More than 50 health-and-safety advocates gathered Dec. 1 at The Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville to talk about sexual violence, abuse and marginalization. One of them, Jill Brenneman, told her own heartbreaking story of being a sex slave and a victim of intense abuse.
After running away from home at age 14, Brenneman was brutally kidnapped, beaten and raped, then forced into a life of prostitution by her captors. "My life was so controlled that they even watched when I peed," she recounted. "I wasn't even allowed to speak without permission."
After several years, Brenneman managed to escape and went on to form Sex Workers Without Borders, which aims to raise public awareness of sex workers' human rights. Prostitution's illegality and the stigma associated with it created the underlying conditions that allowed her captors to torture her, she told the group.
"Criminalization empowered this," asserted Brenneman. "I couldn't escape; where was I supposed to go?" Attempts to talk to authorities about what happened to her, she continued, merely resulted in them questioning her and trying to get her to confess to having engaged in illegal activity herself.
And after years of battling post-traumatic stress disorder, Brenneman again turned to prostitution last year, she said — only this time it was voluntary, to help cover her medical bills after three surgeries related to blood clots.
Once again, however, she found herself the victim of extreme violence at the hands of some of her clients — including, she maintains, a police officer.
"He could get away with it because it's illegal. Who am I going to tell?" said Brenneman. "We don't have access to law enforcement. … We don't talk to them, because we're afraid of being arrested. … We're denied our human rights because of what we do. We're denied our safety."
She added: "When people say it's illegal for our own benefit, I say, 'Yeah, it worked out great for me.'"
Representatives of Our VOICE, an Asheville nonprofit, said they're working to prevent the kind of conditions that led to the abuse Brenneman suffered. As part of its Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project, which seeks to mediate between sex workers and law enforcement, the group launched "Kelly's Line," an anonymous reporting program, last month.
Local sex workers can call the toll-free number 1-855-4KELLYS (1-855-453-5597) to report sexual and physical assault without revealing their identity, Case Manager Lauren Hickman explained. Our VOICE records the information and passes it on to local law enforcement, maintaining the caller’s anonymity. The reports will also be compiled on a “Bad Date Sheet” that will be distributed to sex workers in printed form, to help them avoid such attacks.
But the issues involved are complex, noted organizer Sarah Danforth, and the project’s success cannot be assumed. "All we can do is try and see what happens," she said, adding that they're working hard to gain the trust of sex workers, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.
To date, said Danforth, no one has called the special phone line. "We're still in the process of seeing what the needs are — and what we can do to help.”
Safety line: Lauren Hickman (left) and Sarah Danforth (right) of the Asheville Sex Worker Outreach Project helped organize "Kelly's Line," an anonymous phone number sex workers can call to report sexual and physical assault.