Fourteen-year-old Cara and her 15-year-old cousin, Stacy (not their real names) walked out of their homes in Toledo, Ohio on a rainy May day in 2005 to get milkshakes. A few blocks away, a couple driving a Lincoln Continental pulled alongside the cousins and asked if they wanted a lift. Believing the man’s claim to be a schoolmate’s father, the girls stepped into the car — and entered a nightmare world of sexual slavery.
The couple drove the girls to a house and locked them in. As their families frantically searched for them, the teens were sold over and over again at area hotels. Ten days into their captivity the girls were taken to a truck stop near Ann Arbor, Michigan, where police officers, acting on a prostitution tip, discovered Stacy and one of her captors in a truck. Because of her youth, police took Stacy into custody, and later rescued Cara.
We’re used to hearing about sexual slavery in other countries, like Thailand and India. But these were homegrown, corn-fed, All-American girls being raped by All-American men. There’s no need to fly overseas on sex tourism junkets anymore: Girls and boys as young as 12 are available right here in the USA — the more modest estimates running at around 100,000 of them. Some, like Cara and Stacy, are kidnapped into the brutal world of sex slavery. Others — runaways and girls exploited by older “boyfriends” — are seduced into it. Some victims unknowingly encounter pimps online, and when they meet these new “friends” at malls and parks, they’re drugged and then kidnapped. Pimps often move their human cargo across the country, making it difficult for girls to contact their families.
Former congresswoman Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope International, an organization that rescues and assists women and girls forced into prostitution worldwide, says a pimp can easily make over $600,000 a year selling underage girls, making the peddling of human flesh more profitable than selling drugs. Living conditions are about what you’d expect for slaves: Girls are chained up in basements, or locked into closets. Those who try to escape are beaten, raped, and tortured.
Who buys children? Truckers, who seek out “Lot Lizards,” as they’re called, at truck stops. Executives who visit Atlanta or Las Vegas for conventions. Political activists who travel to Washington for meetings.
Shared Hope has created a DVD (the video contains some graphic content) outlining the extent of domestic minor sex trafficking. Visit their website and watch “Jessica” describe how she fell into prostitution at the age of 12, selling herself for a place to sleep at night. Or listen in on a conversations between a pimp and a man he believes wants to purchase a young girl — a man who is secretly recording their negotiations:
Pimp: “What type of girl do you want? Black, white, or what?
Buyer: “How many young ones do you have?”
Pimp: “Two black, two white.”
Buyer: “And how old are they?”
Pimp: “They’re between 14 and seventeen.”
Buyer: “What color is the 14-year-old?”
Pimp: “She’s white.”
Buyer: “Okay, white is good.”
Pimp: “If you pay the price, you can get what you want.”
Tragically, many people know children are being trafficked, but do nothing about it. When Linda Smith spent a few nights on the streets of Las Vegas last year researching the extent of child sex trafficking, she saw men openly handing out cards featuring young girls in sexual poses and a telephone number to call if they wanted a child delivered to their hotel. She saw “Little girls draped over men who were old enough to be their grandfathers at 4 A.M.” — clearly trafficking victims. “Everyone from cops to hotel concierges, to truck stop security guards, to those who deliver room service, to taxi drivers who know they’re delivering little girls to their abusers know what’s going on” but turn a blind eye, Smith told me grimly. “We call it the culture of tolerance.”
It’s partly a problem of perception. Society tends to view prostitutes, even child prostitutes, as whores, Smith says. “The reason good people can ignore these girls is because in their minds, she’s not a rape victim, or a lost child, but a ‘bad girl.’” As for those who exploit them — the attitude is typically “boys will be boys;” cops often don’t arrest buyers because they don’t want to get them into trouble.
What drives the sexual enslavement of America’s children? Pornography. Child porn has increased exponentially in both volume and violence since digital cameras and the Internet have made it easy to create and distribute it, according to Shared Hope. “Eighty-five percent of those arrested for sex crimes say ‘I started with porn,” Smith notes.
The sex industry “needs a new generation of buyers,” which is why so much Internet porn is directed at young boys: It’s intended to create more product demand. (Think the “Joe Camel” campaign, with addiction to children, not cigarettes, the intended goal.) The U.S. Senate last Friday (January 11) “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” with the goal of educating Americans regarding the extent of this human crisis and the need to find creative ways to stop the buying and selling of children locally.
To help Americans do this, Shared Hope has created The Defenders USA, a network of men, now more than 1,500-strong, who sign a pledge committing themselves to abstaining from porn and protecting their families and communities against sexual exploitation. Beginning on Father’s Day, 2007, in an effort to humanize the victims, the Defenders ran public service announcements and hit the nation’s truck stops in a campaign called “She Has A Name — And It Is Not Lot Lizard,” asking truck drivers to join them in protecting young women against sexual predators. They tack up posters, pass out law enforcement phone numbers and call police themselves if they see someone who appears to be a trafficking victim. Shared Hope also works with dozens of human trafficking task forces across the country, partnering with the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Their goal: To combat sex trafficking of domestic children through more aggressive arrest and prosecution of pimps and the child abusers with whom they do business.
The DOJ has created materials to train first responders — law enforcement officers, child protective services, 911 operators — to recognize trafficking victims, Smith says. Girls who escape sexual bondage desperately need medical care, long-term counseling, and a place to live. To help meet this need, Shared Hope provides grants to shelters and youth outreach organizations specifically for trafficking victims.
Sadly, official efforts will never be enough to prevent the buying and selling of our children. This is a war in which millions of ordinary Americans “need to be willing to get their hands bloodied in battle,” Smith maintains. We all need to learn how to recognize a trafficked child, and be willing to contact authorities if we encounter one.
Cara and Stacy are recovering from their ordeal. But for hundreds of thousands of other all-American girls caught in the web of sexual slavery, the nightmare continues. “They are in every city,” Smith says. “They are being sold at truck stops, strip joints, massage parlors and often out of homes, marketed online or on the streets. But they are our little girls. And they need our help.”
– Anne Morse is a senior writer at BreakPoint, a division of Prison Fellowship. She contributes to “The Point,” a blog devoted to the discussion of culture, politics and religion.