When Jennifer Gaines ran away from home at the age of 14, she did not expect to become involved in prostitution. Neither did she expect to eventually become an officer for Breaking Free, an organization that advocates for sex-trafficking survivors, after nearly 30 years of work as a prostitute. The St. Olaf community had the opportunity to hear her sad yet educational story on Nov. 16 in the Black Ballroom in Buntrock Commons. The event was sponsored by St. Olaf Leaders Abolishing Slavery (SOLAS).
According to Gaines, prostitution includes three stages: recruitment, initiation and enslavement.
“There are many ways women get recruited into prostitution,” Gaines said. “Some get in by force, drugs and alcohol, torture, or generational prostitution.” Generational prostitution, she explained, is when girls are born into families where all women are involved in prostitution.
Child runaways are especially at risk of recruitment into prostitution. According to Gaines, within 48 hours of leaving home, one third of children who run away are lured to prostitution.
“I ran away from home when I was 14,” Gaines said. “Literally within 48 hours I was approached by a trafficker.”
Gaines also discussed sex traffickers, and how they don’t always conform to society’s understanding or perception of them. Her trafficker, she said, contradicted typical depictions.
“Everybody liked him, he had wonderful social skills,” Gaines said. “He would take over the room when he came in. Very charming. If you had not known what he was doing, you would have liked him too.”
During her recruitment, Gaines was taken to bars and praised as a princess. Often, her recruiters attempted to depict prostitution as a path toward a life of luxury and ease, and a life that could enable women to take care of their families.
“There is a reason traffickers go after children,” Gaines explained. “It is because they can be programmed. They can be brainwashed.”
After a few unsuccessful months of attempting to recruit Gaines into prostitution, the trafficker made up a dramatic event in an effort to manipulate her.
“He told me that his gang members were after him, and he needed $400 by nine o’clock at night. If he did not have this money, they would kill him,” Gaines said. That is when she was sold into prostitution.
Gaines, who now works for Breaking Free, provided thoughtful reflections on various aspects of prostitution. First, she broke the myth that legalizing prostitution would make it safer for women.
“I worked in regions where prostitution is legalized and I was still raped and I was still beaten,” Gaines said. “What happened is that traffickers, whenever they found out that prostitution in a region is legal, they fled the law by bringing their girls with fake IDs. It is safer for the men but not for the women. So that’s a myth.”
Second, she offered useful information regarding prostitution in Minnesota. According to Gaines, the FBI identified Minneapolis as one of 13 cities where a significant number of children are recruited into prostitution. She believes part of the reason behind the growth of prostitution in Minnesota is because people come to the state for its “great welfare system” in order to escape poverty, and poverty is a source of not only women in prostitution but also traffickers.
“I often heard my trafficker and his friends amongst each other and they would say things like, ‘You know, I got into pimping because that was my only option. Because in my neighborhood, the only options were prostituting, pimping, being a rapper or selling drugs.’ So depending on your skill set, maybe you should pick pimping,” Gaines said.
On the other hand, Gaines expounded on the advances Minnesota has made regarding legal counters to prostitution, including the advanced law that sufficiently covers the kaleidoscopic forms of prostitution, and the Safe Harbor Act, which states that women under 18 years old engaged in prostitution will not be criminalized, but instead provided with shelter and services.
According to Sophie Rossiter ’19, co-leader of SOLAS, this is Gaines’ second visit to St. Olaf. This time, the talk was more focused on the issue of sex trafficking within Minnesota and the underlying causal mechanism rather than a general view. The organization is also planning to bring in other speakers to connect different perspectives on sex trafficking in the Twin Cities.
The discussion received positive responses.
“I have been to Gaines’ presentations before and they are always fascinating,” Katie Bickley ’18 said. “I learn something new every time and I am really glad she is back on campus.”