Philly is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that offers safe haven to former prostitutes
Before Sabella was woking on opening Dawn's Place, she would hear her female mental-health clients say phrases and slang that, at first, she didn't understand. Then she figured out that they were referring to their experiences in "the game."
Once she realized what their common experiences were, she says, it didn't make any sense, from a psychological standpoint, to continue counseling them without directly addressing the trauma experienced during prostitution.
"This one woman in particular, she was beaten up and she said something about her 'Daddy,' and I was like, 'Daddy?' Then the light bulb went off."
The abusive relationship between pimp and prostitute--or trafficker and victim--can be one of the biggest retention tools. The dynamic between very young girls like Mimi and older predator pimps is especially problematic. To them, the thinly veiled abuse can feel a lot like love.
Allegiance to a long-term pimp is part of the psychological phenomenon that makes kids so susceptible to predators in the game.
"You're with a certain guy and you're with him a long time, like two or three years. And you want to get out of the game but you can't, because you're in love. At the end of the day, you are in love with this guy," she says. "You're strong, you've got a strong will about yourself to go out every night, sell your pussy and then come home and give all the money you made to that guy."
It's called trauma bonds, a severe attachment disorder most common among abused and neglected children. It results in a tendency to avoid or resist their mothers and to show loyalty to abusers. It's one of the psychological concepts that counselors at Dawn's Place plan to address.
When Mimi finally got on the bus back to New Jersey two months ago, she wasn't just leaving the streets or the game or prostitution behind. It's hard for people--squares, as she calls outsiders--to understand, but in her mind she was leaving a boyfriend behind, too.
The last couple of years she was on the street she worked for a guy she calls S. He started out acting like a boyfriend. This is a common strategy that older male pimps employ to recruit younger girls. It's called "the loverboy phenomenon."
When Mimi talks about S., her voice softens and she looks at the ground and plays with her fingers. She looks and sounds like any other heartbroken teenager having a hard time believing her boyfriend is such an asshole.
"He was so great. He was so cute. I found him so attractive and he was so caring. That's how I felt," she says, about their courtship.
Then reality set in, and he made her work with a fever until she collapsed, hit her a few times and started getting "jealous and weird."
When she was almost murdered by a crazy trick, and was hurt so badly it looked like she wouldn't be able to earn for a little while, S. stopped even pretending to care.
Mimi says she sensed something was wrong when she went with that trick, but she got in the car anyway. The guy started to drive and refused to "handle business," which means to pay. Then he broke her nose with his fist, yanked his penis out and tried to force it into her bloody mouth by pulling her hair. All while the car was going 40, 45 miles per hour.
"He started reaching to the side. I didn't know if he was going to pull out a knife, a gun, whatever. He could've pulled out anything. I thought, 'Either I'm going to live or I'm going to die,'" she says. "I opened the car door while he was driving and jumped out."
Two girls about her age saw her body tumble across the road and ran over to help her. Her nose was broken, her arm fractured and her skin road-rashed and cut up. There was blood everywhere. She remembers feeling the convulsions of a seizure beginning. She woke up in the hospital with her arm in a sling and bandaged all over.
S. allowed her one week off of work then pushed her back onto the strip.
"I was frightened but I did it," she says. "I had no choice. I wanted to stay with him and if I stayed with him, I would have to continue getting money."
The last night Mimi actually saw S., she was sitting in the passenger seat in his car in Vegas. They were arguing. He pulled over, kicked her out of the car, threw a few bills at her and left her on the side of the freeway. Even though she wanted to escape--that's why they were arguing--she says she cried for a half-hour straight. A few hours later, she hopped on a Greyhound bus. She spent the next two days watching the world slide by the window.
In the last five years, Mimi's spent a lot of time on buses shuttling from one city to another, one pimp after another. She's spent the majority of her time in buses, hotels and pimp's houses. Now more than anything she wants to get to Dawn's Place and learn how to be independent.