Jasmine Caldwell was 14 and selling sex on the streets when an opportunity arose to escape her pimp: an undercover policeman picked her up.
The cop could have rescued her from the pimp, who ran a string of 13 girls and took every cent they earned. If the cop had taken Jasmine to a shelter, she could have resumed her education and tried to put her life back in order.
Instead, the policeman showed her his handcuffs and threatened to send her to prison. Terrified, she cried and pleaded not to be jailed. Then, she said, he offered to release her in exchange for sex.
Afterward, the policeman returned her to the street. Then her pimp beat her up for failing to collect any money.
“That happens a lot,” said Jasmine, who is now 21. “The cops sometimes just want to blackmail you into having sex.”
I’ve often reported on sex trafficking in other countries, and that has made me curious about the situation here in the United States. Prostitution in America isn’t as brutal as it is in, say, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia and Malaysia (where young girls are routinely kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by brothel owners, occasionally even killed). But the scene on American streets is still appalling — and it continues largely because neither the authorities nor society as a whole show much interest in 14-year-old girls pimped on the streets.
Americans tend to think of forced prostitution as the plight of Mexican or Asian women trafficked into the United States and locked up in brothels. Such trafficking is indeed a problem, but the far greater scandal and the worst violence involves American teenage girls.
If a middle-class white girl goes missing, radio stations broadcast amber alerts, and cable TV fills the air with “missing beauty” updates. But 13-year-old black or Latina girls from poor neighborhoods vanish all the time, and the pimps are among the few people who show any interest.
These domestic girls are often runaways or those called “throwaways” by social workers: teenagers who fight with their parents and are then kicked out of the home. These girls tend to be much younger than the women trafficked from abroad and, as best I can tell, are more likely to be controlled by force.
Pimps are not the business partners they purport to be. They typically take every penny the girls earn. They work the girls seven nights a week. They sometimes tattoo their girls the way ranchers brand their cattle, and they back up their business model with fists and threats.
“If you don’t earn enough money, you get beat,” said Jasmine, an African-American who has turned her life around with the help of Covenant House, an organization that works with children on the street. “If you say something you’re not supposed to, you get beat. If you stay too long with a customer, you get beat. And if you try to leave the pimp, you get beat.”
The business model of pimping is remarkably similar whether in Atlanta or Calcutta: take vulnerable, disposable girls whom nobody cares about, use a mix of “friendship,” humiliation, beatings, narcotics and threats to break the girls and induce 100 percent compliance, and then rent out their body parts.
It’s not solely violence that keeps the girls working for their pimps. Jasmine fled an abusive home at age 13, and she said she — like most girls — stayed with the pimp mostly because of his emotional manipulation. “I thought he loved me, so I wanted to be around him,” she said.
That’s common. Girls who are starved of self-esteem finally meet a man who showers them with gifts, drugs and dollops of affection. That, and a lack of alternatives, keeps them working for him — and if that isn’t enough, he shoves a gun in the girl’s mouth and threatens to kill her.
Solutions are complicated and involve broader efforts to overcome urban poverty, including improving schools and attempting to shore up the family structure. But a first step is to stop treating these teenagers as criminals and focusing instead on arresting the pimps and the customers — and the corrupt cops.
“The problem isn’t the girls in the streets; it’s the men in the pews,” notes Stephanie Davis, who has worked with Mayor Shirley Franklin to help coordinate a campaign to get teenage prostitutes off the streets.
Two amiable teenage prostitutes, working without a pimp for the “fast money,” told me that there will always be women and girls selling sex voluntarily. They’re probably right. But we can significantly reduce the number of 14-year-old girls who are terrorized by pimps and raped by many men seven nights a week. That’s doable, if it’s a national priority, if we’re willing to create the equivalent of a nationwide amber alert.
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF (NYT;May 7, 2009)
Some comments from Editors’ Selections NYTimes, than aim to highlight the most interesting and thoughtful comments that represent a range of views.
I live in New Zealand where prostitution is legal. This has helped sex workers in many ways although problems remain. It’s legalization hasn’t started NZ down any sort of moral slippery slope and in fact (as an American expat) I find my new homeland to be a much more moral place than the US (although again certainly not perfect).
— David, Rotorua, New Zealand
How come no one ever writes about young teenage boys ‘on the street’?…..it’s just as much a problem in the the USA, as it is in Thailand, or other exotic sex tourism locations that do get written about.
— Tim Hughes, Amesbury,England,UK
Many state have laws allowing newborns to be abandoned at hospitals to prevent them from being discarded into dumpsters. These children are placed in protective custody by the state. How about making similar laws to protect girls who are in forced prostitution? They would just need to show up at any emergency room to escape their abuse. I have never heard of any state allowing children 13 yrs old to consent to sex. The pimps, johns and corrupt police officers need to be prosecuted as high-level sex offenders. It is immoral to not offer strong protection and care to these children.
— Minta Keyes, Tucson, AZ
My parents through me out of the house after failing freshman year of college 43 years ago- a teen as an adult I had no idea what to do. Raped, pregnant they wouldn’t let me back. But as others say – the goverment can help but also the biggest help is good people – not just nonprofit charities – just people – friends to drive you to the hospital, a man who hires and trains you for a small job, neighbors to babysit…allows you to move on to a better life. So now I try to help others since I got into a good life – after many years.
— Karenna, Witherbee, NE
Nice sentiment, but don’t the thousands of men who USE prostitutes also share some blame? Would you hang out and play poker with a guy who cheats at cards? Why is it so easy to hang out with guys who use teenage girls for sex? Only men can change this horrific cultural phenomena by ostracizing men who think a few moments or evening with a prostitute is acceptable entertainment. Why don’t you write that column Mr. Kristoff? Are you willing to point out that the customer is a MAJOR abuser too? If men recognized that paying for sex is a morally depraved act and called each other on it, the pimps, cops, social workers, etc. would be out of a job.
— Sandy McIntire, Mount Hope, WV
In 2003 I went to Atlanta representing the Department of Justice to a meeting about the problem of juvenile prostitution. In a room were school officials, the police, child welfare representatives, a judge from the juvenile court and several other people from other agencies. All of these agencies could not figure out why children “disappeared” from the system. The schools could not track dropouts, the police laughed at the 15 year old on the street with her pimp leering over the door of the car, the child welfare people whined about the case loads and the judge passed stern judgement on the children who came before her court while the child welfare agency released the children into the tendure care of their pimps. I pointed out repeatedly to OJJDP and the people that the view was agency centered rather than child centered. I also pointed out that many european countries are now bar coding children to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks. No, their systems are not perfect but they sure seem superior to the period “crises” which we seem very adept and rediscovering. See Every Child Matters in the United Kingdom. Last year we discovered 4 children who had been murdered in Washington DC and discovered in a freezer. That was the ultimate example of children falling through the cracks. We can track stolen cars but not missing children in those cracks.
Michael Wiatrowski, Ph.D.
Thank you for showing that forced child sex slavery happens not just across the globe but also across the street.
You wrote: “Prostitution in America isn’t as brutal as it is in, say, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Cambodia and Malaysia (where young girls are routinely kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by brothel owners, occasionally even killed).”
Sadly, prostitution here IS as brutal. In this country–in my own state and in yours–young girls ARE routinely kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured by brothel owners. And yes occasionally even killed. These are US citizens as well as internationals. This brutal treatment is not an exception or occasional rare case, but a regular part of child prostitution in the US. How else would the brothel owners control them?
My anti-trafficking work has taken me to 40+ countries including many of the ones you mentioned. My organization is a member of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and sadly we see the same brutal treatment that happens in other countries happening right in our backyard.
Thank you again for continuing to shine light on the darkness of child sex slavery. We appreciate your work very much.