If you think prostitution is a choice, think again. As the activist Norma Ramos once said, “Prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession — it’s the world’s oldest oppression.”

In Orlando, prostitution is an unresolved problem linked to drugs, insufficient social support and a lack of resources.

Last year, as part of my senior-thesis research as a sociology major at Stetson University, I chose to interview convicted prostitutes to gain a deeper understanding of their plight in Orlando. The image of half-dressed women enticingly roaming the sidewalks along Orange Blossom Trail remained vivid in my mind.

After three months negotiating access to the Orange County Jail, I finally was able to conduct interviews with nine women ranging from 24 to 47 years old. All had served time in jail for prostitution a minimum of four times, and some had been arrested as many as 50 times. Six of the women were white, two Hispanic and one African-American.

Here is just some of what they told me.

The vicious cycle that locks women in prostitution and jail is due in part to drugs. All nine of the women I interviewed admitted they prostituted themselves to feed their addiction to crack cocaine, heroin, prescription pills and/or alcohol — all readily available on the streets of Orlando to those who seek them.

One woman explained to me the first thing she, and many other prostitutes, do after getting out of jail is to go to a gas station to get milk, cookies, cigarettes and other things they could not so easily get in jail. “I needed 20 bucks, a hit of crack and a ride home,” she said. “I turned a trick right there in the parking lot … got everything I needed.”

Besides being addicted to drugs, these prostitutes lacked the social support and resources to keep them out of crime and jail. None of the nine prostitutes I interviewed had a job, which made it likely that few if any of them owned a car, let alone a home.

Eight of nine women were sexually, verbally and physically abused by family members while growing up. The social support they do get more often than not comes from fellow drug users, dealers and their clients. The first person they call after getting released from jail is “that guy” who allows them to crash at his place for a while in exchange for sexual service. As one of my interviewees told me, the taxi driver the jail called for her upon her release was also a drug dealer.

Another respondent reported that one of the largest homeless shelters in Orlando turned her away — when she was eight months pregnant — because the staff thought she was associated with drugs. One of area’s most widely known drug dealers had suggested she go to this shelter for help, as he was staying there as well.

So what is the solution? Perhaps the question should be asked a different way. Imagine what it would be like to run away from home to avoid being repeatedly raped and beaten and having no place to stay, no food to eat and no job. What would you do, where would you go, and who would you call?

What kind of choice is this? Rather than sending these women to jail repeatedly, it is necessary to understand the type of help they need. We should aim for rehabilitation centers with heavy counseling and a secure place away from the environment they thrive in. We must find lasting solutions to the vicious cycle of prison and prostitution.

This originally appeared in The Orlando Sentinel.