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Battling sex trafficking with homemade cookies

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Artwork by M: An interpretive portrait of Amy Winehouse, who also struggled with addiction. COURTESY PHOTO

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

M. was only 17 and supporting her heroin addiction by selling her body. After she had overdosed a fourth time, she woke up in a hospital room, to see only her sister and a volunteer from Eve’s Angels, a Christian non-profit dedicated to helping women get out of the sex industry. M. realized then she had to make a change or die.

M’s childhood was tragic. Her father was an alcoholic,  her stepfather died when she was young and her mother, also a drug addict, suffered from bipolar disorder. The family was always on the move. “I was molested at a young age,” M. told the Michigan Citizen. “All of this stuff is grooming basically for women in the sex industry,” she says. “Ninety percent of the girls in the sex industry have been raped or molested.”

Prior to her near-fatal fourth overdose, she says she had been going to the EA Bible studies with her sister (who had been rescued from stripping by EA) for a few months. “But I hadn’t quit using and I hadn’t quit my lifestyle,” M. said. In order to support her recovery, Eve’s Angels found what M. called “a real vanilla family” in west Michigan with whom she could live. “I grew a lot, learned about being a functioning adult (from them),” she says. One of EA’s volunteers worked with her everyday, getting her off drugs, finishing her education and developing goals. Two years later she is living on her own and stable. “It takes time,” says.

Now, M., 19, is working for EA and has brought their crusade to Detroit. EA was founded in 2009 by Anny Donewald, who had worked as stripper then prostitute. After a spiritual awakening, Donewald was able to get out of the industry and founded a ministry dedicated to helping others do the same. EA now operates in seven Midwestern cities.

Donewald’s experiences showed her strip clubs are often clearinghouses for all kinds of female exploitation and social hazards, thus EA usually commences their outreach in strip clubs. According to EA, Detroit has 46 of them.

M. says they pray about what clubs to visit, but they also look for clubs that are more likely to have a higher trafficking rate or more underage workers. “There are a lot of clubs that have underage workers, girls as young as 14 working in the club… We try to hit those clubs that are most high risk.”  Originally from Lansing, it took M. a while to get to know the reputations of Detroit’s different establishments. Slowly she was able to realize: “There’s certain clubs that are like if you work at that club everyone knows you’re a prosititute, because that’s the only thing that goes on in that club; it’s not strictly dances. Those are the clubs with the 14-year-olds. We can’t just call the police on the clubs because the girls have fake IDs.”

Additionally, she says it takes a long time for the women to open up to EA volunteers, because “the pimp has such mind control. There’s so much fear. It can be a hard wall to break down.”

So how does EA navigate  past the giant bouncers, outwit tough-guy owners, dodge pimp mind control and get through the haze of trauma and addiction to the dancers?

Homemade cookies.

“We go into the clubs and bring gift bags with homemade baked goods and pray with them,” says M.  “Usually the first couple times we go into a new club, the dancers are pretty stand-offish, they don’t want to talk to us.  Then they see we’re pretty consistent, not just some face that’s going to pop in, and they begin to really open up to us, then they start telling us how they hate it and how they want help, and then they usually ask us for help on their resume, and we help them to get transportation to other jobs.”

Even the management at the various clubs is usually supportive, letting EA volunteers in without paying for parking or admission because, “we bring the bouncers and the owners cookies… Who doesn’t want a homemade cookie? We want to show the owners that they aren’t our enemies. We’re not here to judge the owners or the dancers, we want them to know that they are loved and we’re here to walk alongside them.  We’ve prayed with the bouncers too, when they’ve asked u to do that.”

Cookies alone, however, won’t cut it. There are so many social, psychological and economic factors that keep women trapped in the sex industry.  According to a 2000 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, women working in the sex industry have a higher rate of addiction than the rest of the population. Many have not completed high school. As a result of abuse, many women are dealing with Post Traumatic Stress, chronic depression, easting disorders, and various elf-destructive behaviors.  Simply helping them to find a non-sex industry is not a sustainable solution.

M. had an EA volunteer “walk alongside her” for two years, ensuring her emotional needs were met in addition to the more traditional care she was receiving from her foster family. She says if her sponsor had quit within the first six months “my safety would have been jeopardizied: (I would have thought,) ‘another person left me. I can’t trust anyone. Who can I turn to now?’” Former sex workers “have to learn to live without chaos,” M. says. “When you’re used to being in survival mode all the time and you go to all of a sudden being safe it’s like shock, like hot water to cold water. We have to teach them how to live in a safe environment.”

EA’s long-term goal is to build a safehouse where the girls can bring their children, get an education and learn  life skills, such as cooking and paying bills.

“It is hard to transition when you don’t have a safe environment,” M. says. “Some of them live with their pimps.  How can you change your life when you’re living with the thing that (is keeping you trapped)?”  In the meantime, EA places women in other safehouses they’ve partnered with, but often the bed space is limited. Sometimes churches collect donations from their congregations to pay for an ex-dancer’s rent for a month, but that also is not sustainable. M. estimates the safehouse will cost $2 million before it is up and running, providing services instructors, and clean cozy rooms for the girls.

“It’s bad when they go to these safehouses with four bunkbeds in a room and the girls are crammed in. That isn’t healthy for them either.” Nonetheless,  EA daily encourages each recovering woman to attend rehab, AA meetings, Bible studies, group meetings and job interviews.

EA recently got a bit of extra help from Detroit SOUP, a popular microgranting dinner held monthly at the Jam Handy building on Grand Boulevard in Detroit. A majority of the September event’s 250 guests voted to award $1,519 to help EA’s work.  The other groups vying to get funding that night dealt with parents of children with incarcerated families, youth art, and green living science.

“The projects were some of the best we have encountered,” said Detroit SOUP coordinator Amy Kaherl. “(T)he room was happy with the outcome. I think (Eve’s Angel’s) were super honest with what they are doing and I felt encouraged and excited…”

EA said they will use the SOUP money for an outreach gift bag blitz. Each bag of goodies costs about $12. “There’s about 30 girls working in each club on a(ny) given Thursday night, and over 46 clubs in Detroit,” says M., illustrating the scope of necessary outreach. EA is also looking for “quality volunteers who are willing to invest their entire lives into another human being. It is very intense.”

Although, the organization wants Christian women to be the direct support for former sex workers, M. says, “We can put anyone to work. I need someone to bake cookies for me, so I can bring them into the club.” She says she tried at one point to bake the cookies herself, but “it was bad.” EA has started a campaign to end sex trafficking specifically for men.

The program is called A.R.M.E.D.  and acronym for Association of Real Men Ending the Demand for sex workers.  It  asks men “to pledge to never sell, purchase, contribute and/or aid in any way, the criminal act of trafficking and/or purchasing sex from any man, woman or child,” according to EA’s Web site. “We don’t want to shove those men away, because something happened to them too,” says M.” They need help too.”

In addition to her work with EA, M. is also studying art therapy at Marygrove College, hoping to help people express themselves in ways that couldn’t as a child, possibly protecting them from some of the pain she went through. She has found peace in religion, work, and her new lifestyle. Still though, M. gets frustrated by the seeming indifference of mainstream society toward strippers, prostitutes and other sex workers.

“These are daughters; these are sisters; these are aunts; these are moms,” she said. “You don’t have to have a messed up childhood to get into the sex industry. It can be anybody; this isn’t just an (issue of) inner city poverty.  The founder of the organization grew up in a well off middle class white family, went to a private school, and still became a stripper and a prostitute. I think people don’t think it will happen to them or their children so they ignore the problem. It’s not just an inner city problem. It’s a people problem.”

 

 

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