Though Cyntoia’s is a particularly sad story of American injustice, it’s not altogether unique or entirely untold. To varying degrees, there are many more Cyntoias out there. As a survivor of childhood sexual exploitation, I have known many Cyntoias. In some ways, I still see Cyntoia in myself and certainly, in the girl I was when trapped in that underworld.
Who is Cyntoia Brown?
For those who don’t know, Cyntoia Brown is a 30-year-old racialized young woman who was a victim of child sex trafficking. In 2004, at 16 years of age, Cyntoia killed a 43-year-old john who had solicited her for sex. As argued by her lawyers, on the night in question, Cyntoia was paranoid from drugs and from being regularly abused, causing her to fear for her life. In this state, at some point in the night, she ended up firing a single bullet that killed the john that lay next to her. In addition to the drugs and abuse that compromised her state of mind that night, Cyntoia’s youthful age, and being under the influence of a pimp named “Kut Throat”, were also factors her lawyers argued should mitigate against her conviction. However, despite being a child high on drugs and having endured countless incidents of physical and sexual abuse from her pimp and clients, American courts have still found her to have had the presence of mind to have planned and deliberately killed her john on the night in question.
After several unsuccessful appeals, on December 6th, 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a ruling on Cyntoia’s case, sentencing her to serve 51 years in jail before she would be eligible for parole. The last hope in her case is that Tennessee Governor, Bill Haslam, is weeks away from his departure from office and has the power to grant her clemency. This is the only remaining opportunity to free Cyntoia from the horrific nightmare she has endured over the last 12 years.
Gauging from reactions on social media and various op-eds, when folks learn about Cyntoia’s plight, common feelings expressed are ones of a profound sense of sadness, outrage and sometimes even hopelessness.
While I feel some of those same feelings, my proximity to and familiarity with Cyntoia’s experience makes me feel so much more…
Seeing Cyntoia in Me
When I say I knew Cyntoia, I don’t mean that I had a personal relationship with the Cyntoia Brown who is currently sitting unjustly in a Tennessee prison. What I mean is that, in many ways, I was Cyntoia, as were the girls I met and worked with when I was a child trapped in the world of sex trafficking. Like Cyntoia, pretty much every girl I met, including me, was a survivor of or actively experiencing one or more form of abuse, neglect, trauma or other forms of physical and psychological violence.
I was a teenager when I was thrust into the sex industry under the influence of pimps. My traffickers’ industry of choice was strip clubs, not hotel rooms. The initial allure of easy money and a glamorous lifestyle appealed to my teenaged, immature and insecure self. I had left home in my mid-teens, and I had been in and out of homeless shelters, transitional homes and was regularly surfing friends’ couches before I was lured into the sex industry.
Like Cyntoia, I was an adopted child, and experienced trauma at a very young age. Cyntoia Brown’s early years included a mother who struggled with addiction, consumed alcohol while pregnant and began using crack cocaine when Cyntoia was eight months old, leading to her adoption. When I was given up for adoption, my mother was a very young Black single mother in a small island nation in the Caribbean. So, being young, overwhelmed, without support, and having few options, my mom gave me up, leading me to be taken in by a white family that lived thousands of kilometres away in a small metropolitan city in Canada. I am told that it was evident to my adoptive Canadian parents that although I was only a small child, my little 3-year-old body had suffered a considerable amount of neglect and abuse. Marked, scarred and suffering from multiple infections, it was only through their love and dedication that I was able to be returned to full physical health. Still, I can’t help but think that some of the cognitive scars caused by my childhood trauma played a role directing me down a path that led to the sex industry.
Sister-time With Candy
Of all the ways that I see parts of myself in Cyntoia, there was one girl I worked with in the industry who, in my view, epitomized Cyntoia more than myself or any of the other girls I ever came across. I have no idea where this girl is now, or if she is even still alive. In fact, I don’t even know her name, or at least her real name. I knew her as Candy. Candy was the stage name she used when we worked together as teenaged exotic dancers. Working in various strip clubs in and around Ontario, Canada, is where I met many Cyntoia Browns, like Candy. While I didn’t know much of Candy’s story, I knew enough to now say that we both were Cyntoias in different ways.
I remember Candy vividly. She was a beautiful, tall, Black girl from Nova Scotia. She reminded me of the models regularly featured on the covers of Teen Vogue, and perhaps, in another life, an alternate reality, she might have been one of those girls. But in this life, she wasn’t so fortunate. Candy had what we in the industry called a ‘gorilla pimp,’ meaning her pimp-controlled her with brutality, intimidation and sexual violence. Working closely with Candy, I helplessly watched her body get bruised, and soul get crushed by her gorilla pimp. While threatening and violent in their own ways, my traffickers were different. They were insidious: there were no beatings, no sexual violence, and I wasn’t forced to do drugs. Instead, I was lured and controlled through the illusion of love, and a sense of family. Candy wasn’t so lucky.
I still remember the first time I saw the bruise on Candy’s leg. I asked if she was okay. Her eyes immediately dropped, and she stopped making eye contact with me. Surprised and slightly embarrassed by my question, Candy quickly and quietly shrugged it off, just saying that ‘her man’ did it because she didn’t make her quota. I still remember feeling scared and disturbed by the impression that Candy thought this was ok, normal, even justified as a punishment for not meeting her quota.
I never knew Candy’s quota, but I certainly knew mine, which allowed me to guess hers. For me, there was an unspoken understanding that I couldn’t leave the club until I had at least $500, no matter how long it took me to make that money. Sometimes this meant working from open to close. I was never beaten for not making this quota. Instead, I was made to feel as if I had failed or disappointed my pimps who convincingly pretended that they genuinely cared about me and my well-being. They had mastered this game of emotional manipulation to the point that I would truly be crushed by feelings of guilt and shame if I didn’t make them happy by meeting my quota. Those feelings drove me to work even harder, even if I was exhausted, hungry and tired. Given that Candy was more experienced than me, I wouldn’t be surprised if her quota was higher than mine (possibly as high as $750), and similarly, her punishment more severe than mine for not meeting it.
I was never allowed to speak to Candy on the dance floor because her pimp was violently clear that she would be punished for talking to anyone who wasn’t a customer. Off the dance floor is where we could safely sneak what I called, our ‘sister-time.’ These were our moments to connect, hidden away in change rooms that were filled with the stench of cigarettes, marijuana and perfume. Here we’d rest our aching feet and keep each other company with musings about our favourite TV shows — mine, Law and Order SVU; hers, The Simpsons.
After a few stolen moments of sister-time, quietly before getting back on the floor to make her quota, Candy would stop me and ask, ‘How do I look?’ There was no need for her to say anything else. I always knew what she meant. I would carefully examine Candy’s body. If I saw any bruises exposed, I would quickly grab my foundation and do my best cover-up job before she had to hustle back out on stage. It didn’t consciously occur to me then, but doing this for Candy was my way of helping to keep her as safe as I could; by covering up marks and bruises on her body, I could keep her from missing her quota and the consequences of that. We both understood that customers pay for the fantasy of young and desirable women, and the illusion that they can have these women when they want. Seeing a bruise or a black eye on a girl instantly kills this fantasy. So, with concealer and foundation we masked the pain and torment it took to keep the illusion alive, even while it slowly killed us on the inside.
Getting Out of the Game
I didn’t dance for long, as it didn’t take that much time before I realized that there was no happy ending to this story. The man I saw as my protector began to show his true colours. The caring, father-like figure began to disappear, and harsh brutish exterior started to emerge. The turning point that pushed me to leave from under his power and control was the awful and traumatic experience of witnessing him wildly and angrily beat another girl who worked for him. I still can hear her cries and screams with each slap of his heavy hands hitting her small frame and slender body. This was the first time I saw him hit anyone, and the first time I ever witnessed a man beating a woman. I was devastated, terrified, and felt ashamed by my sense of powerlessness to help her. Immediately, it occurred to me that if he was capable of doing that to one young woman, one day, most likely sooner rather than later, I too would be on the receiving end of his horrific and seemingly explosive violence. So, shortly after seeing this beating, I reconnected with a few friends from my old life that, even as unstable as it sometimes was, I suddenly wanted back more than the life I had ended up in. At least in my old life, I never saw anything that made me genuinely fear for my life. Thankfully, my old friends were forgiving, non-judgmental, and most importantly, helped me disappear, never to return to that life again.
Shortly before my escape from the world of sexual exploitation, I saw Candy one last time. But things were now different, she was different, and sister-time was no longer what it was. Candy looked like she had aged ten years in merely a few months. The weight of her domineering and violent pimp was clear, so was the fact that she had begun using cocaine. Between the constant beatings, exploitation and drug use, her beautiful face and body began to look old, hard and worn out. Her eyes had sunken and seemed somewhat hollow in a way that scared me. I wanted to tell her so badly that I was getting out, that I was done with this life and that she should join me. I wanted to tell her that we could run away together, and be safe from the dark lights, strange, touchy men and the constant threat of violence. But I knew I could never do that, because of what the work had done to her; how deeply it had damaged her.
By the time I saw Candy for the last time, she was so abused and traumatized that I knew that she would have immediately run to her pimp and told him my plan for getting out, sentencing us both to some horrific fate. So, when I saw Candy, I said nothing. Holding on to some semblance of sister-time, we talked about some trivial teenager girl things that I can’t don’t even remember. And that was it, I never saw her again.
I often wonder what happened to Candy: Is she alive? Is she okay? And if she is, what is she being forced to do to stay alive, to remain ok? If Candy was unwillingly laying in the bed of a man nearly the age of her father and felt her life was in imminent danger, would she too kill him to protect her own life? I don’t know, but I can tell you that if she did, I would feel that same way I do about Cyntoia. I would understand her decision and might have even done the same if I felt I was forced to fight for my life.
Based on my own experience in the sex industry, I do know what it feels like to connect to the most basic and powerful human instinct of survival. I know what it’s like to wake up every day with only one focus, with one thought of pushing through the day. I know what that can do to someone’s mind. It means living in perpetual fear, always being on guard, and never being able to feel truly safe or fully trust the people around you. And so, I’m a proud supporter of Cyntoia Brown and think she should be set free.
In solidarity, anger and sadness, I share my story, knowing that I was or could have been where Cyntoia is now. And not just me, but countless girls in that dark and disgusting world of child sexual exploitation could have easily been there too. We were all abused, neglected and exploited young girls whose lives and full potential were stunted before we could ever become adult women. So yes, I sympathize with Cyntoia. I also believe that though I haven’t seen her in many years, Candy would too.
Thankfully, I managed to be able to leave the world of sexual exploitation before it took from me as much as it stole from Candy and Cyntoia. I eventually went back to school, completed university, and recently graduated with a Master of Science in Health Informatics. Part of my work now includes supporting and advocating for vulnerable youth who’ve experienced various forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation. These are young people who are or recently were, where I was. In this way, my life has come full circle, through the young women and girls I now serve. When I see them, I see me, I see Candy; and in all of us, I see versions of Cyntoia. That’s why I stand for Cyntoia. In standing for her, I’m standing for me, for Candy and for the girls and young women I have the privilege of supporting through my work. While I’m no longer in that life, the experience stays with me. So now that I’m far removed from that reality, what drives my work is the profound sense that wherever we are in our respective healing journeys, still, somewhere inside, we are all Cyntoias; scared, and alone, wanting the same, simple thing; to survive.
Rhonelle Bruder is an educator, researcher, and public speaker who founded the RISE Initiative to support and advocate for vulnerable youth.