She pulled herself out of a life of prostitution and addiction. Now, Julie Debbs is helping other women do the same.
My story starts out with a past that is quite colorful. I have survived 30 years of homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, incarceration and prostitution. I remember at age 18, when I was standing in freezing cold rain in hot pants, stilettos and a halter top, trying desperately to smile and sell my body on the street corners of Sacramento. If I could only go back in time and change the things that I have done.

What I did not know at the time, during those turbulent days in my life, is that I mattered. After 30 years of prostitution, I found myself strung out on heroin, still standing on the corner of the streets of Sacramento and looking for a reason to live or a reason to die.

I managed to maintain a semblance of a relationship during my days in prostitution and addiction with a man who was 10 years older than me. His name was Larry. He was 57 and diagnosed with terminal cancer, then given a death sentence of 90 days to live. A scary space of an acknowledgment about death consumed us. We had many midnight conversations about the meaning of life and how things "could have been." When one of us shed tears, the other tasted salt. I will never forget him. He said words, unknown to me at the time, that would change my life forever.

After Larry's death, I continued to maintain my destructive lifestyle, selling my body and being treated as a commodity by customers. In the history of a prostitute, it was just another day. However, in the back of my mind and the depths of my soul, I remembered the sound of Larry's voice, a sound that transcended time and space, whispering, "If I had only changed my life when I was younger, I could have had a chance."

Those words changed my life forever. I instinctively knew it was time to get busy living or to get busy dying. I checked myself into a rehabilitation center to clean up and try to find myself. It was during this time that I realized the gravity of what I had done every time I sold my body, randomly giving away pieces of my soul.

Eventually, I managed to build up the courage to enroll in college in an attempt to discover my potential and interests. Since my enrollment, I have maintained a 3.5 GPA and received seven scholarships for my hard work and efforts to continue my education. I'm presently working on a bachelor's degree in social work and have completed the curriculum for a chemical dependency counselor certification.

My life has changed and evolved to be the life of my wildest dreams. The lost human being I once was has transformed, and I'm now an empowered woman who has used her past experiences to assist other women involved in the sex-industry trade.

Today, I am the program coordinator for a local grassroots nonprofit organization that facilitates outreach, support and education groups, HIV testing and maintains a drop-in center for women in the Oak Park area of Sacramento who are involved in the sex-industry trade.

When I reach out to these women they know I feel their pain. I have had the distinct pleasure of watching women transform and grow, eventually coming to their own and leaving prostitution. When we have success stories at the drop-in center I'm inspired to continue my life mission of helping these women seek alternative lifestyle choices—this is my destiny.

Who would have thought those many years ago as a teenage prostitute that at the seasoned age of 51 I would be an inspiration to other women involved in prostitution, to let them know that they have a voice and that their voice matters? I no longer have to subject myself to the pain of dehumanizing myself. I have turned my past around and use the things I have learned on the streets of Sacramento as a 30-year veteran prostitute to inspire hope in other women who are stuck in the business of selling their bodies. I let them know that they, too, can empower themselves and become the women they had only before dreamed of being.

— Julie Debbs

Next: How a victim is trying to end the cycle of abuse


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