When the man who would become Jill Leighton's pimp first approached her, she was scavenging for food in a Cincinnati shopping mall. She was homeless, alone and 14-years-old.
"He gave me a spiel about how smart and beautiful I was and presented me with an opportunity," she said.
Kicked out of her mother's house just six weeks before, Leighton didn't see a better path. The man took her to Los Angeles and into a four-year nightmare of beatings and forced sex with men she didn't know for money she didn't get to keep.
Leighton's nightmare is shared by an increasing number of American youths, especially runaways and the homeless, according to city officials and activists. While many Americans believe the child sex trade only thrives in faraway places like Thailand, children right next door are being sold for sex — and neighbors right next door are buying.
"American ignorance only feeds into the network," said Sandra Hunnicutt, the founder of Captive Daughters, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group. "Runaway children are still entrapped in these networks because America does not think there is a problem."
Long ignored by government and law enforcement officials, child prostitution in the United States is gaining attention. The Justice Department is convening a national summit on the issue today. It's aimed at "building a common base of knowledge about the scope and prevalence of child and youth prostitution," said spokeswoman Mary Louise Embrey.
Last week, prosecutors and activists told a special hearing of the New York City Council that an increasing number of girls, some as young as 11, are working the streets.
A Grim, If Murky, Sketch
Reliable statistics on child prostitution, like prostitution in general, are difficult to come by — a product, some activists say, of our unwillingness to recognize the problem.
That many young prostitutes are transient, often trafficked from state to state, and moved off the streets by pagers and cell phones, makes it even harder to illuminate the shadows of the underground child sex network. Plus, child prostitution can range from part-time to full-time work, from stints in massage parlors and escort services to "lingerie shops," strip clubs and in pornography.
A handful of studies and locally collected data, though, ink a grim if ill-defined sketch of the numbers.
Tens of thousands of North American children become victims of juvenile pornography, prostitution, and trafficking each year, according to a University of Pennsylvania study widely considered the most comprehensive look at the issue.
A Portland, Ore., agency estimates that 7 percent of the youth population there has been involved with the sex trade industry, up from 5 percent in 1998-9.
In Phoenix, outreach workers estimate the child prostitution population there at 15,000. "It's a huge industry," said Janyse Ashley, program coordinator for the nonprofit group DIGNITY.
In New York City, one outreach program estimates that 5,000 youth and children are prostituted in the city, while police estimate there are only 15. Other advocates say the number might be as high as 1,000.
The debate over the numbers, as in many other fields, gets political. While activists say they're seeing more young sex workers, some "prostitution rights" advocates who support decriminalization of sex work reject their estimates.