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Through Edwina Gateley, I learned the value of that deep connection that can occur between women, the circle of trust and love and support that a group of women can give one another.
Usually, when a woman gets out of prostitution, she doesn’t want to talk about it. What man will accept her as a wife? What person will hire her in their employment? And to begin with, after I left Genesis House, that was me too. I just wanted to get a job, pay my taxes and be like everybody else.
But I started to do some volunteering with sex workers and to help a university researcher with her fieldwork. After a while I realised that nobody was helping these young ladies. Nobody was going back and saying, “That’s who I was, that’s where I was. This is who I am now. You can change too, you can heal too.”
So in 2008, together with Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, we founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation. A dreamcatcher is a Native American object that you hang near a child’s cot. It is supposed to chase away children’s nightmares. That’s what we want to do – we want to chase away those bad dreams, those bad things that happen to young girls and women.
The recent documentary film Dreamcatcher, directed by Kim Longinotto, showed the work that we do. We meet up with women who are still working on the street and we tell them, “There is a way out, we’re ready to help you when you’re ready to be helped.” We try to get through that brainwashing that says, “You’re born to do this, there’s nothing else for you.”
I also run after-school clubs with young girls who are exactly like I was in the 1970s. I can tell as soon as I meet a girl if she is in danger, but there is no fixed pattern. You might have one girl who’s quiet and introverted and doesn’t make eye contact. Then there might be another who’s loud and obnoxious and always getting in trouble. They’re both suffering abuse at home but they’re dealing with it in different ways – the only thing they have in common is that they are not going to talk about it. But in time they understand that I have been through what they’re going through, and then they talk to me about it.
So far, we have 13 girls who have graduated from high school and are now in city colleges or have gotten full scholarships to go to other colleges. They came to us 11, 12, 13 years old, totally damaged. And now they’re reaching for the stars.
Besides my outreach work, I attend conferences and contribute to academic work on prostitution. I’ve had people say to me, “Brenda, come and meet Professor so-and-so from such-and-such university. He’s an expert on prostitution.” And I look at him and I want to say: “Really? Where did you get your credentials? What do you really know about prostitution? The expert is standing in front of you.”
I know I belong in that room but sometimes I have to let them know I belong there. And I think it’s ridiculous that there are organisations that campaign against human trafficking, that do not employ a single person who has been trafficked.
People say different things about prostitution. Some people think that it would actually help sex workers more if it were decriminalised. I think it’s true to say that every woman has her own story. It may be OK for this girl, who is paying her way through law school, but not for this girl, who was molested as a child, who never knew she had another choice, who was just trying to get money to eat.
But let me ask you a question. How many people would you encourage to quit their jobs to become prostitutes? Would you say to any of your close friends or female relatives, “Hey, have you thought of this? I think this would be a really great move for you!”
And let me say this too. However the situation starts off for a girl, that’s not how the situation will end up. It might look OK now, the girl in law school might say she only has high-end clients that come to her through an agency, that she doesn’t work on the streets but arranges to meet people in hotel rooms, but the first time that someone hurts her, that’s when she really sees her situation for what it is. You always get that crazy guy slipping through and he has three or four guys behind him, and they force their way into your room and gang rape you, and take your phone and all your money. And suddenly you have no means to make a living and you’re beaten up too. That is the reality of prostitution.
Three years ago, I became the first woman in the state of Illinois to have her convictions for prostitution wiped from her record. It was after a new law was brought in, following lobbying from the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a group that seeks to shift the criminal burden away from the victims of sexual trafficking. Women who have been tortured, manipulated and brainwashed should be treated as survivors, not criminals.
There are good women in this world and also bad women. There are bad men and also good men.
Following my time as a prostitute, I simply wasn’t ready for another relationship. But after three years of healing and abstinence, I met an extraordinary man. I was very picky – he likes to joke that I asked him more questions than the parole board. He didn’t judge me for any of the things that had happened before we met. When he looked at me he didn’t even see those things – he says all he saw was a girl with a pretty smile that he wanted to be a part of his life. I sure wanted to be a part of his too. He supports me in everything I do, and we celebrated 10 years of marriage last year.
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