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Unhooking From Hooking : Prostitutes Anonymous offers support to those who want to leave the street and find recovery.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times</i>

They meet one night a week in an office building in Van Nuys. Mostly women, they talk about their lives as prostitutes, why it seems so hard to quit and the problems that the lifestyle seems to create: eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, spending addictions and stress.

Started in 1987, Prostitutes Anonymous was created to help others unhook from hooking, says founder Jody Williams, 32, of North Hollywood, once a prostitute and now a paralegal.

The group is a 12-step program, one of many today based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Anyone who has a desire to leave prostitution and find recovery can join.

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Prospective members see the PA help line listed in local newspapers and call to find out about it. Some have staked out the building for weeks before going in, wondering if the meeting was a police trap. Others say they no longer care about getting caught; they just want help in getting out.

“How do you go from making $2,000 a day to earning $7 an hour?” Williams says. The group is there to help members adjust to realistic earning expectations as well as deal with the emotional toll.

Williams, who is married to another ex-hooker--the couple have a 2-year-old daughter--says: “I spent five years in prostitution, seeking every kind of help there was.”

She insists: “No one understands this business.” The best way to get out of prostitution and learn to deal with the problems it leaves in its wake is to be with others who can coach you from their own experience, she says.

Williams started hooking when she was a cocktail waitress in the San Fernando Valley. “I saw a lot of money flying around, and I was seduced.”

At first, she saw the work as temporary, an effort at getting financially stabilized. But after a while, Williams realized that she was so damaged, she could not just get up and walk away. “I realized this was not a summer job; I was a whore.”

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Typically, that is when fear sets in, she says. Prostitutes discover that they are addicted to the lifestyle, and help is hard to find.

Williams says PA members can usually succeed in getting people to stop hooking within two meetings, but it takes about two years in the group before they feel better.

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Jaime C. Jameson of Van Nuys, who was once an active member of PA, says the weekly meetings work. “It costs nothing; it’s a support system run by ex-prostitutes who have had the same experiences.”

She says other organizations offering support groups do not understand the pervasive and long-lasting wounds and the shame that ex-hookers must cope with.

“The years in prostitution leave a legacy, a damage to the self-concept and intimacy problems,” Jameson says. It was only by talking and listening to others who had been experiencing the same crises that she could face her situation, she says.

Anne, a 23-year-old Valley woman who once worked for escort agencies, has been in PA for about four months. She joined when she started having frequent nightmares and was miserable in her struggle to quit prostitution.

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“The PA members knew how to deal with me; they talked to me directly, and I didn’t have to be Miss Polite,” she says.

Anne says she tried other groups in her search for help, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous, even though she was not a substance abuser. But since she wasn’t talking about alcoholism or using cocaine, the members were not listening, she says.

“PA helps me understand that prostitution is a different kind of addiction,” she says. “If I didn’t have PA, I know I’d be out on the street.”

Williams says there are 100,000 PA members in six countries.

For those who are not interested in coming to regular meetings, the organization offers phone and letter support. A book, “Sold Out,” by Williams, is available for $20, or $5 for a condensed version.

Where to Go What: Prostitutes Anonymous meets Wednesdays in Van Nuys. Call: (818) 905-2188. Write: For a copy of the book “Sold Out,” send $20 (or $5 for a condensed version) to Prostitutes Anonymous, 11225 Magnolia Blvd., No. 181, North Hollywood 91601. Price includes shipping and handling.

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