Thousands of young American women who slip into the seedy world of prostitution, advocates say, do so through no choice of their own. It begins with a pimp befriending them, giving them a place to stay, and then turning them out on the streets or in online ads to sell their bodies.
Childhoods marred by broken homes, abuse, drug use and a desperate need for love link their stories, and often their pasts deeply warp their sense of right and wrong.
“I was molested ... and one thing, I didn’t know that it was wrong,” said one woman at Magdalene House, a women's shelter in Nashville.
Another woman named Shelia said she was taught how to perform oral sex at age 6 by her own mother. “It happened so much that it seemed natural, like it was supposed to happen,” she said.
In his upcoming PBS documentary, “A Path Appears,” New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof says it’s time we acknowledge sex trafficking as an American problem, and that we take a hard look at prostitution and the notion of choice, especially by women.
“It's basically seen as a public nuisance issue, rather than as a human rights problem,” Kristof said. “And the person the police and prosecutors go after is the victim, is the 16-year-old girl, rather than the perpetrator, the pimp, or the customer.”
The average age for young girls to enter into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. So many of these women, Kristof said, start off as young runaways. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that in 2013, one in seven endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims, and a huge number of them are foster care kids.
“These are homegrown American girls,” Kristof said, adding that it’s common for the girls who are most at-risk to have “self-esteem problems, sometimes self-medication with drugs.”
“And they get in a fight with the mom and go away to the bus station and the only person looking for them there is the pimp, and that's trafficking in America,” he said.
The absence of a caring adult in their lives, advocates say, paves the way for predators to sneak in and deploy a type of charm offensive designed to tap into a young person's vulnerability, be it affection, attention or simply a place to sleep. One classic approach, law enforcement says, is for a recruiter to appear gentle and tell the girl she has beautiful eyes or say she should call him “Daddy,” knowing they crave family. These recruiters lurk in bus depots, homeless shelters and foster care facilities, authorities say, knowing vulnerable young people gravitate to these places.
Sergeant Hector Martinez and Officer Jack Collins with the Port Authority Police Department, shared by New York and New Jersey, walk New York City's cavernous bus depot, where an estimated 225,000 people pass through each day. In the past year, Martinez and Collins said their unit, the Port Authority Youth Division, recovered 69 runaways, about one to three per week.
“Pimps, recruiters, they sit here, they watch,” Martinez said, referring to the Greyhound ticket counter. “They watch as they go in and they purchase the tickets there."
“They sell [youth] the idea of a warm place to stay for the night, the possibility, potential for romance, maybe earning some money,” Collins added.
Just two blocks from Port Authority sits Covenant House, one of the largest shelters for at-risk youth in the country. But in the two avenue blocks between a journey's beginning or end and this safe haven lurk masters of manipulation, hoping to permanently intercept a young person's life.
Jayne Bigelsen, the director of anti-human trafficking initiatives at Covenant House International, said it drives her crazy that more hasn’t been done to prevent sex trafficking.
“Everyone says they’re anti-trafficking but when I go to talk to legislators ... on the trafficking day, they want to talk to me,” Bigelsen said. “On the runaway homeless youth day, they don’t want to talk to us. Same kids! Same kids! But they don’t want to talk to us."
Funding foster care and mentoring programs are crucial, Bigelsen says, and have the greatest potential to alter a young person's life. A caring foster parent or mentor has the power to divert the path of the very same young people who could fall into the hands of a pimp.
“There's this huge connection-- being alone for the first time in your life and being homeless, and the pimps coming in and preying on you,” she continued. “We found that age 18 to 19 to be pretty vulnerable.”
When young women come in, Bigelsen said Covenant House works with them to help figure out what happened, and works closely with Port Authority Police, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Human Trafficking Courts authorities to find their recruiters.
“Young people show up at our doorstep saying, 'I'm hungry, I'm tired, I want a bed,’ they don't come and say, ‘I've been trafficked,’ So that requires further investigation and further digging,” Bigelsen said. “They're not always ready to open up. Trafficking is a really sensitive topic. So sometimes, it takes time to build a relationship to get them to open up.”
Whether online or on the street, prostitution is big business. One woman told Kristof of how an RV with seven girls can pull into a truck stop and earn the pimp $1,400 an hour.
“This is not something that people are choosing of their own free will, and it's not a business relationship,” Kristof said. “That is this fundamental misperception, is somehow a pimp and this girl are dividing up money or something. Every penny she earns goes to the pimp, every penny, and if she holds him back or she doesn't meet her quota that she is given of, whatever, $700, $800 that day, then she is going to be beaten up.”
Nineteen states have been experimenting with targeting the pimps in sting operations, instead of just rescuing the girls. The Cooks County Sheriff's Office in Chicago changed the way they handled prostitution arrests, launching a national campaign to target "johns." Their “National Day of Johns Arrests” program now includes "51 law enforcement nationwide partners" who have made a combined 1,832 "johns" arrests, according to the sheriff's office.
"It strikes me that if there were gun traffickers out there, that we would find ways to get them out of the picture,” Kristof said. “But that somehow, if it's people who are trafficking 15-year-old girls, that somehow, that's not enough of a priority.”