by Cori Hilsgen
When first meeting Edwina Gateley and Brenda Myers-Powell, people might think they have been parent and child forever or at the very least friends for a long time.
That was not always the case. Gateley and Myers-Powell met after their lives took very different paths and intersected in 1997.
Gateley helped create Genesis House, a house at which hospitality and nurturing is offered for women involved with prostitution. Myers-Powell came to Genesis House to save herself from years of mental, physical and sexual abuse. She spent a year-and-a-half at the house and then rebuilt her life.
Myers-Powell co-founded The Dreamcatcher Foundation in 2008. The foundation works to prevent sexual exploitation of at-risk youth and offers them confidence and reassurance to help them get back out into the world.
Both women are working to educate people and to save people from sex trafficking. They recently riveted listeners with their stories during Sex Trafficking Awareness Week at the Gorecki Center at the College of St. Benedict.
Gateley was born in Lancaster, England and moved to Chicago as an adult. She earned a master’s degree in theology from the Catholic Theological Union. After living in solitude for nine months in a trailer in Illinois, she said she found her calling to work with prostitutes and/or victims of sex trafficking and has done so for 30 years.
Gateley spent more than a year walking the streets and talking to homeless women and women who were involved with prostitution. She said she was not very well accepted in the beginning, but after she continued to spend time with the women, they started to trust her.
Thirty years ago, when she first started working with victims, the issue was not often discussed and prostitutes were not seen as victims. Gateley came to learn 95 percent of these women experienced some type of childhood sexual and emotional abuse. Many of the “johns” who solicited their business were white, middle-class professional men. The average prostitute dies of murder, overdose or suicide by the time they are 34 years old.
“There was a denial of the violence against women,” Gateley said.
She said it’s important to decriminalize women in prostitution and to criminalize the traffickers instead.
Gateley said sex trafficking is the fastest-growing industry in the world. It’s important to educate the public, police and social services to help stop this industry.
She gave an example where an area in Sweden was able to reduce its prostitution by two-thirds, and many brothels have disappeared.
Many young sex-trafficking victims are picked up as runaways in Greyhound bus stations by wily pimps. These pimps know how to psychologically and physically manipulate the young victims.
“One of the hardest things to do is to break a woman from her pimp,” Gateley said.
Gateley also started to understand how many of the women were victims not of their own choosing at a time when they were not understood or very well supported by other people.
She said it’s important to hear these women’s stories.
Myers-Powell spent 25 years as a prostitute, beginning at the age of 14. She currently is the subject of the Emmy-nominated documentary film Dreamcatcher.
Myers-Powell promotes awareness to help other victims of sex trafficking break free.
She shared her story with listeners, of her 15-year-old mother dying shortly after she was born and being raised by an alcoholic grandmother with a third-grade education.
Her grandmother cleaned houses and Myers-Powell was left alone to watch out the window, often watching the women in the street who wore shiny dresses and clothing. She dreamed of being able to shine like those women.
As an alcoholic, her grandmother often brought men home because they brought the booze. These men began abusing Myers-Powell at a very young age. As the only child in a houseful of adults, she was threatened by the men not to talk about the abuse.
By the time she was 14, Myers-Powell had given birth to two children. She said she just wanted to be loved and sought that need for love in the neighborhood.
Her grandmother encouraged her to get paid for having sex and accepted her money for doing so and thus became her first pimp. At 14, in a tight, green suit she had paid $3.99 for, Myers-Powell became a prostitute and earned $400 her first night. She gave all of the money to her grandmother, who suddenly treated her much better.
Shortly after starting prostitution, two neighborhood pimps found out about her, pistol-whipped, kidnapped, raped and beat her for days. Hanging on to the hope that somebody had reported her missing and would be looking for her, she survived and was able to escape, hitching a ride home with a truck driver. He couldn’t understand why a young girl like her was all alone on the streets at night.
Myers-Powell returned to her grandmother’s apartment, all the while thinking for sure her grandmother had filed a police report and people had been searching for her.
When she returned home, she learned nobody had even reported her missing. She was devastated. Her grandmother thought she had run away and never took the time to listen to what had happened to her.
Her grandmother said, “You #&*$%, you left. You ain’t nothing.”
Myers-Powell left her grandmother’s apartment. A pimp soon found her and promised her he would help her gain stardom as a singer. Since she wanted to sing and wanted to shine, she stayed with him.
At first, Myers-Powell didn’t touch drugs or alcohol while working as a prostitute. Eventually, one night after being slapped, strangled and beaten up, and knowing she had to do it all over again, she ordered an alcoholic drink to numb the pain. She moved on to acid, crack and other drugs. Myers-Powell said you have to be on drugs to endure the life.
She said she was trying to find love in all the wrong places and never found it.
Myers-Powell said many prostitutes often have sex with about five or more different people each day, 365 days each year for a total of 1,825 or more people each year. After a while, she said she just wanted to be dead.
When Myers-Powell was 39, a nicely dressed man in a new Mercedes picked her up in daylight hours. She was sure he was safe. He ended up beating her in the middle of the day where everyone could see. When she tried to get out of the car and escape, her clothes caught on his car and she was dragged six blocks.
She ended up in an emergency room, very battered and injured. A policeman recognized her as a “whore” from the streets and told the staff not to be too concerned about her. She decided to pray.
“God hears a sinner’s prayers,” Meyers-Powell said. “I started to pray I was going to stop making decisions and I was going to let him take over.”
A woman doctor saved her and her eye which she thought she was going to lose. Myers-Powell ended up at Genesis House, where she healed.
“I wanted to have my face back and I wanted to be a lady,” Myers-Powell said. “Today, I stand in front of you a lady with a face.”
At Genesis House, she wrote journals, healed and had a funeral and buried “Breezy” (her street name). She once again became Brenda Jean.
Myers-Powell said she wasn’t able to be a good mother to her daughters Peaches and Prune, but they have forgiven her and are proud of who she has become.
“I am a golden grandmother,” she said.
In a beautiful sounding voice, Myers-Powell sang “I’ll be loving you always,” to listeners at the Gorecki Center.
The documentary Dreamcatcher can be seen on Showtime.
According to FBI statistics, there are an estimated 300,000 child prostitutes in the United States, a number that is growing at an alarming rate.