Sex Trade Lures Kids From Burbs

Jennifer is just over five feet tall. A bit unsteady on her white platform shoes, she stands up straight so the men gawking from their cars in this alley can get a good look at her.

Her face is that of an adolescent - young, round, unmarked by abuse. Her long maple-hued hair is held back by a white band that at a glance lends an angelic halo. She wears skin-tight white leotards and a white pullover.

Jennifer is 14 years old. She began selling her body to the men prowling this area a year ago, after her 13th birthday.

She is younger than many here, which makes Jennifer a prized commodity on Vancouver's "kiddie stroll," a street in the warehouse district where men who want sex with young girls know they can find them. For those wanting young boys, "boys' town" is nearby.

"I usually just do two tricks a day," she tells a reporter who has stopped to talk with her. "I could make more money. But I'm really just working to buy what my parents can't pay for."

Why this work? Couldn't she be flipping burgers at McDonald's?

"Let's just say I would rather get paid for sex than be forced to do it for free anyway," she says. And then in just a few minutes, her tale of being sexually abused spills out. She was molested by a baby sitter when she was four, raped at age 12 by a 17-year-old boy she knew. She was put in a Calgary foster home she hated, then ran back to her Vancouver family.

Working on the same corner with Jennifer is her guardian angel, Nicky. An 18-year-old string-bean of a girl with reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair, Nicky wears John Lennon-style dark glasses, short shorts, a pullover, a black cap - and platform shoes.

Nicky doesn't agree with Jennifer's decision to be a prostitute. But she understands it. She, too, was once young and sexually abused at home. She also hit the streets believing it would give her independence and power. Nicky's illusion was broken after a pimp beat her senseless at age 15. She was then taken from Calgary to Seattle and traded among at least a half-dozen pimps thereafter. Now too wise to the pimp's game to be controlled by them, the only reason she prostitutes herself, she says, is to earn money to feed her baby.

"I tell her [Jennifer] she shouldn't be out here," Nicky says. "But she's like me when I was young. I didn't know anything then either. I thought this was the only way I could make it. I try to keep the pimps away from her every day. I tell them she works for me. But I worry about her."

At this moment, a gold Mercedes swings around the corner, an olive-complexioned man in sun glasses grinning at the wheel. Cruising by for perhaps the 10th time, he again yells something.

"Ugh, I hate that guy," Jennifer says disgustedly. She resumes talking, saying she will be in the ninth grade this fall - but will still be engaged in prostitution after school and on weekends.

While US and Canadian lawmakers fulminate against "child sex tours" to places like Bangkok, few acknowledge the growing number of children bought, sold, and recruited into prostitution daily in cities across North America. Today in the US and Canada there are between 100,000 and 300,000 children under age 18 trapped in prostitution, researchers say. The average age of entry into prostitution is 14 years old. The vast majority of adult prostitutes say they entered prostitution before age 18.

Like children in Thailand, India, and elsewhere, most North American children enter prostitution not because they "choose" to, but because adults - pimps and customers - are expert at identifying and exploiting those that are vulnerable, child advocates say. Many children are running from sexual abuse at home, but end up finding more of it than they ever imagined on the streets.

The pimp's gold mine is more than 500,000 vulnerable children who run away or are "thrown away" (shut out of their homes) annually in the US, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va.

Not all "street" children enter prostitution. The key factor that determines who will and who won't is sexual abuse at home. More than 80 percent of children who do enter the sex trade say they were sexually or physically abused at home.

Within 48 hours of hitting the streets, a juvenile will be approached with an offer of money, food, or shelter in exchange for sex. Many will rationalize this "survival sex." Often they are told this "work" will earn them big money and empower them. After all, they are told by pimps, "only a fool does it for free. And you were doing it at home for nothing."

Young people are in hot demand in North America's sex industry - among pornographers, escort services, massage parlors, and strip clubs. Sex procurers spot kids, recruit them, then supply these outlets first - and as a last resort market the girls directly on the street.

But adolescents and children are usually kept in hotel rooms - out of view of police. Or they are given electronic pagers so they can be called for a paying "date." No matter the outlet, the demand in North America is for younger and younger girls and boys.

"I have guys all the time asking me if I can find them somebody younger," says Nicky. Jennifer nods her head in agreement.

John Turvey runs Vancouver's Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, one of only a few groups in the city working with children caught in prostitution. He says Canadians and Americans should quit wagging fingers at Asia and instead take a hard look at the fast-growing business of renting children for sex in their own North American backyard.

Vancouver, for instance, is a strikingly beautiful city. But it has also gained an ugly reputation - along with Honolulu, Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, and Washington - as a city where it is easy to find a child for sex. In this city of 1.6 million people, there are about 2,000 women in prostitution, 500 of them 17 years and under, child advocates say.

"Young children are in growing demand among 'johns,' guys who would never consider themselves pedophiles," Mr. Turvey says. "They cruise along the 'kiddie strolls' in their minivans with the child-safety seats still attached ... Their appetite for kids has created this market."

Vancouver began responding to the problem in late 1994 with a $1.5 million plan to open safe houses and outreach programs. More money flowed in March after an embarrassing report by Turvey's organization that cited little progress, which appeared just prior to the provincial election. But since then few funds have trickled down, workers say.

BUT if Vancouver has not yet fully come to grips with its problem, neither have American cities, places with squeaky-clean reputations like Wichita, Kan., Oklahoma City, or Minneapolis, says Frank Barnaba, director of the Paul & Lisa Program, an organization that tries to rescue children from prostitution in New York City.

"What's happening in America is so different from the way it used to be," says Mr. Barnaba. "Pimps used to recruit in the city. But they discovered it's much easier to work the burbs. The kids are naive, materialistic, and vulnerable to the pimp's message. It's the strangest thing I've ever seen."

Money is the driving force. Young girls deliver a dollar premium that older women do not. A 14-year-old girl can make $500 or more a night for a pimp. Or he may sell her for $10,000 or more to another pimp. With the increased demand, sex procurers have expanded their hunt for recruits in the suburbs.

In five recent cases, Barnaba says, kids told him they were recruited in suburban areas that included a clothing store in Cleveland, a tattoo parlor in Minnesota, body-piercing salons in Poughkeepsie and Westchester County, N.Y., and a movie theater on Long Island, N.Y.

"A lot of the time naive suburban girls come to the city to hang out and have fun, and within six months they're on the streets prostituting - depending on how much time it takes to brainwash them," says Ericka Moses, who counsels teens at PRIDE, a Minneapolis group trying to help girls and women escape prostitution.

Camille, a former prostitute who works for a group called WHISPER, seeks out young prostitutes on the streets of Minneapolis. On a bright Monday afternoon, she is walking along East Lake Street - which both she and police agree is a dangerous thing to do no matter what the time of day.

Crack rules around here - and the street corners on East Lake on any Saturday night teem with amateur pimps and the girls and women they prostitute.

On this afternoon, however, Camille is handing out condoms like candy - trying to inhibit the spread of AIDS by promoting "safe sex" - while at the same time trying to earn the trust of the working girls.

She approaches a sleepy-eyed girl, 17 years old, sitting on a brick wall. "Has he been beating you?" she asks the girl. There is a white substance on her cheek. The girl says "no."

"Why don't you stop working for a while and go get something to eat," Camille says hopefully. "Here, at least have some of these" - handing over more condoms. She plows on, moving resolutely west on East Lake Street.

Along the street, a gentleman who identifies himself only as "Charlie" sits on a bicycle chewing a toothpick. He has lived around here for years and knows youth prostitution is a booming business these days.

"It's worse now because there's so much more [economic] pressure. It starts with the papa and he puts pressure on the mama, and she puts pressure on the kids. Pretty soon one of them decides he's going to do his own thing."

A roofer, Charlie and his wife have four children. His youngest is 13. He and his wife try to educate and warn her.

"There are a lot of young girls who are vulnerable," he says. "A lot of brothers out here are dog [mean]. They can see the vulnerable girls ... and they know what to say. They say, 'Hey sugar, how would you like to make some fast money?' And the girl says, 'Sure.' ... And pretty soon that's it."

"I talk to my baby girl, and my wife talks to her, and I think she understands," Charlie says. "Least I hope so."

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