It would be two more years of hustling before she would decide that enough was enough. During that time, she became a mother a second time and began to feel the itch that life could offer her and her children more. For her, it was a gradual crescendo, built up over years of realizing that she had the power to move forward. And, of finally admitting to herself that though she loved the excitement and money, she was also carrying around the heavy burdens of guilt and shame.
“It wasn’t one day I woke up and there was this epiphany. Even when I thought it in my head, I had no way of figuring out how to do it with my hands,” she says. “Every time I would think, ‘ok I need to do this,’ it would be followed with ‘the bills need to be paid.’”
But even harder than the realization that she needed to provide for her family was the knowledge that the Boston scene wasn’t going to let her go without a fight.
“Everything in Boston was about who I was. If you knew me, you knew that [hustling] was how I lived. I had to move my whole everything. I had to run away.”
And so, once again, she left the city that seemed to haunt her every choice. This time, she went south to D.C.
“I grabbed my babies, a trash bag, got on a Greyhound bus and went to D.C. I just ran,” she says.
Her arrival in the nation’s capital came with high hopes for herself and a resolution to look to her faith in order to change her life around. But without money or contacts, she would first need to hustle to get a head start, as well as turn to the community to help her get back on her feet.
“When I got to D.C., I moved my family to Virginia and knew I still had to hustle until I got an apartment and was able to move them back over. Then I enrolled in business school. I was 22, in school and hiding.”
For her, hiding meant throwing herself into the church, working and studying and not telling a soul about her past and her real identity.
“I hid,” she says, her voice tinged with just a hint of pain. “I didn’t tell nobody nothing. Because the one time I did tell people at church, they told people to stay away from me because my spirit might get on them.”
It’s the second time she’s mentioned a “spirit” of sex, which I ask her to clarify for me. She explains that many of the church elders – the very people who promised to help, protect and uplift her on multiple occasions – made the assumption that her past life as a sex worker was an affliction from some kind of unclean spirit. Worst of all, its corruption was contagious. A darkness from which no one was safe, especially those who associated with her.
“I shared my story with the pastor’s wife. I didn’t even tell her a whole lot, but she told me, ‘You stay away from my daughter because that spirit might get on her.’”
It’s a devastating assertion that had a lasting impact on Juanda, even down to the way she describes women who never escape “the life” in an earlier conversation.
“In my head, I deserved it, because I thought I was just a bad girl. I am the girl who your mother told you to stay away from. And so I had mothers tell their children to stay away from me. I remember telling my mother once, ‘I’m a good person. I’ve always been a good person.’”
It was moments like these, full of deep humiliation and complicated internal feelings that shaped her decision to become a reverend in order to help women like herself. The young women whose lives had led them to dark and difficult places, but whose desire to overcome life’s barrage of challenges was paramount to their circumstances.
“So many women are going to make these choices regardless of what you say. So I just tell her, ‘I’ll be right here to talk when you’re ready. I’ll never judge you and I can help you move forward when the time comes.’”
In this capacity, she has dedicated her life’s work to running youth centers and mentoring at-risk young women, many of whom are victims of sex crimes before they are even old enough to understand what happened to them.
“I had this one girl [in one of my centers] and people kept saying about her, ‘oh Reverend Juanda, she sleeps with everyone. She put all the boys’ penis in her mouth,’” she recalls. “She came to me and said, ‘Juanda, my brother and my father …’” she says, stopping short of detailing the young woman’s abuse. “And I just took her and said, ‘ok, they’re not here with you anymore. You’re repeating a behavior you learned and you could choose to stop.’
“And she said, ‘nobody ever said that to me before.'” It’s a declaration so simple, and yet, for so many women, all too complicated.
Still, even more complicated, is often the weight that comes after “stopping” – and the almost inevitable shame. For Juanda, her driving motivation is the reversal of the stigma around sexuality and women’s desires, while simultaneously helping young people to understand that true sexual liberation cannot be achieved without self-reflection.
“Some of these young women who are engaged in sexual acts have no idea about sexuality or who they are,” she said. “I mean I’ve had young girls who had babies who didn’t know how to use hygiene products. I’ve had girls who don’t understand when it’s time to go to the doctor. All they know is that they’ve been introduced to how cute it all seems and not all of the other stuff that goes with it.”
She’s also intent upon emphasizing to young women her belief that when you lead with your sexuality, it is often all that people can see.
“To put it bluntly, when you sell pussy, you become pussy, and everything you do after that is irrelevant,” she says, her candor no doubt the product of experiences whose grip on the darkest corners of her memories took decades to release.
“For a long time, I dealt with the remnants of not being able to talk about what I wanted to talk about – about who I was,” she says. “But if you can’t remember where you’ve been, you can’t go to where you need to go.
“I spent years with this gap inside me that if someone found out who I really am, they would treat me badly. And I walked around with that for so long. Every mistake I made, instead of it being just a mistake, I looked at it with the weight of everything I ever did wrong in my life, you know? And so I had to deal with the psychology of it, and that’s why I talk about sexuality the way I do. Because a lot of times, people do certain things and flaunt certain things and act like it doesn’t affect them psychologically. But I know it does. And if it doesn’t today, eventually it will catch up to you.”
Still, keeping all of that in mind, she is clear that sexual empowerment is critical for women, and especially women of color. It’s a topic on which she is clearly an expert, and she’s quick to emphasize to me that empowerment cannot be achieved without the ownership of one’s choices, both past and present.
“I don’t deny that I did what I did. I ran from a life in the sex trade, but until I took ownership, I could never get away from it in mind. It kept repeating itself and repeating itself, taking control over me until I said, ‘hey, hold on. I made those choices. They’re my choices.’ And I’m ok with that. I’m empowered.”