Sex trafficking in Chicago? Yep -- big time.
The plight of women in prostitution has always captured our attention. We've seen plenty of plays, movies and books written about and by women of the streets -- all usually through a dreamy vaseline lens.
Now comes to Chicago Shadow Town, a play by Mary Bonnett, artistic director of Her Story Theater, a theater for social change. Bonnett's production aims to blow the fog away to reveal a bracing portrait of an ugly world forced upon innocents, some 11 years old or younger.
We like to listen in, peek around the corner, "tsk, tsk" about how horrible prostitution is. It's sensationalistic, unsavory stuff that strums the low, loose chords of our sexuality. But what do we really want to know about the tedious horror that marks the days of a prostituted woman? It turns out -- not much, unless the "woman" is underage and has been trafficked into life as a sex slave.
The youth of the girl shatters the absurd judgments of women that say she asked for it and the equally absurd fantasies of men that say she loves it and that's why she does it.
"The men justify their behavior. They deal with the virgin and the whore thing," Bonnett says about the prevailing dynamic. "If you are a bad girl, bad things happen to you."
But those assumptions are changing and awareness is shifting as it is now understood that young girls are sold into prostitution at an alarming rate even in the United States. The old story of judgment does not play well with these true tales of kidnapping and abuse.
"For years prostitution was called a victimless crime," Bonnet said. "But really it's the oldest form of enslavement."
Shadow Town is Bonnett's spotlight into the shadows of a world that swallows at least 100,00 girls in the United States every year and tens of thousands every year in Chicago. It tells the trafficking tales of four Chicago girls from Humboldt Park, Naperville, the West Side and China.
Grounded in years of research and conversations with the police, vice squad, caseworkers and girls who had been trafficked, Bonnett's goal is to wake us up to take action to stop trafficking that is going on literally in our own back yards.
To play the role of one of the girl's parents, she's enlisted 12 prominent Chicagoans, including Gary Houston, Karen Lewis, Rick Kogan, Bill Kurtis, Will Klinger and Theresa Gutierrez. You can see the complete list and dates of their appearances here.
Meanwhile, if you'd like to better understand how the Illinois justice system addresses the plight of trafficked woman -- and men, too -- check out the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, CAASE.
CAASE is running the End Demand Illinois campaign -- a statewide effort to reform the laws related to trafficked individuals.
"The most recent legislation we passed eliminated the felony penalty for prostitution in Illinois and eliminated the possibility that anybody would ever be charged with a felony again," says Lynne Johnson, Policy and Advocacy Director for CAASE.
That was a huge accomplishment and was signed into law in August 2013, she says.
"Another law that was passed recently allows people with prostitution convictions... to ask a judge to vacate the conviction if they can demonstrate it was from sex trafficking," Johnson says.
She said she would also like to see law enforcement engaged in a really mindful specific plan to hold people who buy sex accountable for their crime, which will go a long way from deterring them and others from buying sex.
Shadow Town runs Oct. 10 through Nov. 17 at the Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.