Brenda Powell (left) addresses audience.RoundTable photo

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For a short time, Brenda Myers-Powell, told the 200 women in the audience, she thought Evanston would save her life. She had been sent here to be cared for by an aunt and uncle and escape from an abusive home on Chicago’s West Side. “I went to Dewey; I went to Skiles [Middle School, now King Arts]; I went to the YWCA,” she said at a breakfast speech at the Woman’s Club of Evanston, held on March 6 in observance of International Women’s Day, March 8.

“Then one day, my uncle decided to start touching me,” Ms. Myers-Powell said. “I wouldn’t stay. I had to leave the house.”

The life she stepped into was a brutal but unconscionably typical one of a child exiled from home. Her alcoholic grandmother, with whom she stayed, beat her less often when she came home with money. Although the grandmother did not ask where the money came from, there was only one way for a young, poorly educated girl to get money. On Good Friday, 1973, with no food in the house and no welfare check, the girl took the el to Chicago and, making her way from car to car as they stopped for her, went home with $400.

Ms. Myers-Powell told the story of her 25 years of prostitution – humiliation and abuse, victimhood numbed at time by drugs.

Prostitution, she pointed out in example after example, is not a victimless crime. A man who “sees a young girl out at 2 a.m. knows that girl is in trouble. They know what to do.” She is already a victim, and the pimps and the johns further prey on these victims, essentially selling them day after day.

Genesis House, a shelter and haven for women in prostitution, was the place Ms. Myers-Powell found the strength to turn her life around. Through the staff and volunteers at Genesis House, “I found out the strength of women. I found out the history of women.” She founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation, which offers education on the perils of human trafficking.

Cece Lobin, Women’s Empowerment Coordinator for the YWCA Evanston North Shore, one of the sponsors of the breakfast, said, “Much of what Ms. Myers-Powell described are experiences lived by most girls and women – and some boys and men – who are sold for sex.” Gangs now traffic in sex more than drugs, she said, because a bag of drugs can be sold only once, but a woman or girl can be sold again and again.

“They pay us to do degrading things. … They know we are victims. In 2002, the count in Chicago was 16,000 girls [in prostitution]. They each see five men a day. That’s 1,800 men a year. This is not ‘Pretty Woman,’” said Ms. Myers-Powell.

“This highlights how incredibly brave and strong these women and girls are,” said Ms. Lobin. She challenged each woman in the “privileged audience” at the breakfast to think of any man she might have seen recently whom she did not know and “ask yourself how much money someone would have to pay to have oral sex with that man. And then consider how badly the circumstances in your life would have to change before $50 would be sufficient.”

Men who buy sex, Ms. Lobin said, “are not naïve about the circumstances of the women,” and they justify their actions by relying on the tacit approval found in casual conversations that prostitution is a victimless crime or is “just boys play” or “rite of passage.” Prostitution, she said, is domestic violence on the commercial scale.

The Situation in Evanston

Evanston does not have a problem with juvenile prostitution or sexual exploitation of juvenile runways, according to the police department. ”We are not seeing instances of pimps or gangs sexually exploiting our teenaged girls for financial gain,” said Commander Diane Davis of the Evanston Police Department in a recent interview with the RoundTable.

“What we do have – and not on a large scale – are some problems with some massage parlors,” said Cmdr. Davis. She said there have only been about four incidents resulting in arrests in the past few years.

Social media and the Internet have changed many lifestyles in the 21st century, including solicitation and prostitution. Some websites offer ads for people who are seeking escorts, companionship and more intimate relations, as well as for those who can provide those services.

Cmdr. Davis said further she does not believe that problems such as teen prostitution “could prevail in Evanston.” Should things prove otherwise, she said, Evanston will be in front of the problem. “The community of Evanston and the Evanston Police Department are extremely rich in social services and advocacy agencies. We are prepared,” she said.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...