Why is it so hard to catch men who sell teen girls for sex?
Like a lot of 14-year-old girls, all Shaquana wanted was a boyfriend. The skinny Brooklyn, N.Y. eighth-grader was on the honor roll at school, but unhappy at home. She hadn't seen her father in years, and endured constant teasing about her looks from her siblings and verbal abuse from her strict, religious mother.
“I used to pray every night that God would make me prettier and give me a boyfriend,” says Shaquna, now 20, who asked that her last name not be used for this story.
In the spring of 2004, her prayers were answered – or so she thought. Every day after school, as Shaquana walked to her job at a local farmers' market, she'd pass a guy who tried to get her attention. You're so cute, he'd tell her. Come here and talk to me. Shaquana ignored him for a while, but after a couple of weeks, she relented. The two exchanged numbers and started talking on the phone. She told him she was 15; she thought he was probably about 17.
“He made me feel really comfortable,” she remembers. Soon, they were meeting at the local park, then hanging out at his apartment, where he started to pressure her for sex. “I told him it was a sin, but he was like, 'I like you a lot, and if you like me you're gonna do it.' I thought that meant we would be together forever.”
She was wrong. After they had sex a few times, he stopped calling, and told her to stop coming around. She was devastated, and finally went to his place to beg him to take her back. That's when he told her the truth: he was 26 years old ?and a pimp.
“He said, 'I don't have time for little girls,'” she says. “He told me if I wanted to be with him I had to work for him, or just get lost. I was so focused on being with him that I said I would.” Soon, Shaquana was going on “dates” he set up for her. He taught her how to perform oral sex, and strung her along, being nice one minute, manipulative the next. Shaquana says she felt completely trapped. “It was so degrading, and I felt like I was the only one my age who could possibly be doing this.”
She wasn't. By some estimates, there may be as many as 100,000 minors involved in the sex trade in the United States. The issue of under-age prostitution in the U.S. broke wide open last month when authorities say a young girl met football legend Lawrence Taylor in a New York motel room. Taylor, whose case will soon be presented to the grand jury, allegedly paid the 16-year-old runaway $300 for sex.
The girl's alleged pimp, a man named Rasheed Davis, has also been indicted on charges of sex trafficking. But Davis may have nothing to worry about. The fact is that the men who pimp and pay for sex with underage girls in America typically do so with little fear of being prosecuted.
According to advocates and law enforcement authorities, witness intimidation and a lack of resources are persistent challenges. More troubling still, the cultural glamorization of pimps suggests that while our society treats child molesters as monsters, it glorifies men who turn troubled children into money-making sex machines. Examples range from the Oscar nominated pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold flick “Hustle & Flow” to the fact that the very word “pimp” has become synonymous with cool.
And there is little law enforcement can do to combat the insidious “coolness” of pimping.
“You have self proclaimed pimps and drug dealers like Ice T, who capitalized on the lifestyle,” says Officer Jim Saleda of the Oakland Police Department. “I find it ironic that he now makes a ton of money playing a sexual assault detective on Law and Order: SVU.”
Saleda has been working “the track” (a street or corner where prostitutes wait for johns) for 10 years, and thinks the lack of attention paid to these exploiters is despicable: “These guys, they're predators, they're parasites – they prey on these kids just like a pedophile does.”
But when it comes to sex-for-money, advocates say our social attitudes are out of whack.
“People look at a girl brought here from Korea as a victim, but a girl from the block, she's seen as a nasty girl, a dirty girl,” says Muhammida El-Muhajir, who works for GEMS, a New York City non-profit that works with sexually exploited girls.
No Longer the “Gentleman's Game”
Oakland's Jim Saleda is one of five city officers assigned to a unit focused specifically on under-age prostitution and internet crimes against children – a unit that Saleda fears may not survive upcoming budget cuts. (Last year, California cut $80 million from the state's Child Welfare Services budget, according to the non-profit California Budget Project.)
Saleda says that even as recently as 15 years ago, pimping was “a gentleman's game,” a family business, of sorts, often passed down from father or uncle to son.
His observation matches research done by Prof. Jody Raphael of DePaul University Law School. Raphael conducted in-depth interviews of five former Chicago-area pimps and found that all but one had been introduced to the sex trade by family members.
Now, says Saleda, gangs and drug dealers have gotten involved, making the profession more violent and ruthless. Just this year, Saleda found one 16-year-old sex worker “savagely” murdered. Her killer is still at large.
“Pimping young girls is a lot less risk and a lot less overhead than dealing dope,” Saleda says. “The girl is the one that gets arrested, and she won't talk because it's built into them never to roll on their pimp. And it doesn't cost anything but maybe a couple fast food meals a day and maybe getting their nails done.”
“Dirty Girls” Don't Talk
According to a 2001 study, the average age of entry into sex work is 13. In addition to starting young, many have been all-but groomed for the business at home. According to a survey of young sexually exploited minors in Nevada, 71 percent had been victims of sexual abuse before entering the commercial sex world. Another study in Dallas concluded that an astonishing 93 percent of these children had been either physically or sexually abused at home.
Though some are kidnapped and forced to work, Nola Brantley, Executive Director of MISSEY, an advocacy group in Oakland that provides social services to young sexually exploited girls, says the most common scenario is that a girl is coerced into “trying” prostitution by a male she thinks of as her boyfriend or another girl who is already under the thumb of a pimp, and gets rewarded for recruiting new girls.
Once she's begun selling sex, a young girl enters a world of violence, manipulation, isolation and shame. “It's a perfect storm of psychological turmoil and the pimp is the mastermind,” says Danielle Stockweather, Deputy Project Director at New York City's Midtown Community Court, which sees approximately 80 percent of the women arrested for prostitution in Manhattan.
And the mastermind is hard to find. Typically, say experts, pimps stay far away from girls when they go on appointments, knowing that when a girl is arrested she'll claim to be an independent worker. Because she's a minor, she's likely to be out of jail within 24 hours.
In traditional prostitution stings, police might use an undercover female officer to entice a john or attract an area pimp. But cops can't plant under-age bait, which means that, according to Saleda, they have to clock significantly more hours and thus spend significantly more money doing surveillance and writing search warrants, which may or may not yield enough information for an arrest, let alone a conviction.
But perhaps the most difficult part of trying to prosecute a pimp is the fact that in order to prove the case, prosecutors almost always need the testimony of the girls he trafficked.
This poses several problems: first, law enforcement needs to invest significant time and effort in building up enough trust to break the hold the pimp has on her. Second, the girl has to be kept away from the pimp, who may well be calling her from jail, or sending friends and family to, as Saleda puts it, “terrorize” her into recanting her statement.
“I've seen moms of pimps threaten girls,” says Sean O'Donnell, a Washington State prosecutor. “I had one young witness flee to Louisiana. I had the FBI track her down, but once I brought her back here I didn't have anywhere to house her and she disappeared again. When we finally got her on the stand, she said, 'I'm not telling you a thing.' All that pressure on a 14- or 16-year-old? It's extraordinary.”
This second problem presents the most troubling challenge to both law enforcement and social services groups. Nationwide, there are fewer than 50 beds where girls can be kept safe as they either transition out of prostitution or wait to testify.
In a standard group home, where girls can come and go as they please, their former pimps often sweet-talk (or threaten) them into leaving. Safe houses, on the other hand, offer round-the-clock supervision by trained specifically to deal with this population of girls.
So far, however, only non-profit groups have stepped up to meet the need. New York's GEMS project has 15 beds; and organizations in Los Angeles and Atlanta also have a handful. Soon, the Streetlight group in Phoenix will double the national number when it opens eight safe houses with eight beds in each.
Slowly, law enforcement authorities and prosecutors at both state and federal levels have recognized they need to address the problem more seriously. Since 2003, the federally funded Innocence Lost National Initiative, has marshaled the efforts of 38 task forces and working groups around the country that focus on combating domestic child sex trafficking.
Meanwhile, according to Loren Wohlgemoth of Shared Hope International, an advocacy group dedicated to eradicating underage sex trafficking, 44 states have “some” legislation about domestic minor sex trafficking, but most fail to address any kind of after-care for the victims.
Some states, however, are doing more. In Washington State, for instance, a new law mandates longer sentences for both johns and pimps who exploit underage prostitutes. As of June 10, the punishment for paying for sex with someone under 18 went from a slap on the wrist to 21 to 27 months in prison, a $5,000 fine and 15 years of sex offender registration.
In April, thanks in part to the efforts of the Alameda County prosecutors office, the California General Assembly Public Safety Committee unanimously voted to pass to the floor for a vote a bill that would allow prosecutors to prove trafficking without having to prove coercion, force or fraud – which often require the testimony of the sexually exploited children. The bill is currently before the Appropriations Committee.
And in New York City, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office announced this month that it was forming a special unit to combat sex trafficking after NYPD cops busted a group of men and women, several of whom were reportedly affiliated with the Bloods gang, for running a ring of child prostitutes recruited from local Brooklyn middle schools.
Still, concedes FBI Agent Michael Langeman, such efforts may not necessarily lead to more prosecutions.
“Prosecutors have a history of shying away from these cases because [the girls] don't always make great witnesses,” explains Langeman, who has been with Innocence Lost for five years. “It can be (difficult) to portray them as victims when they've become so hard.”
The legal system wasn't much help to Shaquana. She never testified against any of the men who turned her out, raped her, and even beat her so savagely she ended up in the hospital. But, with the help of advocacy group GEMS, she constructed a better future for herself. She was valedictorian at her high school graduation and while she attends college she works for GEMS, speaking at juvenile detention centers and group homes about her experiences.
“It was so easy for him to manipulate me,” says Shaquana of her first pimp. “He was twice my age. And all those guys I slept with, they'd ask me how old I was; when I'd say 19, they'd say, 'No you're not, you look 13.' They knew, and they went on and did their thing anyway.”
Julia Dahl is a Contributing Editor to The Crime Report.