The stabbings will take too much time to explain. There were thirteen of them, and Brenda Myers-Powell has a date with her granddaughter soon. It would be hard to remember them all anyway; though, the scars that map her body like unjust landmarks don’t let her forget.
From over her shoulder, a soft beam of sunlight accents the scar outlining her left eye socket. It coincides with the one below the same eye and the one that streaks over the front of her nose. She efficiently, and casually, recalls that those were caused by a broken beer bottle stuck into her face by a gang member when she was sexually trafficked in Los Angeles.
But it’s too late to keep going. We already reviewed in horrific detail the shootings—two incidents, five bullet holes. Myers-Powell was in her thirties by then, twenty-some years in to prostitution. Nothing was a surprise. To her, it was all in the game, a cavalier reference to life on the streets.
Prostitution began for Myers-Powell at the age of fourteen. Drugs weren’t far behind. “I started prostituting on Good Friday, 1973,” she says with rigid confidence. “It was the weekend before Easter, and we needed money. I had two babies, two girls, at fourteen. My grandma said I needed to do what I needed to do to get the money. I’d seen enough black exploitation movies to know what’s up. I knew where to go in my neighborhood. … I went to Clark and Division and stood in front of a hotel.
“I cried with each customer that night, and they didn’t say, ‘Little girl, go home,’ or, ‘I’m sorry; you’re too young.’ … They told me they’d be a regular because I looked young and was fresh.”
For the next twenty-five years, Myers-Powell endured the kind of hell unimaginable in most circles, except those occupied by tireless champions of its victims. Myers-Powell tops that list. Since she escaped the life in the late nineteen nineties—after her last “john,” an immediately abusive man, tossed her out of the car and sped off with her body dragging along the gravel and asphalt—she has been advocating for survivors of and attacking the demand for Chicago’s vast and disturbingly effective sexual-trafficking industry.
Myers-Powell’s story began in the nineteen seventies, but is all-too relevant today. She was molested by men close to her, leading to what she called a distorted view of sexual relations. It had no meaning. For years as a lonely, tired girl, she would stare out the window at the “shiny” young women (many girls, themselves) walking her block in gleaming dresses and high heels. They looked so nice. She liked that. Coming of age, if a boy admirer wanted her, she gave herself over. By fourteen, she was a mother—two children, girls. When the household, led by an abusive and alcoholic grandmother, needed money, Myers-Powell got her chance to be shiny.
After three weeks of selling herself to Chicago solicitors, Myers-Powell was pistol-whipped and kidnapped by a pair of traffickers. She then lived in a hotel closet under the control of the criminals who turned her out. It was her first experience with the elaborate coercion traffickers deploy to establish dominance. She was starved, beaten, and raped. It all mentally dismantled her. She escaped the deranged arrangement, with much thanks to a passing and humane trucker with a rifle, but through the years, there were always traffickers. They called themselves pimps and made false promises. The game swallowed her whole. “After you sleep with so many men like that, you go through changes,” she said. “You begin to think, ‘This is my fate. This is who I am now.’ ”
Myers-Powell lived the life, and now uses the gained knowledge to look sex-trafficking victims in the eyes and tell them they deserve more. Since 1997, with the Dreamcatcher Foundation, co-founded by Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, she has been counseling survivors of the life, as well as advocating for more accountability for pimps and johns (a slang term for solicitors) and greater leniency for victims.
We talk in a Starbucks coffee shop in Calumet City, a near southeast suburb. It’s cold for early October. Myers-Powell is bundled up, wearing a cozy sweatshirt with a loose, stand-up collar, topped with a tweed jacket. She’s known to wear a hairpiece, a different one for her mood or the day’s activity, but her hair has grown, the springy, copper locks a half-inch long.
We start to discuss the differences in the game, then versus now. Myers-Powell takes a deep drink of her white hot chocolate and slaps it on the table before waxing wroth about today’s prostitution, a digital model wherein traffickers are invisible and sex is a product. She’s mad as hell. Her words land like hammers. “It’s almost like Pepsi-Cola advertising pop,” Myers-Powell says of websites like Backpage.com, where more than five hundred Chicago-area prostitution ads are listed daily. “It’s human beings, girls, being advertised on the internet, being pushed across America. Unbelievable. And people are trying to act like it’s just sex. You’re moving a person.”
She switches quickly to the recent revelations in Hollywood. While outing serial sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein is forward progress, Myers-Powell vents her frustration that women and girls from much humbler backgrounds have been saying these things for years and years. “It took an actress, someone popular, to bring Harvey Weinstein down,” she says. “We all know it’s been going on for decades in Hollywood, with the ‘casting couch.’ Is it time? Yes, it is … but when it’s happening to the average girl, she has no voice. Where’s her voice? She has none. It has to happen to famous people for it to be grimy around here. You know what I’m saying?”
When you hear “sexual trafficking,” what do you think of? Is it foreign women as sex slaves? That, or something similar, is the image of sexual trafficking for most people, but it represents only a small percentage of the problem.
Painting an accurate portrait of sexual trafficking is an initial and significant step in advancing the conversation on the crime. In reality, local victims, local traffickers, and local buyers dominate the illicit industry. Advocates of trafficking victims first need you to know this modern-day slavery is happening everywhere—yes, in your hometown—and all the time, and that it is nothing new. A 2009 study, commissioned by the Department of Justice, found that sixty-three percent of sex-trafficking victims and sixty-six percent of sex-traffickers in this country are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. “There is a misunderstanding when you use the word trafficking,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart explained. “People immediately have visions of Southeast Asian women or Eastern bloc women who are brought over here and forced into being sex slaves. And that happens … but the vast majority of trafficking isn’t that. It’s local women being trafficked by local men. … Because of that, [people] don’t think it’s as pervasive.”
But it is pervasive, surprisingly so, in Chicagoland. A grand transportation system (airports, train lines, highways, etc.), a consistently large volume of visitors (for business, sporting events, entertainment, etc.), and the sheer size of Chicagoland make for high prostitution demand. In response, suppliers supply. Since at least 2013, Chicago has been at or near the top of a list of most sex ads hosted on Backpage.com, the most prominent digital platform for sexual trafficking. On the classified website, users first choose to view ads out of a specific location (country, then state and city). Once there, ads are organized by category: jobs, rentals, buy/sell, services. And then, there’s “dating.” These are not your father’s personals. Under the “women>men” section, every ad is a sex ad, promoting women and girls available for a sex-for-money transaction.
“I will absolutely argue until my last breath that there’s no independence about this.”
—Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on prostitution
The ad headlines are a mixture of emojis (hearts, lips, eggplants, etc.), age, location, and jargon, something punchy trying to grab attention amid the chaos, like: “Crazy FuN. ExCluSiVe. K!LLER cuRVes. SiNfuLLy DeLiCious. JaW DRoPPiNG. INdulGE — 22 (Wheeling~Northbrook~24 Hrs).” Inside the ad, users find a coded description for a sex purchase that avoids incrimination but resonates with solicitors—“fresh” means young, possibly a minor; “roses” means dollars; “independent” means without a pimp; and so on. Knowing the code helps law enforcement officials, but not as much as you’d think. Posters are rarely honest, Dart says. Nearly all the ads also include racy or lewd photos, some even have videos. These are rarely genuine, as well, according to the sheriff.
Going back to location, the Chicago-based ads promote sex workers all over the city and in nearly every suburb, especially those surrounding O’Hare International Airport—Rosemont, Arlington Heights, and Schaumburg. Interstates are also a theme among common sites. Off I-88, I-355, and I-294, western suburbs Lombard, Downers Grove, and Oak Brook are hotbeds of prostitution activity. And while less so than the aforementioned, places like Tinley Park and Orland Park, both off I-80 to the south, and Northbrook and Glenview, off I-294 and I-94 to the north, are often listed, as well. Of course, general city areas are referenced, too: downtown, North Side, South Side.
Thanks to the digital revolution, prostitution is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in particular. It is no longer confined to the streets, and thus, not confined to any particular streets. From the anonymity offered behind a digital screen, traffickers move sex workers frequently. Any hotel or rental property, especially if it is affordable, is a potential location for sex work. Pushing that message is an uphill climb for Dart and company. Everyday residents are comfortable and rigid in labeling a veiled, salacious social issue like sexual commerce a fringe problem.
But Dart’s team tries. A couple years ago, he remembers with a corner smirk, he gave a presentation to a women’s club out of the affluent North Shore. He started by showing his engaged audience a video clip of his deputies driving down a suburban thoroughfare. He asked, “Do any of you recognize this area?” And the sheriff could hear a murmur flow through his crowd as they identified their local tree-lined road. He followed it up: “ ‘That’s where we just made a bunch of arrests.’ I could hear this audible gasp in the room.” Dart then admitted to the group that he had harmlessly set them up, but that his team did make arrests in that area, as it can in any area on any night. “‘This is going on all around us and all the time,” Dart recalled telling the women. “While you think this is just an inner-city issue or it happens just by the airports, that is not the truth. It is going on all around us, even in your neighborhood.’ It got their attention.”
While establishing the scope of the problem is a difficult task for trafficking warriors, it is only one task and it leads directly to the next, more difficult one: proving that there is in fact a problem. To many, prostitution and sexual trafficking are separate crimes, the former of which many don’t view as a crime at all. Amnesty International, for instance, published a landmark report in 2015 supporting the decriminalization of sex work, claiming arresting sex workers violates their human rights. Some polls have shown more people support legal prostitution than oppose it.
“While you think this is just an inner-city issue or it happens just by the airports, that is not the truth. It is going on all around us, even in your neighborhood.”
—Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
There are differences between the two crimes. Prostitution is the exchange of sexual contact for something of value, usually currency. Sexual trafficking is when an individual is forced or coerced to perform sexual acts. By definition, there can be a prostitute who is not being trafficked. It’s this dynamic—an individual willingly selling sex to a willing buyer—that many people refuse to condemn. Why should a person be denied the right to make a living however she or he wishes, they argue. The problem with this logic, to Dart, Myers-Powell, and every other trafficking fighter with whom we spoke, is that the dynamic does not exist.
“I’ve always been puzzled by it, but it’s real: There are a lot of people who don’t see anything wrong with [prostitution],” Dart said. “I always have to explain it’s not a victimless crime. There’s no sane woman who would choose that lifestyle over virtually any job out there. It’s not a choice that’s logical. That being the case, if you’re a john, you’re victimizing somebody. But a large portion of our society doesn’t believe that. … There’s been prostitution forever, and there has been this acceptance of it by a large portion of our population.”
Myers-Powell goes a step further and denounces the commonly used rhetoric that prostitution is the oldest profession and says even though prostitution is historic doesn’t mean it has ever been just. “The oldest profession is agriculture, dummy,” she snapped. “Somebody might want to grow a potato or something before they start fucking for money.
“I do believe it’s the oldest form of slavery, because it was about the haves and the have-nots. And it was mostly done with children servants. So how was that a profession?”
The misinformation about prostitution may be the biggest reason many condone it. Call it the “Pretty Woman” influence. People are charmed by the notion of a rich, handsome gentleman rescuing a down-on-her-luck sex worker and transplanting her from a bleak life to a lavish one. This also does not exist, Myers-Powell insists, and Richard and Julia have been indirectly and unintentionally harming trafficked women for the past twenty-seven years.
A separate and greater challenge for Dart and company, aside from educating and influencing the public, is to do the same for law enforcement professionals and re-route decades of strategy.
When Dart took office in 2006, he made himself a reasonable promise: He would try his best not to do anything stupid. One stupid thing he identified quickly was arresting the same person for the same crime again and again. That’s what prostitution had become, at least in Cook County, he said. His department was neither affecting the arrestee’s behavior nor using resources wisely. “The more I got into the issue,” he said, “it became clear how victimized these women are, and it made it even more of a desire on my part to intervene. Once I started really digging into the way prostitution had morphed from being an exclusively street operation to an almost exclusively internet operation, it made me even more intent on focusing on how we can work in that area.
“Based on everything I’ve seen, this is just a horrific, horrific life, and knowing that, how can we give [the victims] back some of their humanity? In the meantime then, how do we get the really bad people who are accelerating all this horror?”
Aside from intervening with and offering social services to survivors, Dart and company took the fight to the websites that host prostitution ads, especially once his team confirmed many ads were for underage sex workers. He filed suit against Craigslist in 2009 for being complicit. While the lawsuit was dismissed in court, the pressure was on, and Craigslist, which was also reeling from a murder involving one of its sex ads, removed those ads later that year. Dart then targeted Backpage.com, a more reckless and abhorrent foe than Craigslist. But he sued them, too.
Backpage’s executives were largely unresponsive, even failing to show up for an inquisition in front of the United States Congress. Dart unnerved the site in 2015 when he sent letters to credit-card companies Discover and Mastercard requesting they cease processing all transactions meant for Backpage.com. The site’s executives filed a restraining order against Dart, and a court told Dart to back off. But the damage was done. The unprecedented maneuver made national headlines and piqued the interest of the national government.
The proactive and creative approach is something Dart hopes can rub off on other agencies, and in many ways, it has. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has more than one hundred national partners in its National Johns Suppression Initiative, twenty of those operate out of Illinois, from local branches of the F.B.I. and Homeland Security to sheriff’s offices in Lake and Kane counties, and local police departments in towns such as Aurora, Elgin, Rosemont, Schaumburg, and Tinley Park.
But not all have been quick to join the fight. Many police departments or districts take a reactive approach to sexual trafficking, responding to complaints as they come in. This does not lead to many incidents or arrests. Three Chicagoland departments I spoke with were confident sexual trafficking was not a problem in their jurisdictions.
Lombard is a village of about forty thousand residents twenty-one miles straight west of the city’s center. It is lined on three sides by interstates and, along with neighboring communities, sees significant prostitution activity.
On a random November Tuesday, by nine p.m., twenty-six Backpage.com sex ads listed “Lombard” as the location. In most of them, Lombard is accompanied by surrounding towns, like Downers Grove, but four of the ads list only Lombard.
Roy Newton is two months into his tenure as Lombard’s police chief but has been with the department for thirty years, serving as a detective, street-level lieutenant, and deputy chief. Newton doesn’t think the department has done a prostitution sting in between two and three years. Like Dart, he doesn’t see a benefit in arresting sex workers on a misdemeanor time and time again. Instead, Newton said, Lombard police work closely with the town’s hotels and prefer to “knock and talk” to prostitutes if they know of activity.
He said prostitution is a larger issue, involving addiction and poverty, and his department prefers not to arrest sex workers and perpetuate the cycle. He said it does not regularly relate to trafficking.
Unlike some other counties, DuPage County, which encompasses Lombard and other western suburbs, does not have an initiative dedicated to combat human trafficking, according to Frank Babbiano, a DuPage County under sheriff, who said that the county does not have a significant problem with the crime. His office takes part in federal initiatives upon request, and the detective’s unit enforces human trafficking.
That is more complicated. Many law enforcement agencies are not equipped to handle a sexual-trafficking operation and its victims. That requires new strategies, housing, counseling, detox services, and then some. The conversation on sexual trafficking is advancing, but it is far from mature. “Resources are so limited,” said Ashley Dawson, volunteering client outreach coordinator for the Zacharias Center, a sexual-abuse victim shelter in Gurnee. “In Illinois, the number of beds we have for survivors of human trafficking is ridiculously low. If someone did get away [from a trafficker] and was looking for support, it would be really difficult for them to stay, even if it’s an emergency situation. There has been increased attention to providing those resources, but it’s still pretty limited.”
That hasn’t stopped Lake County from attacking the issue, thanks in part to Fred Day, chief of the special investigations unit in the State’s Attorney’s Office. Day recognized that while not any one local organization has the resources to fully combat sexual trafficking, collectively, they do. He helped assemble and organize Lake County groups that may encounter a trafficking victim. The collaboration includes law enforcement, social services, medical groups, Day’s office, and more.
The collective doesn’t have a formal name, but its goal is to get victims out of the life. They do that, Day said, by communicating with, educating, and being aware of each other in the event a victim walks through one of their doors.
It’s a slow play, Day said, recognizing that removing a manipulated and frightened trafficking victim from the life is not instantaneous. It takes time. And that’s why, he believes, it’s necessary to utilize a group effort that offers options and opportunity. “Most victims, we’ve learned, do not identify as victims,” he said. “We understand the folks most heavily involved in it, because of coercion or compulsion, or because of the bond that they have with the people who are trafficking them, are not at a place where they are ready. … They understand that cops and prosecutors are really not gonna help their situation at that moment.”
The Sex Worker
By Illinois law, any prostitute under the age of eighteen is a trafficking victim. A combined study (2008), involving DePaul University College of Law, estimated that sixty-two percent of prostitutes in Chicago began sex work before they turned eighteen—thirty-three percent by age fifteen. Of those juveniles, the average age of entrance into the life was twelve. That means more than half of all sex-trade encounters involve a victim-by-law.
Numerous studies have also shown that a majority of prostitutes have pimps or handlers who encourage, enable, and, in many if not most cases, coerce them into sex work. Sheriff Dart does not see a difference between a pimp and a trafficker. To his point: Illinois law charges the crime of “promoting prostitution,” or pimping, to anyone who “profits from [prostitution] by forcing someone to become a prostitute, arranging or offering to arrange a situation in which someone can practice prostitution, or any other means.” Sexual trafficking is charged when an adult engages in a commercial sex act because of “force, threats, fraud, coercion, or any combination of such means.”
“You get people stuck in the definition game about what’s trafficking and what’s pimping,” lamented Dart, a former prosecutor, “and it’s clearly difference without distinction. You’re a pimp: You have a great deal of control over these women. You’re a trafficker: You have a great deal of control over these women. What’s the difference?”
If you go by the studies, a large majority of prostitutes either have a pimp or entered the life as minors (for most, it’s both) and are, legally speaking, victims. That leaves a minority percentage of sex workers who possibly are “independent.” Caleb Probst, the prevention education manager at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, or C.A.A.S.E., has seen other studies that say between seventy and ninety percent of prostitutes have a pimp. He puts the number of willing participants in the sex trade below ten percent. “This varies from study to study, but the vast majority [of sex workers] will have times where they’re giving all or most of their money to another person,” he said. “We would consider this person a trafficker, who is engaging in power and control, whether it’s physical or emotional violence and control to keep that person bringing the money in.”
Myers-Powell thinks that ten percent is still too high, because it doesn’t factor in histories of sexual abuse, other violence, or drug use that are prevalent among sex workers. She works with trafficking victims every day. She talks to them on the phone, meets them in their homes, and finds and consoles them on the streets. If there’s a balanced woman who just wants to explore her sexual nature and get paid for it, she’s never met her. She says it is a mirage that johns use to bypass guilt and shame. “There’s something happening in their world that they haven’t addressed,” Myers-Powell said of sex workers. “There are no women, none, who have told me, ‘I’ve never been molested, I had a great family, a great life.’”
A study from The Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault found that fifty-one percent of sex workers were sexually abused as children. Other studies have put that number anywhere from twenty to sixty percent. In Cook County’s study of prostitutes surveyed from 2011-2017, eighty-three percent (of 170 surveyed) reported using illegal drugs, and seventy-four percent of those women used hard drugs (crack, cocaine, or heroine).
Dart, whose department has interviewed and counseled hundreds of prostitutes over the past decade, says even if there is no pimp, there is some negative force pressuring sex workers to continue on in the life. “Nine times out of ten those are incredibly unfortunate women with unfortunate stories,” he said. “I will absolutely argue until my last breath that there’s no independence about this. Whether it’s psychological issues or substance abuse issues, [women without pimps] are no more independent than the rest.”
He does concede, however, that there is a one percent—the prostitute who is clean, sober, and non-self-destructive who treats sex work like any other job. That’s the white whale, a sex worker who exists in the rarest cases, that allows johns to justify their involvement and non-objectors of prostitution to call it “victimless.”
The Sex Buyer
In the late 2000s, a priority switch changed the landscape of sexual trafficking and prostitution in Illinois. Laws were relaxed against prostitutes (prostitution is no longer a felony, and juveniles cannot be charged with the crime), and enforcement against solicitors intensified. In 2011, Dart spearheaded the National Johns Suppression Initiative, in which law enforcers across the country unite annually to dent the industry’s demand.
Probst, of C.A.A.S.E., said this was a major step in the fight against sexual trafficking. For nearly forever, the burden of prostitution focused on the sex worker instead of the buyer, generally a man who patronizes the work, or the pimp, also generally a man who coerces the worker. “For millennia,” Probst says, “the same response was, ‘Let’s figure out how to get women out of prostitution,’ but if all we ever do is remove people from the supply and you don’t do anything from the demand, in that vacuum, it will ensure new victims every time. We need to look at both sides of that supply-demand equation, which is really only something we’ve been doing for maybe a decade.
“Let’s try holding men accountable for a few thousand years and revisit it in our next life.”
In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, two-plus times more women than men (43,000 to 19,000) were arrested on prostitution-related charges. With much thanks to the N.J.S.I., which now has engaged in fourteen operations, today the numbers are close to even. On one day in August 2017, one thousand johns were arrested across the country. “We are a lot more focused on johns and making their lives very difficult,” Dart said. “That’s something I’ve been very proud of. … We try to make their lives very tricky.”
“Let’s try holding men accountable for a few thousand years and revisit it in our next life.”
–Caleb Probst, Prevention education manager at Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (C.A.A.S.E.)
Johns come from all backgrounds, but there are some trends. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has extracted data from thousands of arrested sex buyers since 2011. It found that mostly, they are males who are: white (38%), aged 31-40 (29%), have at least a high school degree (47%) and a job (91%; only 872 respondents), and are in a relationship (56%; 46% married).
The commercial sex industry is disproportionately violent. Any study will show that, but specifically, a 2004 study from the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the on-the-job mortality rate of a sex worker was fifty-one times worse than that of the next closest female profession (liquor store clerk). It also concluded the average sex worker will die by the age of thirty-four. The City of Chicago surveyed sex workers in 2006, and every one of them, one hundred percent, endured some level of violence, whether a slap or rape, in the sex trade. A 2008 study from the governor’s office found that most of that violence, according to prostitutes, is inflicted by johns.
In Myers-Powell’s twenty-five years in the business, she can’t remember a Richard Gere-type john. There were no dream men armed with sweet talk and flowers coming to her side. “And the guys … they don’t ease up to it. There’s no foreplay,” she fervently explained. “They came to get theirs. Some of these ladies say, ‘I enjoy my customers.’ What a lie. Customers come with all the defects.”
Take all these statistics and studies into account, and it can be concluded that prostitution is an illegal industry that employs minors, empowers traffickers, and enables dangerous consumers. If so, at the very least, any sex buyer is funding a despicable cycle, making all sex transactions far from victimless, Dart says. “It’s beyond any type of debate that it’s a very, very dangerous profession,” he rationalized. “So start with that and then you add to it all the other things that are objectively true: Historically, those who engage [in prostitution] have issues that are rather deep-seeded that make them prone to be victimized—domestic violence issues, substance abuse issues. Those things are true. Given those factors, why would a logical person choose that path? They would choose that path because they have no other options.”
The Sex Trafficker
Traffickers are opportunistic, recognizing and taking advantage of vulnerability. They either notice it and attack it or mold it from naïveté. They generally use a combination of manipulative actions to mentally, physically, and emotionally control individuals, Dart said.
A sex worker can be recruited in innumerable ways. Myers-Powell, at fourteen years old, was struck with a handgun and kidnapped. Marian Hatcher, a sex-trafficking survivor who spearheads victim services in Sheriff Dart’s office, got into drugs with her abusive ex-husband, who pimped her out. Some young women or girls are coerced online through chat apps or social media; others are noticed and targeted in plain sight—malls or bus stops. Flattery combined with the promise of fame or fortune, or both, maybe via modeling, is an ever-effective lure, Dart said.
But it doesn’t matter the how, says Day, with the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, it happens everywhere, and teenagers are especially susceptible. He warns that it is something of which parents need to be aware. “It happens wherever kids don’t feel like they are part of something,” he said, “wherever they are not accountable to caring adults, or there are not caring adults in their lives. The internet is one caution area, but like I said, just idle time, going to the mall, not having people invested in what you’re doing—that’s as bad as anything.”
Traffickers work to cultivate a bond with victims, using a combination of promises and threats, said Myers-Powell. It’s a reason there are very few trafficking arrests, and even fewer charges levied, Day said—and why many sexual trafficking statistics are incomplete. Inherently, sexual trafficking is not a self-reported crime. Most crimes (theft, burglary, assault, embezzlement, identify theft) are reported by the victim. Some gender-based ones, like domestic violence or rape, are as well, but to a lesser extent because the power and control asserted by the offender can intimidate the victim. Sexual trafficking is an extreme version of that dynamic, especially because the victim, a prostitute, has, legally speaking, committed a crime. Traffickers use that to threaten their victims. “The idea is that you are now going to be charged for something you are not really choosing to do,” said Rosa Figueroa, director of client services with the Zacharias Center. “So looking for help when you’re going to be shamed and criticized just doesn’t make sense.”
“The idea is that you are now going to be charged for something you are not really choosing to do, so looking for help when you’re going to be shamed and criticized just doesn’t make sense.”
–Rosa Figueroa, Director of client services at Zacharias Center
Myers-Powell researched and co-wrote a study through DePaul in 2010 after interviewing twenty-five former pimps in the Chicago area. More than half of the respondents would not allow their prostitutes to keep any money from a “date.” Since many sex workers also come from humble or desolate lifestyles, this matters. A trafficker may hold the only income they’ve ever known, making that person difficult to abandon. This allows the abuser to form a bond, known as a trauma bond, with the victim. “If we find these people and intuitively they understand they are victims of trafficking, they would still need to come to court and make a statement that they were compelled to do this or that there was someone forcing them to do this or that there was someone receiving their money and directing them to do this,” Day said. “Most of the victims or survivors we talk to fall far short of conceding those points. They won’t say that. They’ll either say they are working on their own, they’ll say they are working for any number of reasons that may be very real—their kids, they want to, they need the money for any number of things, it may be a substance-abuse issue or an addiction that’s got them, and all those may be combined—but almost always someone is getting the money that is not the survivors.”
Social workers at the Zacharias Center work exclusively with victims of sexual assault. Occasionally, someone they counsel will also be a victim of sexual trafficking. They say that priority one for the victims is protection and survival, and the abused believes she or he is safer not implicating the abuser.
“Whether it is [the trafficker] having their identification, or credit card, controlling their finances or how they get paid, there is an extreme amount of power that prevents people from coming here,” said Victoria Celano, strategy and communications director for the Zacharias Center. “They don’t have the ability to come here in a way that is safe unless they are completely out.”
Myers-Powell experienced manipulation throughout her years in the life. Years of verbal and physical abuse left her without want. She said they call it “seasoning a ho,” and it begins with a lot of sweet talk and nurturing from the pimp. The beatings, coupled with name-calling and severe condescension, come later. “They told me that I was born to do it, and this was my life,” she said. “Basically, this is what I was born to do. Who is born to do that? But you believe it, because it happened to you early in life and you don’t think it happens to other girls. It didn’t happen to other girls I know, I thought. So it must be me. It must be me.
“So we take around all this guilt and shame and … make it work even though it’s not working.”
A lotus flower is rooted underwater, buried in sludge, far from the light. It is a resilient plant that, with its survival at stake, fights through darkness to rise. Once it breaks through to find the light, it flourishes. Though ever-delicate, it becomes one of the most beautiful flowers on the planet.
A tattoo of a lotus is a common request from the sexual-trafficking survivors that come to Chris Baker, of Ink180 in Oswego, about fifty miles southwest of the city. Cubed in an industrial building on an industrial roadway, Ink180 specializes in free tattooing for the branded and scarred—former gang members, human-trafficking and domestic-violence victims, and those who have cut or otherwise purposely harmed themselves.
In addition to a tattoo artist, Baker is a minister, an unconventional combination that’s written all over this body. His casual everyday garb—solid-colored V-neck tee, shorts, and low-rise sneakers sans socks—intentionally shows off his quilt of tattoos. At the base of his neck, left naked by the V-neck, is a crucified Jesus Christ, and on his bare left shin is a large portrait of the savior. The body art touts Baker’s Irish heritage, as well as his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles.
A sturdy man of average height, complemented with an attention-grabbing shaved head as well as a gentle demeanor, Baker moved his young family out of L.A. ten years ago to shield them from the prevalent gang activity in his neighborhood. When Baker was young, most of his friends were in the gang life, but he swears up and down he never got involved, not even after the twelfth friend’s funeral he attended.
When in 2011 he set up his family in Chicagoland, a born artist and man of faith, Baker knew he wanted to give back by removing or covering up gang tattoos. He saw so many lives end; maybe he could help some begin.
Thanks to law-enforcement friends, Baker quickly had a roster of former gang members who wanted to take advantage of the free service. Upon the recommendation of those same friends, in 2012, Baker expanded his free services to victims of sexual trafficking. He didn’t know much about the crime or its participants but he quickly found out.
Baker considers himself an informed man, well-educated on the streets, on the way things really are. This changed his mind. “When I learned about human trafficking, I learned that I didn’t know anything about what was going on around me, because it was going on within yards of where I’m at—not miles,” said the Oswego resident. “… It sickened me as a tattoo artist that people were using the art medium I love to mark people as property. It sickened me as a father that a lot of these victims are kids. It sickened me as a man to know that other men were out there paying for this and perpetuating it, keeping it going.”
Baker informed me of another dark-web site other than Backpage.com. This one hosts reviews of massage parlors, specifically to map ones that offer sexual favors. Illegal massage parlors are known to employ and control foreign sex workers, using coercion to control their finances, housing, and general livelihood. On the site, users can find out details on providers, and descriptions and prices of services. Around Oswego, Baker found on the site, there are five illicit spas. He said he printed out incriminating information and brought it to his local police department and has followed up. There has been no response, he says.
Baker asked where I lived and typed it into the dark site’s search engine. Eight locations in my home suburb popped up, ordered by most-recent review. The top listing featured a review two days old at a shop three blocks from my home. Through my shocked daze, Baker explained to me what certain abbreviations meant. In the latest review, a man paid one hundred twenty dollars for protected oral sex and sexual intercourse—inside a massage parlor. I took a printout of the page to the police chief of my town on October 9th. There had been no arrests as of press time, November 22nd.
Many trafficked women and men are branded with the name of their trafficker. The tattoo is most commonly on their neck, chest, or thigh. Traffickers used to tattoo barcodes on the back of victims’ necks, but Baker said police must have caught on because he isn’t seeing that anymore.
In the back of Baker’s metal and stone studio, there’s a mural, equal parts bleak and vibrant. A gray-scale tree spreads out across a square accent wall. Dangling from the branches are colorful handprints pressed to the concrete. There’s fifty of them, each one representing a trafficking victim who came to see Baker. He talks about one of them and points to her handprint. It’s orange and small. She was thirteen years old when she escaped and just ten when she was kidnapped from Des Moines and into a sex-trafficking ring that toured and presented her to Midwest pedophiles.
He’s heard far too many stories like that. Baker said, like a bartender, he’s an amateur therapist and will listen if a victim wants to share. They often do. Baker is a veteran tattoo artist, but these assignments are different. A small cover-up, usually a half-hour job, can take up to four hours, he says, because survivors often tremble throughout the process as they confront the evil they have faced. Multiple breaks are common.
To deal, Baker regularly sees a psychiatrist. He leans on his faith and the tight embraces he receives from a survivor after a successful cover-up. He’s also writing a book, hoping to educate the public on human trafficking and gangs. He also fights back. Multiple time a week, he waits in his car outside a known illegal massage parlor near his gym. As patrons go inside, he slaps this typed note on their windshield: “Warning, you’ve been observed entering a business known for human trafficking. We’ve taken a picture of you, your car, and your license plate. If we see you in this parking lot again, we will hand the information over to the authorities.”
Baker’s version of aftercare is unique. It’s not a part of any traditional program, but is nonetheless invaluable for those who take advantage. “It’s a step in their process,” Baker said. “Their rehabilitative process is so large, the scope is so large, when you remove those brands, those tattoos, it takes away a constant visual reminder.”
Conventional aftercare is as important as it is sensitive. Sheriff Dart, Hatcher, and their team rely on a network of social services to help a victim escape the life. More than three hundred victims have gone through Cook County’s sexual trafficking programming since its 2011 inception, Hatcher said. The strategy is to offer as many options as possible and empower the survivor to initiate treatment, whether it is counseling, medical care, or detox. Same goes for the social workers at the Zacharias Center. It is all about choices and letting the victim, who has been stripped of choice, control those choices. In fact, in the Gurnee shelter, there are multiple waiting rooms and multiple bathrooms. Every visitor has immediate options.
“We don’t tell them what they need. We let them tell us and support them as best we can,” said Figueroa, director of client services at Zacharias. “For an individual, it could be just to tell their story and have someone here, and that could be it. For others, it may be wanting to reclaim parts of their identity, part of their life, whether that’s education, wanting to be able to establish healthy relationships, wanting to remove themselves. We get to come along for the ride.”
But it’s a long road back, and one a survivor statistically strays from at least once. Hatcher, with the sheriff’s office, said rehabilitation can be frightening in a variety of ways. If detox is involved, a victim will have to endure painful drug withdrawals. If it’s counseling, she or he will have to open up for maybe the first time in her life. Then, there may be legal obligations, such as testifying against a trafficker, where survival comes into play. It doesn’t work every time and rarely the first time, but when it does, well, that’s why Hatcher and company do this.
Hatcher’s team placed one survivor in a treatment program, but she left, scared of what her trafficker may do. They saw her not too long after. “She got beat to within an inch of her life, with the most horrific ankle injury they’d ever seen at this hospital—seven pins, three plates,” Hatcher said. “She’s still on crutches because of the trauma bond she had with the pimp. Once the pimp was in custody and on a million-dollar bond, she finally got taken up to come to us and we were able to help her and she’s safe and doing quite well.”
It’s estimated that thousands of victims, many of whom are minors, are being prostituted daily in Chicagoland by sex traffickers. More and more organizations, from law enforcement to social services, are joining the fight thanks to the examples set by the heroes and heroines detailed throughout this story—and they aren’t going anywhere.
Because of the organizations sourced in this story, Illinois has seen real change in how sexual trafficking is policed and charged. Relatively new legislation has balanced the justice scale between sex-trade workers and sex-trade beneficiaries. A 2014 law (Senate Bill 3558) established a fund to support services for victims of human trafficking by earmarking fees from arrested johns and pimps. Also, Illinois is the only state where minors cannot be charged with prostitution, and 2012’s Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act says victims of the crime can have prostitution arrests removed from their records.
The general conversation has also improved, as advocates, like survivors Hatcher and Myers-Powell, Sheriff Dart, Probst, and Baker, travel the globe informing lawmakers, students, and law enforcement about the pervasive and powerful problem of an all-digital sexual-trafficking industry.
Despite the progress, Sheriff Dart is far from content on the scope of sexual trafficking is his county and beyond. While his team’s creativity and pioneering efforts are viewed as elite work in the field, he knows there are hundreds of sex ads posted daily right in his backyard. He’s still looking for more answers, but he believes it begins with education, both of the public and law enforcement.
It’s a tall task, as people tend to be stuck in their ways. Dart said he was once there. When he began as Cook County sheriff in 2006, the former prosecutor and state official didn’t know Backpage from the front page, and he certainly didn’t know women and children were being sold online. But he adapted and came to a conclusion.
“We’re not going to end it. We’re not going to have it to where it’s a rare occurrence. What we’re attempting to do is save as many women as we can,” he said. “We advocate to people and try to open their eyes because people don’t know this. … I do think a lot of what we do is not necessarily looking for an arrest or to help women, as much as we are here to advocate. Let’s wake people up and in doing so maybe we can get people more in tune with change that needs to be done.”
For Myers-Powell, it’s about damn time something changed. Twenty years out of the life and day after day through victim after victim she encounters the same atrocities she endured.
Our time is up at the suburban coffee shop. Myers-Powell has to go pick up her granddaughter, a blessing from one of her two daughters, who both are living successful and healthy lives. Early in our conversation, Myers-Powell playfully criticized the loud blues music being played at this Starbucks. It was a player in our conversation, as we each leaned forward on several occasions to communicate. As she’s finishing up a final point, Myers-Powell shakes her now-empty cup of hot chocolate. The music stops completely just as she begins her last words to me.
I hear them clearly:
“It’s almost like a Pandora’s Box with this shit, and it needs to be opened and all the bullshit needs to come out so we can get it right,” she says. “That’s the only way to do it. I don’t want to sugarcoat this shit, because it shouldn’t be.
“People never want to help over here, saying, ‘I’m going to help this country and that country, because they have a hard time there.’ Having a hard time here, baby. I think we got more hard times than anybody.”