I started interning at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) in October of last year with very limited knowledge about human trafficking and the commercial sex trade aside from the fact that it was a pervasive issue. Over the past six months, I have entrenched myself in the research about human trafficking and prostitution. I have learned that there is estimated to be anywhere from 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls in prostitution on any given day in any given year in Chicago. Chicago, my new “home” town. I also learned that the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old. I have learned a lot of other facts and realities about prostitution, but I think I learned my most valuable lesson last night.
Last night I had the absolute pleasure of listening to a survivor give her testimony at a writer’s workshop hosted by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance and co-sponsored by CAASE and the Voices and Faces Project. She began her story at 12 years old when her father became her pimp, her mother already a prostituted woman. She recounted the trauma, violence, and force that she experienced as a very young child. As she paused and closed her eyes, tilting her head to the ceiling, I knew she was re-living some of her worst traumatic experiences while in the life. She told us about the man she met whom she believed truly loved her. But he then would set up cab rides for her to run tricks and beat her when she got out of the car when she was finished. She told us how she had his child. She told us how a police officer picked her up one night and put her in the back of his cruiser without handcuffing her or saying a word. He drove her to a parking garage where he forced her to perform oral sex on him. He left her in that parking garage after she finished. She fought back tears as she recalled when she was kidnapped and beaten so badly that the men knocked her front tooth out and popped her left eye socket, putting her into a coma. She desperately tried to portray how tired she was of this life and how she needed to escape. This survivor spoke to an audience of 30 strangers and told her painful, traumatizing story last night.She confessed that her journey has been difficult since leaving the industry and that she has not eaten because she could not afford it and refused to “lie down” again and be violated by entitled men.
At the end of the event, the floor was open for questions for the panel, including the survivor. One woman, a self-identified sex worker, raised her hand and challenged CAASE’s End Demand Illinois Campaign. She expressed pro-sex worker beliefs and alluded to the fact that there are many women out there who have freely chosen to be a prostituted woman. You see, since I started at CAASE I have been asked, “well what about the women who choose to be in prostitution.” I give my answer as succinctly as possible in that I rebuttal with the question: “If the majority of women in prostitution entered at the very young age of 12 to 14 years old, how could they have chosen.” And then I often hear, “well what about women who enter as adults.” My answer has always been, “I do not know of any adult who would choose to be in a so-called ‘profession’ that is filled with physical and sexual violence as well as emotional and financial abuse.”Furthermore, a choice is only possible when someone has other options or alternatives. These women and girls who enter prostitution have very limited resources and opportunities. Most will tell you they had no other choice.
But last night, the “sex worker” that shared our table allegedly had not experienced violence while in the commercial sex trade. Because there are women who do not experience violence while being in prostitution, it is believed that they should be allowed to sell themselves for sex. Well, perhaps in a perfect world where a woman could sell herself for sex without any chance of violence, this would be a belief that could be entertained. But the reality is more similar to the survivor who gave her testimony than to the sex worker who was able to attend the event and voice her opinion. Furthermore, men who purchase sex from the sex worker may not have inflicted violence against her, but that does not mean they had never purchased sex and assaulted or abused the woman or girl. Further, that man is contributing to an industry that is extremely violent and controlling.
…when faced with these arguments, I tend to state the facts that justify my beliefs and accept that I will not agree with everyone and that I will most likely not change the beliefs of others all of the time. But I could not go home and forget about this after attending a WRITERS WORKSHOP. Anne Ream’s profound motto of her Voices and Faces Project echoed in my mind and convinced me I had to write this blog piece….
The enemy of change is silence.