Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
By Kelsey McLaughlin
The story is gruesome and familiar: A predator targeted and violated sex workers, fully confident he would get away with it. In this instance, two women also risked everything to come forward about the attacks they experienced. And one of these women’s social media accounts (and appreciation of classic rap) was key in protecting her character from the smearing of her abuser’s lawyers.
Ashley Griffin is 28 years old and works as a security guard in San Francisco. She loves reading and making up stories with her three young children, and she and her fiancé Charles like to cheer on her 9-year-old son at honor roll assemblies with giant homemade posters. Griffin used to be an honor student herself.
“I [even] got a pendant from the president of the United States,” Griffin told MTV News in a phone interview. But her mother never showed up at school to support her.
The life she provides for her kids is very different from her own childhood, which was spent in Vallejo, California, with her mother and younger sister. The family experienced long periods of homelessness and would take up residence wherever they could. As Griffin remembers, her mother was physically and verbally abusive, and often used crystal meth. Several of her mother’s friends and boyfriends molested Griffin when she was a teenager.
She began drinking and smoking weed to cope with her trauma. Eventually, she turned to sex work, which she felt was one of few opportunities she had to make money, get away from her mother, and regain her power from the abusers. She wanted to provide for herself, and to turn her pain into profit — or, in the words of one of her favorite artists, Lil’ Kim, “Get money.”
Lil’ Kim’s legacy can’t be overstated. The groundbreaking New York rapper held court as the sole woman in Brooklyn’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. rap group. And among her many accolades and lasting impact is this moment: Earlier this year in a California courtroom, her lyrics inadvertently helped put a man who preyed upon Griffin and other vulnerable women behind bars.
On March 16, 2014, Griffin was working in the Mission District of San Francisco when a man in a white Escalade pulled up around 10 p.m. After negotiating, Griffin got in the car and was taken to a location unknown to her, where the man told her that he refused to pay for any services.
Griffin attempted to get out of the car, but the man forcefully pushed her back into her seat. He threatened that he had a gun; then, he raped her. Throughout the assault, Griffin cried. Every time she said no, he stopped and hit her.
Griffin was later dropped off back in the Mission. Distraught, she ran into a nearby laundromat and called her then-boyfriend, DeShawn Mall, to take her to the hospital. She was pregnant at the time and scared for her baby. At the hospital, two condoms were found in her vaginal cavity and submitted for DNA testing. It was there that Griffin called 911 and reported her rape.
The man struck again on May 4. He picked up another woman (known in this article as M), who was working in a different part of the Mission, and took her to the same location. When M asked him to pay her the money they had agreed upon, he took out a large kitchen knife and held it to her neck. He raped her, threatened her with a gun, and tried to take her to another location; as the man drove, knife in hand, M decided she must escape. A bystander witnessed M jumping out of the car and trying to run away, so he pulled over to help her and called 911.
Both Griffin and M were assured by authorities that they would not be prosecuted for sex work if they reported their assaults. When he was arrested by San Francisco law enforcement on May 6, two days after the second attack, both women positively identified Edwin Rodriguez as their assailant.
District Attorney George Gascón motioned for the case to be brought to trial. “This case underscores the importance of San Francisco’s safety for sex worker policies,” he said, according to court transcripts. “If we fail to prioritize this population’s health and safety they will not come forward and work with law enforcement as witnesses and victims of violence. Ultimately, unreported crimes and criminals pose a threat to everyone’s public safety.”
The crimes took place in 2014, but it took five years for the trial to reach court. During that time, M underwent two surgeries and months of rehab for the ankle she broke when she jumped out of the moving Escalade. Griffin said she was “stressed to the max” before the trial.
The wait was harrowing. So was the trial. Being in the same room with “him” was painful. “He just had this smirk on his face,” Griffin told MTV News. “He did not look like he had any remorse, and I just tried not to look at him during my trial. I got on the stand and told the lawyer I didn't want to cry because I didn't want him to see me weak.” She does not like to say her rapist’s name.
Assistant District Attorney Lili Nguyen served as prosecutor representing the state of California. She has been prosecuting sexual assault, child abuse, and child sexual abuse cases for five years, and she knows that standing trial often asks survivors to recall their worst memories.
“I tell them up front, ‘This is going to be very difficult,’” she said. “‘Not only is it going to be very difficult, but you have to talk about, with detail, probably the worst thing that has ever happened to you... Your whole character will also come under attack.’”
RAINN calculates that for every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk away with no jail time. Fewer than one in four of those 1,000 assaults are ever reported to police, for a myriad of reasons. While coming forward should always be a personal decision, the fact remains that many survivors doubt if they can trust the police to believe them or treat them with humanity. That distrust can play into a survivor’s decision to report an assault.
The majority of people who have traded sex have experienced sexual violence at some point, and many fear going to the police because doing so might lead to arrest, or even an assault. And it is fair to believe that the oppositional stigmas many people still hold against sex work can hurt a survivor’s chances should they and their abuser ever face a judge or jury in court. Had Rodriguez’s team convinced the jury that his assault of both Griffin and M had instead been consensual encounters, such an interpretation would have done significant damage to the case. The characterization would have also willfully misrepresented California’s “yes means yes” definition of consent.
On the witness stand, Griffin repeatedly stated that she never engaged in sex work after her attack, due to trauma. Yet the defense did everything in their power to convince the jury that Griffin continued sex work — and implicated everything from a photo of her in a skirt and high heels (even though what someone wears is never an excuse for sexual assault) to her ex-boyfriend DeShawn Mall, whom they tried to insinuate was actually her pimp. They also brought up her Instagram bio, which public defender Sujung Kim read in full: "#gemini, #mixed, finna bounce back soon... #loveyourself... #rathercount$$$ while you eat my pussy #immadietrying."
Kim argued that the “#rathercount$$$ while you eat my pussy” portion was Griffin advertising sex work. But during cross-examination, Nguyen pointed out: “That’s a lyric that was written and performed by Lil’ Kim, right?”
Lil’ Kim’s verse in the 1996 Notorious B.I.G./Junior M.A.F.I.A. classic “Get Money” not only showed off her rap skills, but it also solidified her as a symbol of power and strength. “Get Money” went platinum and helped launch Kim’s solo career as a titan in the music industry.
Griffin said that the question brought a moment of joy to the courtroom. “When the jurors started laughing, it was crazy because there was different ages, different nationalities,” she explained. “For everybody to know that song was surprising to me.”
The revelation also undermined the defense’s attack on Griffin’s credibility. “The jury started laughing, and it kind of blew up in the defense's face,” Nguyen said.
Griffin told the court that when she wrote the bio in 2012, she internalized it as, “get money, to be honest, [by] any means necessary, as long as I’m not hurting anybody else.” She had written the bio years ago, when she was still engaging in sex work, but not as an advertisement. It was a quote from which Griffin gathered strength and autonomy.
Nguyen pressed on. “And Kim is not talking about prostitution when she’s rapping that lyric; correct?”
“No, she’s — no, not from what I think.”
“She’s talking about how she’s finally made it on the Billboard ranking, correct?”
On May 15th, 2019, Rodriguez was found guilty of 11 felonies and one misdemeanor, including aggravated kidnapping, assault, and criminal threats. He was sentenced to 74 years to life in prison.
In 2014, Griffin started working at McDonald’s. She hated the work (and the minimum-wage paychecks), so she made a switch to her current role as a security guard. She loves her job because it pays well and she helps keep people safe. She still rocks to Lil’ Kim.
“Her rap lyrics really inspire a lot of women and inspired me,” she said. “When I was surviving in the streets, Kim’s music helped me.” Being capable of her own survival is just as important to her today.
Now, Griffin wants to help empower fellow survivors. “Take each day one hour at a time,” she said. “Reassure yourself that your life is not over and that whoever has assaulted you has no power over you. Don't think you're powerless.”