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Spring 2007

Articles by students in the Investigative Journalism class

Prostitution in Robeson County

by Margaret Damghani
April 12, 2007

Local Organizations Deal with Issues of Commercial Sex Workers

One group teaches women's empowerment.

Another promotes safe sex and gives free STD testing.

Health organizations try to curb the threatening tide of STD's by educating and rehabilitating sex workers and drug addicts.

Some local residents and social workers feel that people do not want to address or admit to the problem of prostitution in Robeson County. Though it is beneath the surface to many, the plight of Robeson County's sex workers is not going completely unnoticed.

Sex work is perpetuated in parts of Robeson County on Highway 71 between Maxton and Lumber Bridge through the tiny abandoned shacks that sit deteriorating along the highway and other roads.

Renee Chavis, an outreach worker with the My Fair Lady Program, mentions a small house she visited in the course of her outreach work. She says the house has no floor and the roof seems, at best, unstable. Six female sex workers live there and one woman delivered another's baby on the dirt floor. This house has no running water or plumbing.

There were 126 documented commercial sex workers in Robeson County in 2004, according to State Disease Intervention Specialists. They also found that the drug of choice for most is smoked crack cocaine.

A series of interviews with sex workers, non-profit organizations and law enforcement agencies supported this finding.

Nine commercial sex workers interviewed at the Robeson County jail shared many of these points:
  • they were supporting a drug habit
  • they did not kiss their clients on the mouth or do more 'intimate' things
  • they may have held other jobs before becoming a sex worker but drug addiction interfered
  • they had traumatic events happen in their family lives and/or poor relationships with their mothers
  • they have children that have been taken away by social services
  • they do not use pimps
  • many had another word for what they did besides prostitution
  • many had never been charged for prostitution, but had been for trespassing, loitering, or drug offenses
These similarities may or may not be true of all sex workers but seem to represent the norm for Robeson County.

Interviews: The Sex Workers Point of View
The names of these women have been changed.

Tonya Carter, 33, has been a streetwalker in Lumberton since she was 18. She says she has been arrested three or four times for prostitution. This time she is in jail for driving without a license.

She gave birth to her first child four months ago and plans to go into drug rehabilitation when she gets out in a few weeks.

"I know I'd go right back out if I didn't have my little boy to think about," Carter says.

Carter says her price "all depends on what you wanna do" and when asked if she called herself a prostitute or found the word offensive, replies, "You might as well tell it like it is."

"I didn't like doing it but I had a habit. I just supported my habit," Carter says. Carter added that she bought food and clothes with the money as well.

Selena Davis, 32, from Red Springs says she began sex work after a series of discouraging events in her life. A break up with a long term boyfriend, a miscarriage and losing custody of her three children because of her crack use began a downward spiral.

"I didn't want to deal with reality. Reality sucks," Davis says.

She held an assistant manager's position at Wendy's but says she was "too tired" from her drug habit to keep up with her job.

"I wasn't raised this way. I learned it. I watched the other girls at the truck stop," Davis says.

Like other sex workers, she has boundaries and limits to what she will do.

"To me that's [kissing] too intimate. Remember pretty woman. I don't want them to barely touch me. In and out is my thing," she says.

Older men, in this woman's experience, want more physical contact and "lovin'".

"There's certain things I just won't do," Davis says, adding that she knows other women that will cross lines she is uncomfortable with. She says she simply sends the john to another woman she knows if he asks for something she won't do.

Davis says that she makes more money by not charging a set price. After the job has been done, she tells hers clients to give her a gift for her services.

Prostitution is dangerous work. She recalls one woman she knew who was killed by a man who picked her up.

"It's not safe," Davis says. "Traveling people's the ones with the money. They are also the ones that will hurt you."

She has a stormy relationship with her mother, who once told Davis her children would be better off if she committed suicide.

Amanda Ferguson of St. Pauls, 34, says that her mother always blamed her for her sister's death.

"That's all I wanted was someone to love me," she says.

"It's hard for me. I'm always thinking negative," she says. "My mom's really negative. I've been to so many psychiatrists."

She started out working at a massage parlor.

"Back when I was 18, I was saving money for college. Really I was a prostitute but I called myself a masseuse. Then I started drugs," she says. "My kids were took from me because of drugs."

One sex worker in the Robeson County Jail lives in Fayetteville.

"I don't like women being called prostitutes," Alicia Jenkins says. "I hustled to pay my bills. I would never call myself a whore or a prostitute."

Jenkins spoke about learning how to protect herself and learning the boundaries are what she was willing to do.

"I'm not going to say I didn't do anything for crack. Once you've gone through so much and you are disrespecting your body you get smarter," she says. "I was my own pimp. I said when I wanted to, how I wanted to, if I wanted to."

A 46-year-old woman, Celia Hall, from Maxton gives a short laugh as she says, "I ain't got into this modern sex. I'm an old fashioned girl. Just give me the back of a car."

Hall has three or four "personal friends" who give her money or crack after their dates, but she has walked highway 71 and been picked up by strangers in times of need. Usually, she just "knows where to go."

Hall began in the business after being in jail on drug charges she felt were the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She felt she had nothing to lose and joined her sister in crack addiction and prostitution.

"It was a family thing. My sister would show me the men," Hall says.

"If you were to be busted, that's what it would be called. It's working for sex," Hall replies when asked if she calls herself a prostitute or uses a different term. "I've traded sex for money and drugs."

A few women mention topics that most don't want to talk about, such as bestiality.

"Try-sexuals. T-R-Y. I heard of in Prospect where they were doing dogs," she says.

"The more you are on it [crack cocaine] the more you will do for it," says another woman, age 29.


There are several outreach programs aimed at stopping prostitution or aiding sex workers in Robeson County.

Different organizations seek to curb prostitution for different reasons. Robeson County's history with HIV/AIDS and Syphilis drive health agencies to give out free testing, condoms and lubes, or offer educational programs about STD's and drug use. Other organizations sponsor support groups for sex-trade workers. Some are faith based, others are not.

My Fair Lady

The Robeson County Health Department sponsored the My Fair Lady project "targeting STD reduction through prostitute rehabilitation", according to an article published by the Robeson County Health Department.

This project was started by a grant in 2004. Palmer Prevention Inc., a private non-profit organization in Pembroke, took over the project in August 2006 because it was not fairing well.

"Basically, the girls were just going back out," Sharlene Oxendine, an outreach worker at Palmer, said.

Oxendine and fellow outreach worker Renee Chavis give weekly STD Presentations at the Robeson County Jail. Chavis and Oxendine were never sex trade workers themselves, but were both former crack users. The women are drug tested once a week.

Chavis begins the Presentation at the jail on April 17 by introducing herself and her story to the women.

"It [crack] takes a hold of you," she says, "Don't be ashamed of where you've been and what you've done."

The room is filled with ten women, some admit to sex work and all admit to using crack, although the charges against them include driving without a license and trespassing.

The women listen to Chavis speak attentively and one woman's face visibly changes as she asks, "You used to use crack too?"

Most of the women attending the April 17 presentation asked the workers about drug rehabilitation and getting their children back.

"Once you get in the system, its hard to get out," she says. "I never stopped trying to get them back."

Chavis has four children and has regained custody of all of them.

There is currently one or two former sex workers in rehabilitation programs that Oxendine is hopeful will join the project.

"They still contact us because we are that support they didn't get anywhere else," Chavis says of some of the women she has met. "They know that we can do it, so they can too."

The Healing Lodge

The Healing Lodge, a nonprofit faith based organization, works to lessen the health disparities for Indians in and around Robeson County, according to their website.

The Lodge gives out free condoms and lubes and performs HIV and other STD testing around the county.

Ellen Bullard and Lucy Lowry have many sex workers among their clients.

Lowry says she believes many women start by drinking or going out on the weekends, and that once they try smoking crack it is a downward spiral.

Many women she knows may have started out with middle income jobs.

"They start out working and just get pulled into it. It leads to poverty," Lowry says. "You hang with that type of person and you get brought down."

Many of the women along highway 71 are between the ages of 40-60, according to Lowry.

"A lot of them are the older age. And that's the age that's being forgotten," Lowry says. "And these people are still doing crack-cocaine, at this age, crack-cocaine."

Some of her clients will have sex for a crack rock that only gives about a ten to 15 minute high and would cost about two or three dollars.

"Exchanging a fix for a fix. But the fix they are getting a speck," Lowry says.

One client has reported having sexual interaction with a dog because her drug dealer "got tired of" having sex with her.

"That was pitiful," Lowry said.

"They've got a disease. It's a sickness. They know these girls is addicted," Bullard says of the drug dealers and johns that push women into these types of acts.

"I think, more or less, they have a horrific background. Pulled up by the head of their hair. They were born into it, raised into it, and don't know anything else. Don't know how to get out of it, until someone gives them a chance," Lowry says.

Bullard says that prostitution has increased "dramatically within the past ten years" and is "very prevalent among the Lumbee."

American Indian Mothers

American Indian Mothers, Inc. is a nonprofit faith based organization with a different approach. Beverly Collins-Hall, the executive director, started the Ladies of the Light" Talking Circles" in 2001 when she says there were 150 sex workers between Lumber Bridge and the Campbell Soup plant in Maxton.

"We know we have to deal with the negative, but we bring the positive in to balance it out," Collins-Hall says of the Talking Circles. She holds these meetings at the jail as well as at American Indian Mothers' building on highway 71 in Shannon.

"These people don't see that they are never living a healthy life," she says.

American Indian Mothers focuses on empowering women and families and seeks to build confidence and mind power, sometimes using vision quests, in the Talking Circles.

"There's low to no self esteem with these girls," she says, "When you treat people like they're nothing how can you reform them?"

Most of the women she knows are ages 30-50 and she says that often the older women use the younger ones to bring men in.

"This prostitution stuff is the tip of the iceberg of what we're dealing with," Collins Hall says. "They have all these things built up inside. We're dealing with children that were raised in abuse. I think most of these women have been molested or raped." She adds that she knows some sex workers who have Masters and Bachelors degrees.

"I'm not agreeing that there's nothing we can do," Collins-Hall says. In her opinion, it does not make sense that organizations spend money to give out free needles and condoms but have none to give to people for transportation, housing, food and counseling.

Collins-Hall says that the women need to get out of their environment to be able to change.

"Wherever they prostitute it's like an addiction. It's associated with the drug, "she says. "If you want to stop prostituting, you've got to change your playground and your playmates."

When asked about the johns she has seen she says, "I have seen deputies, I have seen pastors."

Law Enforcement and Statistics

Federal statistics collected by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Systems shows that there were 25 arrests for prostitution and commercial vice in the year 2000. Attempts to get more recent information from the county's law enforcement agencies were largely unsuccessful.

There are seven police departments that patrol Robeson County along with the Sheriff's Department.

Arrest records for prostitution and sexual vice were requested from each law enforcement agency. Only the Lumberton and Red Springs Police Departments had any significant numbers of arrests for prostitution.

Robeson County Sheriff's Department

Major James A. Hunt of the Robeson County Sheriff's Department says that several issues can complicate tracking arrests for prostitution. Often, sex workers are arrested for other offenses, such as loitering or trespassing, that serve the purpose of curbing prostitution.

"It's a problem here in the city of Lumberton and other places in Robeson County," says Sheriff Kenneth W. Sealey. "We are going to do several stings."

"If we get complaints, we try to patrol that area. We try to get the people some help," Sealey said, adding that the department does one or two stings a month that may result in prostitution arrests.

Chief of Detectives Lieutenant Howard Branch says that prostitution is a problem in Robeson County, but he can't remember many stings or arrests.

"It's not that we aren't doing anything about it. We just haven't charged anyone," he said, adding that the focus of many arrests is on illegal drugs and violence.


In Lumberton, prostitution is concentrated in the East and South of the city on First Street and Cherokee Street, according to Lumberton Police Department's social worker Gwen Taylor.

The police department arrests both johns and prostitutes.

Starting in 2000, the police department took part in the "Weed and Seed" program, receiving $225,000 a year for five years. The Department of Justice funds this program throughout the county in order to help police crack down on gun violence and any relating crimes, which often include crimes surrounding drugs, prostitution and gangs.

After 2005, the city decided to keep the initiative going out of the city's budget.

The current going rate for straight sex in Lumberton is $40 and $10-$20 for oral sex according to Taylor.

The code on the street is "Do you want a date?"

The Lumberton Johns

Lumberton police arrested 450 men between 2000 and 2005 for soliciting prostitution.

"If you get rid of the demand, the supply is not going to be there," Taylor says. "That has been our philosophy."

Each man had to take a "New Beginnings" class taught by Lumberton Police Department's social worker Gwen Taylor. Taylor discusses issues surrounding prostitution like sexually transmitting diseases.

"They don't like it because I am very blunt, very frank," Taylor says of the men at her classes. "These girls go from person to person with no hygiene."

Taylor says that since she has only had one repeat offender since the New Beginnings class began. She also notes that most of the men are not from Robeson County but from surrounding areas.

The men soliciting prostitution come from all backgrounds.

There is an "even distribution in the men we stop," Taylor says.

"We've had men in work trucks, we've had men in fancy cars," Taylor says.

The Lumberton Prostitutes

When the program started there were approximately 15-20 known prostitutes, according to Taylor.

Taylor says that since 2000, some of the prostitutes she worked with have quit that line of work and begun new professions. One got her CAN license while others are working at fast food restaurants. Two were murdered in similar fashions, although the crimes remain unsolved.

Taylor has worked with three male prostitutes in the past several years.

The men cross-dress and use duct tape to disguise their masculinity.

"They [the johns] may never find out" when they contract a male prostitute because a large majority of sexual exchanges are for oral sex.

Taylor estimates that 99% of the prostitutes in Lumberton are selling themselves in order to get money for drugs. Of all the prostitutes she has worked with, only one remained drug free and seemed to truly be selling herself "to feed her family".

"They are looking for that high that they can never achieve after the first time," Taylor says. "Alcohol doesn't do anything for them."

Women who are selling themselves often enter a vicious cycle that is hard to break and may have begun early on in the woman's life.

"In a sense they are a victim in their own right because of the situations they grew up in," Taylor says. "They might have followed in their mother's footsteps."

At other times, the person simply tried a drug one time and it started a spiral downward.

A former miss junior Lumbee is known to Taylor as a prostitute.

"They might have had minimum wage paying jobs to support their habit but then their habit outgrew those jobs," Taylor says.

As with the johns, prostitutes in Lumberton do not fit into any one box.

"They come from all ethnic backgrounds, from all social and economic backgrounds," Taylor says.

Red Springs

Troy McDuffie, who became the Red Springs police chief in May 2006, said in a March article in the Robesonian that dealing with prostitution and illegal drug problems would be his focus.

"It was not something that was [treated as] an issue prior to May 2006, but since I took over the administration it is an issue," McDuffie said.

Mcduffie estimates that there have been between 80 and 100 arrests since he took over.

Detective Corey Shott says that he arrests about four women a week. Official arrest records were not obtained.

"We can charge females everyday. They're out there," he says, "If you are going to arrest for soliciting, you have a sting." He adds that the stings are not at regular intervals and that "it all depends on what's going on in the town."

Prostitution in Red Springs is concentrated in areas called Mill Village and the Bottoms.

"Generally we've pushed them into other areas. It's not in the neighborhoods," McDuffie said.

Shott has seen changes in the past year.

"They do try to hide. It's different now," Shott says.

Women in Red Springs, similar to the rest of the county, are mainly supporting drug habits.

"The girls that are here are doing it for drugs," Shott says.

"It's not like in large cities where it's a profession," McDuffie says.

Editor's note: records obtained for this article
Law Enforcement OfficeRecords Request
Robeson County Sheriff's OfficeVerbal response, no arrests for 2007
Fairmont Police DepartmentLeft several messages, no response
Lumberton Police DepartmentArrested 450 men for between 2000- 2005
Maxton Police DepartmentVerbally confirmed 1 arrest for 2007
Parkton Police DepartmentLeft several messages, no response
Pembroke Police DepartmentVerbal response, no arrests for 2007
Red Springs Police DepartmentVerbal response, 80-100 arrests between May 2006-April 2007
Rowland Police DepartmentVerbal response, 1 arrest for 2007
St. Pauls Police DepartmentVerbal response, no arrests for 2007

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Topics in the Investigative Journalism (JRN-4600) class in the Department of Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke are chosen by the class members and the individuals who wrote them. The themes, covers, sections, pages and images have been designed, prepared and managed by students in the course and the topics have been reported and illustrated by the bylined individuals. Views implied or expressed in these issues are not endorsed by the professor, the department, the university, or possibly anyone else. We are grateful to those persons, agencies and institutions that have graciously provided information and images. Your comments on the articles are welcomed by Professor Anthony Curtis who may be contacted via e-mail at or by phone at (910) 521-6616.
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