BREAK OF DAWN’S
Philly is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that offers safe haven to former prostitutes
by Tara Murtha
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
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
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.
“Where do you want to begin?” she asks politely. “It depends where you want to begin.”
At 6 years old, Mimi was adopted from a Russian orphanage by a couple from
New Jersey who had a brood of boys but always wanted a little girl. She doesn’t know
what happened to her biological parents. “They gave me to an orphanage before I even
opened my eyes,” she says.
Mimi remembers little about her early years beyond playing in the ice and snow with
the other kids, and that it was always freezing, and the one best friend she left behind
was named Ana. She’s nagged by the feeling that “a lot of stuff” happened to her in
Russia, though she adds that if she was sexually abused as a baby, she doesn’t remember
“I have scars on my butt, like deep indentation scars. It was a knife, and I don’t
know what that’s from. My parents don’t know what that’s from [either],” she says. “The
adoption people never said nothing about it. They just said, ‘She was born like that.’
But I don’t think so.”
As an adolescent, Mimi didn’t get along well with her parents.
“They’re older, so they were very strict when they raised me,” she explains. “I
couldn’t do nothing. Like literally, nothing.”
At 15, she met an older guy on a Nextel push-to-talk phone line, hopped on a bus and
headed west. It was a decision that put her life in a tailspin.
Her 25-year-old boyfriend’s dope-dealing mother and grandmother pressured Mimi into
prostitution. The duo told the young girl that if she wanted to continue living in their
house, she had to pay their rent.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean?’” says Mimi. “It was weird. I was like, ‘What do you
want me to do?’ I didn’t know what they wanted me to do.”
Thousands of miles from home and with nowhere to go, Mimi turned her first trick.
But things didn’t work out—Mimi’s boyfriend got another 15-year-old girl pregnant—so
she returned to her family in Jersey, earned a GED and generally stayed out of trouble.
But, Mimi says, “Things didn’t work out.” Soon enough, she ran away again.
“I left again and just kept going back to the streets,” she says. “At the time, I just
wanted—I felt comfort in the streets. Like I was protected.”
That feeling disappeared. Soon, Mimi met pimps who said they wanted to protect her,
but instead hurt her badly.
There was the guy who favored punishment by the classic “pimpstick”—he untangled a
wire hanger, heated it with fire until it glowed red, and then whipped Mimi with it.
Mimi still has the scars.
“Over a Social Security card, too,” she says, remembering her surprise. “That was so
What she didn’t realize was that to pimps and traffickers, securing an ID isn’t dumb
at all. It’s a standard practice to take all forms of identification from their underage
victims and either hold them or sell them on the black market. Mimi’s Social Security
card, birth certificate and passport were taken. Her birth certificate was sold for
When Mimi starts talking about a puppy that was in the room while her ex-pimp was
whipping her with the burning wire, she gets a goofy smile on her face.
“I thought it was cute, the little puppy. He was barking at him, trying to bite him,”
she says. “That little puppy, trying to save me!”
After the beating, Mimi tried to escape by running through the woods. But there was a
fence, and she didn’t get over it in time. A rival girl from the stable grabbed her and
beat her up. She was dragged back to the pimp.
Looking at Mimi, it’s disturbingly obvious why pimps repeatedly recruited her.
Mimi’s got a child’s frame and a very pretty baby-face—she looks barely 13 in her
blonde ponytail and dangly silver heart earrings. About 5 feet tall, she has the polite
demeanor of the baby-sitter next door. The thin strokes of black liner that rim her eyes
and white frosty eye shadow smudged across her brow bone make her eyes look as big as a
How long can a girl like Mimi walk down a city street before a car pulls over and a
pimp tries to get her in? “Fifteen, 20 minutes,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine Mimi working 20 hours a day turning tricks in cars and hotel
rooms with strange and sometimes violent men—never mind at 15 when she must have looked
As Mimi tells her story, the need for Dawn’s Place becomes more clear. Getting away
from a pimp is only the first part in a long journey of recovery. Studies show that the
persistent lack of autonomy, violence and fear leads to post-traumatic stress disorder
for 68 percent of prostitutes. Sometimes Mimi will see a guy who looks like the man who
broke her nose then tried to force his penis into her bloody mouth and she panics, and
once again feels the urge to run.
Current U.S. laws related to exploited children in the commercial sex
industry don’t include American citizens like Mimi. While the problem of trafficking has
exploded, legislation to protect its victims lags behind.
In 2000, the Victims of Violence and Traffic Act (PDF) finally made the human
trafficking of people born in foreign countries on American soil illegal. Under this
law, when foreign-born girls are discovered being abused in the commercial sex industry,
they’re recognized as victims and protected by the Department of Health and Human
Services. If they meet the requirements, are willing to assist in the investigation of
traffickers and have applied for a temporary visa (or are approved by the Department of
Homeland Security), they’re extended the same benefits as refugees.
A couple months ago, five young Liberian sex slaves were discovered living in a house
in Upper Darby. After they were found, four of the five girls were placed in protective
care. The fifth girl disappeared.
But when sexually exploited American children are discovered, they don’t get
certified; they get arrested and branded as willing participants of the sex trade. A
criminal record piled on top systemized physical and psychological trauma makes it
highly unlikely for domestic sex slaves to lead a normal life.
So far, one state has taken a first stride toward helping American-born children who
are exploited in the sex trade. Last June New York State passed the Safe Harbor Act,
which will “create a presumption that a person under 16 years of age who is charged as a
juvenile delinquent for a prostitution offense is a severely trafficked person.” It’s
currently waiting to be signed by the governor and is scheduled to take effect by April
2010. According to Gov. Rendell’s office, Pennsylvania doesn’t have any such law in the
In the eyes of the law, girls like Mimi are seen as criminals. Yet the traffickers’
and street pimps’ methods of recruitment and retention—targeting the youngest kids with
the least resources, stealing and withholding ID documents, and the ancient
slave-keeping strategy of debt bondage—are often identical, whether the girls are
foreign-born or American.
According to one study, 62 percent of “prostitutes” report having been raped, 73
percent report getting beat up and 72 percent being otherwise homeless. Forty-eight
percent confess to being raped at least five times. Research shows 90 to 92 percent of
people selling their bodies on the street want to get out.
In Philly, the average prostitute is dead by 40. (PDF) But by opening Dawn’s Place and
creating a counseling model that deals with the reverberations of the trauma of
prostitution, Sabella is determined to help refugees of the game escape and heal. These
girls will learn how to survive outside of the sex trade and even examine where age and
circumstance blurs the concept of choice.
For Mimi, the urgency of getting into Dawn’s Place is palpable. “I know if he ever
found me, I would die,” she says, referring to one of her ex-pimps. “He would kill me.”
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,
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
“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
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.
With luck (and funding), Sabella may be able to bring Mimi to Philadelphia and begin
working on her year-long psychological, legal, emotional, physical and financial
recovery. Mimi needs to get her many hospital bills sorted. She’s already got a new
passport, new Social Security card and a new birth certificate, which she proudly
carries around with her. After Dawn’s Place, she’s dying to go to school. Years ago, she
wanted to be a nurse and take care of sick people. Now she wants to become a lawyer. She
says lawyers get to handle business, get to dress up and speak their minds; you get to
At one time, this pretty little girl was beaten to a bloody pulp by a trick who stole
the shoes right off her feet. She ran back to her pimp bloody and barefoot. Now she’s
tired and needs a rest. But she’s still running.
“I don’t want to do this no more. I want to go back home. I want to be with my family.
I’m tired of these tricks beating me up,” she says. “Everything.”