WASHINGTON, May 5, 2010— -- M.S. was 12 years old when she first fell in love. It was his "swagger" that attracted her, she recalled, laughing.
The pre-teen, who lost her mother at a very young age and only saw her father on holidays, said she desperately craved a father figure. All she ever wanted was to be loved, she said, and she thought she found that in the man who patrolled up and down her street wooing her.
"I just fell into his arms," said M.S., who didn't want her full name revealed because she is a minor.
One day, the man invited M.S. to go on a drive with him. She did, and she never returned home.
For four years, M.S. was forced into child prostitution with four different pimps. She was taken from city to city, forced to have sex with random men against her will. She rarely got to keep any of the $1,500 she made every day. Instead, she was abused mentally and physically by both her pimps and other girls who he housed.
"I got my childhood taken from me," M.S., now 17, told ABC News. "I used to think this is what I'm supposed to do, and I just did it. ... It was normal to us."
M.S. was scared to run away, afraid that her pimps would turn their threats into hurting her family into reality. Even when, two years after being sold into sex, M.S. found out that her grandmother and sister had put out fliers looking for her and had even put her name on the missing persons list, she didn't contact them.
"I was scared of them judging me," she recalled.
M.S. is one of thousands of American girls who are part of sex trafficking chains in the United States. It is a problem many associate with developing countries, but is one that is increasingly plaguing the United States.
"I think many Americans are more willing to accept that there are girls enslaved in Cambodia or Delhi, and really can't imagine that it's happening right here," actress Demi Moore said at a briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday. "As a society, we owe it to them to ensure this doesn't happen to anyone else."
The Department of Justice estimates that more than 250,000 American youth are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The average age of entry for female prostitutes in the United States is between 12 and 14 years, and children and youth older than 12 are prime targets for sexual exploitation by organized crime units, according to a 2001 report.
In addition to domestic girls who are exploited, about 14,500 to 17,500 girls from other countries are smuggled into the United States for this purpose, according to the State Department.
"We know so little about our daughters who are bought for sex," said Malika Saada Saar, president of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, which organized the briefing Tuesday to bring attention to the issue of domestic sex trafficking.
There is a "cyber slave market that is being built up by Craigslist and other Web sites," Saada Saar said, and most of the time, the pimps who buy and sell these girls are never arrested or jailed.
Many of the children sold into the sex trade come from broken families or the foster care system. Often times, as in the case of M.S. and Asia, they are looking for an escape and for the one thing they say they didn't find at home, love.
"This is a new and emerging phenomenon. Ten years ago, there were not the same disturbing stories of traffickers seeking out and preying on girl runaways within 48 hours after they have left home," Saada Saar wrote in the Huffington Post.
"Why is this happening? There is the Internet, which has created an easy and accessible venue for the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, young girls are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling. And, there isn't a culture of crime and punishment for selling girls as there is for selling illegal drugs," she wrote.
Asia, who was lured into the trade at the age of 18, says it was eerie how well her pimp knew what she was looking for.
"It's like he knew I was vulnerable, and he was looking for people like me," she told ABC News. "He told me constantly he would take care of me, it wasn't going to be like this. ... It was like false promises but he made it sound so good. That's what he does, he was an expert at it."
Sex Trafficking Becoming Growing Problem in U.S.
The now 20-year-old who is studying criminal justice said her sole mission back then was to get through the day. Even when she was sick or stricken with infection, she was forced to have sex, often for up to 10 hours a day with 10 different men.
"I feel like all I was trying to do was survive, get away from home, just be happy, but it was never like that," said Asia, who was raised by her grandmother.
Asia said that once she was part of the sex trade, she didn't feel she had anyone to turn to. Like M.S., she didn't want to go back to her family out of shame and fear, and she didn't feel safe outside the vicinity of the hotels she lived in.
"It was like I was in a totally different world in society," Asia recalls. "Like when we would go out to eat, I felt everyone knew who I was and what I did and there was embarrassment. ... Being outside, you feel vulnerable."
Both M.S. and Asia said they were arrested and thrown into jail, and that the police treated them like criminals, even when they knew they were minors. Often times, police officers solicited their services, the girls said, or they had relationships with pimps.
"They would just send me to jail and keep me here for like a couple of months, then they'd release me thinking everything's good," M.S. said. "I was scared to run to the police or cops or something because you know... I don't think they'd really listen. They try to set up a date with you knowing that you were a minor. They didn't care."
Under U.S. law, human traffickers can get life in prison if convicted. But many of these traffickers are never caught. Both M.S. and Asia said their perpetrators are still roaming free.
Government officials say a key problem is lack of coordination between states and agencies, but that the government is looking at the root causes and how they can be eliminated.
Francey Hakes, the Justice Department's national coordinator for child exploitation prevention, said Tuesday the agency has arrested and charged hundreds of people with sexual exploitation and that it was doing more to address sex crimes against children.
"This is modern day slavery at its worst, and it's a winnable war," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who sponsored a law targeting sex trafficking in the House.
The girls said all they want to do now is look to the future. M.S., who sought help at one of the Crittenton Foundation facilities, said she hopes to write a book some day to tell other girls in her position they can move on with their life. The 17-year-old said she is still having a hard time integrating into society because she can't trust anyone, even those who are trying to help her, but she will do anything to not return to her old life.
"I've seen a lot of girls get kidnapped. I've seen a lot of people get killed out there. I've seen a lot of things," M.S. said. "I would do anything to be a strong, independent woman."
Asia, who is currently a volunteer mentor at non-profit Fair Fund, said she wants to help change the system she was once a part of, but said the stigma of being a prostitute is not one that she can recover from easily. The student said she was supposed to go to the White House for meetings but was not able to get access because of her record.
"I'm not a criminal. I never hurt anybody. My intention was just to survive and it's just hard, it's not fair," she said. "Just look at me as a victim. Don't let my past prevent me for being the best person I can be, don't let it prevent me from getting a job or doing day-to-day things."