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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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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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