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Sex trafficking in Chicago: 'Modern-day slavery'

JUF hosted “The Realities of Sex Trafficking in Chicago and Our Community’s Response” on March 25.

Brenda Myers Powell image
Brenda Myers-Powell, survivor of human trafficking and advocate with the Dreamcatcher Foundation, describes her life as a child prostitute and how she changed her life so she can help other young women in similar situations.

Human trafficking. In Chicago alone, 16,000 to 25,000 local women and girls are prostituted every day. This multibillion-dollar industry is the equivalent of modern-day slavery, according to Lynne Johnson, policy and Advocacy Director, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), which receives a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. 

On March 25, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, Jewish United Fund Government Affairs Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) co-sponsored the program, “The Realities of Sex Trafficking in Chicago and Our Community’s Response.” 

The program highlighted a newly formed Jewish Coalition on Sex Trafficking in Metropolitan Chicago that will focus on multi-faceted ways to combat sex trafficking, from public awareness and education to community services for survivors, legislative policy advocacy and specialized professional education opportunities.

The Coalition is a partnership of Jewish and secular organizations, agencies and synagogues, including JUF Government Affairs; JCRC; JWF; the National Council of Jewish Women Chicago North Shore Section; J-cares (part of Jewish Child& Family Services); Na’amat USA; Greater Chicago Council; Congregation Hakafa; Congregation Judea Mitzpah; the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, the Dreamcatcher Foundation; Heartland Alliance and CAASE.

Johnson was among program presenters who included Anita Alvarez, Cook County State’s Attorney and Brenda Myers-Powell, survivor of human trafficking and advocate with the Dreamcatcher Foundation.

Prostitution: Not a victimless crime

The public often perceives prostitution as a victimless crime. The truth is that prostituted women experience rates of post-traumatic stress similar to that of combat war veterans, Johnson said. “Most women involved in prostitution have experienced routine physical and emotional abuse, theft and sexual assault. Most women involved in prostitution do not believe they will be treated fairly by our court system and do not report the crimes against them.”

Another persistent myth is that women and girls choose to be prostitutes. A 2008 Chicago study of 100 women up to age 25 found their average age for entering prostitution was 15. “Girls this young often exchange sex for clothes, shelter or food in order to survive,” Johnson said. Many are runaways from either dysfunctional homes or foster care. “Pimps and traffickers look for people to recruit into the sex trade who have few, if any, meaningful choices in life.”

Another myth is that prostitutes make a lot of money. According to the Chicago study, 53 percent of prostituted women said they had to give all their money to a pimp. Many said they could not leave prostitution because they feared retribution from their pimps.

“It’s an equal opportunity oppressor,” Johnson said, noting that the sex trade may look different in urban versus rural environments, yet happens just as frequently in both.

Twenty-five years working the streets

Brenda Myers-Powell was abused and raped, starting at age 4, while living with her alcoholic grandmother. By age 14, she had given birth to two children, and started working as a prostitute on Rush Street. A pimp kidnapped her, keeping her as a slave for five months. When she escaped and went home, she learned her grandmother never reported her as missing. “Nobody wanted me,” Myers-Powell said. 

For 25 years, she worked the streets. She was shot five times and stabbed 13 times. She used drugs to soothe her constant physical and emotional pain. 

She received a referral by social services through a county hospital emergency room. She finally received the help she needed to change her life.

Now, through the Dreamcatcher Foundation, Myers-Powell helps rescue women and girls from prostitution by offering them alternatives. “They don’t know any other way out,” she said.

So, who’s paying for sex?

A 2008 Chicago study of 113 johns—men who purchase sex—revealed that they can be anyone. “These are regular folks with very diverse backgrounds,” Johnson said. Among the subjects of the study, the average age was 39, within a range of age 20 to 71 years. The majority had attended some college or earned a college degree. Some 62 percent identified as having a wife or girlfriend. 

“This is the most deter-able group of folks you’d ever want to find,” Johnson said. A majority of men in the study said they would stop buying sex if their photos or names were in printed the local paper, on a billboard or listed on the Internet; if a letter documenting their arrest for soliciting a woman for prostitution was sent to their families, they served jail time or their driver’s licenses were suspended.

“Clearly, it means (these things) are not happening now,” Johnson said. In fact, the burden of the criminal justice response falls on the people who need help the most—the victims—and not on the traffickers or buyers, she noted.

Legal changes focus on traffickers rather than victims

Anita Alvarez took office in 2008 and began evaluating the way the courts handled human trafficking cases. In the past, a young girl might be arrested for prostitution, charged and released—and then was expected to testify against her pimp. “We weren’t helping her,” Alvarez said. “And nothing happened to him.”

“We recognized that we needed to change existing law.” In one legislative session, the Illinois Safe Children Act passed. The law decriminalized juvenile prostitution and allocated money for much-needed, victim-centered social services. 

“You have to look at these minors as victims,” she said. 

New laws made it possible for sex trafficking victims like Myers-Powell to have their prior criminal records expunged. “It was an extensive process,” Myers-Powell said, “but it’s worth it.” Today, she has no criminal background.

Alvarez said the new laws allow prosecutors to build cases without relying on victims to testify against the “bad guys.” She has seen the changes: 93 defendants were charged with sex trafficking-related offenses since 2010. Four years earlier, that number was zero. A number of departments and agencies have worked cooperatively on this effort, she said, from the U.S. Attorney’s office to Chicago, Cook County and suburban police departments.

“We recognize that more work needs to be done,” Alvarez said.

Proposed federal, state legislation to crack down on sex traffickers

Two federal bills to end sex trafficking were recently proposed— the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (S. 1738).

Sen. Mark Kirk introduced the SAVE Act in the Senate in March. The SAVE Act would make it unlawful to sell or promote advertisements that facilitate kidnapping; trafficking or exploitation of children; sexual abuse or illegal sex; pimping, prostitution, child sex abuse and trafficking. Alvarez said the legislation would allow law enforcement to shut down advertisements on websites promoting underage sex.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act creates a domestic trafficking victims’ fund within the U.S. Treasury to support programs for victims of human trafficking and child pornography.

In Illinois, Senate Bill 3558—Services for Survivors of Human Trafficking, introduced in February, would impose fines for various human trafficking offenses, to be collected and distributed through a new Specialized Services for Survivors of Human Trafficking Fund.

For information on the Jewish Coalition on Sex Trafficking in Metropolitan Chicago, call 847-853-8889 or email

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