Philly is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that offers safe haven to former prostitutes.
Mimi’s on the run. After five years of being whipped with burning wire, pummeled by bare fists and having her skull repeatedly smashed into concrete, the childlike 20-year-old—who’s had nearly 30 pimps since she was 15—is running as fast as she can from a life inside the teen-sex industry.
Two months into her escape, she remains in hiding in New Jersey. If a former pimp catches up with her, she could be killed. Mimi hopes to find salvation in Philadelphia, at a safe haven called Dawn’s Place.
Right now Dawn’s Place isn’t fully functional. The building is purchased and painted and permits are secured, but the board of directors is still seeking sustainable funding for its mission. But that mission is essential, because for girls like Mimi, the commercial sex industry is easy to fall into but notoriously hard to escape.
The vision is that Dawn’s Place will serve as an emergency hideout for girls on the run. Once it’s fully staffed, it’ll help women and girls like Mimi sort out the psychological, emotional and financial wreckage that are the obstacles to real recovery. Clients will commit to live for one full year at Dawn’s, which will hopefully be enough time to right the wrongs done to them. Under the direction of local expert Donna Sabella, the counseling program will be designed to dissolve the trauma that psychologically enslaves such women and girls long after they have their bodies back.
Dawn’s Place will be one of a handful of recovery programs of its kind in the country, and will bring Philadelphia to the progressive forefront of the global battle against human trafficking. The program is modeled after Dignity House in Phoenix, Az., a recovery program created by sex-industry survivor/activist Kathleen Mitchell, a mentor of Sabella’s.
If Mimi had been allowed to keep any of the money she made from all those men, she could finance Dawn’s Place herself. She estimates she earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit for her pimps.
“It sucked,” she says now. “Even though I got clothes, got whatever I wanted, I couldn’t be free. When you’re in the game, you’re a kid, always dependent on other people. You can’t depend on yourself. You have to go out, meet certain people and get money off them. You’re never in control. Never.”
Mimi escaped with a mere $30. And now money’s the reason she can’t move to Philly to start a new life. In the meantime, she keeps a low profile—her mom won’t let her back in the house—and waits for the next phase of her young life to begin.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
The international pandemic of trafficking is gaining more attention in the U.S. thanks to the efforts of high-profile abolitionists like New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and a rash of new books and documentaries. Organizational membership in Philadelphia’s Coalition Against Human Trafficking mushroomed in the last year.
Last week the United Nations issued a report, “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons,” that estimated 79 percent of human trafficking takes place within the commercial sex industry. But as awareness builds and legislation tries to catch up with the problem, girls like Mimi still have few places to go.
And stories like hers are becoming all too common. Often, young girls are kidnapped, gagged or drugged and then kept in brothels to “work” as sex slaves. It’s estimated that 60 percent of workers in the commercial sex industry are slaves. Only 2 percent of commercial sex workers do such work voluntarily. The remaining 38 percent fall into a gray area that’s further confused by the young age of the average victim, the inherent exploitation and the strategic recruitment employed by pimps.
The U.S. is primarily a destination for kids trafficked from abroad. In Philadelphia alone, there are roughly 70 sites under suspicion for housing sex slaves. Because these children are generally kept in brothels, have language barriers and fear for their lives—trafficked kids are frequently told their families back home will be killed if they escape—workers in the field say it’s very difficult to reach them.
But Mimi’s story is different. As an American citizen, she was trafficked domestically, and girls like her are on street corners everywhere. She’s part of the street-level commercial sex-for-sale system, or what insiders call “the game.”
The game preys on kids. The average age a prostitute in the U.S. starts working is 12 or 13. Some research skews the age even younger.
Sitting in a room in New Jersey, chaperoned by her caseworker, Mimi prepares to recount her story for Sabella, who was once a teenage go-go dancer in a club in Bucks County. She’s now a mental health nurse and a professor at three universities and she’s documenting Mimi’s story for her doctoral thesis. She’ll use the recording for insight as she develops the counseling program that will be used at Dawn’s Place.
Mimi takes a deep breath.
Want to know how much sex with a teenager costs? Just ask Mimi. It cost her everything. Two years ago this month, I wrote a cover story that profiled the struggles of the 20-year-old from New Jersey who was two months into recovery after spending five grueling years in street-level prostitution, where the only so-called winners are pimps who earn big bucks off the backs of women and girls.
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