The truth about trafficking and prostitution: Profiling Brenda Myers-Powell

by Anne K. Ream | Voices and Faces Project
Friday, 11 July 2014 19:17 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The following is an excerpt from  Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors by Anne K. Ream. Reprinted with permission of Beacon Press.

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her 1949 classic, The Second Sex. Her book is a historical exploration of the ways female identity is shaped, a reminder that girls come into the world a blank slate, but don’t stay that way for very long.

Brenda Myers-Powell, the founder of the Dreamcatcher Foundation, an organization fighting sex trafficking, has lived, painfully, what de Beauvoir explores in print. She grew up on Chicago’s West Side, a latchkey kid raised by an alcoholic grandmother who told her, insistently and often, that she would never amount to much. Brenda was molested from the age of five by an uncle and abused by a handful of other men who moved in and out of her grandmother’s apartment. Violence was woven into the fabric of her life almost from its start.

“When we were little kids, my girlfriend Gloria and I would sit on the fire escape of our apartment building, watching ‘the fights,’” Brenda says. “You know, men beating up their wives, the police being called, the woman going to the hospital to get stitches, the whole thing.”

“The next day it would be that same woman, making him breakfast, telling the neighbors he was her man, acting like she didn’t have a black eye,” Brenda says. “We just thought, ‘that’s the way it is for us.’”

Prostitution also made a sort of terrible sense to an adolescent Brenda. “My uncle had been taking off my panties for years,” Brenda says. “And I would look out onto the street, and I would watch these women—from a distance they seemed so beautiful, so shiny—getting paid for what was being done to me anyway. And I wanted to have some of that shine.”

On Good Friday in 1973, a few days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Brenda walked to the corner of Division and Clark streets in Chicago and caught the attention of her first john. She remembers everything about that night: the cruel glare of the neon Mark Twain Hotel sign, her green, polyester, two-piece outfit—“so bad that it would almost fly today”—and the wig that she thought made her look more sophisticated (but couldn’t have made her look much older).

In retrospect, Brenda says that that first night was frightening, degrading, and anything but glamorous. But to an adolescent girl who had known sexual violence and neglect for most of her life, it felt like power. “My grandmother always told me that I was too stupid to take care of myself,” Brenda says. “But I made over ${esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}300 that night.”

Not long after her first experience with prostitution, Brenda was pistol-whipped and kidnapped by two pimps and taken to an unknown location and raped. She was then prostituted at a series of rest stops. “They called that a ‘pimp arrest,’” Brenda says. “It was how they told me that they were in control. It was trafficking, I see that now. Then, it just felt bad.”

Brenda says that there are times when she wishes that the twentyfour years that followed were a blur. They are not. Prostitution was, for her, inherently degrading. It was also dangerous. Beatings and gun violence were commonplace. She was stabbed. To numb herself to the pain of the past, and the violence of her present, she became addicted to crack cocaine.

Brenda had entered prostitution in large part to flee childhood sexual abuse but soon discovered that rape was commonplace in the sex trade. “I don’t even know how to answer the question, ‘Were you ever raped as a prostitute?’” Brenda says. “Because johns know you can’t go to the police if they rape you, so some of them will hurt you really bad.”

In 1997, when Brenda was thirty-nine years old, a john pushed her from his car. Brenda’s clothes caught in the car door as he sped off, dragging her for several blocks. Her injuries were extensive: she almost lost an eye, and the scars from the accident remain visible.

“When I was lying in the hospital, I realized two things,” Brenda says. “I was not ready to die. And if I didn’t get out, I was going to die.”

Brenda may well have been correct. A comprehensive 2004 mortality study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the American Journal of Epidemiology, shows that workplace homicide rates for women working in prostitution are fifty-one times that of the next most dangerous occupation for women (which is working in a liquor store). The average age of death of the women studied was thirty-four years old. Brenda knew none of this at the time, of course. What she did know was that she wanted her life to change.

Not long after Brenda was released from the hospital, she made her way to Genesis House, a Chicago home for prostituted women that was founded by Edwina Gateley, a lay Catholic missionary. Deeply social justice-focused, Edwina had spent her life ministering to the poor, the homeless, and the prostituted. Genesis House was an extension of her belief that healing was possible in a safe, nonjudgmental, and female-focused environment.

Brenda had previously known about Genesis House, but she had no idea how life altering it would prove to be for her. It wasn’t just the rehabilitation and counseling programs offered. It was also the force that is Edwina Gateley.

“Edwina is a compassionate woman, but a powerful woman—she doesn’t take any mess,” Brenda says. “I had learned a lot of wrong lessons over the years. But I finally had my mentor, someone who could show me what it meant to be a strong, powerful female.”

The community Edwina and Genesis House connected Brenda to was diverse. There were the other prostituted women at the facility, a group Brenda calls her “beautiful sisters.” There were Genesis House supporters from the northern suburbs of Chicago. “I’d see those volunteer ladies coming, and I’d say, ‘Girl, you come on in here,’ because I wanted to learn something no one had ever taught me: how to cross my legs, how to dress, how to act at a dinner party. I could just watch and learn.”

And there were the Catholic nuns at the Siena Center in Racine, Wisconsin, who welcomed the women from Genesis House to their community for a three-day spiritual retreat. “Those are my other sisters,” Brenda laughs. “You want to learn about female power? You spend a few days with the nuns.”

Brenda spent the next year and a half at Genesis House, rebuilding her life and deepening her bonds with this interconnected community of women. She wanted to stay long enough to get strong, but not so long that she was afraid of being on her own.

“When, for the first time, you are being told that you are priceless and beautiful—not because of your body, but because of your spirit—it’s hard to leave,” says Brenda. “But you have to take that with you and spread all that positive around.”

Clean and sober, Brenda landed her first post-rehab job providing in-home care for the elderly (she was so popular in the West Side homes she worked in that she was promptly promoted to supervisor). Brenda’s next job was a higher-paying position as a bill collector. “I’d be on that phone, telling someone that they needed to do the right thing and pay their debt, and I would just think, ‘Brenda, you have finally made it.’”

Brenda talks about her life during her first few years after leaving prostitution with pride and a deep, almost sensual, pleasure. She loved doing her job well, reveled in having a predictable daily schedule, and took long bubble baths. She adopted a cat who became her constant companion, a male she named Aretha Franklin (“Who says a boy cat can’t be a diva?”).

Brenda read self-help books voraciously, partly for their content, partly because just seeing them on her night table reminded her that she had a self worth helping. And for a long, long time she gave up men. “Abstinence,” Brenda says with a smile, “can be a beautiful thing.”

But something gnawed at Brenda—a sense that she was meant for more. The one constant in her life had been her personal power: even during her darkest moments, she knew she was a leader. Other people knew it, too.

“Once years earlier, when I was in bad shape and in another bad place getting high, a guy I didn’t even know—he was just there getting high with us—looked over at me and said, ‘You’re the pied piper, aren’t you? People follow your lead, but you don’t use it for good.’ And he was right.”

Brenda had remained connected to Genesis House after she left, frequently volunteering and helping other women who came into the program. One day a staff member called Brenda to say that a community organizer from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless was interested in finding someone who could talk, from a personal perspective, to the Illinois legislature about sexual exploitation. Brenda immediately signed on.

Testifying before an Illinois Senate subcommittee in 2001, as part of a larger effort to shift law enforcement’s attention to sex traffickers and people who buy sex, gave Brenda her first taste of what she calls “real power.”

“I spoke mostly from my heart that day—it was the first time I ever told my story, so I hadn’t really figured out how to do it,” Brenda recalls. “But a light went on when I was speaking to those senators because they were listening to me. I wasn’t afraid at all. I just told them the truth. I had my shine, and it felt so good.”

In the wake of that first Senate appearance, Brenda began to lay the foundation for a full-time career as an activist. She started speaking out about sex trafficking and prostitution to local community groups. She founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation, a nonprofit that works with Chicago youth who are at risk of entering the sex trade.

And in 2008 Brenda helped launch the Human Trafficking Response Team at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, partnering with law enforcement to help recently arrested trafficked or prostituted women gain access to counseling, social services, and temporary housing that can keep them out of the sex trade. It’s a program that’s been lauded as a national model, but to Brenda it’s just common sense. “Most women don’t want to be in prostitution,” Brenda says. “Help them find options, and that can lead to a new life.”

People often tell Brenda that they’re inspired by the way she’s been made stronger by adversity. She says she’s flattered by that praise, but she’s not sure that it’s true. “No one really does it all on their own,” Brenda says. “It takes a village to get us through. We need our sisters here.”

Sisterhood is, for Brenda, a sacred concept. She believes that it’s the secret to changing the world—and she knows that it’s what changed her. “One thing Edwina taught me was to surround myself with strong, beautiful women,” Brenda says. “Watch them. Learn from them. Find your sisters, and you’re gonna find your power.”

Brenda’s “sister search” is what brought her to Rachel Durchslag, the founder of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization focused on ending the demand for prostituted and trafficked women. The two first interacted at a meeting at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless almost a decade and a half ago, and they’ve been close friends ever since. “When I met Rachel, it was a feeling of ‘We’re going to make some things happen here,’” Brenda says. “But it was as much about her spirit as it was about our shared work. Rachel is my little sister. She is the positive that we women need in our lives. ”

Rachel remembers feeling that same connection. “It’s a heavy topic, sex trafficking,” she says. “But Brenda inspires so much confidence. Standing in a room next to her and talking to a group of high school boys about sexual exploitation isn’t easy. But you’re fearless when you’re next to Brenda. How can you not be?”

The outreach that Brenda and Rachel are doing has become increasingly important in cities across the United States. The American public largely understands sex trafficking as a global industry, one that is financed on the pain of women and girls. What we too often fail to see is that it is also a local one.

Like their international counterparts, US-based traffickers and pimps use force and coercion to recruit vulnerable young girls and boys into prostitution. Often homeless and victims of previous sexual or physical abuse, as Brenda was, they are then transported from cities, suburbs, and small-town communities to work in conditions that are degrading and dangerous. “We’re not going to change this by punishing women who are already hurting,” Brenda says. “It changes when we start looking at the johns who are buying sex and the pimps who are profiting from this big business.”

The sex trade in the United States is a billion-dollar business. The vast majority of prostituted women and girls enter the sex trade while still in their teens. Over 80 percent are physically assaulted by their pimps and johns. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Facts like this are often shocking to the public. But they make perfect sense to Brenda. “Getting caught up in the sex trade is easier than people know,” she says. “Getting a woman out? That’s the hard part.”