Teen prostitutes, not even old enough to drive, walk the streets of our cities selling their bodies every night. They call it "the life," but what they're forced into is sexual slavery.
"I got sold," says Sara, who asked that ABC hide her face and change her name for this story. "Like I was an animal."
Mistreated, lonely and living in a foster home in a rough neighborhood, Sara was lured into "the life" by a man who claimed to love her. She was only 13.
"He told me things like no guy had ever told me," Sara says. "So I felt like a $100 million."
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000 and 3 million American kids under age 18 are involved in prostitution and they're often targeted by sexual predators.
"There are sexual predators out there specifically looking for vulnerable kids so that they can sell them," says Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, in New York City, an advocacy group that provides services to sexually exploited girls from age 12 to 21.
Child Sexual Exploitation on the Rise
The average age of a child when he or she is first sexually exploited is 11, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if the child is a somewhat willing participant, according to U.S. and international agreements, children can never consent to prostitution: it is always exploitation.
The cities with the highest incidence of child sexual exploitation, according to the FBI, are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington, D.C. As many as 40 percent of all forced prostitutes are juveniles, according to the FBI.
"There are girls that are literally kidnapped off the street [and] thrown into a car," Lloyd says. "There are pimps who pose as model agency scouts."
The promise of a glamorous modeling career is what Miya says enticed her to leave her job at a busy shopping mall with a couple who reportedly lured several girls into prostitution in the same manner.
"He asked if it would be out of place if he said I was pretty," Miya says. "It was a compliment. He said he was a model agent...looking for models in the area. It seemed interesting."
According to Miya she was moved from Arizona to California and forced into the brutal world of sexual exploitation.
"They move them to evade detection," says Ernie Allen, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Va. "In many ways children in the 21st century have become a commodity for sale and marketing, primarily for sexual purposes."
Pimps are criminals, but often depicted in a glamorous way in movies like "Hustle and Flow," in music videos, and in national magazines.
For example, in the Dec. 16, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, rapper Snoop Dogg was featured on the cover with the headline, "At Home With America's Most Lovable Pimp."
"I think in the last couple years we've seen a real increase in the glorification of pimp culture," Lloyd says. "Girls growing up now, and boys too, are beginning to see this as cute and sexy or glamorous and not really understanding the realities of the sex industry."
Unfortunately, Sara learned the realities firsthand.
"What you see in the movies, what you see on TV -- it's not like that," Sara says. "They don't tell you the part about the rapes. They don't tell you about getting beat up. They don't tell you that you might die every day."
And popular culture also doesn't tell young girls that, once they are forced into the scene, there is almost no escape from sex trafficking.
So what made Sara choose to stay with her pimp in such a painful situation?
"People tell you, 'When I'm done with you, that's when you're done,' so you can't just up and leave," Sara says. "Do you know how many times girls have tried to up and leave? Girls have got killed just trying to up and leave."
The mental and physical pain of sexual exploitation, according to experts, is in part what keeps victims tethered to their pimps.
"The kids are not involved in this terrible crime as a result of choice," Allen says. "They are involved because of fear, because of force, and because of actual physical and psychological harm.
"These kids are beaten down psychologically, they are harmed physically, there are threats made against them and their loved ones or their families. [They] become ashamed of who they are and what they are doing and feel like they can't go back to the life they came from. This is not something these kids do by choice."
Many young girls like Sara enter a relationship with a pimp who poses as a caring friend or boyfriend.
"Some of [the girls] are snatched off the streets, but the vast majority are lured into this enterprise," Allen says. "These kids go willingly with these guys and only later discover that they can't walk away."
Even those charged with protecting her let her down, according to Sara.
"I never got arrested because my pimp used to pay off cops, or I would end up having sex with the cops so that I wouldn't get locked up."
After many attempts, she escaped from her pimp and got help from GEMS. Now, almost five years later, she still worries about being discovered and dragged back into prostitution. But she is also moving ahead, one step at a time.
"I'm proud of myself because at least I can go to sleep every night," Sara says. "At least I don't have to worry about being raped or being killed. I actually can go through a normal life without fear."
How to Protect Your Child
Discuss the importance of not trusting strangers, but most importantly, stay connected to your children. Sexual predators pursue disenfranchised girls and boys who need a friend.
"They target kids who appear to be vulnerable," Allen says. "Most kids have some problem in their lives [and] these guys hone in on that vulnerability. In most cases first they're the kids' friend -- the person who 'gets' them, who empathizes with them. These girls think the pimps are their romantic interest, that they love them and care about them. They get them into prostitution, then these kids lose the ability to walk away."
What happens to exploited children like Sara or Miya is similar to the case of Shawn Hornbeck, the Missouri boy rescued recently after behind held captive for four years. These kids were held by adults who convinced them that there is no way out and that no one cares what happens to them.
What Hornbeck endured is still a mystery, but authorities know that child prostitutes are subjected to constant sexual abuse. Yet public opinion often paints these girls as criminals. The first step towards ending the misery for the exploited is to recognize them for what they are: victims.
These girls come from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds. The common denominator is that they are vulnerable to predators. In fact, an estimated 80 to 95 percent of child prostitutes have a history of sexual abuse.
President Bush reauthorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Law in January 2006, strengthening the campaign against worldwide trafficking in people, especially the effort to combat the sex trade in the United States. This is headway in an effort to recognize domestic sex trafficking victims as legitimate crime victims in need of social services, and not just juvenile delinquent bad girls.
The Innocence Lost Initiative, a collaboration between the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has netted hundreds of arrests in both state and federal courts of pimps who prey on children.