Demanding Change

Rachel Durchslag is the winner of SSA’s 2012 Butler Award for her groundbreaking work to transform how we view prostitution and protect its victims

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SSA Magazine (Archive)


All it took was a small independent film to change Rachel Durchslag’s life.

The movie, Lana’s Rain, is a fictional story of a Bosnian refugee in Chicago forced into prostitution by her dominating older brother. For Durchslag, A.M. ’05, who saw the movie in 2003 as she was working for several women’s organizations, it was a jarring look at the grim realities of prostitution and sex trafficking in her hometown.

Moved by the film and convinced she needed to focus on prostitution, Durchslag joined a roundtable on the issue through the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Within the year she was volunteering in Thailand to aid sex trafficking victims, and by 2006, at age 28 and armed with a master's degree from SSA, she founded a nonprofit organization, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), to address the issue.

In just six years as the executive director of CAASE, Durchslag has grown the agency from one employee (her) to a full-time staff of eight. She has spearheaded efforts that have led to new state laws that protect victims of sex trafficking, and she has created a transformative approach to addressing prostitution by looking at the demand side—that is, the men who purchase sex and who make money from sexual exploitation. Her focus, and the policies CAASE has implemented, are rapidly setting the groundwork for a new national model.

“Rachel is fearless,” says Emily Muskovitz Sweet, AM ’06, the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago and a funder of CAASE. “She is a true advocate for this issue. She is shifting how we define [prostitution], discuss it, and respond to it.”

Along the way, Durchslag has received a host of awards, including the YWCA’s Promise Leadership Award and Chicago NOW’s Women Who Dare Award. In 2012, SSA awarded Durchslag and her work its esteemed Elizabeth Butler Award, given to an alum who is five to ten years out of graduate school and who demonstrates leadership, exceptional promise, innovation in social practice, and a strong commitment to social change.

“Ms. Durchslag is an inspiration to all of us. She epitomizes the very best of SSA. The organization she founded continues the SSA tradition of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable among us,” says Susan J. Lambert, an associate professor at SSA who served on the Butler Award committee. “The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation tackles the commercial sex trade without further victimizing women.”

“SSA is an incredible place,” Durchslag says, “and to have them honor my work, especially when it is out of the ordinary, is very brave.”

Rachel Durchslag is a passionate person. When she travels, she finds adventures such as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or road trips across the country on her motorcycle. When it comes to exercise, she doesn’t just attend classes, she teaches them—spinning, weightlifting, Pilates, and kickboxing—at her local YMCA. And when she decided on her life’s work, she set out to educate herself in every avenue.

In Thailand, she discovered the reality that many adults in prostitution were once young girls who were abducted or otherwise coerced into prostitution and beholden to a pimp. She met girls as young as 9 years old trafficked from Cambodia to Thailand.

Durchslag, whose family operates the Nathan Cummings Foundation, grew up with strong philanthropic values and a desire to work in the nonprofit world. With both of her grandmothers having attended SSA, the School was a natural fit when she decided she needed a back-ground in policy and social work.

“SSA helps you think more holistically, more strategically, and more compassionately,” Durchslag says. Although she didn’t take a single course on nonprofit management while at the School because she didn’t yet envision running a nonprofit, she says SSA was extremely valuable in helping her have the vision to build CAASE. “SSA helps with framing—how to write effectively, how to help people hear your message. You need to get people to care to move them to action.”

Durchslag’s field placements also played a pivotal role in how she now runs CAASE. First she worked at Inspiration Corporation, which helps those exiting homelessness. “Doing direct service work and case management really helped me learn how to understand the unique issues faced by the homeless population and how to build rapport and trust. This has been very important when working with survivors of prostitution,” she says. Her second placement was with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where she worked on their Prostitution Alternatives Roundtable, where she says she learned about lobbying and met survivors who have become board members and mentors in her work.

When Durchslag graduated, there were only two organizations in Chicago focused on issues of sex trafficking and prostitution, and neither had a staff opening. So she hit the road again, this time to San Francisco, to be mentored by Melissa Farley, a renowned leader in researching and advocating against international sex trafficking.

“I realized my heart was in Chicago. [Farley’s] focus is international. I thought that to see real change, I needed a smaller geographic region,” Durchslag says. She also notes that Chicago is a leading city for trafficking women into the sex trade: It’s a big city with lots of immigrants, an international airport and a host to large conventions, which are full of men away from home with time and money.

Until recently, advocacy around prostitution has been largely focused on aiding women who have been harmed or who need rehabilitation. Durchslag’s insight has been to focus on the demand for sexually exploited individuals. In 2007, she published a ground breaking report, Deconstructing the Demand For Prostitution, based on interviews with 113 “johns,” and this fall she will release a first-time look at the role of online chat rooms and other tools used by men who purchase sex, called Our Great Hobby: An Analysis of Online Networks for Buyers of Sex in Illinois.

“Rachel was one of the first people to do specific research on the men who purchase sex,” says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, CAASE’s deputy executive director and legal director. “One of the things we know about the sex trade is that most of the adults in it started as children and most would rather be in another place. We know they provide sexual services to more than five men a day and up to 20, and there are 16,000 to 25,000 women involved in prostitution in the Chicago area on any day. And we know the men are [rarely regular daily] customers. So one of the reasons to go after the demand is that there is so much more of it.”

Based on that research, CAASE uses a combination of community outreach, research, legal services and policy reform to target the men who purchase sex, as well as those who profit from selling women and girls for sex. In addition to its research reports, for example, CAASE’s staff has developed the nation’s only demand-focused prevention curriculum to teach young men in schools about cultural norms, sexual exploitation, and prostitution. It also helps women who have been exploited go after perpetrators legally.

“CAASE looks at prostitution as an inhumane act against women,” says Brenda Myers-Powell, head of the Dreamcatchers Foundation, a survivor of the sex trade herself and a member of the CAASE board. “Women need to see they have the rights to fight against this. CAASE helps women see it’s not right to be exploited.”

Three years ago, Durchslag co-launched the End Demand Illinois (EDI) campaign, led by CAASE with five other partner organizations, which aims to make Illinois the first state to shift all law enforcement around prostitution to the demand side. “We looked at models around the globe, and in 1999, Sweden said prostitution was violence against women and stopped arresting women. They offered services to women and shifted law enforcement to the demand side, and Sweden has seen the biggest decrease in prostitution in the world,” Durchslag says. “Our goal is to make Illinois the first state in the country to successfully implement the Nordic model.”

Since the campaign began, Illinois has passed three new laws that change the state’s response to prostitution. One makes minors immune to prosecution (“Now the press will say ‘two juvenile victims identified,’ instead of ‘Two juvenile prostitutes arrested,’” Durchslag points out). Another gives survivors of sex trafficking the ability to erase prostitution convictions from their records. And, just signed into law in August, a reformed human trafficking code expands the definition of who can be prosecuted as a trafficker. 

Durchslag says EDI has just had its funding renewed for three more years of work, and she sees a strong future for CAASE in pushing and monitoring End Demand Illinois. “It’s been great,” she says. “For me, running CAASE means that I am constantly out of my comfort zone, and not a month goes by without another challenge. But I’ve got a lot of people working with me, and together we keep moving.”

Morris Hoffer notes that Durchslag’s ability to listen—and to seek out others who have been working in the field for decades—has been a key strength she brings as a young executive director (most of the CAASE leadership is older than Durchslag). “She doesn’t try to recreate the wheel,” Morris Hoffer says. “She has very strong relationships with the people she has worked with. She builds relationships and collaborations built on those relationships. She is very humble.”

Durchslag attributes this to SSA. “One of the things I embraced at SSA was being in the role of learner and not having all the answers,” she says. “So even with older staff, it helps me to be able to say ‘Explain this to me…’”

Maybe Durchslag didn’t know she’d launch and run a nonprofit when she was at SSA, but now that she’s done just that, she does set aside her natural modesty long enough to take some satisfaction in how far the journey has come. “I am most proud of the fact that we have created a really smart, strategic organization that is shaping what the country is doing by doing it really well in Chicago,” she says.