Child Sex Trafficking Growing in the U.S.: 'I Got My Childhood Taken From Me'

The problem often associated with developing countries is growing in the U.S.

ByABC News
May 4, 2010, 9:30 PM

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."

Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, recently created The Demi and Ashton Foundation to raise awareness about the issue of sex slavery worldwide.

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."