Getting caught up in the sex trade is easier than people think. Getting out? That’s the hard part.
Growing up in Chicago, my friend Gloria and I would sit on the fire escape watching “the fights.” You know, men beating up their wives, the police being called, the woman going to the hospital…and then the next day it would be that same woman acting like she didn’t have a black eye. We just thought that was the way it was gonna be for us.
I was being sexually abused when I was a girl. I would look out my window and watch women on the street who looked so beautiful, so shiny. There were getting paid for what was being done to me anyway. And I wanted some of that shine.
I was 14 years old when I left home and met my first john. My grandmother always told me that I was too stupid to take care of myself, but I made $400 that night. It feels like something when you’ve never had anything.
I would just think to myself, “Brenda, you have finally made it.”
Do I think he knew I was 14? Oh he knew. Johns pay more money when they know you’re younger. I told them how young I was. They knew.
My first beating was a pistol-whipping by two pimps. They sold me at a series of rest stops in the Midwest. It was trafficking, I know that today. I didn’t have the words for it then. But I had feelings, and it felt bad.
I don’t even know how to answer the question “Were you ever raped as a prostitute?” It was just a part of the deal. Johns and pimps, they know you’re not gonna go to the police. They’ll hurt you real bad.
Were they all bad men? No. But what they were doing was hurting me real bad.
I left after a john tried to kill me. When I was lying in the hospital, I realized two things. I was not ready to die. And if I didn’t get out of the lifestyle, I would die.
That was after being prostituted for 25 years.
Some of it is a blur. Some of it I wish was a blur. But there is no going back to change it now. You’ve got to go forward, help the next girl.
The thing that saved me was Edwina Gately (the founder of Genesis House, a home for Chicago area women who had been prostituted). Edwina taught me what it meant to be strong and female. I got counseling. I got trained to find a job. Those volunteers would come to work with us, and I’d just say, “Girl, you come on in here.” Because no one ever taught me how to dress, how to act at a job interview, that it was good to cross my legs when I sat down. I finally had some positive role models.
I stayed at Genesis House long enough to get strong, but not so long that I was afraid to be on my own. When you’re in a place where people tell you you’re beautiful – not because of your body but because of your spirit – it is hard to leave. But you have to go out there and spread that positive all around.
One of my first real jobs was as a bill collector. I was in my forties, and I would be on the phone, telling someone they needed to do the right thing and pay that bill. And I would just think to myself, “Brenda, you have finally made it.”
My cat’s name was Aretha Franklin. I got him around the same time I got my first job. I loved that cat. He was a boy, but he was a diva.
The first time I realized I had power was when I told my story in front of the Illinois State Senate. I spoke mostly from the heart. I hadn’t figured out how to do it yet. I was just talking my truth. But it was like a light went on when they started to listen to me. I finally got some real shine.
Was I afraid? C’mon, I’d seen scarier men then that.
Getting caught up in the sex trade is easier than you think. Getting out is the hard part. You can be strong and you can be tough and you can say “I got this,” but if there’s nowhere to go, there’s nowhere to go.
Brenda is the founder of Dreamcatcher Foundation, which fights to end human trafficking in Chicago. Her profile is excerpted from "Lived Through This" by Anne K. Ream.