There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Jenny was 14 when she ran away from home. She met a man in his early twenties who coerced her into sex work.
I had a pretty good childhood, your middle-class family. Um, my mother was a very devoted Catholic, and um, she encouraged us to use our creativity, she had a lot of structure and rules so it was really fun when my dad came around and he played games with us and tickled us, he was a lot of fun to be with. I felt like I was on top of the world when I was with my dad.
First of all, I remember discovering, um, in one of my dad’s drawers a lot of pornography and I got a direct message right then and there that those were the kind of women that were attractive and those were the kind of women that didn’t get left. When I was 12 and my parents got divorced I took that extremely hard and um, I blamed my mother and I thought it was all her rules and structure that drove my dad away and he left her for somebody that was more promiscuous more, I don’t know, more advanced sexually, you know, and my mother was this wholesome person that got left alone with the kids. I was 12 and I vowed right then and there not to be the kind of woman my mom was. I was going to be the kind of woman that I saw in those magazines.
My parents got divorced, I went through a couple of years of just being totally incorrigible. My mother was trying to get help from different programmes, um, she sent me to a treatment facility where I spent about a year there where I met other women that had experience in the lifestyle and they would run away and then come back to the home and talk about Hennepin avenue and talk about you know the men that they were meeting and prostitution and I remember being very intrigued about it but still afraid of it. And when I was 14 I ended up running away from home and I was still very angry with my mother and within 48 hours I met my trafficker. I went to that area, that blocky area that I had heard about and that’s where I met my trafficker. He was in his early twenties, I think 21 or 22. When I first met him he caught my eye right away. He was so popular and so charismatic and everybody liked him, people shook his hand everywhere we went, he brought me into bars, I felt all grown up and I didn’t have to listen to my mom anymore and I was- he reminded me of my dad. He was a lot of fun and he made me feel like the most important person in the world when I was with him.
My recruitment period took a couple of months. So, during this time, like I said, he was bringing me to bars, he was also bringing me around other women in prostitution. We would drive in his car and he would point out the girls that were working on the street and he’d ask me what do I think about them and what they’re doing? And I remember thinking, that’s terrible, I would never do that. Those girls are nasty, they’re um, well anyway I just remember him saying, ‘Well I actually respect those women. I think it takes a strong woman to do what they’re doing. They’re supporting their man, taking care of their families and that’s the kind of woman I need in my life. I’m looking for a strong woman.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if I’m not the one? What if I’m not strong enough?’ you know? But yeah, he was bringing me around women in prostitution, glorifying the lifestyle, listening to music that, you know, promoted prostitution. I saw all the money, I got a lot of pressure from other women in prostitution, you know, his brothers were traffickers, and they all had women that were in prostitution and getting all this pressure from people. But I still wouldn’t do it. It took a few months. And then that’s when he decided I was ready for my initiation into the lifestyle.
We stayed with different people like his brothers, and I think at one point he had like a square girlfriend is what we called them, she was a girlfriend, maybe what they call a bottom bitch now, so somebody that kind of held him down, kept him with a place to live, a car to drive, but I don’t think she was in prostitution, she had a regular job. But she played a role in, um, kind of like a mother role to me. She would talk to me about my period, what kind of sex acts I was going to do and how much to charge.
It was a few months after he and I had met and he told me that there were all these gang members that were after him and he needed $400 by 9 o’clock that night and if he didn’t have the money, they were gonna kill him. And I believed him, he was very dramatic and animated and then he said, I need your help. And I remember thinking, ’What can I do? Where am I going to get $400 from, I’m only 14.’ And he said, ‘You know don’t worry about that, I actually have a plan. I’ve got all the money that I need right now, and I’ve got some friends upstairs waiting and I just need you to go be with them like you are when you’re with me.’ And I didn’t want to do it but, um, I was really afraid and I believed he was going to die, but he sold me on the idea when he was like, ‘Listen, I’m going to be in the next room, I’ll be in the living room and if it gets out of hand or things get too rough, just call my name, I’ll come in and I’ll stop the whole thing.’ So I agreed to do it and it was really horrible, it was very violent, um, they weren’t gentle with me. This was an initiation so it was meant to break my spirit. And it did. And I just remember calling his name over and over and he didn’t come in to help me. But what he did do, when it was all over, is um, I remember getting all this praise and attention and um, him saying things like ‘Wow’, you know, ‘You really love me’, you know, ‘I know that you love me now, nothing’s going to come between us ever again. It’s going to be me and you baby. Forever.’ And I remember him saying those things to me just seemed to kind of, make what had just happened almost worth it, you know, I needed his love, you know, I needed that from him.
Well it didn’t take him that long afterwards to get me into the street, you know, onto the street. Where I turned my first trick and, um, you know he had people to kind of help me um, process through everything, you know, I learned from other women about ways that you could help yourself disassociate where um, it’s not that bad. I learned about condoms and I learned about, um, you know I was told things like, ‘Well now you’re in charge, now you get to say who and when does what to you. You’re the boss, you’re going to control the situation.’ So I thought I was in control, you know now, I’m getting all this attention from being able to manipulate men and, um, using my body to get men to do what I want them to do you know, and I was told over and over again that ‘You’re born to do this. You’re a cold piece. This is what you were born to do.’ You know he would say things like ‘Yeah I’ve got a stallion with me on my team now’ and so now I’m learning that all my self-worth comes from how much money I made that day. All my self-worth is coming from my sexuality, from my vagina. And, um, it’s a brainwashing that happens. There’s a reason traffickers go after children, is because they can brainwash them and that’s what was happening to me so even though I hated doing what I was doing, um, I was doing it for him ‘cos it please him, because I believed I was damaged goods but I was good for one thing, I was good for that.
Eventually I had to start drinking in order to be with tricks um, it made me friendlier and then eventually I ended up having to use drugs so I could numb and forget. It would make the time go by faster when I was with tricks. I had to become hard. I had to tell myself the sensitive, emotional person, loving person that I was before I got into prostitution, she had to go. So I had to become this hard person that wasn’t sensitive to others, that didn’t care about others. I had to, um, I had to learn how to just be tough and just get through stuff and not think about it. I had to disassociate from the act like I wasn’t really there. Any means necessary.
I definitely had quotas on how much money that I needed to make every night, depending on the city. In Minneapolis my quota was much lower because the growing rate was lower. But once we got to places like Chicago and New York my quota on a weekday was a thousand dollars a night and on Friday and Saturday I needed to make 2,000 a night. That would have been thirty years ago? That quota didn’t really change much, it only went up, it never got lower. [If she didn’t meet her quota] That would mean I’d have to work during the day the next day and no sleep. Um, it meant that we would definitely have an argument and he might make an example out of me in front of the other women so that they know not to come home without a certain amount of money. It would mean things like he wouldn’t sleep with me for a long time you know so he’d take away his affection and attention. There was a lot of dehumanising and degrading things that he would say to me.
I was involved in every form of prostitution that there is except, um, pornography. So I, um, when I was working as a- well I was underage of course, so I did a lot of my working on the streets ‘cos I didn’t need ID then. In Minneapolis it was Lake Street, Nicolette, University. My quota might have been about $400 a day. Then it was, he would take- once we’d saved up a certain amount of money we would go to Chicago and then we’d probably stay there about 3 to 4 weeks and I’d work the streets in Chicago until we’d saved up enough money to go to New York. And then once I’d got to New York I worked right around all the big hotels in New York, the Upper East Side, well 50th and Park, 50th and 6th Avenue. It was actually a street called Avenue of the Americans and we called it Minnesota Street because there were so many girls from Minnesota there.
[Interviewer: What could have stopped you being in the life?]
It would have been my dad. I needed my dad. So my dad had addiction issues and his own issues but what I needed was for my dad and, I don’t know, I guess that- I don’t know if that could have happened, um, but other than that, maybe if I’d have been aware of, um, traffickers and their techniques and you know what to expect and what to look for. But I was very naïve and, um, all I knew was I wanted somebody to love me, you know, so maybe if somebody would have told me, like ‘Look there’s guys out here who have this on their mind or intend to do this’, you know, but I didn’t know, I didn’t even know- half of the stuff that happened to me in my life I had no idea even existed.
One of the things that I really think people need to know is that I really believed that I chose prostitution because I’m the one that ran away from home, I’m the one that fell in love with this guy, and, you know, a lot of times he didn’t even have to be around me to have all this power and control over me so I had opportunities to leave, but I didn’t. And so what I would want people to know is that women don’t choose this, you know, this is something that happens to them and um, they are victims and we shouldn’t be criminalising them.
Narrative and image provided by FSPA