[excerpted from http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=201667]
Brenda Myers-Powell was 14 going on 15 when she turned her first trick. It was on a warm night in April in 1973, Good Friday to be exact, when she journeyed from her home on the West Side of Chicago to the Mark Twain hotel downtown.
Brenda had noticed prostitutes outside her window since she was 9 years old. When her grandmother told her that these women “took off their panties and men gave them money,” Brenda could relate. A latchkey kid, left only in the care of her alcoholic grandmother, Brenda had been molested by men coming in and out of her house since she was 4 years old.
Not long after she began working downtown she was kidnapped by two pimps and held against her will for approximately six months. “They would threaten and say they could shoot me and put me in a cornfield and nobody would know, and I would believe them,” she said.
Brenda was one of the many young women in the Chicago area who are commercially sexually exploited. According to the Salvation Army Promise Initiative, 16,000 to 25,000 women are commercially sexually exploited each day in the metropolitan area.
Brenda, who worked all over the country in strip clubs, as an escort and on the streets over the course of her career, is going to be one of the first women in Illinois to petition to have her prostitution conviction vacated on the grounds of her being a trafficking victim.
Illinois recently passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act. The law, which went into effect in January, aims to help survivors get their lives back. A woman can petition any time after her conviction to prove she was a victim of commercial sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is defined as sexual abuse in exchange for money, goods or services. Judges will look at arrest records, medical records and expert testimony.
This law comes alongside other measures by the county and state to target human trafficking more effectively and to change the status of women trafficking in prostitution from criminals to victims.
The sex trade is highly lucrative. A drug dealer can only sell drugs once, but a pimp can sell a girl multiple times in a day.
The director of the Salvation Army’s Promise initiative, which helps trafficking victims, said the hardest part was “disentangling the abusers from the abused.”
“When these pimps starve girls and lock them in a hotel room, and then finally feed them, the girls think, ‘oh they didn’t have to do that,’” he said.
Those on the front lines of the fight to end trafficking say real change will come when the johns, or clients, are held responsible.
“For too long our culture has blamed women and girls for the harms of prostitution,” said Claes. “Without demand from men there would be no prostitution.”
“You could lock up a drug dealer and a new drug dealer would set up shop immediately, but when they would lock up the customers it would go down. If we hit the demand side as consistently and harshly hard as we hit suppliers, we would have a great impact.”
In the hospital she met a doctor who helped her get into a safe house, where she lived for a year and a half, reveling in little things people often take for granted, such as being able to open the fridge and make herself something to eat.
Now in her 50s, she runs the Dreamcatcher Foundation, along with another woman she met in that house. The foundation intervenes early to keep girls out of trafficking.