Growing up on the West side of Chicago, home to Cook County Jail, the third largest prison in the US, Brenda Myers-Powell would sit at the window watching the women walk towards the “ho stroll” (red light district) to earn a few dollars. The crime rates were sky high, and the neighbourhoods awash with dealers and users.
Myers-Powell was first molested — as far as she can remember — when she was four, and went on to endure decades in the sex trade. She details it all in her blistering account of a life of extreme sexual abuse and exploitation: Leaving Breezy Street.
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“I want people to feel uncomfortable when they read my story,” she says, “as uncomfortable as it was for me to live it.”
Hers is a tale of violence, abuse and addiction, which began with an uncle, and also men that were brought home by her grandmother. Then came violent boyfriends and abusive pimps, and of course the sex buyers, whom Myers-Powell refers to as “tricks” or “johns”.
She exudes the same resilience that carried her through the horror to become a leading figure in the campaign to end the sexual exploitation of women and girls; it was born of humour, optimism and hope. “My book is about a woman who persevered,” she says. “It’s about how I kicked ass to survive. And then I made it through and I helped others. From the ho house to the White House, dammit.”
Her grim childhood prepared her for prostitution. She couldn’t play outside, didn’t have friends, knew how to be invisible when adults were doing inappropriate things: “I was trained to be a ho before I knew what one was.”
Raised by her physically abusive, alcoholic grandmother (Myers-Powell’s mother died when she was six months old), she became pregnant at 13 and 14, had two babies to feed, and was under pressure to provide for them. She asked the advice of a girl in the neighbourhood who was selling sex, who hooked Myers-Powell up with a local pimp. Her first trick paid her an extra $20 when he discovered she was only 14, and she soon learned that underage black girls were in demand with white men.
After 15 years on the streets, she developed a hardcore crack habit and went on to serve several prison sentences for prostitution-related offences — which had an upside: the only time she was really clean was when she was in jail.
In her strong Chicago accent, Myers-Powell pulls no punches in describing some of the horrendous violence she endured. “They were big on anal rape. They were big on doing terrorising games.”
Stabbed 13 times and shot five times during her time on the streets, after 25 years she eventually turned her life around. In 1997, just before she turned 40, she survived a near-death experience when a trick viciously attacked her and she tried to escape from his moving car.
Her clothing snagged and she was dragged six blocks: “I lost half my face that night,” she says. “I wasn’t to know it, but that day was my last day as a ho.” After several weeks in hospital, Myers-Powell was admitted to Genesis House in Chicago, a refuge for women wanting to leave prostitution.
“I was really messed up. The first night I was there, Barbara (one of the staff) came to my little bed and changed my bandages, handed me my medication, covered me back up and slipped a teddy bear under my arm. I was like, ‘Shit! I might be able to stay here.’ I went to this house after I got out the hospital and this woman treated me with tender loving care.”
After leaving, she started volunteering in organisations set up to help vulnerable women with Stephanie Daniels-Wilson who she had also met in a women’s treatment centre. The two women decided there was an urgent need for a service for prostituted women run by those that had lived the life: Dreamcatcher. It would be run by survivors.
She tells me: “I love hos because I was a ho. I don’t save hos, they save themselves. If they need saving, they need to let me know. I’m only there with a hand to help pull you up. I don’t run around here like these religious organisations shouting, ‘We save hos!’ I don’t save shit. I am a helping hand to a sister when she needs somebody.”
Myers-Powell has too many shocking stories to tell, but perhaps the most disturbing is having men bring their underage sons to her, wanting her to take their son’s virginity and make him ‘a man’. “I ain’t turning the money down but I took a little boy in the back and I said, ‘You don’t want to do this, right?’ And the little boy’s shaking his head, ‘No, but my dad wants me to do it.’ I said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, I’m going to tell your dad we did our thing. But I’m going to take your dad’s motherfucking money. Because he’s an idiot and he’s drunk.’
She is also adamant that attitudes need to change. There is a fundamental societal problem, she says: “Prostitutes are talked about almost like American pie. They’re the cocktail party joke. They always say we’re the oldest profession, we’re not, we’re the oldest form of slavery, the oldest oppression.”
But there’s also a sense of entitlement that is inculcated in men: the very idea that they have the right to buy women’s bodies: “They feel entitled to go to strip clubs and snatch up porn and they can do this because they have been told it’s their right as males. But it’s not their right. So we start early, when they are children. We have to raise young boys to say, ‘If you buy another human being, you’re actually doing an act against nature’”.
It was only after escaping the sex trade that Myers-Powell was able to see that prostitution was only one aspect of a wider problem of male attitudes. “When I was in recovery, it was those suburban women who would cook us meals with those expensive pots, and I used to listen to their stories about being date raped in college and going through the bad marriages and being treated like shit by boyfriends, and I used to say ‘Well, shit, you all went through the same shit we went through, but with money.’”
She’s angry, too, about the language used to describe prostitution: “Sex work? I don’t have employment rights, I don’t have any vacation time, I don’t have a retirement plan. What part of the workforce is that? Why are we calling it ‘sex work’ to smooth it out? You’re not going to slap that garbage down my throat. I call it what it is, we’re prostituted women. Under the control of traffickers and men who use us. I am not a sex worker.”
It took Myers-Powell years to heal. At first, after leaving the hostel, she just wanted to “be normal”, pay her taxes and live like everyone else. But her knowledge of what the life was like for other women took her back on to the streets to support those left behind.
She kicked her crack habit, was reunited with her daughters, and gradually realised the important role she could play in supporting other women. She’s won awards from the FBI and has been appointed to the US Council for Human Trafficiking in the White House, because “I didn’t want any girl to go through the nightmare that I had.”
Leaving Breezy Street is a horror story with a happy ending. But there are currently around four million victims of sex trafficking worldwide: one million of them children and 99% are female. For them, the nightmare continues.