As a young teenager, Jana Murphy could most often be found practicing alto parts for honors choir, training for barrel riding competitions or devouring one paranormal novel after another.
“I love the mysterious, forbidden love stories,” she said. “I love ‘Twilight,’ even though it’s not very popular anymore. It’s really what got me into reading.”
In school, Jana enjoyed her English and history classes the most and, at one time, she thought she might become a history teacher. Now 20, most of Jana’s time these days is spent not planning her future career, but maintaining sobriety and learning to love herself – something she hasn’t felt in a long time.
“All I want to do with my story is to help other people to know that they’re not alone, that there’s help out there and that you can find it,” Jana said. “You just have to be willing to run through the darkness, and hopefully you can escape.”
Jana’s personal darkness was marked by homelessness, methamphetamine addiction and sexual exploitation. The young woman has endured gang rape, beatings that led to hearing and taste loss and sexually transmitted disease that robbed her of the ability to have children of her own.
Jana is a survivor of sex trafficking, one of the millions of young people across the United States coerced into engaging in commercial sex against their will.
The moments that led to Jana’s descent into darkness began innocently enough. When she was 15, she began exchanging messages through Facebook with a man named Keith, who’d recently commented on Jana’s beauty in a photo of her shared by a friend. Keith, whom she’d never met in person, was 26 years old and gave Jana the attention she said she was not getting from others.
“My mother and I were not doing so well, our relationship kind of fell apart. My step-dad ended up being everything he said he wasn’t going to be. My dad wasn’t around. I didn’t really have friends – not real ones,” Jana said.
Shortly after Jana’s 16th birthday, Keith invited her over to his home to celebrate. She accepted the invitation and arrived to what seemed like a party, with several people there she did not know.
“I got over there and he went to feed me something off of a fork,” Jana said. “Instead, he popped two meth rocks into my mouth and forced me to swallow them. As I seized out on the floor, he had 14 men gang rape me. My life has been significantly changed from that one experience.”
Jana left Keith’s house ashamed and filled with guilt. Overwhelmed by the feeling she had brought it upon herself, she did not report the rapes.
Although Jana said she did not use meth again for several months after her traumatic meeting with Keith, she eventually returned to the comforting embrace of what people call “the devil’s drug.”
“The pain was really starting to get to me,” Jana said. “I was really struggling with the idea of my self worth and what I was doing with my life and who I had become. The anger was eating me alive. You go to what works. So I started using again by choice. … It was still the sensation of, I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to feel pain, I don’t have to feel bad. I just have to stay moving, stay high, stay afloat.”
Jana’s meth use was contained to smoking with others more experienced with the drug, she said, since she did not know how to “spin the bubble” of the meth pipe.
“I was usually having people spin the bubble for me and light it for me. All I had to do was inhale,” she said.
STDs, addiction and impulse
Nearly two years passed before Jana realized she may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the rapes she endured at Keith’s house. She made an appointment at Planned Parenthood in a city in central Minnesota where she learned she had chlamydia, a disease that caused permanent damage to Jana’s reproductive system and rendered her incapable of pregnancy.
As she left the parking lot, Jana said she had the sudden urge to call Keith – whom she had not spoken with since the birthday party – since he lived in the same city.
“I don’t know what possessed me to do so, but I called him,” Jana said. “I met a couple other of his friends. We ended up smoking (meth) together. I told myself I wasn’t going to, that I didn’t want to, but it happened. They went into the bathroom and I couldn’t help myself from going to knock on the door. In that bathroom, he (Keith) taught me how to spin my own bubble, so I started using on my own.”
Jana began hanging around Keith and his friends regularly, sleeping on couches, in churches, hotel rooms, even under bridges at times. It was not long before she began to run out of money. She was so broke she could not afford to fill her gas tank. She obtained a gas voucher from a homeless shelter in town, although the gas it helped her purchase did not last long.
“It was gone within the next day because of trying to run and get a bag (of meth),” Jana said. “My car was sitting in one place and I couldn’t afford more gasoline.”
One of Keith’s friends, Shane, offered Jana a possible solution to her predicament.
“He started to ask me what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to be, if I wanted to have money in my pocket, how I wanted to afford my drugs,” Jana said. “When you’re high, you don’t think of anything. You just do it.”
Shane told Jana if she performed oral sex on him, she could earn the money she desperately needed.
“That’s kind of what started it. It didn’t really end there. It progressed, because the guy … was a pimp,” Jana said.
Body for rent
Before long, Shane posted an ad with photos of Jana on Backpage.com, a classified advertising website the National Center on Sexual Exploitation says generates nearly 80 percent of all online commercial sex advertising revenue. He began to book her three or more appointments each night to sexually gratify older men.
“He dropped me off in my car. And he’d tell me that he’d be back when the guy called him and told him it was done. These are people that he usually knew well. Usually they were people who were often …” Jana paused for a moment, before continuing, “ordering women, I guess.”
Jana said most of the men she had sex with were significantly older than she, although occasionally younger men responded to her ad.
“Some of the younger ones were crazy,” Jana said. “I’ve had men look at me and tell me that they wish they could lock me in their basement and keep me. I’ve had people respond to my Backpage ad and say that they’d give me $1,000 for the entire night. He (Shane) usually didn’t go for that, because he knew better. He’s lost women that way, he used to say.”
Jana was not the only woman Shane posted ads for. Several others worked for him as well, women Jana would regularly smoke meth with in hotel rooms. Shane did not allow them to discuss business, however, so she did not know whether the conditions she faced were the same as others. She was not allowed to have a cellphone and had not spoken to her mother for nearly a year.
“He ran a good business. It was $150 for a half-hour, $300 for an hour. Everything over that was a $25 extra charge,” Jana said.
Despite the steep rates, Jana saw barely any of this cash directly.
“I’d get $20 a week. And usually, I’d go and buy myself some new underwear, since usually they didn’t last long. Then, it got to the point where it was more comfortable just not to wear underwear, because the pain of wearing them and having them ripped off and rubbed against everyday left rashes on my skin.”
Throughout her time working as an escort, Jana endured physical beatings from Shane and sometimes the men she serviced, known as “johns” in the escorting world.
“You never say anything about the cops because they (the johns) get sketched out,” Jana said. “There are a lot of people there who are made of money and there are a lot of people there that barely have any. Some of the older men, if you didn’t do as you were asked, you were hit.”
For six months, Jana remained perpetually high and essentially captive. She did not know it, but an old friend was quietly orchestrating a plan to rescue her from Shane’s grasp.
One day in February 2014, Jana’s friend Brandon showed up and told her he needed to borrow her car. Shane allowed Jana to leave with Brandon under the promise she would return the following day.
Once in the car, Brandon told Jana he’d learned of her location from a mutual friend and offered to take her wherever she wanted to go. Jana asked him to drive her to her mother’s home in another city. While at the house, Jana decided to tell her mother about her drug use – a fact her mother did not take well at the time.
“She didn’t find it very funny, and she asked me to leave,” Jana said. “So I did. I slept in my car with this guy (Brandon) for the night because he refused to bring me back (to Shane). For that I was thankful, because I was done.”
The next day, Brandon bought a bottle of alcohol for the two to share. They spent the day getting drunk together and ended up having an argument when Brandon suggested Jana tell her mom about the escorting, too.
“When he said that, I dropped him off, drunk off my ass, started my car and was driving through a snowstorm when I crashed it. I ended up with a DWI and was placed in jail for the night. … They said I would have died if it wasn’t for the fact that I was drunk,” Jana said.
Jana’s mom picked her up from jail the next morning, and all Jana could think about was Brandon.
“He had just taken me out of this bad situation, wouldn’t take me back, and I ditched him,” she said. “He ended up walking 5 miles back to my mom’s house in the morning to help me clean out the back of my car. He stayed with me and held me while I cried. He ended up being a really good friend to me, which was totally weird, because the only thing I could think to ask him was, ‘What do you want?’ It was probably the most human kindness I’d had in a long time.”
Jana stayed at her mother’s for the night before returning the next day with Brandon. She did not, however, return to Shane, instead staying with Brandon, his girlfriend and a few other people in a trailer home.
Eventually, the question she felt compelled to ask Brandon – “What do you want?” – came back around.
“He did use it against me,” Jana said. “He said, ‘You owe me.’ That relationship ended very quickly after that.”
Jana was in a constant state of fear at the prospect of Shane finding her and forcing her to return to escorting.
“It was paranoia. And when you’re on drugs, there’s a lot of it. You’ll sit there in the mirror and you’ll pick your skin,” Jana said, tears beginning to flow down her face. “You’re afraid they’ll find you, and if you’re recognizable, they’ll bring you back. I dyed my hair all the time.”
Jana continued to avoid Shane, although her life was about to take another dark turn.
“And then I met another one just like him (Shane),” Jana said, adding her association with this other man led to further legal trouble.
Jana did not speak openly with the Brainerd Dispatch on this subject due to a pending court case. In May, police found a large bag of meth on Jana, and she is now facing drug charges.
“I struggle with that, the idea that I might become a felon because of my addiction,” Jana said.
On top of the drug charge, Jana also was on the run from probation in another county and was transferred to serve additional time there. When she got out of jail, an ex-boyfriend suggested she move to the Brainerd lakes area to remove herself from the environment that continually led to trouble for her.
“He said it would be a new start,” Jana said. “I thought it was a great idea.”
Into the light
After moving to the area, Jana found her way into the offices of an organization that, among many other things, assists homeless and at-risk youth.
“It was three days, and I had my own place,” Jana said. “I was so amazed with how quick the turnaround was. It was literally a miracle of God with how everything happened. … This was the first time I’ve ever actually received real help other than, ‘Hey, do you want to sleep in a church?'”
Now more than five months sober, Jana’s begun to build a life for herself – a future, one that does not include living on the edge.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that drugs and escorting and homelessness and the lies of it all gets you is death. That’s the only thing that’s going to come from it. That’s the only thing you’re striving to do is die. That sounds dramatic, it does. But when you reach a point where it’s no longer a choice, and you no longer have control, that’s exactly what happens,” Jana said. “Everything from here only gets better. My worst day sober will always be better than my best day high.”
As she re-learns how to live in the sober world, Jana said she is frustrated and hurt by the opinion that women working in the commercial sex trade are willing participants.
“I don’t know who would willingly put themselves in a position to be beaten by a man, to do criminal acts and not even receive any benefit from it,” Jana said. “The people (johns) knew what kind of circumstances I was under. They’re not clueless. When they walk into the room, they can see the bruises, they can see the pain, they can see what kind of person is standing in front of them. … I think the people who defend them are just as mentally ill. They’re (the johns) just as bad as pedophiles. And they could be considered a rapist. So why would somebody defend a rapist? You wouldn’t. It’s the same thing. In a lot of cases, it’s exactly the same thing.”
Jana’s hope is to one day play a role in preventing other young women and men from being trafficked. She no longer intends to be a history teacher; instead, she wants to become a guardian ad litem, advocates who represent abused or neglected children in the court system.
Jana’s advice for other young people who may find themselves in a similar situation could be considered profound and heartbreaking in the context of her life experience.
“Strive to get As and Bs in school. Strive to join a football team or cheerleading or tennis or something you enjoy. Strive to be a kid. Because when it’s over, it’s over, and there’s no going back.
“When you wash away the paint you put on your face and you wash away the hair dye and the nail polish and the drugs and the life and anything else, when you look in the mirror, can you say you’re proud of who you are? Because if you aren’t, you need to fix it now before it’s too late. I’ve watched a couple people in my life die very young due to drugs, and that game and that lifestyle and that way of thinking, and it’s not worth your life.”