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Internet, Too Few Services Make Child Sex Trafficking Tough to Combat

On Backpage.com, you can buy a lawn mower, a refrigerator or you can buy a young girl for sex. And this website is hardly the only one with barely disguised ads of sex for sale.

Aired 11/1/11 on KPBS News.

Technology, deficient laws and lack of shelters make it tough to eradicate the sexual exploitation of children for profit.

Screen grab taken from an internet site that advertises escort services in San Diego.
Enlarge this image

Above: Screen grab taken from an internet site that advertises escort services in San Diego.

“Literally, there are hundreds. Cityvibe.com. There’s Erotic City," said James Hunter, a detective with the San Diego Police Department. "There’s even websites that name themselves after Craig’s List, that name themselves Bitches of Craig’s List. We have located several underage women off of every single one of these websites.”

Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 American children are forced sex workers. Hunter said it’s not known how many children are in the San Diego region sold for sex by pimps. But he calls it a growing problem and one that is tough to combat because of the Internet. Pimps still make girls work the streets.

“When she receives a call off the Internet, then she will call her pimp. Her pimp will pick her up and he will take her to that John," Hunter said. "She will do that date. She will exit that and then he will drive her right back out to the street to continue to work until she meets her quota which could be anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a day.”

The earnings go straight to the pimps, many of whom are gang members. They not only view sex trafficking as a huge money maker but a low-risk crime.

“We have a law on the books for human trafficking which is unfortunately a weak law at this time," Hunter said. "It’s actually probation eligible so you can be a human trafficker and walk away without going to jail.”

Cultural glorification of pimping has also made the business mainstream in some circles.

“We have become as a culture very hyper-sexualized," said Deputy District Attorney Gretchen.

San Diego Police Detective James Hunter talks about child sex trafficking on KPBS Evening Edition on October 31, 2011.
Enlarge this image

Above: San Diego Police Detective James Hunter talks about child sex trafficking on KPBS Evening Edition on October 31, 2011.

Broken Souls

Young girls are bought and sold daily for sex in San Diego County. Some are forced into the life. Others are coerced. The girls can make six-figure salaries for their pimps without ever seeing a penny of their earnings. San Diego is trying to cut demand by educating Johns about the perils of picking up prostitutes especially if they're underage.

Young girls are bought and sold daily for sex in San Diego County. Some are forced into the life. Others are coerced. The girls can make six-figure salaries for their pimps without ever seeing a penny of their earnings. San Diego is trying to cut demand by educating Johns about the perils of picking up prostitutes especially if they're underage.

"If you look at the music industry, rap industry, the standards of fashion…what is cool and what is not cool revolves around the debasement of our sexuality,” said Means.

Means said some teenage girls are easy prey for the pimps.

“To be a teenage girl already means to be vulnerable," Means said. " Girls want to be loved. They want to be thought of as pretty. They want to be popular. To be in a pimp’s car. To go through the neighborhood with him and to be known as his girls makes her feel like they’re something.”

But for many, the luster only lasts so long. Kim, not her real name, became a prostitute when she was 12 after she was gang raped. The work eventually filled her with shame.

“And I had never felt that way before," Kim said. "I don’t think a lot of girls do in the beginning but most of them end up on drugs or you end up drinking or you end up half crazy because you cannot sell your soul every single day and not pay a price for that.”

She left after someone passed along scripture.

“I remember just reading that and I like I didn’t want to be a harlot anymore," Kim said.

But leaving is daunting. Pimps beat the girls into such a deep submission that even if there are opportunities to escape, they don’t. Since most are school dropouts, they don’t have the skills to make it on their own. And there are few treatment centers to help them.

Generate Hope is only one of two shelters in the county that helps girls transition out of prostitution. They have just a dozen beds. Yet federal authorities rescued 30 girls in just one child sex trafficking investigation in Oceanside this year. Generate Hope Executive Director Susan Munsey said societal ignorance and denial are part of the problem.

“It’s a still a taboo subject," Munsey said. "I still get a lot of blank stares and shocked responses. People tend to look away and really not want to look at it.”

The men who pay these girls for sex run the gamut from doctors and lawyers to plumbers and undocumented workers. They come from all ethnicities and ages as Kim recalls.

“I had a regular who was 90 years old and on an oxygen tank," Kim said. "I think I was 16 maybe.”

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