On Thursday, Oct. 22, St. Olaf Leaders Abolishing Slavery (SOLAS) brought Jennifer Gaines to St. Olaf to talk about her experiences in prostitution and sex trafficking and how she escaped. She stood tall on stage and shared her story with confidence. Gaines was so open and candid about her story that many were surprised when she revealed that it was her first time sharing her story with an audience.
SOLAS was founded a few years ago in an effort to combat human trafficking. The group works closely with anti-trafficking organizations in the Twin Cities such as Breaking Free and Historians Against Slavery. Through Breaking Free, a support network and safe place created for survivors by survivors, SOLAS was able to bring Gaines to St. Olaf to share her story. SOLAS President Kathryn Ravey ’16 was instrumental in bringing Gaines to campus. Ravey interned with Breaking Free this past summer and worked under Gaines during her internship.
“She has a really remarkable story,” Ravey said. “I think one of the best ways to get people interested in this issue is through stories. When I worked with victims, it was their stories and their personal accounts that made it all real for me. If I can bring that to campus and have people listen they would understand trafficking in a completely different way.”
Gaines was in the life of prostitution for 28 years. She was recruited by a trafficker less than 48 hours after she ran away from home during her parents’ divorce. Gaines was “boyfriended in,” meaning that her trafficker took advantage of her vulnerablity and made her feel loved and wanted. Through coercion, intimidation, manipulation and physical force, her trafficker brought her into the life of prostitution and controlled every aspect of it. Gaines was scared to leave her trafficker, and people in the outside world rejected her once they found out she was involved in prostitution. For a very long time it seemed as though there was no way out.
“Prostitution eats you from the inside out,” Gaines said. “I don’t think that being exploited is ever a choice.”
The room’s atmosphere shifted when Gaines began to talk about her children. Teary-eyed, she spoke affectionately about each of her four children and how her life in prostitution affected each child differently. They were active participants in getting her out of her impossibly difficult situation.
Gaines realized that something needed to change. She credits God with helping her get out of prostitution and find Breaking Free. The pieces began to fit together, and Gaines was finally the pilot of her own life. Ever since then, she has dedicated her life to helping other survivors know that there are people looking out for them.
“I always hear people say, ‘if Jenny can do it then so can I,’” Gaines said.
The talk ended with questions from the audience. Gaines shared her thoughts on the legalization of prostitution, the Nordic model and how her children are doing today. The decriminalization of prostitution is important to Gaines, since in almost all sex trafficking cases, prostitution is not a choice.
“No little girl says ‘when I grow up I really want to be a prostitute,’” Gaines said. “There is usually someone controlling that person’s life and they are all you have.”
The event was well attended, with many staying behind afterwards to thank Gaines for sharing her story. This was SOLAS’s first event of the year, and many more are on the way. Meetings are held every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in one of the smaller Buntrock Commons rooms. Newcomers are welcome and encouraged to come to all meetings and events.
“I would like St. Olaf to come out of this discussion knowing the realities of prostitution,” Ravey said. “I also want to instill passion in people and have them care about this issue, and hopefully reach out to people who don’t know a lot about this issue.”