Sex Workers: Stepping Out of the Shadows: From survival to service: The journey of a former sex worker turned advocate

Stephanie Sepeda (right) and Leonor Alvarado (left), provide community outreach support to sex workers on Holt Avenue with hygiene bags and fast food gift cards. In 2022, Sepeda founded Project Resilience, a non-profit that aims to heal those suffering from trauma, violence, and incarceration, after transitioning out of the prostitution lifestyle she began at only 4 years old. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Stephanie Sepeda (right) and Leonor Alvarado (left), provide community outreach support to sex workers on Holt Avenue with hygiene bags and fast food gift cards. In 2022, Sepeda founded Project Resilience, a non-profit that aims to heal those suffering from trauma, violence, and incarceration, after transitioning out of the prostitution lifestyle she began at only 4 years old. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

Sarah Van Buskirk
Editorial Director 

Lindsey Pacela
Contributing Editor

*This story contains graphic information of sexual content, violence and strong language. Some names of those identified in the story have been altered to protect their identities.

“My own Mama pimped me out,” said Stephanie Sepeda, founder and CEO of Project Resilience and former sex worker.

At 4 years old, Sepeda’s mom sold her to men to feed her own cocaine addiction.

“That’s when I learned men like little girls,” Sepeda said.

Her experience with child prostitution and gang involvement via her drug-addicted mother continued until she was 11. At that point, she decided to drop out of the 7th grade. She had no school clothes and felt like her chance at getting an education was destroyed because she had no home life stability and no emotionally connected relationship with her mother.

Sepeda said she would read the newspaper to learn big words. She had enjoyed school, but her tumultuous home life consumed all of her adolescent energy to focus on her education. 

Sepeda found some solace in her grandparent’s home when she was occasionally picked up from her mother’s house. Her grandparents took her to soccer practice and pushed her to try hard in school, trying to give her a somewhat normal childhood, she said.

“They were oblivious and unaware,” Sepeda said, adding that her grandparents were ignorant of what was going on behind closed doors. 

She never revealed her trauma to her grandparents because she didn’t want to hurt them.

Sepeda tried to live on her own on the streets during junior high, but soon realized that was nearly impossible without an income. She only knew how to make money by selling her body, so in high school she began prostitution again, as a “renegade,” or a prostitute without the control of a pimp.

In her late teens, she was in and out of jail for possession of drugs, which she took to numb the trauma of her childhood and function as a young adult. She met a boyfriend who she felt gave her a sliver of stability. A few years into the relationship after being advertised on websites like Craigslist and MeetMe as a prostitute, she realized that once again she was being sold, by her boyfriend, who turned out to be a “Romeo pimp,” or a man who portrays himself as a boyfriend, but is extremely manipulative and preys on vulnerable girls. These so-called Romeos are notorious for lines, such as, “if you love me, you’ll do it for me,” and “we need to do this.” This is different from a so-called “gorilla pimp,”  who kidnaps and beats sex workers into submission.

“I was never arrested for prostitution but fell into addiction – PCP, cocaine, meth, alcohol,” Sepeda reflecting on her later teen years.

She was arrested a few times on drug-related charges, later realizing that she subconsciously tried to get caught, so that she could get the help she needed to break the cycle she was in. 

The research study by the National Library of Medicine, “Substance abuse and prostitution,” collected data from 200 street sex workers and found 55% of them were addicted prior to their prostitution involvement or whether it was prostitution that caused their drug addictions; 30% said they became addicted after getting out of prostitution and 15% said they were concurrently addicted along with their prostitution involvement. 

Stephanie Sepeda, founder of Project Resilience, a non-profit that aims to heal those suffering from trauma, violence, and incarceration, continues to calm the internal battles she was dealt with from childhood trauma and abuse through supporting those in need of encouragement and self love. Sepeda hosts community outreach days where volunteers distribute hygiene supplies and water as well as community welcomed workshops that promote self-esteem. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Stephanie Sepeda, founder of Project Resilience, a non-profit that aims to heal those suffering from trauma, violence, and incarceration, continues to calm the internal battles she was dealt with from childhood trauma and abuse through supporting those in need of encouragement and self love. Sepeda hosts community outreach days where volunteers distribute hygiene supplies and water as well as community welcomed workshops that promote self-esteem. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

Sepeda’s rebirth

In 2009, at 35-years-old, Sepeda was taken out of a motel during a sting operation by the police in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. They brought her to a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles where she went into a residential program. 

Even with a detox treatment, she struggled to stay clean and relapsed. Sepeda said she needed something bigger in her life and that’s when the rehabilitation facility referred her to Total Restoration Ministries, a faith-based organization that specialized in the treatment of substance abuse, who taught her how to connect with a higher power and create a relationship with God to endure her internal battles. Faith became the key factor in her transition out of the life.

“I had so much self hatred,” Sepeda said, “I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror.” 

As she transitioned out of working on the street and was sober again, she tried to find a job she was passionate about. She wanted to create an organization that would help sex workers in similar situations as she once was, but did not have the means or resources to do so. 

After she brought forth the idea to the Pomona City Council in 2021 and spoke to community members, she received government funding through the Los Angeles Department of Public Health’s American Rescue Plan Act, which aims to promote peace and healing in communities disproportionately impacted by violence across the county.

With that grant, she started her own non-profit, Project Resilience, in 2022 because the organization was eligible for the funding labeled under “trauma informed care.”

Project Resilience continues to thrive through city support from Pomona Hope CA, a non-profit that aims to heal those suffering from trauma, violence and incarceration within communities. They partnered with other community-based organizations and stakeholders like the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Rising Communities, a non-profit committed to applying justice, equity, diversity and inclusion to achieve sustainable policy and system change, to establish the Pomona Community Action for Peace, or Pomona CAP. Their commitment to address root causes of violent acts to create a safer community granted Project Resilience $10,000 in 2023 and helped fund the non-profit’s hygiene bag distribution days they schedule to connect with individuals in need throughout Pomona.

Project Resilience’s hygiene bags are filled with menstrual items, toothbrushes, gum and snacks, as well as gift cards for fast food restaurants, with the purpose of aiding the sex workers, not the sex work. Sepeda said the organization has built such a comfortable and welcoming presence to the sex workers that they know exactly who they are when they do community outreach days.

Project Resilience, and other similar organizations in Pomona like Project Sister and Every ONE Free, often spend weeks at a time on a single sex worker’s case. They build a rapport with them, something that is not easily done because they are so distrustful of the willingness to be given so much. 

Some sex workers don’t see clothes and dental floss as generosity, but as a trick.

“We just let them know who we are — they are traumatized,” Leonor Alvarado, a volunteer at Project Resilience, said.

The women at Project Resilience said that pimps have territories along The Blade, contradictory of what the Pomona Police Department said.

Tori, a 19-year-old sex worker from Dallas, Texas, who asked for her name to be changed for safety reasons, works on Holt Avenue in Pomona. Prostitution was decriminalized in 2021 under SB 357, “Crimes: loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense” and officers from the Pomona Police Department said the workers wear even more revealing garments after the law came into effect. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Tori, a 19-year-old sex worker from Dallas, Texas, who asked for her name to be changed for safety reasons, works on Holt Avenue in Pomona. Prostitution was decriminalized in 2021 under SB 357, “Crimes: loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense” and officers from the Pomona Police Department said the workers wear even more revealing garments after the law came into effect. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

Stories from the streets

Holt Avenue in Pomona, also known as The Blade, is a nationally known corridor where one can see a sex worker strutting down at any time of day, any day of the week.

The rest of the sex workers are renegades, often traveling in from other states because of the laws becoming stricter.

“I don’t fu** with pimps,” Nae-Lani, independent sex worker from Texas, who has recently been working on The Blade and gave an alias for safety reasons, said. “Whatever a man can do, I can do myself.”

Nae-Lani, 22, makes around $1,500 a night, only working two days a week on The Blade because the rest of the week, she makes her money online. A large portion of Nae-Lani’s income comes from her following for online sex work on sites like Facebook and OnlyFans.

“I had a pimp who gave a fu**,” Stacey, 34, a sex worker on Holt Avenue, whose name has been changed for safety, said. 

She’s worked on Figueroa, and had boyfriends who were pimps. She defined only one as a true romantic relationship, where he made sure that her needs were met. Now she works on The Blade, often with the company of other women she has grown to trust, like her friend Tori, a 19 year old sex worker from Dallas, Texas, given an alias for safety.

The Solicitors

Most of the men who solicit sex work, also known as Johns, have varying preferences of sex workers, and Holt Avenue has it all. There are young, old, short, tall, smaller-bodied, larger-bodied, all hair colors, all races, tattooed and not. Outfits vary too — some adorn a g-string and pasties or no pasties but a see-through cover-up. Others dress up as a nurse, school girl, or a fantasy character. Older sex workers tend to congregate together on street corners, whereas the younger ones are glued to their phones, refusing to speak to the workers next to them.

“Some of them look petite,” Johnson, an officer of the Pomona Police Department Investigative Services team, said. “There are all shapes and sizes — we even have a dwarf.”

“These men like oral sex and they don’t get it at home,” Sepeda said.

The main demographic of solicitors are married Hispanic men with families. She believes that these men lack commitment and just want their needs met. There isn’t a lot of talking during the transaction and absolutely no kissing. They’re not looking for an emotional connection, but a service. Kissing is reserved for their wives at home — the sex workers are looked down upon, as if they are just an object.

“There are some sick individuals,” Sepeda said.

She’s seen arrests of men who have held sex workers hostage. Even though some Johns treat these sex workers so horribly, they often can’t and don’t want to escape the life.

“I was beaten an inch away from death,” Sepeda said, in reference to one of her ex-boyfriends. 

She said she didn’t know how to choose a healthy relationship because she had such a rocky relationship with her mother.

The sex workers believe the police are the enemy because they have been brainwashed to think so. The gang and drug related lifestyle of the streets continues to trap sex workers into the cycle. Sex workers are oppressed from the start, bound to be shamed. This only makes the efforts of community outreach harder.

City efforts

“The city lacks financial resources to build a larger SET team,” Sepeda said. “Only about one percent get out.”

Sepeda got out of the life by finding her “higher power” and embracing positive self-talk. She shed her shame and guilt and now imparts this on to the sex workers she meets on the streets. Sepeda incorporates mantras and affirmations in the work she presents at events held for the community such as self-esteem seminars as well as sex trafficking prevention workshops for families. 

Weekly women support groups are held every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at 101 West Mission Blvd. in Pomona, welcoming survivors of all forms of trauma.

In June, Sepeda will graduate from Mt. San Antonio College after six years of studying towards her associates degree in sociology and plans on working in one of San Bernadino’s social work programs. Her four children and five grandchildren are what continue to push her through her internal battles today.

Sarah Van Buskirk  can be reached at sarah.vanbuskirk@laverne.edu.

Lindsey Pacela can be reached at lindsey.pacela@laverne.edu.

Tori (left) and Stacy (right), who have asked that their names be changed for safety reasons, met on Holt Avenue in March and stick together while they make their money. With over a 10-year age gap, the women got along like sisters as they shared a smoke break, waiting for the next car to approach. / photo by Lindsey Pacela
Tori (left) and Stacy (right), who have asked that their names be changed for safety reasons, met on Holt Avenue in March and stick together while they make their money. With over a 10-year age gap, the women got along like sisters as they shared a smoke break, waiting for the next car to approach. / photo by Lindsey Pacela

Need Help Now?

If you or a loved one have experienced sex trafficking and are looking for help, call or visit:

Project Sister Rape Crisis Hotline: (909) 626-4357

Project Sister Child Abuse Hotline: (626) 966-4155

Project Sister Website: projectsister.org

Project Resilience Number: (909) 643-1635

Project Resilience Website: project-resilience.org

The National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888

Sex Workers: Stepping Out of the Shadows

Pomona's open secret: Prostitution unveiled

From survival to service: The journey of a former sex worker turned advocate
Online sex work and stripping prove safer than prostitution

Sarah Van Buskirk is a senior journalism major with a concentration in print and online journalism. She is the Spring 2024 editorial director for the Campus Times and has recently served as editor-in-chief, sports editor and staff writer. She is also currently a staff photographer for the Campus Times and La Verne Magazine, and a staff writer for La Verne Magazine.

Lindsey Pacela, a senior journalism and psychology major, has worked as the editor-in-chief of La Verne Magazine and news editor for the Campus Times. She is currently a staff photographer for both publications.

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