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Jennifer Gaines

Jennifer Gaines

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You don't feel like a person when you're treated like a product.

From the outside my childhood seemed normal. I grew up in a middle-class Minnesota family. We lived in the suburbs. My mother promoted creativity, and we were not allowed to sit around and watch TV. I thought we were a happy family.

Things aren’t always what they seem. I didn’t know that my dad had addiction issues. I didn’t know he was unfaithful to my mother. When Mom told me that she and my dad were getting divorced, I took it really, really hard. I didn’t understand his addiction, I thought it would be really simple, Why doesn’t he just stop?

What I really wanted was to be loved. I knew that I didn’t want to be like my mother — I didn’t want to get left too. My dad liked promiscuous women, and my mom was so wholesome. So I started looking at magazines and watching music videos and started thinking that I needed to be like the women in the videos, sexy. That would be how I would be loved.

I had my first suicide attempt when I was 12 years old. It was a cry for help to my dad, who wasn’t around much anymore. My mother started putting me in different behavioral places, treatment centers and whatnot, but she could not control me. That’s where I started hearing about Block E, the main drag in Minneapolis, where there’s all the bars and strippers and pimps.

I remember thinking, “Wow, that sounds really fascinating. I bet you that’s where my dad’s hanging out.”

I was 14 when I met my first trafficker. I had run away from home again. He came up from behind me at a Block E arcade and he told me what song to play and started dancing with me. He told me all these things that every 14-year-old girl wants to hear. He would say things to me like, “Your parents are no good. That’s terrible. Your parents don’t understand you like I do. You don’t even seem 14. I swear to God you’re 20.” 

It’s amazing how many of us have that same story.

Breaking someone down takes time. It took a couple months of grooming and programming me into what a “good woman” should be. He was constantly bringing me around to different house parties and different situations where there were lots of pimps and working girls. He would say things like, “What do you think about those girls working on the streets?” I would say, “Oh my God. I can’t do that. I’m never going to do that.”

But I loved him and I didn’t want him to get hurt. A while into it, he came to me and said that he had these gang members from Chicago after him. They were going to kill him if he didn’t have $400 by nine o’clock that night and he needed my help. I remember thinking, “What can I do? I’m only 14. Where am I going to get $400?” That was the night he sold me to a bunch of his friends. I went in there and I did it, and it was a very violent experience.

There’s always someone willing to take advantage of a young girl who needs money.

When you’re being exploited it’s because you don’t know or understand that you’re being exploited. I don’t believe that women choose prostitution. Not knowing any better, or lacking other choices, to me doesn’t make it a choice.

The thing that gets you through can be the thing that drags you down. Each guy got more and more abusive, and more and more belittling to me, more and more violent. My drinking got worse too. I used to think that I caused a lot of it because of my drinking.

It’s funny because when I got out of prostitution I didn’t have the desire to drink or get high anymore.

Getting help is harder than people think. One time I was beaten up really bad by a trick. I was all bloody, trying to catch a cab to the emergency room. Nobody would stop for me. When the police finally did stop for me they told me that I deserved what I got. Nobody likes prostituted women. The doctors and nurses in an emergency room, the police — they definitely don’t care about you.

Before you know it, you’ve lost time. I spent 28 years in prostitution. I think I’ve experimented being with every type of trafficker. The gorilla type, the boyfriend kind, the kind that stalks your phone and puts recording devices on your phone to track you wherever you’re going — every type of abusive relationship possible.

Backpage.com (the world’s second largest classified advertising site) was part of that. I was one of the first people on Backpage. I was working for escort services that were nothing but a series of online posts. When I found out that it was something I could do myself, that’s what I did.

Anonymous can mean dangerous. On Backpage, you don’t know anything about the guy. Yes, there’s some screening that you could do, but in all reality a lot of times I didn’t take the time to go and check references because my life wasn’t stable enough to have girlfriends that I could verify people with. I had no idea what I was walking into, who these people were. I was not protected.

You don’t feel like a person when you’re treated like a product. I was very humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed. It’s already hard when you take off your clothes on a call. Right away they’re trying to decide, “Are you worth the money that I’m spending?” You start developing all these body image complexes. Then you go online and read these reviews of you. It just feels bad. 

In the U.S., the majority of prosecutions for sex trafficking involve online advertising. A lot of those advertisements appeared on Backpage. At first I was concerned that they shut the adult section of Backpage down (in January 2017). Where would all these women go? But now I’m thinking that this makes a statement, people saying that they’re not willing to participate in this.

People think that if you can advertise yourself and get rid of the “middleman” you’ve solved the problem. That’s not true. On Backpage or on the street, you cannot be happy sleeping with 10 guys a day. I'm sorry, it’s just not possible to me. And a lot of people who were on Backpage still had to give money to their pimps.

It’s hard to see how difficult the life is while you’re still in the life. That was the biggest piece of brainwashing that had to be deprogrammed from me when I got out. At the time I came to Breaking Free (the Minneapolis-based social services agency dedicated to helping prostituted women rebuild their lives) I remember I was angry, saying, “I don’t even know why I’m here. I’m going to die in prostitution. I am going to be one of those old ladies on Backpage with my cigarette, 60 years old, still trying to catch a date.” 

But my story didn't end that way. It took time, but Breaking Free helped me start over. Today I’m a valued employee there. That’s something that I’m extremely proud of. To me it’s such an honor to be trusted, wanted, useful, and needed by all the women that nobody cares anything about.  

I have a purpose now. The other day I was feeling unappreciated and unloved. I get to work and, “Oh, Miss Jenny!” — everybody’s running up to me, and all of a sudden I had all these clients telling me how much they love me, they appreciate me. 

The one thing I’ll never do again is sell something. Everybody when I first got out of the life was saying, “Go into sales. They don’t care about your background.” But I don’t want to sell anything. If somebody wants to buy it, they buy it. If not, I’m not trying to sell it.

Jenny is a Survivor Advocate at Breaking Free, a non-profit agency helping women and girls escape systems of prostitution and sexual exploitation through advocacy, direct services, housing, and education.