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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.

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“This is the mecca for child prostitution,” says Sergeant Detective Gil Shannon. “They all come here.”

Shannon should know. He has been a cop in this city for twenty years, most of them with the city’s vice unit. And he realizes that his squad’s statistics point not so much to success as to the depth of the problem: in the past decade, the Las Vegas police have rescued 1,518 juveniles forced into prostitution from the streets of the city, averaging more than a hundred girls every year. But what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. In cities across America, hundreds of thousands of children get caught up in the trade. At least 60 percent of the young children picked up for prostitution-related offenses are not from Vegas.

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. “They are getting younger and younger,” Shannon says. Like Maria, they come from all over the country, shipped in by pimps on an underground network that traffics in young flesh. Maria’s pimp, a shrewd and ambitious entrepreneur who went by the street name Knowledge, was based in New York and Atlantic City. He had arranged for one of his senior women, nicknamed Lotion, to pick her up at the Las Vegas airport in his Mercedes-Benz. Lotion was tall -- Knowledge liked women with height -- and pretty, with white-blond hair and a thin body.

“You’re going to be a Vegas ho now and that’s the best kind of ho to be,” Lotion explained as they cruised down the Strip. “This is the best place to be, because Daddy only comes here once every two months to check on us,” she said, using the slang term for a pimp. “Daddy” signifies a father figure who requires both submission and affection, someone who professes to love them but will not hesitate to punish them if he thinks they have strayed. “As long as we send him his money all the time,” Lotion said, “we can do whatever we want.”

Maria’s awe turned to anger when they arrived at the comfortable apartment Knowledge kept in Vegas. It came with a two-car garage and a covered parking spot for Knowledge’s Mercedes. Inside, it featured wood paneling, expansive carpets, and a wide-screen TV.

“Fuck it! It had to take me this long to work my way out here?” Maria blurted out loud. “We have been living in some shitty-ass place in New York, and this is what you bitches out here have?”

Even as she spoke, she knew the reason. Prejudice is built into the prostitution business. White girls, known as “swans” or “snowflakes” in the trade, are usually a lot more profitable for the pimps than their African American counterparts, called “ducks.” It is that simple.

“It’s a fact that white women make more money,” Knowledge once told the rap music magazine Ozone, which called him the most successful pimp in the country. “The average dude that buys pussy is white and they prefer their own kind.”

Thanks to her Hispanic background, Maria’s light brown skin and straight, dark hair made her somewhat more marketable than the African American girls. But the rules of the game still grated. “If I was white and had blond hair, I’d have been in Las Vegas sooner,” she says. “Everybody Knowledge had working there was white except for me.” It was her first disappointment with her new life in Vegas. It would not be her last.

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