Notes on Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets

Dreamcatcher

This Storyville documentary is available on BBC iPlayer for a couple more days.

It is a very useful antidote to the ’empowered sex worker’ narrative we keep getting fed by sex industry advocates (the terms ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ are not used once in the whole documentary); it shows the reality of street-based prostitution and the cycles of poverty, deprivation, abuse, and drug addiction that keep vulnerable women and girls on the street.

Brenda Myers-Powell was a street-based prostitute herself for many years, she is a part of the community she is serving with her outreach work. She waits for women and girls to be ready to change, there is no rounding women and girls up into ‘re-education camps’ (a favourite myth of sex industry advocates). Myers-Powell is unflinchingly honest about her own past behaviour, about her drug use, about her abandoning her children, about how she became a victimiser herself, procuring teenaged girls for her pimp. It is a powerful and moving film.

The documentary starts with Myers-Powell doing outreach at night, driving around the Chicago streets where street-based prostitutes operate, handing out condoms, and talking to women in her car.

The first woman filmed in the car describes being stabbed 19 times, and can’t understand why she is still alive, when other women who were stabbed fewer times were dead, she describes being too afraid to kill herself, but also tired of being alive.

The second woman, who is 19 years old, describes being born with crack in her system, she now prostitutes to fund her drug dependency. She says she doesn’t have anybody. Myers-Powell tells her she used to be out here too, that she is there to care for her unconditionally. When she says she is not ready to get help tonight the woman on out-reach with Myers-Powell tells her that they are not trying to pressure her, but when she is sick and tired of being sick and tired she can call them and let them help her.

We then hear Myers-Powell doing a presentation; she describes a girl from the west side of Chicago, whose mother died when she was six months old. She was cared for by her grandmother, who was an alcoholic who was physically and emotionally abusive; she was molested by baby-sitters from the age of four or five. This girl used to watch the prostitutes out on the street, and to her they looked “shiny”, and she wanted to be shiny herself. She asked her grandmother what those women were doing, and her grandmother described prostitution as a woman getting into a car with a man and taking her panties off for money. The girl got dressed up and went to an area where prostitutes operated, with the first “customer” she cried, but kept hearing her grandmother’s voice saying “you need to bring some money into this house”. When she got into the car of the next man she cried and asked him please, don’t do this.

She spent 25 years in prostitution, she was shot five times, stabbed over thirteen times. One man dragged her from his car for six blocks, tearing all the skin from her face and her body. This is Myers-Powell account of her experience of prostitution.

A caption on screen tells us that Myers-Powell’s Dreamcatcher outreach work is unpaid, her main job is working with prostitutes in jail.

We see Myers-Powell in a work-shop in the jail, there is a sign on the wall saying ‘Prostitution Anonymous’. Myers-Powell talks about how it’s hard to trust other women after being out on the streets, because men teach them not to like each other, because if they liked each other, that’s too much power.

One of the women in the group talks about a john who beat her until it dislocated her jaw and knocked out two of her teeth; he made her strip naked so she wouldn’t run away then demanded oral sex from her with a dislocated jaw. She did run away, and ended up in hospital in a comatose state.

Myers-Powell talks about her record being vacated (having all convictions removed). The lawyer who helped her do this talks to the women in the group, telling them that it’s her job to hold the world accountable for what has been done to them. The prostitution convictions were wrong, because they should not have been treated as criminals, the system should have recognised that they were surviving. Myers-Powell helped bring about the law change that allows women to go to the court system and say that these convictions should not have happened in the first place.

Back on out-reach, Myers-Powell talks to a woman who says a guy tried to strangle her a month and a half ago, that a friend of hers was murdered a few months ago, that she knows it’s dangerous.

The next woman Myers-Powell talks to, Marie, says she knows how dangerous it is, and that she hardly ever works out here. Myers-Powell says she was tough, but she would only ever work this area in the daytime. Marie says she is on the run from parole, and has been in and out of prison. She says she tried “the square stuff” but wanted to get into online escorting. She split up with her boyfriend (the father of her daughter), ended up in a relationship with a gang member, and is now in a relationship with another man (her current pimp) who got her pregnant to trap her into a relationship with him. She was a runaway at the age of eight, and grew up on the streets around prostitution; the pimps would use her to collect money from the prostitutes. Myers-Powell gives her condoms, and asks to have coffee with her later.

Next we are at a high-school, where Myers-Powell runs an after-school club for at-risk teenage girls, she tells them the only thing they should be serious about is their schoolwork and graduating.

One girl talks about being raped when she was eleven by her best friend’s boyfriend, she didn’t tell anyone until she was 15.

Another girl said the same thing happened to her when she was 14, a friend of the family living with them raped her every night, her parents didn’t believe her so she had to leave home.

Another girl was nine when she was raped at knifepoint by her 19-year-old cousin. The cousin’s mother didn’t believe her.

Another girl was raped between the ages of nine and 14, and she had to physically fight adult men to stop them raping her four-year-old sister too. She says she doesn’t trust any men at all. She says she never said anything because she was afraid of being separated from her sisters.

Myers-Powell talks about how molestation became normal to her, how she thought she was to blame, that it didn’t happen to other people, and how painful it was when she was not believed. She tells all the girls that it is not their fault.

Next Myers-Powell talks to Temeka, who was first prostituted at 12; she is now 15, and her aunt threw her out of the house last night after she came home late. Temeka was raped by a man she trusted, which took away her ability to trust people, she stayed out on the street with pimps and prostitutes to avoid going home, her parents used to beat her, and she cannot trust her mother; she says that if her mother died, she wouldn’t cry at her funeral.

Myers-Powell then talks to Temeka’s mother, who says Temeka is trying to recruit other girls into internet prostitution.

Myers-Powell meets Marie for coffee. Marie describes running away from a group home and hanging out with prostitutes in California. She says she is tired of prostitution and she still needs help, she wants a home and a car and a job, and to be able to tell her daughter that she cannot do what her mother did.

Myers-Powell says that one woman she knew took three years to exit prostitution, that she was always afraid of being judged, but Myers-Powell said that she could not judge her because she was her.

Marie says that Myers-Powell has given her hope; Myers-Powell says she does not expect Marie to change over night, but to know she will be there when Marie needs her.

Then we are back at the high-school for the afterschool club, Myers-Powell has brought a man called Homer with her, he is an ex-pimp, who used to be best friends with Myers-Powell’s pimp. Myers-Powell describes Homer as someone who has turned his life completely around, and “as awful as he used to be, he is as good a person today”.

Homer describes being molested by an aunt at nine years old, and that he ended up in a relationship with her for many years, which gave him a distorted sense of what love was. He was ‘introduced’ to his first prostitute at 17. He saw his father beat up his mother, and the fact that she stayed told him that it was ok to beat up his girlfriend. He said his greatest fear as a pimp was one of ‘his ladies’ being killed by a trick.

One of the girls asks him if he was ever close to or in a relationship with one of his prostitutes; he replies that “they were all important, either get my money or suffer the consequences.” He says he used to beat them with coat hangers and broomsticks, and that he controlled whether or not they got to leave prostitution. He says that the girls better listen to what he says, because most abusers start out “real sweet”.

Myers-Powell describes how under control she and the other women in prostitution were, that they were hit all the time but still thought it was ‘cool’, that the physical violence didn’t compare to the psychological control, that it messed you up, that “every day was a brain-wash”.

Homer describes how he pimped out a woman on the street in winter, not properly dressed for the weather, while she was pregnant with his child, for the entirety of the pregnancy. The baby was born with bronchial pneumonia, and died nine months after she was born.

Next, Myers-Powell meets Temeka again, who talks about her mother’s physical violence, and how she feels like going back to prostitution. Myers-Powell tells her going backwards won’t make anything better, she needs to go forwards.

A screen caption tells us Myers-Powell lost contact with Temeka for two weeks.

Myers-Powell talks to Temeka on the phone, who tells her she’s pregnant.

Screen captions tell us that Myers-Powell had two daughters by the time she was 16, and that she adopted a little boy with her husband five years ago. (This boy is actually her brother’s son. There is quite a bit in the documentary about her sister in law: her physically abusive childhood, and her relationship with Myers-Powell’s brother, who was/is abusive, but I’m not going to record it here.)

Back at the high-school, Myers-Powell introduces one of her daughters, Ruth, who is a doctor working in adolescent psychology. She is there to talk about sex abuse, but is also willing to answer questions about her relationship with Myers-Powell. She says she always knew her mother was a prostitute, and that they were left with lots of different baby-sitters/relatives while Myers-Powell was prostituting, and that she was sexually abused herself by some of these temporary ‘carers’. Sometimes they had no food, sometimes they had no clothes, and were living in vermin infested places.

Ruth describes how, when her mother was with them, that was when the drugs were not there, and she knew her mother loved her, but she also knew her mother went away out on the street to pay for her drugs. It was her mother under the influence of drugs, of pain, of everything that happened to her as a child, who went out on the street.

Myers-Powell describes how she abandoned (she uses that specific word) her children for 12 years, but she would call up the house on the phone and listen to them without speaking; her daughters (guessing it was her) told her they were praying for her, and that kept her going. It was shame that kept her away from her daughters.

Myers-Powell picks up Marie in her car (she has left her job to pick Marie up in a crisis); Marie has smoked crack-cocaine while pregnant. She says she was prostituting via the internet with a friend and it was taking a toll on her, that she is tired, it was making her sick, and she is worried it was hurting her baby. She misses her daughter. She says she can’t work any more, she is ready to stop. Myers-Powell has found her a place on a detox program.

Back at the after-school club Myers-Powell introduces the girls to a woman she describes as her former ‘wife in law’ as they had the same pimp. Myers-Powell is going to have knee-replacement surgery, and Miss Breed (I couldn’t catch her name, I think this is it) will cover for Myers-Powell while she is away.

Myers-Powell and Homer attend a conference in Las Vegas (we are not given any details about this conference). Myers-Powell tells the audience that she brought Homer with her, not to offend anybody, but because they needed information (the information he could provide). Myers-Powell jokes that now Homer works for her.

Myers-Powell and Homer talk in a hotel room after the conference. Myers-Powell describes how she (in her words) preyed on (procured) young girls in order to please someone else. She says she did it out of spite “better her than me”. She says that you cannot survive out there with out becoming a victimiser.

Later, being filmed in her car, Myers-Powell describes her fears over what will happen to everyone while she is having/recovering from her knee surgery. She says she still suffers anxiety attacks, she says that she has her own bad days.

In the Jail, Myers-Powell talks to Dianah, who has been on the streets since she was 11, she slept in cars and abandoned buildings; she was sexually abused from the age of 11. When she was nine, her mother sold her and her little sister to a drug dealer, and this man beat her. The people she asked for help in the past didn’t do anything.

Myers-Powell talks to Dianah’s mother and sister. Her mother also talks about having to sleep in abandoned buildings, and eating out of garbage cans; she was an alcoholic and a drug addict.

Myers-Powell visits Marie, who has her daughter with her. Marie talks about the father of her daughter trying to get her to work for him again (helping him by answering calls from johns); she says she is not only in recovery for drugs and alcohol, she is in recovery from prostitution (she no longer wants to be a pimp herself, she wants to save other women from prostitution, she wants to help them save themselves).

We then see Dianah’s mother and sister visit her in jail. They say they miss each other and cry. Dianah’s mother tells her to get her high-school diploma.

The documentary ends with Myers-Powell singing Stevie Wonder’s I’ll be Loving You Always to the after-school club.

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