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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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Excerpt fromSomebody'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.

“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.

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.”

For twenty years, Mitchell stuck with her abusive pimp partner, through the beatings, arrests, and humiliation. Finally, in 1980, Mitchell decided she was tired of turning tricks for someone else’s profit and opened up her own massage parlor and escort service. She became the very successful madam of a very successful brothel. “I had mink coats and fancy cars,” she says. “I had all the jewelry you wanted to have. I made a lot of money.”

She tried to assuage her guilt about exploiting other women by watching out for the ones she employed. She hid any woman who was running from an abusive pimp, and she would rush out to rescue those who found themselves trapped with dangerous clients. “Kicking down hotel room doors. Throwing hot pots of coffee on people to save the girls,” Mitchell says. “I’d even bring guns. Crazy stuff.”

Yet she was conflicted; she was sending girls out to do a job she no longer wanted to do herself. “You can’t have it both ways,” she notes. Mitchell’s angst was solved the hard way -- she got busted. In 1989, she was indicted on fourteen counts of receiving the earnings of a prostitute, for leading an organized-crime syndicate, and for conducting an illegal enterprise. She pleaded guilty to the felony charge of operating a prostitution enterprise and spent a year in the Durango County Jail. But the short sentence was long enough to be a life-altering experience.

It began with a passage in a book she was reading. She can’t remember the book’s title but will never forget the words: We live in a world of lies, and the most degrading ones are the lies we tell ourselves. Mitchell sat straight up in her jailhouse bunk bed.

“That was my epiphany,” she says.

All of a sudden, it was clear that her life was built on falsehoods and fears, on her fear of abandonment by men, her search for validation through prostitution, and her hope for riches through a brothel. She was forty-six years old, and she wanted to change. She needed help.

But in jail, Mitchell found, there was no help for women caught up in prostitution. If you were a drug addict behind bars, there was assistance if you wanted to get clean. If you were an alcoholic, there was a program for you, too. But not for her. And not for all the other women like her.

“I sat in jail and watched women involved in prostitution come and go, a revolving door,” she says. “I needed to do something.”

She lobbied jail officials to let her set up a support group for prisoners who wanted to get out of the sex trade. She dubbed it DIGNITY, for Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself, and she started the weekly meetings with only two or three women. At first it was hard going. Guards teased the women about “going to ho class.” Other inmates, no matter how heinous their crimes, looked down on them, too, dismissing them in jailhouse slang as flat-backers. Says Mitchell, “If you’re a prostituted person, you are just nothing.”

Over time, attendance at the meetings grew, sometimes with as many as twenty women present. Mitchell was committed, even returning once a week after she was released from jail to help lead the group. But outside the prison walls, she discovered the problem was worse, that contempt for women who walked the tracks was greater and the services even more lacking. She would eventually expand DIGNITY into a wide-ranging program that provided outreach services for the women working the streets and a housing and rehab shelter to help those ready to make a break from their pimps.

As a symbol for DIGNITY, Mitchell chose a starfish. The idea came from a story she fondly remembers, in which a man walking along the beach comes upon a child who is picking up starfish that have washed onto the sand and throwing them back into the ocean.

“Why are you doing that?” he asks.

“If I don’t, they will die,” the child answers.

“But there must be thousands of miles of beaches covered with starfish,” the man objects. “You can’t possibly make a difference.”

And the child says, as she tosses one more starfish into the water, “I made a difference for that one.”

* * *

“I was no different than most cops,” says Dallas police sergeant Byron Fassett, spitting out chewing tobacco like a big league baseball coach. “I thought, A whore is a whore is a whore.”

He wears the uniform of a tough street cop, with a black shirt, blue jeans, and a constantly buzzing cell phone on his belt. He also wears his fifty-plus years well. Only the gray hair shows the strain of what he has seen in the underbelly of his city.

Fassett didn’t start off in the tough part of town. He grew up in the wealthy north end of Dallas, a private school football star whose dreams were cut short by a shoulder injury. The early death of his father put a strain on family finances and made a police college grant the only way for Fassett to continue his education. At first he thought he would do the required five years on the force and then quit, but he never did turn in his badge. Indeed, the moment he graduated from the police academy in 1981, he asked to be posted in the rough, crime-ridden southeast section of the city, something few cops -- never mind rookies -- ever did. Wanting to see action, he found himself in a police station that resembled a fortress, with ten-foot-high fences around the perimeter. “A real eye-opener for a white boy from north Dallas,” he says, chuckling at the memory.

By 1986 he had made sergeant, a “blue flamer” -- cop slang for someone who shoots through the ranks. Three years after that, he took over the fledging Child Exploitation Unit, which at the time was a small three-officer unit. His first exposure to the problem of prostituted children came in 1992, when a distraught mother, the daughter of a fellow officer, called him for help. Her teenage daughter, Roberta, had gone missing, a runaway.

“I find the kid and she’s a prostitute,” Fassett recalls. Like many cops, back then he saw prostitution as a victimless crime compared with the mayhem he witnessed in the streets. “Every night I had dead bodies, drug dealers shooting people. I figured if she didn’t want to be in this, she would get out of this.”

This was, and unfortunately remains, an attitude shared by most people -- that these girls are the authors of their own misery. If they don’t like the scene, surely they can simply walk away. Besides, they probably enjoy the sex and get paid for it anyway. How is this exploitation?

“I am going after your pimp,” Fassett told Roberta with a cop’s usual bravado when he first ran into her on the streets.

“I won’t testify,” she insisted.

“Don’t worry, we’re going to nail him,” the cop assured her.

But Roberta was adamant. “You don’t understand. He can do whatever he wants.”

She was right; the cop was wrong. Tito “traded off” Roberta to another pimp -- a frequent tactic the pimps used to get rid of troublesome girls.

“We lost her,” Fassett says.

By seventeen, she was being prostituted across the country. She managed to survive a shooting by a pimp once, but two years later she turned up dead, her body wasted by drugs.

“If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved her. I failed miserably,” says Fassett.

That failure gnawed at him. One of Roberta’s last police mug shots shows her with pallid skin and sunken eyes, staring listlessly at the camera. “Her eyes haunted me forever,” the Dallas cop says. “The life in her eyes was gone.”

Shaken by that experience and by other failures to help the teenagers he was spotting on the streets, Fassett tried to get his department to set up something he called the Juvenile Prostitution Diversion Project, pushing it as the right thing to do. But with limited police budgets, the prospect of a new program that would draw money away from other jealous departments was never going to fly. “I got my butt kicked,” Fassett admits. “I walked away. No one else gives a crap about these kids. Why should I?”

Except he couldn’t walk away. On the street Fassett kept coming upon more girls the system was failing. “It ate me up,” he says. “The more we looked, the more we saw.”

It would take another decade before Fassett finally succeeded in getting the Dallas police department to set up a pioneering program for prostituted children, one that became a model for police forces across the country. But to do that he had to challenge the very fundamentals of his own law enforcement establishment. The girls he was trying to help didn’t see themselves as victims, nor did the cops busting them see them that way. They would be arrested as runaways, petty criminals, drug users, and, often, thanks to fake IDs, adult prostitutes.

Fassett was outraged by what he saw as an egregious double standard. A man who had sex with a minor would be jailed for statutory rape, and she would be treated as the victim she was. But if he left a pile of cash by the bed, she could be locked up as a prostitute, and he might get away with a small fine as a john.

“The justice system knows how to deal with offenders. We know how to deal with victims,” Fassett says. “But these kids are both, and they are falling through the cracks.”

* * *

A frightened teenager in Vegas, a former brothel madam turned savior in Phoenix, a cop on a mission in Dallas. Three fronts in a battle being waged in the streets of America to save children that most people prefer to ignore.

No one knows precisely how many Marias are out there, forced into prostitution every year in America. These children don’t count -- and no one is counting them. In a report on what it aptly calls “domestic sex trafficking,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) issues this blunt warning: “Among children and teens living on the streets in the United States, involvement in commercial sex activity is a problem of epidemic proportion.” Yet it is an epidemic that has gone largely overlooked and untreated.

The most common estimate cited by the DOJ and child protection agencies puts the number of children who are commercially sexually exploited at around three hundred thousand. That figure comes from the only serious study of the problem that has been done -- a University of Pennsylvania paper coauthored by Richard J. Estes in 2001 entitled “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.” For the U.S. portion of the three-year study, researchers chose seventeen cities and then extrapolated their findings for the entire country. They interviewed about a thousand children as well as police and child-care workers, and they gathered statistics from various law enforcement and government agencies.

“Child sexual exploitation is the most hidden form of child abuse in the U.S. and North America today,” Estes told reporters when his study was released. “It is the nation’s least recognized epidemic.”

The irony is that human sex trafficking has become a cause célèbre among many dedicated church and community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and a handful of politicians. But in most cases they focus on the international trade. The U.S. government admirably offers special programs and funding for foreign victims of trafficking but none for domestic victims. The Department of Justice estimates fifteen thousand foreign nationals are trafficked into the country each year for forced labor and sexual slavery. A human tragedy, no doubt, but by all accounts the number of American girls trafficked on American streets is at least ten to twenty times greater.

Yet the United States seems unwilling to recognize that the vast majority of victims of sex trafficking are not foreigners but the girls from next door. It is more comforting to think of prostitution being forced upon children from other countries, not our own. A photo of a sad girl from Mexico sold across the border for sex or the story of a Russian woman tricked into coming to America and trapped in a brothel makes for good fund-raising. But few seem to care about a black girl from the slums of Dallas or a white girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Vegas.

Richard Estes and his colleagues cautioned back in 2001 that their figure of three hundred thousand prostituted children was only an estimate; they called for a more sweeping, better-funded project to “produce an actual headcount of the number of identifiable commercially sexually exploited children in the United States.” But such a survey has not happened yet. When Congress looked into the matter six years later, it had to bluntly admit: “No known studies exist that quantify the problem of trafficking in children for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States.”

There is every reason to believe the “actual headcount” of children forced into prostitution could be much higher than three hundred thousand. Government and police statistics on prostitution, by definition, rely upon official reports of arrests and surveys of children who seek help in shelters and other locations. But many if not most young girls are too frightened, confused, ashamed, or otherwise unable to come forward and be identified as victims of prostitution. In testimony before a special congressional body in 2005, Chris Swecker, the assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, cautioned that relying on crime reports “masks the true prevalence of the problem” since many of the prostituted youth are charged with some other offenses such as substance abuse. “Sex traffickers or pimps debriefed by the FBI indicate approximately 20 to 40 percent of the victims recruited into prostitution are juveniles,” he said, indicating that the number of youth sexually trafficked in the United States could be as high as eight hundred thousand.

The real scope of the problem can be gleaned from the number of runaways in America. The DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimated that about 1.7 million youths between the ages of seven and seventeen flee their homes every year in America. The DOJ classifies more than two-thirds of them as “endangered” because of drugs, criminal activity, and physical or sexual abuse. Those numbers will only increase as the recession and lingering hard times force more children onto the street at the same time as government services are cut back drastically.

How many of those runaways will end up ensnared in prostitution, as Maria did?

Two out of three runaways return home within a week. “However, 33 percent of children who run away are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home,” according to background material prepared for U.S. Senate legislation on runaways in 2009. The Estes study put that number even higher -- at more than half. “Approximately 55% of street girls engage in formal prostitution,” it reported.

In other words, a significant proportion of the hundreds of thousands of children who run away from home risk falling into some form of sexual exploitation. And make no mistake about it -- these are children we are talking about. Not precocious teenagers on the verge of adulthood. A fact sheet about child prostitution on the Justice Department Web site states that the average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is twelve to fourteen years old.

When these children do get the attention of the system, they are almost always treated as criminals, not victims. And yet the pimps who control them and the johns who purchase sex from minors go largely unpunished. The prostitution of American children is a hidden crime only because we turn our heads and choose not to see. “It’s a very dark and quiet crime,” says Cynthia Cordes, a federal prosecutor in Kansas City who came up with innovative ways to go after the men who exploit prostituted children. “It happens in areas of town that most people don’t go to or don’t think about. It happens in the shadows.”

This book is about the children whose stories have been in the shadows for too long.

Julian Sher is an award-winning investigative journalist, TV writer and director, and the author of six books. The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and the BBC have featured his reporting on child abuse.
 
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