As a graduate of a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, it's not often I hear about other Skidmore alumni living in the city. So when I learned about Rachel Durchslag and her non-profit, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE)—which is currently receiving grants from the Jewish Women's Foundation of Chicago: Hear Our Voices, an independent project of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago—I knew I had to meet her.
Durchslag has spent the past six years fighting against sexual exploitation in Chicago by raising awareness, implementing prevention curriculum in our schools, advocating for policy and legislative reform, and building community engagement and providing legal services to victims. Durchslag invited me to her office for an interview with Oy!Chicago.
Oy!Chicago: How did you become involved in this issue?
Rachel Durchslag: In 2003, I was at the International Film Festival and I saw a film about a women trafficking from Bosnia to Chicago and it struck a chord with me. I went home that night and I thought…if this were going on in Chicago, I would know about it. I discovered that Chicago is considered to be a hub for traffickers in the United States. I went…to a meeting [where] I met with survivors and heard their stories, I just said, 'this is it.'
What is CAASE?
When I started CAASE, though there was some work being done on demand, there was not a single organization dedicated to demand elimination. I decided this would be the organization that would take this little piece of the puzzle. [At the time,] there was only one research report on men who purchase sex and there were hundreds on women and the sex trade, which I think is very indicative in this country on how we look at this issue.
We raised money and interviewed 113 men who buy sex in Chicago…The vast majority of them purchased sex during their college years. We realized that if we were going to prevent this, then we needed to talk to high school age boys. But there was no curriculum that existed… so we created curriculum, "Empowering Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation." It launched in March 2010, and we've reached probably 1,500 men and are in 12 different schools.
We [also] had to get people to understand that this was even an issue. Everything in the media says that prostitution is glamorous and between consenting adults, which isn't true for the vast majority of women. We started raising awareness by producing plays, film festivals, and lecturing.
Part of [starting to] hold perpetrators accountable was utilizing the legal system. We launched the "Sex Assault Justice Project," which provides pro bono legal help to all people who have been victims of sexual harm.
Finally, what about real systemic change? We created a policy project called "End Demand Illinois," which is striving to overhaul Illinois laws to shift our focus onto pimps, johns, and sex traffickers.
The Jewish Women's Foundation recently renewed your grant for the End Demand Illinois campaign—tell us about it?
It is very exciting for me as somebody who comes from a very Jewish-identified family, but does secular work to be able to engage with the Jewish community. We have some amazing volunteers who connect us to synagogues in the city and suburbs where we go and do presentations with a survivor and then we do a call of action for "End Demand Illinois."
We also recently created an anti-trafficking Passover haggadah.
Also, working with JWF has really helped change the image of this issue. Some people think this is such a taboo issue. Because JWF is championing this, people are more open to talking about it.
What would surprise Chicagoans the most to learn about sexual exploitation in Illinois?
On any given day, 16,000-24,000 women and children are impacted by the sex trade in the Chicagoland area.
What role has Judaism played in shaping who you are today?
I grew up in a family that cared about social justice and tikun olam (repairing the world). Growing up with the world's biggest haggadah collector, Passover was the holiday. You talked about being enslaved and what that was like for our people. And then I chose my life fighting modern day slavery. I don't think that's random, that's absolutely connected.
What can our readers do to help stop sexual exploitation?
Go to "End Demand Illinois" and sign up for our list serve. We provide a whole list of tools for colleges, religious groups, parents, teachers, and every day people to give them the tools to be activists. Call your representatives—it really makes a difference.
Also, challenge the language and help establish that this is a problem. Until we understand that this is problem, people aren't going to be willing to take action.
Jewish Women's Foundation of Chicago: Hear Our Voices is an independent project of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.