Monday, February 4, 2002

Connie Tostado first got into prostitution at 15. She left prostitution to rebuild her life and is now one of two peer educators at Save Our Sisters, a nonprofit agency aimed at helping victims of sexual exploitation.

Former prostitute
turns her life around

Now a spokeswoman,
Connie Tostado, 18, shares her
story at a conference in Japan

By Pat Gee

It wasn't at all like she thought it would be. There she was, walking around on the hard pavement in spike heels for 10 hours at a stretch, even on cold, rainy nights, having sex in dark alleys with guys old enough to be her grandfather.

When Connie Tostado first got into prostitution at the age of 15, she thought she would be entering a glamorous life.

"I thought I'd get to travel, ride in limos, own my own car," she said. Instead, she lost her identity and the remnants of any self-esteem, got beaten up and landed in prison for six months.

Prison was probably the best thing that could have happened to Tostado, now 18, an educator-spokeswoman for Save Our Sisters, a nonprofit agency to help victims of "commercial sexual exploitation."

Connie Tostado, left, met Princess Hisako Takamado, center, and represented the United States at a December conference in Yokohama, Japan, on sexual exploitation of kids. Kelly Hill, right, played an integral part in Tostado's recovery.

In prison she met Kelly Hill, founder of SOS in Hawaii, who Tostado said became her "guardian angel" and helped her rebuild her life.

A high point in her recovery came in December when Tostado spoke before 3,500 people as a delegate representing the United States at the Second World Congress Against Commercial Exploitation of Children in Yokohama, Japan. Princess Hisako Takamado congratulated her on doing a good job.

Never did Tostado think she would be in the same room with someone like a princess, who seemed like a down-to-earth person, she said.

"I always thought that I'd be involved in prostitution. Either I'd kill myself or work for another pimp. There was nothing happy about my life," she said.

Hill said Tostado is a "natural speaker" who often brings her audience to tears.

"It takes courage to speak about something so personal, that a lot of people are very ashamed of, on stage in front of so many," Hill said.

At the conference, Tostado's message was: "We can't continue to criminalize children in the sex trade. We need your help, not your punishment.

"We are not 'prostitutes.' That's not who we are, it's what is done to us. The use of children in the sex trade ... is the least recognized and most hidden form of child abuse."

As one of two peer educators for SOS, Tostado visits about 75 schools in Hawaii a year, trying to make young women understand why she got into prostitution and how it will not satisfy their need to feel good about themselves.

She became sexually active at 13 with men a lot older than her.

"I was looking for a father figure -- I don't remember my father in my life -- a person who would tell me, 'I love you, you're beautiful,' anything that made me feel better about myself," Tostado said.

She and her mother would have screaming arguments about "stupid things" that led to her running away a number of times. Her grades went down, and she eventually developed an eating disorder, becoming an overweight 160 pounds.

A so-called friend at school introduced her to her first pimp, who "told me everything I wanted to hear." Once she was entrenched in the relationship, he called her "bitch" and "ho," she said.

She thought she loved her second pimp, but knew he cared nothing about her when she "got beat up on a date, and all he told me to do was fix my hair and go right back out there." The pimp was supposed to protect her but did absolutely nothing about the beating.

Tostado, totally disillusioned and "disgusted with myself," spent two months in a detention home and then six months in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility before she was 17. She was angry that she was sitting in prison when "nothing was happening to him. I didn't hear a word from him."

She began having nightmares, "flashbacks of customers. ... I became nauseated and didn't want to eat." A staff member told her about SOS, and she began receiving counseling every week from Hill.

"She (Hill) used to make us stand in front of a mirror and say, 'I am beautiful, I am important, I am strong,'" Tostado said. "It's funny, it actually worked. We learned we could say 'no' to guys and set boundaries for ourselves. We learned to shake hands with people, look people in the eye. Before, I would look at the ground. Small things like that are big to me."

She went back to school and made straight A's, and "now my mother is proud of me." Tostado plans to attend community college and study to become a social worker who can relate to women and children caught in the same predicament she was.

"Before, no one would understand me," she said. "They would be talking out of books. They couldn't relate to me in any way."

Now, after help from Hill and SOS, "I live on my own, I pay bills," she said. "I'm a strong person. I'm happy now."

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