Note: This story accompanies a previously published article about sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley. That story is titled “Sex trafficking threatens the Lehigh Valley.”
Alyssa Santana was living in an Allentown recovery home in 2016 when a woman approached her with a proposition.
Prior to her arrival, Santana — who was 24 years old at the time — had been a prostitute and struggled with heroin addiction. She came to a halfway house hoping to restart her life and get clean, though she didn’t quite know how.
“I know this person,” the woman said to Santana. “He can help us out with whatever you need.”
Vulnerable and looking to make money, Santana agreed to meet the man, hoping it would lead her to a better life.
But what Santana didn’t know was the person who was supposed to help her would instead spend months exploiting and trafficking her.
Santana left the recovery home and began a new stage of her life, with a group of women, trading sex for money, drugs and shelter. The women were controlled by a pimp who promised he would take care of them.
“I relapsed and he gave us all drugs,” Santana said. “And we went off. We were a team.”
Santana said their pimp was an older man who worked for a university. She said he knew where to get drugs and knew women who wanted drugs, which allowed him to find and exploit women.
“We called him daddy,” Santana said. “We didn’t even get to call him his name.”
She said having women to “save” was like a lifestyle to him. He told Santana she would be taken care of, no matter what, even if she was sick and was unable to or did not want to “do dates” with men on any given day.
“His ‘thing’ was picking up women at recovery houses and strip clubs,” Santana said.
Santana said although she knew he was a pimp, she and the other women didn’t fully know what trafficking was at the time. She said they were manipulated into believing what they were doing was their choice and there was nothing wrong with it.
She was even sat down by her pimp and coached on what to say to the police in the event they were caught.
“We are voluntarily doing this,” she would rehearse. “I’m selling myself. I’m posting myself on the internet. I’m doing this voluntarily. He’s just helping me out.”
Even though Santana said she believed it at the time, she knows now her participation was involuntary.
The U.S. Department of State formally defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person using force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of exploitation or a sex act.
Santana’s pimp used drugs and manipulation as a way to exploit these women.
“You’re so deprived of the resources that most people have,” Santana said. “So you believe this fairytale.”
During this time, Santana and the other women lived in hotels, traveling throughout Pennsylvania and following the popular places for women to sell sex.
She said they spent time in Allentown, Lancaster, Kutztown and other areas in eastern Pennsylvania.
At this time, a classified advertising website, Backpage.com, was a popular place for women selling sex to post advertisements and connect with those looking to buy sex. The website was shut down in 2016 as the founders were reportedly profiting from these prostitution ads.
Santana said the website was a “perfect money-making opportunity.” She and the other women received the most text messages and callbacks from men when they used it.
“We put up ads, and we’d get immediate responses,” Santana said.
She said they spent a lot of time in Allentown, specifically on Airport Road, because they received more callbacks from men, making more money in that area with numerous hotels.
But one time, Santana said they stayed a little too long on Airport Road, and she was eventually arrested in a hotel for solicitation and prostitution.
Santana said her pimp was later arrested by the FBI, and he remains in prison today.
Following Santana’s arrest, she went to jail for a week and was later arraigned. Not wanting to cooperate with police, she fled the state. She continued to prostitute elsewhere until 2019, as she was unable to legally return to Pennsylvania.
But in the same year, Santana was approached by an FBI agent who asked if she would come back to Pennsylvania and testify against her pimp, which she did.
“I had the opportunity to move on with my life,” Santana said. “So I took that.”
Later in 2019, Santana entered a program at Bloom for Women, a sanctuary for women survivors of sex trafficking, where she stayed for more than a year.
After experiencing the benefits of the program and healing from her past, Santana said she wanted to give back to other women. So, she began helping out at Bloom and started studying social work at Kutztown University, which she continues to this day.
Today, Santana is Bloom’s residential case manager, where she helps women who have had similar experiences to her own.
She said her past experiences being trafficked have helped to drive the work she does now.
“I have been through this,” Santana said. “I cannot remain complacent in knowing all these things and seeing all these women go through it.”
Santana said she was once brainwashed into feeling empowered as a prostitute, but now she sees other women going through the same thing and she does not want that life for anyone else.
“If you feel like your body is a commodity, I used to, too,” Santana said. “If you are in and out on the streets, I hear you. There is somewhere that you find sanctuary. There is somewhere when you are ready. It’s really hard out there, and you’re worth it. You’re worth more.”