244,000. That's the number of young Americans under the age of 16 believed to be at risk of child sexual exploitation that includes prostitution and child pornography, according to a University of Pennsylvania study*. It's clear that the nation has reached a new level of insensitivity when you see, as I've seen, young men (of all races and social economic classes) wearing a wildly popular T-shirt proclaimng "It's hard out here for a pimp",considering that many of those who are "pimped" are children. Norma Ramos of the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women is convinced that "it's not hard enough out here" for sex traffickers. She wants politicians on the state and federal levels to pass stronger laws targeting pimps. But many politicians--distracted by other issues-- have been slow to connect the dots linking child prostitution, human trafficking and American "macks", who have attained cult status in gangsta hip-hop culture. That was among the more obvious findings of a recent in-depth four part series on this issue for public radio station, WGBH in Boston. Here's how the story unfolded.
Recently while sitting in a park in Brookline, MA., as kids followed each other down a plastic slide, Audrey Porter explained how customer demand is fueling an insidious industry. She said,
"Anywhere there's an adult sex industry there are always children in there. Always, always, always."
Audrey Porter is a tall, light brown-skinned woman with closely cropped hair. She would like to see more arrests made of customers and pimps who target children. She was wearing sunglasses, but traces of anger could still be seen in her eyes when she talked about this dark subject.
"The average age of entry is twelve to fifteen years old"
"No one can convince me a girl on her own said, 'I want to be a prostitute.' There's always somebody behind that child. Like anything, somebody has to teach you how to do it."
Audrey Porter, assistant director and
coordinator for My Life, My Choice
Audrey Porter knows. Now in her forties, she was a teenager when she was steered into prostitution in Boston, and stayed there for a while because of a drug habit developed on the job. "And if it were not for the drugs I probably would have lost my mind" Porter said, "I was under-age. Nobody asked for an ID. Once in a while the vice [police unit] might come in and do a little raid and ask girls for their IDs. But if we were inside and we didn't have an ID they just might say something like 'Get out and if you come back here I'm gonna lock you up!' It wasn't 'This could possibly be someone's child.'"
"Someone's child," like a young woman whom we will call Donna. As is the case for many people forced into the life, Donna was abused as a child and placed in foster care. When she returned home she often found herself on the streets, alone. In her neighborhood in New York, the streets were not the safest place to be at age sixteen.
"I was kidnapped by an older guy who was on drugs, who was addicted to heroin"
"He used me as a trade-in for his addiction and that's how I was sold to a pimp. That's how I got into the life. I was sold for sex to older men."
A "Pimp" is just another name for a domestic sex trafficker, said Audrey Porter. She explained how pimps have upgraded in the digital era to locate new victims, "Pimps can use the internet, they're recruiting girls from there. They're setting these girls up with websites, 'Let's put some make-up on you, some nice clothes, let's take some professional pictures.' The reason we never see our children is because they're on the internet and you have to go on Craig's List and all those places." These days, Audrey Porter is assistant director of Survivor Services for My Life My Choice, a Boston-area organization assisting young women under 18 who have been coerced or forced into The Life. "What they do now is just place these girls in a hotel room, instead of where I come from on a street corner, and the johns will know where they are, and for the most part, they're not in sleazy hotels."
In fact, business travelers frequent some of these hotels. Police and human rights workers say sex traffickers prefer overnight lodges off Route One between New York and New Hampshire because they easily allow guests to come and go, and are accessible to potential middle-class suburban customers. However, not everyone gets to stay in a hotel.
"In Boston I either slept in the car in between dates or if I had met my quota for the night I was allowed to sleep in a hotel,"
Donna said, but she never knew exactly where she was. "I don't know the names because one rule is to not to look. It's called 'staying in pocket.'" Donna explained, "So we're not allowed to look at others, we're not allowed to look up at names of streets. It's strictly 'stay on this corner, go to this place to catch your date, and then come right back to this corner.'"
Bradley Myles has heard similar horror stories. He is the executive director of the Polaris Project, a Washington DC based anti-trafficking organization. He said that on-going public education is needed to explain the intricacies of domestic commercial sexual exploitation. Myles said, "There is a vast mosaic of all the different ways that types of sex trafficking really play out in the United States, ranging from residential brothels out of homes and hostess clubs to even escort services. You have whole networks of these commercial front massage parlors that are really masquerading as brothels. You have forms of domestic sex trafficking, violent US citizen pimps who are using extreme forms of control over adult women and children."
Pimps control young women through fear, intimidation, and violence. Donna was one such person who was subjected to violent coercion. "I have a lot of physical scars," she said. "I have one on my arm, one on my leg. I was in and out of the hospitals a lot. Black eyes. Of course there were the johns who were abusive. My finger was almost cut off. There was a lot of abuse." Donna, now 26, has two children. She reconciled with her mother recently, and both are working to restore normalcy to a life that was shattered in the aftermath of her kidnapping ten years ago.
Donna said she can think back to moments when she had a chance to escape, including times when she was driven to the Boston area. "But," Donna explained, "the person who had actually sold me into the life knew where my family was and so there were always a lot of threats against my family and I believed those threats." For several reasons, few people whom Donna encountered during her ordeal believed her. Girls and boys forced into prostitution are instructed to lie about their ages and their names, to never tell the truth. When Donna finally did tell the truth, she said, "I felt that nobody was going to believe me, especially in the beginning because I didn't know what a pimp was. Who was going to believe that there was a pimp that has me locked in a room?"
Sunanda Nair does. Nair asserts, "Every time that people say, 'Oh, those are a bunch of prostitutes who got arrested,' you probably have to think about that a little bit more and think about it as, 'Are those women really doing that by choice?'" Nair is co-founder of a new anti-trafficking non-governmental organization called One Goal. Most recently she assisted a young victim of a notorious trafficker, Darryl Tavares. Tavares was recently convicted in Boston for trafficking of minors across state lines and physical assault of multiple girls all of whom were subpoenaed to testify by federal agents."
Tavares led a ring of men who abducted troubled black, Latino and white teenagers off Boston streets; sometimes literally stuffing them in vans and then forcing them into prostitution. To create fear, he carved the face of one young woman with a potato peeler, according to trial testimony. The trafficking ring also allegedly placed an ad in a Boston weekly newspaper targeting young women by promising jobs to those with "a desire to travel and see new places."
Nair's young client was yanked from the streets into a life not of her choosing. "She was trafficked out of Dorchester, downtown Boston, all the way to New York through a national ring. The case went on for years. This young woman was lucky enough to get an NGO behind her and an FBI agent who cared enough to really get involved and give her help, such as witness protection from the perpetrators."
Carmen Ortiz, US Attorney for Massachusetts,
Thomas Perez, Asst. Attorney General,
Civil Rights Division, and Warren Bamford,
FBI Special Agent in Charge (now retired)
Ted Merritt, an Assistant US Attorney for Massachusetts, said the federal government is now investigating other human trafficking rings that are preying on the under-aged, "because under the federal law, apart from the victimization of young people being a horrendous thing, you don't have to prove that it's done by force, fraud, or coercion. Under eighteen [years old], its presumed those elements are there, so many of our cases, investigations, prosecutions have focused on the underage victims." And because, as Donna contends, "The police were completely unsympathetic."
Legislation is being considered in Massachusetts, which -- among other objectives -- would train law enforcement officials to work with child prostitution victims rather than against them. But that legislation has languished in a joint Senate-House committee for years, even as the problem has worsened, according to the Polaris Project, a major anti-trafficking NGO. This gives Massachusetts the dubious distinction of being one of several states (Tennessee is among the others) that has failed to enact a comprehensive bill to stop human trafficking.
Bradley Myles is executive director of the Polaris Project: " I think once that law passes it'll be a big boost to the Massachusetts task force because then they won't only be using federal crimes to prosecute and take traffickers to federal court, but they'll also have a whole apparatus of state courts to use both for human trafficking charges or for other charges like pimping or pandering, sexual abuse of children, whatever else you want to use."
Massachusetts state Senator Mark Montigny is the chief sponsor of the proposed anti-trafficking law, which would provide training to law enforcement officers, shelters and other resources for victims. It also provides assistance to trafficked youth. Montigny said, "The bill is supporting the victim. It is basically saying you will never be treated as a criminal runaway if you're underage and someone is paying for sex with you. It is rape, it is a crime, and we will treat it that way. We will find the person who trafficked you, not just get the person who paid for sex. Whether it is the nail salon or the prostitute on the corner, you first have to investigate it on the local level and that's where there are no resources."
In neighboring Rhode Island, victims of human traffickers have the option of turning to state government for legal redress. Last week, on the heels of this series of reports, the Massachusetts Senate voted unanimously to approve the state's first human trafficking bill. But it has yet to pass through the Massachusetts House, even though it was first introduced in 2007. Montigny said, "It has been tremendously disappointing for me. We're dealing with legislation like casinos that I feel are far less significant and important than this stuff, and I'm not pleased at all, at all. It should have become law."
*Source: Estes, Richard J. and Neil A. Weiner. The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work: 2001.
Study funded by the Department of Justice.