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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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That night, dressed in a tight skirt and high heels and carrying a small white purse, Maria set out with Lotion to learn the ropes. “She took me everywhere,” Maria recalls. “She wasn’t showing me how to be a ho, because I knew how to ho. But she was showing me how to work the Vegas casinos.”

Lotion told the teenager where the hottest spots were, where to sit, and where to walk. More important, she gave her tips for staying out of trouble with the law: “Always keep it moving. Never sit for too long. Always move.” It was a rule that Maria would soon ignore at her peril.

She had no idea that mistake would help spark a major operation by a new FBI task force that had just been created to rescue children just like her. Maria would find herself at the center of a two-year probe that would shine a light on America’s dirty little secret: the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of young girls as prostitutes.

* * *

“This is my first night out,” the skinny teenager said. “So please pray for me.”

It was closing on midnight on a hot Phoenix night at the corner of Fifty-first Avenue and McDowell. The girl was talking to a white-haired, soft-spoken grandmother named Kathleen Mitchell. A former prostitute and brothel owner, Mitchell had set up a group called DIGNITY ten years earlier to help women exit the trade. Several evenings a week, the group’s members patrol the city’s well-known prostitution areas in a white van, offering the young women on the streets some food, water, and a sympathetic ear. They also offer a way out if the women want it.

That night the streets were crowded with garishly dressed pimps, scantily clad women, and prospective clients. Music blared from car radios. One pimp, decked out in green, paraded past on his motorcycle. Another rolled through in his white Cadillac. Still others watched the action from the balconies that lined the hotels near the intersection.

“It was like a carnival,” Mitchell says.

She spotted the pretty young girl in the sleeveless top and short skirt and beckoned her over. A pimp, watching her in his rearview mirror, eyed the action suspiciously.

“How are you doing?” Mitchell asked softly, explaining what the DIGNITY program offered. “We just wanted to let you know who we are, and if you need some help, we’re here for you,” she explained.

“Yeah,” was all the nervous teen could say.

“How old are you?” Mitchell asked.

“I’m eighteen,” the girl lied.

“Honey, you’re not eighteen,” Mitchell said, certain the girl was no more than fifteen years old. Mitchell could see the tears in her eyes.

“Do you want to come with us now?”

“I can’t,” the girl said, trembling as she looked up at the pimp in his car. “I can’t right now.”

That is when she asked for Mitchell’s prayers, and she walked away. “It was so sad,” says Mitchell. “I was devastated.”

Kathleen Mitchell understood the girl’s inability to break free from the bonds of prostitution because she, too, had been trapped, powerless, and trying to delude herself into thinking this was all she deserved. She grew up in Minneapolis, one of five children with two alcoholic parents and little money. Her youngest sister died at eleven months from meningitis. It was her mother, uncharacteristically, who was the more violent parent, prone to throwing things at her father.

What if Daddy leaves? What’s going to happen to me? little Kathleen worried. The fear of abandonment marked all her future relationships with men. When she was only nineteen, she married a domineering man who cheated on her constantly. At twenty-six, she left him. Desperate for affection, she fell for an up-and-coming hustler who became a criminal of some renown within the pimping world. “It was horrible and I hated him, but I couldn’t leave him.” Mitchell says. “I had a fear that if I left, he wouldn’t look for me. I was too afraid to find that out.”

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