More harm emotionally was done to me by rad fem activists than any pimp. – Jill Brenneman
This is a continuation of an interview which started Monday; if you have not read it please go back and read that part first, but be warned that the first two parts are the most graphic, disturbing narrative I have yet published or am likely to publish again, and I must caution sensitive readers to consider carefully before proceeding. Today’s installment begins after Jill escaped her pimp through serendipity and took the cheapest flight she could find, to Las Vegas.
Maggie: So, after finding yourself suddenly free, what next? Did you get a regular job, seek out help from a charity, or what?
Jill: When I got to Vegas, I found a fleabag hotel to stay in, and after faking a diploma through some creative cut and paste I got a job at Denny’s as a waitress. Eventually, I started cocktail waitressing at Rio and made much better money and was able to get a car and an apartment. Both jobs thought I was a really good employee; I did what I was told, worked really hard, never questioned anything. I tended to approach jobs as I had been taught by Bruce: Shut up, do what I was told, do it fast, without question etc. So ultimately what broke me is partially what saved me. It took years to regain the fire in my personality, but eventually I got my GED and then a job as a flight attendant with Southwest, which worked really well to ease my paranoia because every day I was someplace different. As a flight attendant for the first couple of years you don’t ever really know where you will be going from day to day, so neither would anyone else. My efforts at dating were terrible; I couldn’t trust men or get by my fear of them, so I tended to make every guy I dated into a bad guy even if he wasn’t. In 1996 I entered a program called Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland and had a really awesome counselor and finally started talking about what had happened. Even though Council for Prostitution Alternatives ceased operations, I continued counseling steadily and am still doing it as there are still issues to work on, plus I need the meds for depression and PTSD.
Maggie: So between 1984 and 1996 you just tried to deal with your trauma alone?
Jill: Except for 3 counseling sessions after a 1994 suicide attempt, yes I tried to deal with it entirely alone. For years I was truly terrified of Bruce finding me, to the point that I had contingency plans for someone to take my dog if I disappeared for more than 2 days without notice. For a long time I really expected that his finding me was destiny and essentially thought of how I would surrender if he did. So much of me for so many years partially believed that I was wrong to have escaped and that I should have stayed, waited for him to come back or tried to bail him out. I know it sounds fucked up but I really struggled with whether I should have escaped and whether I brought bad karmic destiny on myself for doing it. I didn’t tell anybody any of this until 1996 when I opened up to a friend in Portland. Initially it had started as an interview as she was doing a website for a runaway teen shelter and had seen my posts on AOL challenging some asshole who said that all runaway teens were just spoiled brats that didn’t want to take direction and just wanted drugs. I unloaded on him on that message board. She read it, contacted me and asked if I would agree to an interview. I found that she and I were similar emotionally and then had an even bigger shock that we had some similar experiences although hers were as an adult and related to a former boyfriend. I finally made the breakthrough of realizing someone else had been broken as easily as I had, which ultimately was also really painful because it hurt me that someone as kind and empathetic and really cool had to suffer that. She was far more advanced on the internet that I was so she searched the country for prostitution based programs and contacted one in Washington, DC called HIPS, which ironically directed her back to Portland and the Council for Prostitution Alternatives as HIPS felt I was going to need extensive counseling and CPA was highly regarded for their counseling program.
Maggie: Your mixed feelings don’t sound fucked up to me; his conditioning of you was extremely thorough and effective and your mind adapted as it had to in order to stay intact. I’m astonished that you survived as long as you did without any outside help!
Jill: I survived as long as I did because it is hard to die. I developed a reputation for my fearlessness and bravado for many years, but it wasn’t fearlessness or bravado, it was a death wish.
Maggie: But eventually you were drawn into the prohibitionist movement; did you first get involved with them through the Council for Prostitution Alternatives?
Jill: I was peripherally involved in the anti prostitution movement from 1997 to 1998 largely via posts on listservs, including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). I wasn’t really doing much activism, more trying to create a voice for women who had actually been in prostitution within a framework that was largely made up of activists who hadn’t and who didn’t particularly want the opinions of those who had. I had already run into steep conflicts with Nikki Craft and Melissa Farley; both felt I was an infiltrator from the “pro prostitution” movement or the CIA. On CATW I and others wrote about our experiences in prostitution, and we tended to argue with Donna Hughes and the other academic members of CATW about their inaccurate and demeaning perceptions of prostitutes. So CATW made a decision that those of us who had been in prostitution would be removed from the listserv and put on one specifically for us; their feeling was that an international listserv on trafficking wasn’t the place for survivors to discuss our experiences. I balked very strongly at this; I felt CATW and specifically Donna Hughes were a farce not interested in trafficking or prostitution but only in advancing their careers, and I went public with it.
In late 1998, I accepted a position on the advisory board of the Women’s Recovery Center for Prostitution Resources in St. Paul, which was an exit program for those who wanted to leave the sex industry. Then in 2001 I was invited to join Escape: The Prostitution Prevention Project, which was based in the Twin Cities. In April 2001, I did my first speaking presentation, and this led to many other speaking events as Escape had become well known. My role was largely to speak about my past; my colleague Christine Stark (who founded the organization) did the feminist/political side of the presentation. Christine was very staunchly anti-prostitution using a very Andrea Dworkin-based approach. In 2002, Christine and a collective of feminist activists in San Francisco created a protest called “International Day of No Prostitution”. When Chris initially explained the concept to me I understood it to be a symbolic day to create awareness of violence in prostitution and a call to prostitution clients to end violence against prostitutes. I had no further input into the event and it became an outlandish protest that went worldwide. I felt it was academic and out of touch, and went to extremes like calling for the rescue of animals from “systems of prostitution”.
Escape got a lot of criticism from sex workers about the event, and I was chosen to respond to them but I heard what they were saying and it made sense to me. Rather than challenge their views as I was expected to do, I heard their point and made no response. At the height of the protest against International Day of No Prostitution, Christine Stark abruptly resigned as Executive Director of Escape, which left me in charge. At the same time, the Sexual Violence Center in Minneapolis was seeking to expand its harm reduction-based services to offer them to prostitutes in need, so we agreed on a trade. Escape had no office, just a phone and a fax; Sexual Violence Center would give Escape office space at their facility, access to a 24 hour crisis line run by Sexual Violence Center, legal advocacy for sex workers and a no-cost harm reduction-based counseling program for sex workers. In return I gave my knowledge because no one on their staff had direct involvement in prostitution and they felt they weren’t qualified and thus reached out to me to fill that role. As part of that process I went through their crisis counselor certification class (which was 40 hours of training) and became a certified crisis counselor in Minnesota.
To be concluded tomorrow.