Interview with Brenda Myers
activism prostitution sexual-violence
Salome Chasnoff: So why don’t you start off by giving me your name and a brief little something about yourself.
Brenda Myers: Hello my name is Brenda, Brenda Jean is my name. I’m pretty happy with that name. It took me many years to find out who I was, but my name is Brenda Jean. For many years I was a lot of names. Basically, whatever wig I wore, that’s the name they called me. I have been Chaka Khan, I have been Foxy Brown, so many people, but I’ve never been Brenda Jean, my birth given name. I’m happy today being just Brenda Jean.
S.C: So what’s this movie that we’re making? What’s it about?
B.M.: You know what I hope, I want this movie to be about real, I want it to be about the pain, because most of the time when you see prostitutes reflected on the screen, they’re happy hookers. They’re women who are having a ball standing on the corner, and it’s a joke. And they’re reflected as not having a lot of feelings or we can go with the Pretty Women/ Richard Gere type scenario, but that’s not what it is. Prostitution has so many faces, so many feelings, and so many ways that women got to be prostitutes. There are no two people with the same story, yet we all have the same issues. All of us came from some pain, all of us are sharing a secret, all of us have something that we’ve been hiding for so long it’s eating us up inside. And I want people to see that, I want them to know that we’re no different than any other person that’s broken, hurting, that’s out there doing something that is really dangerous, a broken person out there in the world doing something that’s really dangerous, getting in the car, going into a room, putting ourselves in a position with strange men, for money, and never knowing if this’ll to be the last one, this’ll be the last time or what’s going to happen. Most of us are looking for Prince Charming, and we never find him, you know. A lot of times I think it’s the story that our moms told us when we were little girls that one day some man is going to come and take us away into the sunset and at some point or another, dad didn’t do it, nobody did it for us, but we kept believing that some way, some how Prince Charming was going to show up and take us away. And then some of us just don’t like Prince Charming at all. So that’s what I mean there are so many different stories. And I want people to hear some of these different stories. That’s what I want this to be about. I don’t want this to be a comedy or commercial, or something that when you leave we’ll feel stereotyped, because we’re not a stereotype. We’re all different and we all have issues.
S.C.: Are you talking about a particular kind of prostitution or are you speaking generally about women in the sex industry?
B.M.: I’m talking about women in the sex industry period. It gets different when it comes with color lines, race because there’s two types of prostitution. Race has not to do with a lot of things because with prostitution we all end up the same, broken women. But that doesn’t have to be true for everybody. I was broken for many years and I’m glad I’m not one of the women that ended up at the point of no return. Prostitution has many levels. It has the total upscale level and it has the glamorous level. It has so many faces, and that’s why it’s so popular and so broad. Prostitution is in your living room and on your computer. We sell soap with big titties so little girls learn early that in order to be beautiful, in order to get through life they have these assets, this is the message that we send them. And some little girls get the message better than others.
It was once said to me by a nun - and I asked her, what do you know about prostitution, what does she know about hoes? And she said she knew that a lot of us start out being abused as early as early as three years old, and some of us don’t even remember being abused, but by the time we are six or seven our behavior has already started to form and then we grow up to be prostitutes because of what happened to us in our broken homes, and some of us don’t even realize what the cause was.
S.C.: That’s interesting because I can’t help but wonder…
B.M.: When I started in the sex industry it was a form of conquering men and getting what I want from men and that actually being a power trip. And it was fun because I had all this control, I was young, I was pretty and I had all this control. I could step in a room and have all this control when it came to sex. He would pay me and I could step out free from any type of emotional feelings anything that happened after I didn’t have to deal with that. Because I had been hurt too. So when I hear women saying “It’s a job, and I enjoy it and I’m making a lot of money from it.” But it only lasts so long because it usually gets ugly, at some point or other it’s gonna get ugly. Because you don’t always run into that great guy or that great time. So at some point it’s going to get ugly, or you get ugly and your prices go down and your customers stop coming so regularly because they are going to get younger girls. Then let me hear those women say, “Oh, I had a ball.” Because if you’ve prostituted all that time, then gravity’s gotten to you and you’re sagging a little bit, what you gonna do now? What are you going to do? Then you turn to the bottle. “I’ll drink a little bit because it will make me forget that I’m not getting picked as much.”
S.C.: Great answer. So could you talk about the women that are in the group.
B.M.: The women in the group… When I first came in I was like, “Where’d all these women come from,” because they come from so many different places and so many different spaces. But these women in the group are the big picture of how many different ways a woman can get into prostitution. Because everybody doesn’t have the same story, everybody didn’t get in at the same age, but everybody got in, you know what I’m saying? And that’s what they have in common, no matter how they did it, they got there. At some point or other they had to sell their body and it didn’t only happen one time, Salome. It happened enough for them to say “Hey, I’m a prostitute.” See, ‘cuz a women who doesn’t have the rent money or dates a guy that maybe she doesn’t know doesn’t consider herself a prostitute. You have to come to a certain level to know I’m a prostitute. Before you admit it. Because before you do that, your self-esteem has to go down too.
S.C.: So what do you think about this word, prostitute?
B.M.: It is what it is. It’s just a word. It’s a harsh word. It is a judgmental word. When you say call girl, escort, dancer, you say something else. But when you say prostitute, people conjure up images of street crime, women standing on the corner, seedy little thing. It’s morally almost a curse word. You can almost say rapist before you say prostitute because in our society a man can abuse and rape a women and come out and come back into society and be forgiven. His record can say rape, but if a woman’s record says prostitution she’d be totally outcast by everyone around her. And they wouldn’t have any feelings about out-casting her, it would be like a dirty little joke because people are so judgmental. But everybody loves a prostitute. Hollywood loves prostitutes. Every time you see a movie, there’s a prostitute in it. And we snicker about it, we have our little laughter about prostitution, but nobody ever sees that side when a woman is in deep pain, when she has been disfigured by some john. Nobody ever sees that seedy side.
S.C.: Do you know any facts that might be useful?
B.M.: There are 16,000 prostitutes here in Chicago and there are only 1 or 2 places where a woman can go if she’s trying to get out of prostitution. And here in Chicago prostitution is a felony upgrade, which means that if a woman is arrested for prostitution she gets an X on her record and she’s out-casted again because there are 52 jobs she can’t get a hold of. So, she’s gotta get a minimum wage job if she exits prostitution. She can’t get public housing because they don’t let people with felonies get public housing. She can’t get a PELL grant because she’s got that felony against her. And chances are she’s got children, four or five children and she’s got a minimum wage and the state gives her back her children and she’s trying to get out of prostitution. What do you think her options are to stop? I don’t think prostitution should be a crime, I don’t think women should be criminally locked up for being a prostitute. I think it is more a moral thing, more than a criminal thing, but they seem to link everything in the world to prostitutes - drugs, murder, everything that goes on. I mean, how can everything in the world be going on around sex? Sure, there are a lot of things going on on the streets in general and in the world, but prostitution is not the seed of everything that’s bad. I think women need to get help. I think there need to be more services available for women trying to exit prostitution, than a place to give them a cell, to lock them up.
In Chicago there’s an area called Wicker Park that at one point spent $1.8 million locking up prostitutes, the same prostitutes over and over again. That seems to me like somebody’s not thinking. There has to be somebody thinking about what’s going on, thinking, “Why are we locking up the same women? Why do they keep getting locked up?” Maybe they have nowhere to go. We did a survey in Cook County Jail and found out that out of 235 women that were locked up for prostitution, only 10% had a place to go when they left. These are scary numbers. So if a woman has no place to go when she leaves jail, what is she going to do? She’s going to go back to prostitution. Nobody’s offering her anything, there’s no place for her to go, so she goes back and it becomes a circle. And our tax payers spend money on locking up the same women five or six times a year, when that money could have been spent on reversing the situation and giving her services so she can change her life. That’s what I call scary.
S.C.: What are the different forms of prostitution that one might encounter in Chicago, or in a city like Chicago?
B.M.: Every possible type of prostitution that exists happens in Chicago. When you hear about trafficking, you would never think that would happen in Chicago. Trafficking exists in Chicago. Trafficking of all sorts of minorities, from people from over in Europe to young girls from Minnesota. We got dancers, we got the strip clubs, we got the sex phones, we got the street prostitution which is what everyone focuses on when they want to say “We are putting a dent in crime and we got the prostitutes on the run.” Most of those women are minority women, mind you, who stand on the street and have what they call survival sex, whether that survival sex is for drugs or for a place to sleep. But we’ve got all sorts of sex going on Chicago, we’ve got escort services, etc. And actually, prostitution is billions and billions of dollars and street prostitution is maybe only like 5% of that.
S.C.: In our group all of the women have been street prostitutes.
B.M.: In the group of women that we have in our project all have worked in street prostitution, but there are some, and I am one of them, who started on different levels. Because prostitution, you know, is all about the package. It’s also dealing a whole lot with race. You know, growing up, I was a Black girl, but I was an attractive Black girl, I was a beautiful Black girl and I wasn’t too dark to get into most places. But I was a shade almost too dark to work in a lot of places that my Caucasian sisters work, but I got in because I had an exceptional type body. I could work. And I started on the level of escort services, I started with the strip joints. And I started working only inside, inside the bars. My feet never touched the street. As we go on and we get older and we drink a little too much and we start consuming a little bit too many drugs and we get a little bit haggard looking, you get passed down until you’re passed out, and then you end up on the street. Or you get tired of giving up a percentage of your money to the powers that be because pimps aren’t only the ones that wear big hats on the street. Pimps also wear black suits and ties and have white collars and their percentages are very high too. A woman on the inside gets 40% of her cut, the establishment gets 60, and that’s white collar pimping. When you’re a young girl you can start up high, but it’s not long, Salome, until you end up down here. But the women in the project mostly come from survival, all of them are survivors.
S.C.: Could you explain to us a little bit about your childhood and how you came to work in the sex industry?
B.M.: My mother died when I was six months old and I was raised by a very beautiful strong black woman with a drinking problem. My grandmother was an alcoholic. I came up in a household where a lot of things happened to me, especially as a little girl. As I can remember, the first time I got molested was at five or six years old. And after that, I remember getting molested a lot. There were more times after that. And I became a little numb to the fact of being molested. And I never told anyone because there were so many different circumstances. The molesters had control, I was afraid to tell, I was afraid if I told my grandmother she’d hurt somebody and I’d lose her. So I was protecting everybody. I was protecting my molesters, my grandmother, I protected everybody except myself. And I had all this stuff inside of me. I guess the thing that really hurt me the most was that my hero hurt me. And I know for me that was a turning point. He was a family member, and he was my hero and he ended up being a molester. And that hurt me. By the age of 9 or ten I remember sitting in the window and we worked in a neighborhood where prostitutes worked the street. And I remember at night when I was supposed to be in bed I’d be peeping out the window and see these women in these shiny dresses and their beautiful hair and they’d be doing there thing. And I asked my grandma one day, I said, “Hey what are those women doing out there?
They’re getting in and of cars.” And she said, “Well, they get in those cars and men give them money to take their panties off.” And I said, “What?” She said “Yeah” because she had told me never to take my panties off for none of the little boys. And I don’t know if she heard me, but I remember saying “Well, I’ll probably do that.” You see because that is what had been happening to me, men had been taking my panties off. And I remember thinking these women looked so shiny, they had beautiful dresses - I didn’t know the pain they were going through - but they looked so glamorous to me. And I remember wanting to be shiny because I felt so bad inside, I just wanted to be shiny. So I said I was going to be a prostitute. Be careful what you say - by the time I was 15 years old I was a prostitute. I had turned my first trick on the corner of Division and Clark in front of the Mark Twain Hotel. And it was easy, it was so easy. The guys that I got in the car with knew that I was a young girl, they knew it. I got busted by the police and they knew I was too young, but it kept going on because nobody cared, nobody cared that I was a minor out there. When the police busted me they threw me in there with the adults. They knew I was lying about my age, but it was easier just to lock me up. I soon learned the ropes real fast. I learnt what I didn’t want to do and what I did want to do. And what I didn’t want to do was be a street prostitute so I found out how to get into the clubs. And I found out through the right people, through the men I dated, through my customers how to get on the inside. And that’s how my career, as you might say, blossomed. And I had heroes, heroes in the sex industry. Xavier Hollander, Hustler Magazine, Playboy - oh yeah - that was my goal to get up there. Vanessa Del Rio, to be the dominatrix, the black dominatrix, I just wanted to be Miss Dominarevere. Because these were women that made it through sex and I thought, because of my molestation, that the only way I could make it was through my body because actually that’s what they were taking from me all the time anyway. So it had to be important, sex had to be important.
S.C.: So let me ask you a couple of questions about some things you said. You were arrested when you were 15?
B.M.: I was taken to 11 and State. Yep, I was picked up by the cops. The funny thing about that was that before I learned the ropes I didn’t know that you could do the cops a favor and they wouldn’t take you to jail. Because I remember the girls laughing at me when I go there saying, “Oh you didn’t have to get busted. You could’ve just given them a party and they would’ve let you go.” Well I didn’t know that. But they locked me up, when I was 15 years old, in a cage with adult women who taught me more because they knew that when I went in there I was a kid. And I was fresh meat for them. I remember the buzz going through the cells that there was fresh meat and there was all this talk about taking me home to their men because back then everybody had a pimp. All the women locked up had pimps and I didn’t. They were trying to plan how they were going to lure me off and take me to their pimps, and I got by that night. That night I got by, but it wasn’t long before I didn’t.
S.C.: So when you were 15 did the johns treat you better than when you got older or did they treat you the same? Was there a difference?
B.M: Well, I’ll say that I was treated better because I was in different places. Being young and pretty, I was able to go into the more upper clubs. Being young and pretty is a meal ticket in the sex industry. It’s just like being in the lion’s den, everybody wants a piece of your meat. So I was able to go into places that when I got older didn’t even want me in the door. But when you’re young and pretty you can get in those doors and they’re happy to have you there. And that’s why women’s minds get a little twisted like, “Yeah, I can do this. I can do this.” It gets sick. I know that when you’re young you’re a little bit more careful while older women, who analyze things a bit more, they would never choose prostitution because it’s rough. You have to have some guts to get out there and deal with the things that you do. And there a lot of people that come out there for a lot of sick things, not just intercourse. They expect that after they’ve given you the money, you’ll deliver whatever they ask. Sometimes you’re afraid to deliver, but you know that you gotta deliver because you don’t know when that person is going to turn on you. So your control sometimes is making sure that he’s happy.
S.C.: Treatment by police?
B.M.: I’ve been all over the country and there are two types of police officers, ones that have a stick up their butt and the other ones that really like the girls. The majority of them really like the girls because they see them out there and they wave to them and they say, “Hey ladies, how’s it going this evening?” But then you have the cops that seem more serious about prostitutes than they should. And those are the ones you have to be careful about, because those are the ones that have a stick up their butt. You have to be very careful with those… I’m just saying, I know a lot of girls that have been hurt. Girls that have come up missing. And I’ve known cops that are just unusually mean to women just for prostituting. Maybe they didn’t like the idea that she has a gun in her hand or she’s doing something bad, and he feels like he can bust her and get some medal of recognition. But they were just really excessively abusive to women. I guess it’s just like men period.
S.C.: How’d you get out?
B.M.: I remember it being excessively hard - no, not excessively, but it started to get a little difficult to get money. I didn’t want to go out everyday, but I had to to hustle. I remember coming to the point where it started bothering me what they were doing once I got in the car or the hotel room. I remember no longer being able to dislocate myself from the action that was happening, you know what I’m saying. It just started getting to me, and I started drinking more and using more drugs in order to go out there. Then being drugged up or intoxicated, I couldn’t protect myself or make the right decisions because my head was clogged. So I ended up a lot of times being beat up. I’ve been shot five times, I’ve been stabbed, and I’ve been knocked unconscious. And all of this started happening at the end because being intoxicated or high off some drugs just to deal with the night ahead started getting me in trouble. My reflexes weren’t that fast anymore, and I started getting in the car with people I should have made a better judgment about. And I remember thinking one day, “Wow, this is getting to be a lot.”
And this is kind of humorous, but one day a young girl came by me and said, “Oh, you have to go sit your old self down.” And I realized that time had passed me by. I remember when I used to say that to women on the corner, and now people were saying that to me. I was like, “Oh my God, did she just call me old?” She had, and to think about it, I was. I was getting older and younger women were out there, and it was getting harder to hold my own. I mean, I was still holding it, but it was starting to get a little more difficult.
But what brought me in and stopped me was one particular time when a guy dragged me with his car. It scraped about half the skin off my body and I almost lost my eye. What that did for me was give me an opportunity to sit still. And it was the second time that I was disfigured. I had no face. And having no face meant having no hope, because I couldn’t go back out there. I didn’t know if I was ever going to look the same again. I remember asking myself, “Well, you’ve done it now. You’ve gotten yourself into a fix you can’t get out of. What are you gonna do?” And I had no idea what I was going to do. I really wanted to die. Right there in the emergency room, I wanted to die.
One other thing that happened in the emergency room was that they were going to take care of me, and they brought in the police because they thought I was a victim of domestic violence. When they found out that I was just a prostitute, they all kinda just turned away because they didn’t think that I was actually worth the time. I remember them saying that, “Oh, she’s just a prostitute.” So I really wanted to die because not only was I brutally beat up, but nobody cared. So I started thinking about my life and my past and everything that had brought me up to that day, and I didn’t feel much like living. I guess my angel came through when a doctor came through and started talking to me. She said, “You are such a beautiful girl, and you are really worth living.” And I couldn’t understand how she could say that when I was so beat up and disfigured. I started thinking about what I could do from there, and I had no idea so she referred me to some place. I went to that place and what it did was give me enough time to sit down and think about what I wanted to do with my life. Did I want to keep going or did I just want to quit? Because I really felt like quitting. I don’t know if I would’ve had the balls to take my own life - probably not, I kinda like myself - but, the thought came, the thought was there and the thought lasted for a long time. I’m glad the thought left.
S.C.: Great story. Could you talk about your life today?
B.M.: You know, they used to call me Breezy on the street for my ability to make things happen, to start the party, to make the loop. Yeah, I was pretty much a popular girl on the street. Today though, I’m just Brenda Jean. The beauty of that is that I’m still able to make things happen. My life today is so simple and so great that I have the opportunity to reach out to other women who have been through the same thing that I have, or similar things, and reach out to them and help them and give them an example and let them see that they don’t have to live like that anymore either. You see, usually when women used to be in prostitution and get out of it, they never tell anybody that they’re former prostitutes because of the way people are so judgmental. Because of the way it gives you a scarlet letter almost. Yeah, that’s it, a scarlet letter. If you’re a former prostitute you can’t just go and tell your employer, “Hey, I used to be a prostitute.” Or if their family knew, they just want to forget it completely. And God forbid a woman wants to go and get with a man and become a wife. Can she say, “Yeah well honey, before we get married, let me tell you that I used to be a prostitute”? So women don’t talk about that. I think that somebody should, and that’s what I do. I talk to women about it because, you see, you can’t judge me today for my past. That’s who I was. Today this is who I am.
I had a girlfriend who died kinda in my arms while I was out there, her name was Denise, and she used to say, “If anything happens to me out here, don’t you leave me in the gutter.” And I would say, “I won’t leave you in the gutter and don’t you leave me in the gutter.” Because that’s where most prostitutes ended up—somewhere in a gutter dead or in an alley behind a garbage can. And we had promised to watch out for each other and never leave each other in the gutter. She died while we were still out there prostituting and I didn’t leave her in the gutter. I didn’t let them leave her in the gutter. To me, not telling my story and not helping women today through what happened to me is like leaving another woman in a gutter. Somebody has to let them know that it doesn’t have to be like that for the rest of their life. Most women in prostitution don’t see that there is a way out. There’s a way out. You’re looking at the girl that got out. There are a whole lot of stories, more to come I’m sure, of women getting out.
What I do today is tell my story to let the other women know that there is hope. And I have a job, and I have a family, and, yes, I am married. I’m married today. I have a life. I love my life today. I’m glad, I’m so glad that I didn’t end it all. I knew that I had to be saved for a reason, and I think the reason is so I could carry the message to other women that it’s not the end of the world. That there is life after prostitution. It’s actually the beginning.
S.C.: Could you tell me what you do in your job?
B.M.: I’m an HIV prevention specialist/outreach worker case manager. I work with women that are in high risk for HIV, and I love it because a lot of the women, even the ones that are not in prostitution, we have a lot of similarities in our lives and what we go through as far as giving up power to men. So, I relate to the women very well and I love being able to help women because I love women. You know, women roar! And I like doing that in my life. I am in the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I sit on a committee called P.A.R.T. which is the Prostitution Awareness Round Table where we come up with solutions for women in prostitution, how to exit prostitution, and how to change policies in prostitution because we feel that most of the policies towards prostitution are one-sided. The women get locked up, go to jail, but nothing happens to the customers, nothing happens to the pimps. There are laws out there for them, but they’re just not enforced like they are for the women. So I sit on a committee where we try and change the policies for women.
S.C.: So, what’s your passion? What drives you? What’s your burning issue?
B.M.: My passion is the fact that for so many years women have been enslaved in so many different things, in stereotypes as sex objects. I like women to know that they don’t have to stay in those types of myths, those old myths. Like when you open up a magazine now, its got tits and ass everywhere. There’s more to a woman than tits and ass. There’s a heart there. There’s a spirit. There’s a soul. I think we need to be judged more by those things because those are the strongest things about us. That’s why we’re such survivors. My passion is to help any woman survive after prostitution, that’s my passion.
S.C.: Where do you stand on legalizing the sex industry?
B.M.: It should be decriminalized, but I’m not for legalization. For me to say after being in prostitution for 25 years that they need to legalize the fact that a woman can be sold, I just don’t think that a human is for sell. I mean, prostitution is already out of hand. I can’t imagine if they legalize it what sort of repercussions will fall upon. No, not legalization, but they should decriminalize it because I don’t think it is a criminal act. I think it is a moral crime that people need to think about before they do it, just like adultery. But I don’t think a woman should be locked up for prostitution. I think there should be more services to help women out of prostitution. Just like now there is a big war on drugs there needs to be a big war on women being sold.
S.C.: The way you wage that war is…
B.M.: Is to have services for women. And once that happens, what happens to the customers? That has to be thought about too. This is not a one-sided thing. Women don’t go out there and stand on the corner and deal with themselves. There’s another part to it and we’d have to treat both sides.
S.C.: What do people need to know? What’s hidden and what needs to get out there?
B.M.: What needs to get out there is, I think people kind of detach themselves from the situation when they see a woman out there on the street prostituting. They detach themselves and they become judge and jury on “She shouldn’t be out there” or “What happened in her life that made her go out there?” But they detach themselves from real problems. They look at it like “That’s not my issue. That’s a social issue or that’s a police issue, but it’s not my problem.” But suppose it was somebody that you loved. Suppose it was your daughter or somebody you were close with. Then would it become your problem? Would it become your problem if somebody had your child, your daughter, your niece out there prostituting? Would it become your problem then? It’s not impossible, you just don’t know how not impossible it is. It needs to be everybody’s problem when something like that is going on. Being a prostitute doesn’t take the “h” out of you being human. You’re still a human and everybody needs help. Everybody needs a hand. So what I’d like people to know is not to totally ostracize them. Don’t give them a scarlet letter and say they don’t deserve to be in society just because they are prostitutes. Okay, then let’s ostracize the people that are doing it with them. Let’s look at that.
S.C.: What was the best question you’ve ever been asked?
B.M.: I think the best question I’ve ever been asked is, “What makes a woman give her money to a man?” And I still don’t have an answer to it.
What I’d like to say is this. You asked me what I’d like out of this project, well I used to see all these television shows about prostitutes and pimps and it is so blown out of proportion. Now young children think that this is the way to go and this is a game and they don’t know what’s really behind all of that. Behind that hoochie mama and some guy standing up talking to you in derogatory ways. It’s a hoax. I don’t want people to look at prostitution and pimping in a glamorous manner. I want them to know that there is a lot of pain behind that. There are a lot of people who have died out there trying to do this. There are a lot of repercussions in that. I don’t want people to look at this as a game or a video or a rap song because I could show you the end of a lot of those rap songs and they won’t be at the music awards, they’ll be at the cemetery. I want them to know that this is not pimps up, hoes down. This is survivors up, hoping never to go down.