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What It's Like to Be 17 and Having Sex for Money

The number of girls forced to sell their bodies in the streets and in casinos and hotels keeps rising, even as their age keeps dropping.

Excerpt from Somebody's Daughter, with permission of Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press.

“When you get to Vegas, you’ve made it.”

Maria could hardly believe her luck. She had been selling her body since she was fourteen on some of the toughest “tracks” in the country -- the ghetto corners in Hunts Point in the Bronx, the dark alleys of Philadelphia, the cheap hotels of Boston.

“Do you know how many times I got raped?” she says. “Do you know how many guns I got put to my temples? How many times I had knives to my throat? How many times I got beaten -- with hangers, brooms, whips, and belts?”

Now here she was, just seventeen years old, once an aspiring choirgirl from a small town just outside Atlantic City, New Jersey, riding in a white Mercedes-Benz past the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip. She had a pile of money by her side and a snazzy car to drive, and it could not get much better than that.

True, she told herself, the car wasn’t hers. The money wasn’t hers, either. Like everything else she had, including her body, it all belonged to her pimp. But that didn’t matter to the young girl, not then. Nothing was going to diminish the glitter and glamour of this moment. At long last, she had graduated from being a “track ho,” working the streets, to a “carpet ho,” walking the casino floors.

There was just one refrain running through the teenager’s head: I feel so cool.

* * *

The woman stares out from the billboard, wearing a sultry look on her face -- and little else.

Your pleasure is our business! is the catchy slogan for a local strip club on the expressway leading to the famous Strip in Las Vegas. But it could just as well be the city’s official motto. Everything is for sale here, and nothing sells more than sex.

A big part of what is for sale is illegal sex with minors. The 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking issued by Shared Hope International put Las Vegas at the top of ten cities it surveyed for the Department of Justice. Shared Hope estimated there were about four hundred young girls being trafficked in Vegas every year thanks in part to what it called a “hyper-sexualized entertainment industry.”

On the roofs of taxicabs, big display ads promote “gentlemen’s clubs.” On street corners, young men hand out flyers to eager tourists announcing toll-free numbers for sexual encounters. The city’s Yellow Pages directory boasts eighty-nine pages of listings for “escort services.” The section starts with a full-page ad for a “barely legal teen hotline” offering “hundreds of choices” of blonds and brunettes. The next page offers “college teens” and “naughty school girls,” and promotions for “teen cheerleaders” and other youthful offerings go on for dozens of pages. Nevada, after all, is a notorious tourist destination because it offers legal prostitution, with close to forty licensed bordellos. It all helps lend what Shared Hope calls a “veneer of legitimacy” to illegal sexual activity with youth.

What many tourists don’t realize is that the state still prohibits prostitution in counties with populations of more than four hundred thousand, which includes the largest cities of Las Vegas, nearby Henderson, and Reno. But the geographic niceties of the law don’t concern the men who flock here from all over the country and around the world. They are looking for women they can rent by the hour, by the act, or for the night. And they are looking for women of all ages. It is a sad rule of business in the sex trade: wherever women are for sale, the commercial sexual exploitation of young girls is never far away.

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