Sex sells. It sells perfume, jeans, cars and deodorants. It also sells children, women, violence, and cruelty. We’re supposedly a democracy; we’re supposed to be enlightened. The word ‘slavery’ is consigned to history books with a bit of bashfulness and cow-towing, as though it were a different breed of humans who would do such a thing.
The truth is that there are an estimated 27 million people – mostly children, nearly all female – caught up in the trafficking of human beings for sex and slave trade purposes. This is more than the entire trans-Atlantic African slave trade.
The truth is also that this is not a ‘third world’ issue; 300,000 to 600,000 American children are currently working as sex slaves in the U.S. Some 20,000 slaves are imported to the U.S. every year. The U.S. is the largest global consumer of child pornography and child ‘prostitution’.
In the 1950s, you could buy a slave. The cost was $40,000. Today, you can buy a young woman for around $150 at point of sale – to import her you may have to pay as much as $300. Most transactions are temporary, though, involving a sex act or a job done. The cost of oral sex has gone down from $20-$30 dollars ten years ago, to $2 or 3.
Estimates are always old news – today’s numbers reflect studies done four and five years ago. There is no reason to expect those numbers to have decreased. The causes and conditions of the slave trade have increased; the trade will increase with it.
The internet and globalization have made the sale of human beings – and communications and exchanges outside the pale of the law – easier. In the U.S., child prostitution has grown since the 1980’s, when laws made it more difficult for officials to detain runaway or homeless children. Selling human beings is the second most lucrative business in the world; only the international sale of illicit drugs exchanges more money.
Sex Trade in the U.S.
“Prostitution” is a tough term, and misleading. Most prostitutes are slaves. 90% of prostitutes work directly for a ‘pimp’. The average age of entrance to prostitution has gone down from 14 to 12 or younger. The only precursor to sex work is vulnerability; the children are young, often report abusive homes, are abused further by their pimp and ‘clients’, beaten, gang raped, coerced or forced to use drugs, threatened with weapons, and restricted from access to food, money, and communication with the outside world. As many as 2.8 million children live on the streets or are runaways; 1 in 3 will be targeted for prostitution within 48 hours of being homeless.
While girls (and boys) still work the streets, the organization of the sex trade has moved in doors. The majority of sex workers are located and ‘booked’ online. In 2007, the Manhattan White Pages had 77 pages of ‘escort services’ listed. In major cities, magazines such as “The New York Sex Guide” and local papers such as the Village Voice carry advertisements for “full service massage” parlors, a euphemism for prostitution.
Busted prostitution networks in the midwest have “buyer lists” with 20,000 to 50,000 local names. Most “prostitution rings” however are smaller, run by one or two persons who control 10-15 girls. (Stacy Sullivan, Boston Globe, 16 November 1997)Most girls are moved from city to city and state to state. Prostitution networks have largely moved from large cities to smaller towns and suburbs, just as they have moved off the streets .
Less than 10% of persons arrested for prostitution related crimes are the male purchasers. Less than 2% are the pimps.
A Whore’s Life
Sex workers are not criminals, but victims.
A national study suggests that up to 75% of prostituted women were sexually and/or physically abused in the home. Abused kids are more likely to run away – and as noted above 1 in 3 kids on the street will be approached for prostitution within 48 hours of being on the streets. Abused children are also more vulnerable to approach by non-blood related persons for sexual acts, which is often the first step toward prostitution. Pimps target girls who are still living at home. Non-blood relations are more likely than blood relatives to engage their children in sex work such as pornography or sex acts, but it has happened and it’s assumed it’s widely under reported.
On average each year, a prostituted girl is raped 19 times, kidnapped 10 times, and beaten repeatedly. Nearly all women are verbally and physically abused by their pimp, and have been coerced into pornography, topless dancing, or street prostitution to support him. More than half of prostitutes interviewed for a study said their pimp had introduced, coerced, or hooked them on drugs. Every one of them said they have committed other crimes for their pimp, in addition to prostitution. Every single woman invovled in a prostitution intervention project in Arizona had been raped, robbed, kicked or beaten with fists, knives, guns, baseball bats, coat hangers, and boards by either a pimp or a john. Every single one of them knew at least one woman in prostitution who had been murdered.
Some 98% of women interviewed report that they want to leave sex work. Leaving is difficult. 85% of prostitutes have never earned money any other way. 75% of them have drug and or alcohol problems. More than 90% of them have a pimp who controls their movements, money, drug use, and social life. There is a tremendous lack of resources for women looking to leave sex work. 100% of women who have left sex work have been approached and/or targeted for sex work after they ‘retire’.
Addiction plays a vital role in the on-going victimization of women. The majority of sex workers have some level of drug/alcohol dependency. Often, early drug or alcohol use was forced upon them – or was the means by which they were kidnapped, raped, or sold. Women in jail for prostitution are generally 25-35 pounds underweight, largely resulting from drug use. They suffer malnutrition. Many have been raped or robbed prior to incarceration. The majority are severely depressed. Most have attempted suicide. Women leaving jail have no resources, are often targeted by pimps, and usually feel they have no where to go other than a return to their life as a sex worker.
If a woman should seek help through substance abuse treatment, she is unlikely to be screened for issues related to sexual exploitation. “Intake” and “assessment” do not include screening for rape, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, or trading sex for drugs.
Neither domestic violence workers, substance abuse counselors, nor police are trained to deal with prostitution. They usually interact with the victim on the level of her ‘crimes’; the system and any resources available to help and protect women often serve to revictimize her and send her back to her pimp.
Women leaving the sex trade deserve all the support and intervention available to ‘traditionally’ battered women, but are usually ineligible for domestic violence services. The isolation that is known to all domestic violence survivors is also known by prostitutes, and prostitutes have the additional stigma unique to sex workers. Two years of intensive, compassionate intervention is what ‘recovery’ from sex work takes, though there are few resources available.
The risk/reward ratio is higher for pimping than it is for drug dealing.
Pimps use verbal and emotional abuse in addition to physical beatings, threats, and drug addiction to bond prostitutes to them, and it seems to be a potent mix. Most victims will not testify against their pimp. Many come to see their pimp as their only source of protection, affection, and safety.
Pimps have a strong emotional hold over young women they sexually exploit, which makes it difficult to build a legal case against them. A 17-year-old who was sold by a pimp on the street, refused to testify against him and visits him in prison. Even teenagers covered with bruises and cigarette burns remain loyal to pimps. A typical pimp has six girls and refers to them as “family.” The girls are instructed to call the pimp “Daddy.” Each girl earns approximately $500 per night for the pimp. Although selling a child for sex is a felony that carries a maximum jail term of 15 years, that sentence is never imposed. (Laura Italiano, “Teen girls give pimps easy payday: ‘Daddies profit from lax laws, hookers’ devotion,” New York Post, 23 February 1998)
It’s estimated that one third of American children are abused in their home of origin. Incest, physical, and emotional abuse are the only real precusor to prostitution. Most prostitutes are vicitimized hundreds of times, but were first made victims in their own bedrooms.