A woman who suffered horrific physical and mental abuse as a prostitute for 25 years has told of her successful work to help young girls escape the sex industry.
Brenda Myers-Powell spoke to the BBC World Service’s Outlook programme about her devastating experiences, and how her life was turned around after a desperate prayer to God.
Raised by her grandmother on the West Side of Chicago, Brenda was sexually abused from the age of four or five, and by the time she was 14 had given birth to two children.
She recalls watching prostitutes on the street outside her house with what, at the time, seemed “big glamorous hair and sparkly dresses”.
Under pressure from her grandmother to provide for the household, Brenda started selling herself for sex at the age of 14.
Soon after, she was kidnapped from the street by a group of men, who tortured her and pimped her out to others for six months.
Brenda said: “When people describe prostitution as being something that is glamorous, elegant, like in the story of Pretty Woman, well that doesn’t come close to it. A prostitute might sleep with five strangers a day”.
“These are not relationships, no-one’s bringing me any flowers here, trust me on that. They’re using my body like a toilet.”
She recounts being shot five times, stabbed 13 times and strangled.
When she was nearly 40 years old, Brenda was thrown out of a man’s car. Her dress was caught in the door, and she was dragged along the ground, tearing the skin off her face and the side of her body.
Arriving at hospital, she recalls a police officer saying she was “just a hooker” and “got what she deserved”. In desperation, she prayed to God: “These people don’t care about me. Could you please help me?”
She said God answered her prayer quickly – a doctor came to look after her and referred her to social services. Brenda spent two years in a safe house, where she was given help to recover and reassess her life.
Once out of the safe house, she began volunteering to help prostitutes and realised that “nobody was helping these young ladies”.
Brenda started a foundation, which works with young women to prevent them from entering the sex industry and helps those who are already trapped to escape.
“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”, she said.
Life after trauma
Brenda has been married for ten years, and said her husband did not judge her for “any of the things that had happened” before they met.
She concluded: “So I am here to tell you – there is life after so much damage, there is life after so much trauma. There is life after people have told you that you are nothing, that you are worthless and that you will never amount to anything.”