I've been with the best of the best, the worst of the worst, there's no one woman in here that I can't relate to in some kind of way.
Sex trafficking survivor on working with women at Breaking Free
Photo by Benjamin Edwards Photography
‘Prostitution literally ate me from the inside out’
By Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service
Editors Note: This is the life of Jenny Gaines. Lured into sex trafficking at age 14, she spent 28 years in a life of prostitution. Throughout the past six months, Forum News Service has spent time getting to know Jenny. This is her story.
An 8-year-old girl sits in the sixth row of the ornate theater, sharing popcorn and soda with her mom, Jenny Gaines, behind her.
Behind Jenny sits her mother, and as the lights dim, the three generations settle in for the show: a documentary produced by Breaking Free, a Twin Cities organization that helps women trying to leave prostitution.
As the film begins, Jenny whispers with her friends, other women who work at Breaking Free, as they see faces they recognize.
Just a couple minutes in, a friend points at the screen and leans over to Jenny.
“She just died,” the woman whispers.
Soon, they see another one -- a woman alive on-screen but dead now.
But not Jenny.
She is now three years out of a life of prostitution that took her to rough places near and far, including the oil boom counties of western North Dakota. She uses her story today to help others still caught in dangerous, demeaning situations she knows well.
As an advocate at Breaking Free, Jenny helps other women get medications they need, set up therapy appointments or secure a valid form of identification. They are often broken spirits, just as she was, unable to perform simple tasks without energy and enthusiasm lent by others.
And when the women waver, wondering what they’re missing out on those streets, Jenny helps them stay on track. Because she knows.
“We got your high-end strippers, your drug-addicted street walkers. We got your homeless people who maybe just did it once for a place to stay. I can relate to every single one of these women, you know,” she said. “’Cause I did it all.”
“I’ve been on Lake Street, I’ve tried to commit suicide five times, I’ve been to prison, I’ve been homeless, I’ve been on crack, I’ve been in Vegas making $3,000 a night, I have had nice shit, no shit, ... stuff, sorry,” she said.
“I’ve been with the best of the best, the worst of the worst, there’s not one woman in here that I can’t relate to in some kind of way. And all I know is nobody tried to make prostitution work harder than me. I really wanted to be successful and great at it. And I couldn’t make it work. I could not be happy in prostitution. Prostitution literally ate me from the inside out.”
The 109-year-old house
Up in her office on the creaky second floor of the Breaking Free house, Jenny’s phone rings, her clients needing rides.
This October afternoon, it’s go time. The annual candlelight vigil is just a couple hours away, and the house and its front and back patios are filling with supporters. Breaking Free leaders and the St. Paul police chief rally the walkers before the march begins.
At Point B, a United Methodist church four blocks and many car honks away, people line up to read the names of women who died while in the life. Forty-three with premature, violent ends: killed by a pimp, killed by a trick, killed by herself or killed accidentally by drug overdose.
The names are read to remember, year after year. The names are read with an unspoken sense of gratitude that the women in the room, so many of them fresh off the streets or decades into their recovery, aren’t on the list.
Jenny takes her turn and remembers “Brenda,” stabbed 52 times and stuffed in a trash can.
The next day, the Breaking Free office is unusually quiet -- to the regulars anyway. To others, it may seem bustling, women young and old passing through, checking in, stopping for lunch. The furniture is old and mismatched, probably donated like everything else.
It’s quiet for this Wednesday, says Geri Peterson, who cares for the children of the mothers who walk in the door needing homes, jobs, love.
The receptionist, with a radiant smile and a loud laugh you can soon recognize from the other room, answers and transfers calls. One caller wants to register for “John School,” Breaking Free’s daylong program for convicted solicitors of commercial sex.
Others calling are clients, fragile girls needing their busy advocates to call them back.
One of them walks in, needing to fax a housing application. Fifty-one single units for sober living just opened up, but demand is high.
Girls and women talk about how they’ve been coming here since the ’90s, working hard to get out of “the life.” They shared the despair, and now they share the hope. No one else gets it; no one else understands like the women under that old roof, couches and armchairs pushed too close together to get around gracefully. The house is crowded and you’re always in the way, but it’s OK, there’s no judgment here.
Peterson looks for something to do: There are no children today. She and other sisters of survival talk hair, kids, Halloween costumes and lunch. As the pasta cooks, the St. Paul house fills with more women, women who have hope and who want the same for their sisters on the streets.
Once Peterson had 30 kids in that 109-year-old house, she says in between hugging women as they come through the common area.
Girls out there need places like Breaking Free, she says, places where they can build self-esteem.
“To know what to run from,” she says. “And know what to run to.”
Jenny Gaines, now 45, has been out of the life of prostitution for three years. She is seen at age 15, a year after she was recruited by her first pimp. - Photo above by Benjamin Edwards Photography
It’s mid-October, sunny, and Jenny Gaines is on the move.
She blows in a machine to start her car. She’s OK with that. In fact, she almost can’t wait to get pulled over again so she can flash her driver’s license -- a privilege she once went without for 17 years.
She is liberated now.
On her way to pick up a Breaking Free client in southeast Minneapolis, Jenny lights a Newport and admits she’s gotta quit -- she’s up to two packs a day, but she gives a lot of them away. With her career at Breaking Free and working weekends at a restaurant, she’s financially independent for the first time in her 45-year life, but she still isn’t where she wants to be.
“I was doing the math. What I make at Red Lobster pays for my cigarettes every month. So that’s gotta go.”
She cruises down the interstate connecting the Twin Cities and pulls on her cigarette.
Three years out of prostitution, she has an apartment rented in her own name for the first time -- the first time she didn’t break any laws to pay the rent: no prostitution, no sugar daddy in the background.
“I’m totally free. I’m on my own.”
If you see potential trafficking or are a victim, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Phone: (888) 373-7888
- Email: NHTRC@PolarisProject.org
- Text: "INFO" or "HELP" to BeFree (233733)
Toll-free, open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Confidential with interpreters available.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
- Polaris, an anti-human trafficking organization
- Council on Abused Women’s Services of North Dakota or (888) 255-6240. CAWS oversees 20 crisis centers throughout the state.
- Williston-based 4Her North Dakota, services for female victims of sex trafficking
- Bismarck-based North Dakota FUSE, a Force to end Human Sexual Exploitation or (701) 934-5593
- The Blue Campaign, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security voice for efforts against human trafficking
- The Office for Victims of Crime at the U.S. Department of Justice
- The Department of Labor or Trafficking in persons hotline: (888) 428-7581
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline: 1-800-THE-LOST / 1-800-843-5678