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. . .
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.”
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. . .
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. . .
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.”
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Even as the US formally acknowledges its own trafficking problem for the first time in the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, it is important to consider the challenges that exist in the US for ending all forms of trafficking. I appreciate that this article details the insidious forms that recruitment and control can take, particularly in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, while also pointing to both policy and law enforcement innovation, as well as policy and law enforcement challenges. At the same time, issues with victim services and after care that this article draws our attention to bear out the US assessment in the TIP report that "government services for trafficked U.S. citizen children were not well coordinated; they were dispersed through existing child protection and juvenile justice structures. The government made grants to NGOs for victim services, though there are reports that the system is cumbersome and some NGOs have opted out of participating. Victim identification, given the amount of resources put into the effort, is considered to be low and law enforcement officials are sometimes untrained or unwilling to undertake victim protection measures."