December 13, 2011
By Sarah Ostman
When she was a little girl, Brenda Myers-Powell would look out her window and watch, fascinated, as women in shiny dresses hopped in and out of cars on the streets below. She asked her grandmother one day what they were doing.
“She said, ‘They get in cars and men pay them to take their panties off,’” Myers-Powell recalled decades later. “I don’t know if she heard me, but I said, ‘Wow, I bet someday I’ll do that.’ Because that’s what had been happening to me – men had been taking my panties off.”
Myers-Powell did become a prostitute. After more than a decade of physical and sexual abuse, she ran away from home and started selling sex to support herself. But in prostitution she found an even more violent world.
Over the next 24 years, Myers-Powell racked up both a lengthy rap sheet and a long list of near-death experiences: She was shot, raped and thrown from moving cars. When her jacket got stuck in a john’s car door one night, he drove for two blocks as she dragged along the pavement.
Myers-Powell’s story, along with those of other prostitution survivors, was shared Thursday evening in a screening of Turning a Corner, a film about the dangers, violence and discrimination women face in the sex industry.
The screening, held at St. Michael Missionary Baptist Church, 4106 W. Monroe St., was sponsored by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).
The public is often misinformed about prostitution, said Daria Mueller, associate director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Most women prostitute not by choice, she said, but because of homelessness, drug addiction or mental health issues. Many are forced to sell sex by pimps or family members; one former prostitute in the film said her drug-addicted mother sold her to a pimp at a young age.
“They’re not doing it because they love sex,” Mueller said. “They’re doing it to survive.”
After the film Ervin addressed the audience, telling the crowd of prostitution survivors and advocates that stories like those in the film had changed his mind about how to deal with prostitution.
Earlier this year, Ervin introduced an ordinance that would increase penalties for prostitutes in a high-prostitution area of his ward and ban them from the area following their arrest.
But the proposal drew criticism from advocacy workers who claimed the law could be unconstitutional and could make it more difficult for prostitutes to get the help they need. It was never brought for a vote to the City Council.
After Thursday’s screening, Ervin said he will revisit the prostitution zone ordinance based on conversations with representatives from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“They hit me upside the head a few times and said, ‘You’re doing this wrong,’” Ervin said.
Ervin’s previous proposal has been put on hold – “put in somebody’s file somewhere,” he said – though he plans to introduce a revised ordinance that includes increased penalties for johns. He said he has no timeline for the new proposal.
Yarbrough also called for a crackdown on johns, who frequently solicit sex from underage girls.
“If there was no demand, the ladies wouldn’t be there,” she said.