Exposing America's Ugly Child Sex Secret

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.

"Saying the average age of entry is 14 just can't be true," said Priscilla Alexander, president of the North American Task Force on Prostitution, a network of sex workers' rights groups. "Most prostitutes I've met are in their 30s … They are just using the problems of childhood to get at prostitution."

Survival Sex for Most Vulnerable

Regardless of the numbers, few can dispute that child prostitutes face desperate situations.

Homeless kids — boys and girls — often fall into prostitution as a form of "survival sex" or "sex for favors," as a way to get food, shelter and protection from abusive homes.

For children with few options, prostitution can seem an attractive way to get money, drugs and acceptance.

"They are told they can get a better life if they go with these guys," said Joyce Maxwell, director of LOTUS, a Portland, Ore., agency that provides outreach to at-risk teens. "Homes are very destitute situations." Often, young prostitutes follow their mothers' paths into the sex trade, she said.

The teens Maxwell is trying to reach live among strip clubs, night clubs, porn outlets, fantasy video stores, and massage parlors. The dangers of falling into prostitution are right outside the school doors. A girl's first step into the sex trade may be a seemingly innocent offer from a local "lingerie shop" to model the merchandise.

"We try to get to them before they hit the streets," Maxwell said.

Middle-class kids also get wrapped up in the sex trade. The University of Pennsylvania researchers found that wealthier teens sell sex — often to their own peers — as a way to get more expensive clothes or other consumer goods.

But poorer children are far more vulnerable to being sexually exploited. Most often, like Leighton, exploited youths ran away from middle-class homes where they were victimized by physical or sexual abuse.

A ‘Lucky’ Escape

Prostitution is often called a "victimless crime," a tag activists and outreach workers reject when it comes to child sex workers.

But Americans usually don't have much sympathy for children in the sex trades, some say. Once young people get involved with prostitution, they are most often treated as juvenile delinquents.

"There's this belief that children are willing and informed, voluntary perpetrators of their own abuse — we're looking at children as offenders rather than victims," said Laura Barnitz of Youth Advocate Program International.

When child prostitutes are arrested, some enter the foster-care system, and may eventually return to prostitution. Others just end up with a criminal record and back on the streets.

"It's the last thing the child needs," Leighton said. "That makes it easier for pimps to keep them under their control because the pimp can say, 'You're a criminal.'"

Young sex workers with criminal records have an even harder time finding legitimate jobs. And the longer they stay out of school and the work force, the harder it is to escape prostitution.

Leighton considers herself lucky. Although she was threatened with violence by her pimp if she ever escaped, Leighton took what cash she could find and hopped on a flight to Las Vegas shortly before her 18th birthday.

She stayed in a fleabag motel and started looking for work. Soon, she got a waitressing job at Denny's by lying about her education. That was in 1984 — and she's stayed out of prostitution for good.

Now, she works as an airport screener, started her own organization for exploited youths — called ESCAPE — and is attending the national summit in Washington.

But she doesn't underestimate how difficult it can be for kids who have dropped out of a "normal" life and into the sex trades to climb back into the mainstream.

"At Denny's, I was making very little money and working in areas frequented by drug dealers and by pimps," she said. "I just didn't run into them. I wish I could tell you I wouldn't have fallen prey to them again. I could certainly see a circumstance where I might have."

Prosecuting Pimps and Johns

After years of lax enforcement, prosecutors are starting to make examples of sex trade "managers" who control young prostitutes, often with violence. Last July, in probably the harshest sentences of their kind, two notorious Atlanta pimps were sent to federal prison for nearly the rest of their lives for prostituting children as young as 10.

That's a start, activists say — but they also complain that not enough attention is being paid to the men who solicit sex from children.

"Everybody focuses on the child, but it's the customer," Hunnicutt said. "If the demand weren't there, the organized crime wouldn't be there."

Although every state has laws to penalize customers of child sex workers, ranging from statutory rape to explicit penalties for soliciting a prostituted child, few "johns" are ever penalized.

"What we need aren't new laws, but the enforcement of laws that already exist," Barnitz said.

So far, though, law enforcement officials generally have been reluctant to pursue johns, which has contributed to a veritable vacuum of knowledge about who solicits children for sex.

In some cities, such as San Francisco, men picked up for soliciting a prostitute attend "john school." But the student population at "john school" is only a fraction of the men who solicit sex.

The Tip of the Iceberg?

Americans are probably afraid to know who solicits child prostitutes, Barnitz said. Knowing could expose an ugly secret that Americans feel more comfortable ignoring.

"There's a horrible fear that it's not just pedophiles but men from all walks in life," she said. "It's not just the handful of really frightening men diagnosed as pedophiles who are abusing these children."

The experts and activists attending this weekend's national summit hope the gathering is a step toward devoting more money, research efforts and law enforcement resources to address child prostitution.

But the greatest hurdle may be cultural, Barnitz said.

"I really feel that commercial sex exploitation of children is the pinnacle of the iceberg of child sex abuse," she said. "If we can't deal with that, how can we deal with the millions of the children who are abused in their homes?"