program, free of charge to those who enter, paid for through a combination of grants, partnerships, and fundraising. Partners include hospitals and medical practitioners, as well as trade businesses.

The first six months is just for healing. No cell phones, no pressure to do anything. Therapy, including therapy-informed yoga and art, is offered, but if residents want to sit on the ground and pet Jasmine Road’s resident mascot – a cat named Jazzy – that’s fine too. There’s also a lot of prayer, given that Jasmine Road is a Christian-founded organization modeled after Thistle Farms in Tennessee.

The second six months is when the path back to the world outside begins in earnest, Mesick says. Individualized programs in either school or a career path, commence. Residents either need to enroll in a school program (most likely to be GED), or start working on something that will lead them to a working life not involving the sex trade. Like Thistle farms, which has a shop for resident-made candles, bath and body products, jewelry, and clothing items, Jasmine Road is building an internal crafts business. Residents make candles for sale that help keep the program going.

The most anticipated career path project at Jasmine Road is Jasmine Kitchen, a café-style restaurant set to soft-launch in December and be fully open (to the public) in January. The first residents to have entered the program will work there, making and serving soups and sandwiches, among other things in a casual, real-world setting.

The second full year of residency, Messick says, is about moving to more full-time work so the residents can get back into the world in a self-sustaining way. Jasmine Road opened about a year-and-a-half ago, and the first graduation will commence in May 2020. But Messick says residents will still be able to stay connected to Jasmine Road, because the goal is to have self-sustaining, empowered women enter society with a support network. No one, she says, is going to be abandoned just because their residency is up.

“We’re creating community and a network of support,” Messick says.

Some Statistics on Sex Trafficking in South Carolina

The real numbers when it comes to human trafficking (which can involve sex or labor) aren’t easy to know. Statistics only account for times when a trafficking situation is acknowledged in an official way by law enforcement and legal systems.

But the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force keep tabs on trafficking cases in the state. According to their latest data, for 2018:

  • There were 127 cases of human trafficking in South Carolina.
  • Of those cases, 87 involved sex trafficking and nine combined sex and labor.
  • Richland County had the most human trafficking cases of any county in the state, 26.
  • Illicit massage businesses led to 19 cases of sex trafficking.
  • There were 141 females and 47 males who were victims of trafficking. Of the females, 72 were adults, 36 were minors and 33 were not able to be properly aged.
  • Fraud, coercion, and control were cited as the most common methods used by traffickers. Most incidents began with a job offer or advertisement.
  • There were 13 new defendants charged with human trafficking in South Carolina state courts. Three involved minor victims.
  • There were 64 charges of human trafficking closed in state courts.
  • Greenville and Horry counties contributed almost half of the human trafficking cases in 2018.