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Demand Keeps Teen Sex Trafficking A Booming Business

Men attend

Photo by Amita Sharma

Above: Men attend "John School" at the City Heights police substation in San Diego.

The teenage sex trade thrives because of an abundance of consumers. Prosecutors are trying to cut demand by educating Johns.

To hear Joe tell it, he knew he shouldn't have but he succumbed to temptation and that led to trouble.

“It’s my first arrest and it was a sting operation. And I don’t wish this upon nobody," said Joe, which is not his real name. "But it happened, and they got me on recorder. So I can’t lie about the facts.”

Joe is one of 16 men who walked into a classroom at the City Heights police substation on a recent Monday evening. None wanted to be there. They sat with their arms folded. Many were angry or sheepish. The man in the front row, with a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his arm, looked embarrassed.

Moderator Alexis Dixon tried to ease the group into the four-hour evening.

“We’re really not here to tell you that you’re a bad person," Dixon said. "We are here to tell you that you did break the law.”

All of the men had been arrested for picking up prostitutes. Part of their punishment included mandatory attendance at John School. What the men learned next from a young girl on a video was that they may have engaged in something far worse than the age-old practice of two consenting adults exchanging cash for sex.

“For the guys who pick up prostitutes or are thinking about it, it’s a bad decision because you don’t know how old these girls are….You don’t know if they’re 12 or 13 or even 15," the girl said. "Most of them are not grownups. They’re not even legal yet or half mature. And it’s a crime. It’s rape.”

The girl herself was forced to work for a pimp at age 13.

“And about a year later when I was 14 turning 15, I went to Los Angeles to Sunset and I was picked up for prostitution and that was my rock bottom I guess," she said.

The girl spoke of being paid $300 for turning a trick and then turning the money over to her pimp. She described a life of girls getting raped, disappearances and murder.

“A close associate of mine that was also a prostitute…she was found dead, chopped up on somebody’s floor in Rancho Santa Fe," she said. " And she thought she was going out there to solicit sex."

Former prostitutes told how they eventually put their broken lives together. Social service workers discussed the perils of sexually transmitted diseases. Police officers described how Johns finance the lavish lifestyles of pimps. Mid-city resident Jim Herrera told the Johns he was disgusted over young girls in his neighborhood being propositioned.

“Any female alone is subject to being approached by a mam on the street...looking for prostitutes," Herrera said.

By the time John School ended, Joe said he was sickened.

“That was the first thing that hit my mind and you see girls out there and you’re thinking they’re at least 18 and when I heard the youngest was 12, I was astonished," Joe said. "I don’t want to see that for any of my nieces or any of my daughters. I’m bothered by it. ”

It’s not known what percentage of prostitutes in San Diego are underage. Pimps, the girls and Johns aren’t talking.

San Diego Deputy City Attorney Kristin Beattie said it’s not unusual for men to express shock at the girls’ age after John School.

“That’s a difficult question to answer whether they know or not," Beattie said. "It’s not something they would admit because it’s felonious behavior.”

Rudy, not his real name. is a correctional officer. He was arrested for soliciting a prostitute on El Cajon Boulevard.

“The first thing I thought about was my wife and then I thought about my my job," Rudy said. "And things just started spinning around. I was in there for 18 hours. The longest 18 hours of my life. Honestly, it was a life changing experience for me.”

He said he won't pick up a prostitute again.

Of the 800 people who have gone through John School in San Diego in the last 9 years, 2 percent have been re-arrested for soliciting prostitutes.


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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