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Prostitutes are slaves, not workers Brenda Myers-Powell 'kicked ass' to make it from the ho house to the White House


July 16, 2021   5 mins

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.

“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.


Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.

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Alastair Herd
Alastair Herd
3 years ago

Whilst I am very glad that we are talking about this topic more, and the fact that the vast majority of people that end up in so-called “sex work” are in fact people that suffered significant abuse and need lots of help, I do always find Julies writing to be very grating.
She just can’t help any opportunity to get her misandry in, which frankly doesn’t actually help anything. You want to get men on side with female emancipation? Don’t constantly accuse them all of being rapists!

Alan B
Alan B
3 years ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

I could not agree more. For example, this is the first time I have read of an alleged white male obsession with underage black girls. And my dad never took me to a “ho” to make me into a a “man”. –In fact no one I know has had any such experience. Now I am perfectly aware that this is “anecdata” but as Ms. Bindel fails to provide any evidence for her generalizations I’ll repay her in the same coin. It is natural to have sympathy for abused and exploited people. But it is also natural to recoil in disgust and anger at cruel stereotypes, and to lose one’s sense of solidarity with the bullies who hurl them, well-meaning though such self-styled “warriors” may be. In the end, like so many others, Ms. Bindel prefers fighting her war to winning it.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 years ago
Reply to  Alan B

I sympathize with your reaction, but I don’t think you are the type of man that goes to prostitutes at all? In which case you are not at all in the cohort of men that this woman came across in her degraded life. Those men do not announce their proclivities so normal men will not hear about it.

A S
A S
2 years ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

I agree. It is indisputable that human trafficking exists (for example) but I personally have never met a admitted trafficker – does that mean it does not exist? Given the numbers, I should have run into a few. I have also not met anyone into BDSM or swinging or fans of child porn. Logically, I conclude that (unsurprisingly) these are things people keep secret or only discuss with only others in the same club.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

A truly harrowing account of coercive, brutalised sex work. A testament to the strength of the woman who survived it.It is shocking the way human beings can reduce another to such degradation.

I have had a little experience meeting sex workers that might illuminate the notion that experiences may vary.
Between the late 80’s and early 2000’s
I taught life drawing and portrait painting as a peripertetic art teacher in London, suburbs and home counties. Many of the models were the usual run of actors, dancers, gymnasts, firemen, body builders and yoga instructors.
On closer acquaintance a few revealed that they were or had been sex workers. It seemed quite normal to combine this with other work.I distinctly remember a dominatrix who was also a driving instructor, an accountant who worked as a male escort, hotel receptionist who was a female escort and a fashion journalist who worked as a sex worker, whose life was more like that of a courtesan.
They were necessarily attractive, educated people with significant insight into their own lives and the lives of others.
The work was congenial to them and paid for expensive rent in smart areas and provided middle class luxuries, like cars, holidays, horses and schooling.l think this lifestyle is more prevalent than we imagine.
Today Instagram and only fans sites seems to generate similar incomes with less necessity for direct contact,which allows for greater autonomy and safety.
I suppose ones position will depend on individual morality, some people cannot tolerate any kind of sex work,which they believe is universally degrading.

Sue Ward
Sue Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

I think your experience is completely irrelevant to the situation of the women described in the article.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Ward

Then talk about “those prostitues whom are slaves” not the misleading “[all] prostitues are slaves”.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Ward

Fair enough, I am not disputing the harrowing account of the sex workers, trafficked and brutalised by pimps and the men that they are forced to have sex with. The title of the piece is Sex workers aren’t workers they are slaves. I stated that experience may vary, providing some examples from my admittedly limited experience of those sex workers that I have met.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

I wonder what race the pimps were?

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

In Chicago they were most likely American. Pimps should be drowned at birth and their Mothers charged with “Crimes against Humanity” Up to the age of 16 I lived in the dock area of my town (Now a city). One of my sisters (Now dead) was self employed “on the game” part time in between marriages and said she enjoyed the life but would break her daughters’ necks if they tried it. As a shipmaster I banned pimps but would allow the self-employed with a warning about ‘bad’ behaviour – drunkeness, drugs, strong language, etc. The only time I banned 2 ‘self-employed’ girls was in Capetown and they were both white. We had several girls onboard (of various skin tones) and when the local police sergeant knocked on my door he found me playing gin rummy with the ‘Mama San’. When I offered the PS a beer my fiendish gin- rummy opponent, a cape coloured woman, went to open the fridge door he raised a finger and got his own beer. It was a British ship and crew. He then accepted the explanation we gave about the 2 white ‘girls’. Nowadays, of course, the drug scene has made life much worse but life goes on. Once in a while I see one of the ‘girls’ in town and wave in greeting. If she’s got a man and two kids in tow we ignore each other. In the course of my duties military and mercantile the only person (of several) whose death I am personally responsible for and for whom I lack any remorse was a pimp who took a knife to me. He was a Somali, nominally Moslem who “had drink taken”.

Mel Bass
Mel Bass
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

I’m afraid that you’ve only encountered the tiny minority of ‘sex workers’ who retain functional lives outside the trade, and it sounds like you got to meet them because they are the minority who aren’t controlled by pimps, traffickers or their own trauma/addictions. The vast majority of people in the trade are not so fortunate.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago
Reply to  Mel Bass

I imagine those “johns” who see the fortunate minority might make for very good allies in liberating the oppressed majority. If only Bindel would consider it.

David Yetter
David Yetter
3 years ago

But slaves are workers who work unwillingly and under duress. Were it easy to study the grey and black market economies, it would be possible to discern what proportion of prostitutes are living in actual slavery or slave-like conditions as was Ms. Myers-Powell, what proportion like those Chris Scott describes in Brazil willingly enter into the sex trade to overcome poverty, and what proportion actually fit the idealized picture of “sex work” as “empowering” that sex-positive feminists like the present. I strongly suspect, albeit without data support my view, that the I have listed the categories in decreasing order of size, and that as a statistical generality, the position of the article is correct, counterexamples from the other two categories notwithstanding.

Hubert Knobscratch
Hubert Knobscratch
3 years ago

“Sex work?
I don’t have employment rights,
I don’t have any vacation time,
I don’t have a retirement plan.”

I’m a consultant in the engineering industry
I don’t have employment rights.
I don’t have any vacation time.
I don’t have a retirement plan, unless I pay for it all myself.

I pay corporation tax,  National insurance, income tax and VAT – I don’t mind too much, UK plc has paid for my education, makes me better when I’m ill, and provides a decent society to live in.
If you want society’s support – then start paying for it.
There are some who have genuinely struggled – see above – or are having a metaphorical gun held to their head, but for others it’s a choice.

Let’s make sure we are comparing apples with apples.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
3 years ago

It really depends on where you are. Here is South America whilst there is exploitation and trafficking, there are women who seem to choose prostitution as a career choice in order to overcome the crushing poverty and pitifully low wages; they can earn enough money in one hour that would take them a week to make if she were working in a supermarket, for example. Often this money supports her family. Also, some work part-time in the sex trade to top up the family’s weekly income.

Sue Ward
Sue Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Scott

Well that’s ok then!

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
3 years ago
Reply to  Sue Ward

Obviously, it isn’t because wages are so low which is driving women into this work.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
3 years ago

This story is horrible, and I would agree with Julie on it. How far it generalises is more difficult. You can be against prostitution on moral grounds. But if the point is to help the people involved you could argue on pure principle that people choose (‘choose’?) sex work because it is better than the alternatives. The way to help them would be to give them some better alternatives, not to close down this one.
A couple of quotes, from memory:

Ally Fogg (left wing campaigner): For a heavy drug addict there are very few jobs you can manage. Apart from prostitution there is begging, dealing, thieving, and scrap metal collection. The alternatives are not necessarily any less soul-destroying that prostitution.

Mechanima (Guardian debate contributor): Says to be Irish, ex-sex-worker, runaway at 16, always hated sex work, and had been extremely reluctant to take it up.
She also says: “I bear no resentment towards the johns – if it had not been for them I would not be alive today. I am angry with my family, social workers, all those who could have helped me, but did not“.
And about Brooke Magnanti: “She is not one of us. But the things she wants are the same things we want.

Last edited 3 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Don Lightband
Don Lightband
3 years ago

My god, what a monunental CROCK! ONE sensationalized misery memoir and Bindel is fantastically arrogant enough to proclaim on 92, 000, 000 sex workers!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

“Bindel is fantastically arrogant enough to proclaim on 92, 000, 000 sex workers!”

OK, Bindel overstepped there, the situation she alludes to (at a range of levels) only effects 91,300,000, the others are living life on easy street and having the time of their lives.

Mel Bass
Mel Bass
3 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Perhaps Myers-Powell is exaggerating her own story – who knows? Have you ever met anyone who works in the grittier end of the trade, or who has been trafficked or abused from childhood? I have, through work, and some of their stories make Myers-Powell’s look tame. She can never speak for every person in the trade and there is obviously a broad range of experiences, but she can speak for a significant number.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 years ago

They’re slaves?
Who owns them?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

men bring their underage sons to her, wanting her to take their son’s virginity and make him ‘a man’.

No, they don’t. You made that up.

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

No, there isn’t. You made that up.

they have been told it’s their right as males

No, they have not. You made that up.

prostitution was only one aspect of a wider problem of male attitudes.

Change ‘male’ and ‘men’ in this article to ‘black’ and you’d never get published.
This nonsense is vicious, vicious hate speech. Why does Unherd give a voice to this repellent bigot?

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

Julie Bindel always undermines her own case, even when she has a valid point, by engaging in extreme and blatant misandry.
What’s sad is that her reporting on serious issues more often than not makes for humorous reading because she inevitably gets side tracked into telling us that all men are oppressors of women.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 years ago

Terrible story but I can’t agree that sex work is necessarily slavery, at least as an adult, though it is for children and it may be for those who are trafficked.

For one thing they are paid, for another thing there is the possibility of leaving, as this woman’s did eventually. Also, there are clearly some sex workers who chose the life, and save up to do something else later in life.