I met Jill Brenneman in 2011 at a conference for sex workers in Asheville, North Carolina. Standing behind a podium ironically flanked by crosses, the tall redhead delivered a presentation so spellbinding that the audience seemed to breathe and gasp in unison. Her story of brutal rape, of slavery, of dungeons, of "50 Shades of Grey" bondage gone horribly awry, was so dark and harrowing that one wondered how she had even survived, much less summoned the strength to stand before us.
As I came to know her over the years, to enjoy her dry sense of humor, her keen intelligence, her blunt manner of speaking that forces you to take off every mask, I learned the other side of her story too. Her real story is not a tragedy. It is a lesson of redemption and courage, second chances and taking chances. Above all, it is a story of empowerment.
Jill was born in New Hampshire during the '60s, the daughter of a prominent, middle-class family with ties to the local school board. But secrets seethed beneath the family’s respectable exterior. Jill was raped for the first time at 5 years old when she wandered unknowingly into a bedroom during a sex act between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Enraged, her mother offered the boyfriend the opportunity to penetrate her daughter. She told him it was a punishment, and to make it hurt. He was happy to accommodate. Later, the boyfriend decided that little Jill was an exciting fringe benefit and continued to rape her with her mother’s full knowledge and consent.
At the end of 9th grade, Jill’s parents moved to a new house. She was informed that there was no room for her and she would have to find a new place to live. With only $100 in her pocket, Jill hitchhiked to Cincinnati to live with a friend. When the friend’s parents turned her away, Jill became homeless. At the time, she was 15 years old.
“I went out into the streets,” she says. “I spent all my money at an arcade on 'Pacman' and 'Space Invaders.' Then I realized that I had no money for food. That’s when the enormity of being homeless really hit.”
Jill began staking out cafés, where she would snatch sandwiches and run. She ate out of dumpsters and slept in the cemetery where police wouldn’t bother her; the sprinkler system provided a way to get clean. She was lonely, unhappy and overwhelmed. Then Bruce walked into her life.
“I met Bruce while I was sitting in the mall one day,” she recalls. “He looked like my teenage crush, Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac. He came up to me and said 'Hi.' He was gorgeous and charming. He picked up that I was a homeless runaway and was really sympathetic. I thought, ‘Gosh, somebody finally understands and cares.’”
Bruce told Jill that he ran an entertainment agency and offered her a chance to audition. Excited at the prospect of work, but also wary, Jill asked if the “position” would involve prostitution. She didn’t want to do that. Bruce stood up angrily, shouting that she had asked a stupid question and he wasn’t going to help her. As he stormed off, Jill ran after him and begged him to reconsider, promising that she would ask no more questions. Bruce relented and invited her into his car, where he blindfolded her.
“As soon as he put the blindfold on, I knew something was wrong,” says Jill. “But I was already in the back of his car and I didn’t know what to do. He kept telling me we were going to his office downtown, but I could tell from the sounds outside that we had gotten off the freeway and were somewhere rural. At one point we stopped and I heard a garage door go up. We stepped out of the car into a place that smelled like a musty basement. I was so scared I started sobbing and he leveled me with a backhand.”
Jill was bound, gagged, suspended from a beam by her wrists, raped and beaten. Afterwards, Bruce, breathing heavily from the effort, informed Jill that she was now his slave. She would work for him as a submissive for sadistic clients. Then he untied her wrists and left her crumpled on the floor.
What followed was a grueling six weeks of “training” to ready Jill for her clients. In a special dungeon, Bruce put Jill through sensory deprivation exercises.
“We practiced endlessly on each piece of equipment,” she says. “I had to learn what it felt like and how much it hurt and how I was supposed to respond. We also worked on my cover story, which was that I was a student from Louisville and was so in awe of him that I decided to become his submissive girlfriend. If I was questioned I was to say this was all consensual.”
Once Bruce was satisfied with Jill’s training, she was allowed to see clients. The men would subject Jill to all manners of torture and twisted sex on the equipment. She had to pretend that she loved it and wanted it. If Bruce thought she hadn’t acted convincing enough, he would beat her. If she asked questions, he beat her. He even devised tricks to ensure she would not attempt escape. One time he paid a client to trick Jill into believing he wanted to help her. Together, Jill and the client set up an escape plan, but when Jill arrived at the designated safe house, Bruce was waiting for her with several other men. She was gang raped as punishment and brutalized so badly that her voice was forever altered into the gravely tone with which she speaks today.
“I wanted to die,” said Jill. “I never tried to leave him again.”
It was a stroke of luck that eventually ended Jill’s slavery. Three years after her abduction, Bruce was arrested on a charge unrelated to human trafficking and suddenly, Jill was free.
“I felt very confused and alone,” she recalls. “I was in a world where I didn't know anyone, had no particular place to go or any real idea of how to rebuild my life. I was also terrified because I thought it might be another trap set by Bruce.”
Pushing thoughts of her captivity to the dark recesses of her mind, Jill escaped to Las Vegas and slowly tried to rebuild her life. She figured out how to forge identification documents and graduation certificates, eventually landing a job as a flight attendant. But she couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder, always fearful that Bruce would come back.
In 1996, Jill wrote a response to a male commentator online who accused all runaways of being drug addicts who didn’t want to live under their parents’ rules. Her reply caught the attention of a woman who worked at a shelter for runaways and Jill was invited to Portland, Oregon. There, she was encouraged to tell her story.
Over the years Jill began working as a web designer, media coordinator and public speaker for organizations in the anti-trafficking movement. Traveling as a guest speaker, Jill told her story to spell-bound audiences, raising the battle cry to end human trafficking and violence against women. But something wasn’t quite right.
“People within the [anti-trafficking] movement started asking me to change my story,” Jill says. “I remember one of the leaders asking me leading questions about if I had ever had sex with animals, because the movement also wanted to raise awareness about bestiality. I told her I’d never had sex with animals. She kept pushing me to ‘try to remember.’ I was like, no. My story is bad enough without having to lie.”
Eventually Jill became Interim Executive Director with an anti-trafficking nonprofit. She began moving the organization towards a harm reduction approach to empower sex workers to take control of their situation and reduce the harm and incidence of violence involved in their work. But the backlash against her switch from anti-trafficking to sex worker rights advocacy was swift and fierce. Organizations that had placed material on Jill’s website demanded its withdrawal. Speaking events were cancelled and the Board of Directors resigned. But Jill refused to apologize or back down. In sex worker rights advocacy, she had found her true calling.
“Harm reduction and sex worker rights advocacy is pragmatic, based on reality instead of the abstract,” says Jill. “I felt like I could actually make a positive difference with real women.”
She went on to co-found a nonprofit, Sex Workers Outreach Project – East; and later, to co-found Sex Workers Without Borders, organizations that helped sex workers with tips on how to avoid violence, financial planning, where to seek help for injuries or STDs, and advocacy to better control their lives and work.
Then in 2010, Jill’s life took an interesting turn. Suffering from a series of major and costly medical issues, she lost her job and health insurance. Left with mounting hospital bills and pending eviction, Jill made another decision that would surprise, even infuriate, a lot of people. She started working as an escort, advertising herself on backpage.com and securing clients for private sex sessions.
“It all came down to money,” she says. “I couldn’t think of any other way to pay the medical bills. Sex work was something I knew and was good at it. Did I enjoy it? No. Most of the clients were sexually inept. Their fantasies were vapid and stupid. I had to put on a show, make a person my grandfather’s age think he was James Bond, make him feel like a hot stud when really he never hit the target.”
Jill may not enjoy sex work, but she still advocates for the right to do it and for the right to recourse against clients who become violent.
“Most sex workers avoid hospitals because the staff think if you are beaten or raped, then you deserved it or you asked for it because you’re a prostitute,” she explains. “But it’s not like that. As a sex worker I agree to do certain things. Anything I am forced to do outside [of] that is rape, plain and simple. Clients know that sex workers can’t go to police or even seek medical help. Many of them become violent because they know they can get away with it.”
Criminalization of sex work, she argues, protects predators like Bruce and others who commit acts of rape, violence, or even murder against prostitutes. As a consensual sex worker, Jill was able to screen her clients to weed out the dangerous ones, which allows some level of protections against predators. Though her experience as a sex worker wasn’t pleasant, it was nothing like life as a slave.
“That’s what people don’t understand,” says Jill. “Human trafficking and consenting sex work are not the same thing. Not even close. Of course we should be doing everything to fight against trafficking. That is slavery. That is wrong. But criminalizing and arresting consenting sex workers doesn’t protect victims of human trafficking and slavery. It creates a class of people with no rights and no legal protections. It encourages violent predators to act out because they know nothing will happen to them. If we really want to help women and protect them from violence, we need to empower them.”
She also rejects the view of prostitutes as victims or damaged people.
“People think all sex workers are victims, or they are really messed up or abused because otherwise they wouldn’t be selling their bodies,” she says. “But that’s not true. My life as a sex worker was boring and normal. It’s a job like any other. The only difference is that because you have no legal protections, there are certain risks involved.”
Jill’s journey from runaway to bondage slave, her rise in the anti-trafficking movement and eventually her return to sex work may strike many as odd, or even disturbing. But Jill knows more than most people about the difference between slavery and sex work. And in between the brutality she has endured have been stretches of normality, strong friendships, and always, a passion to empower and protect women from violence, stigma, and shame.
Her message to sex workers is, “Regardless of how you end up in sex work, don’t let anybody tell you that you are any less of a person. People will tell you to ‘get a real job.’ They will judge you. They will hate you. Don’t let it get to you. Just keeping doing what you need to do. Just because you don’t have legal rights doesn’t mean you don’t deserve them.”
Today Jill has retired from sex work. She lives abroad and occasionally gives presentations on her story. She still struggles with medical issues and advocates for sex worker rights. To some people, she is a deviant and a danger. To others, an inspiration. But to all, she is someone you never forget.