Seattle groups working to end the ‘supply and demand’ of youth prostitution
To effectively fight the prostitution of children, it helps to look at the chronic problem in terms of supply and demand.
“You will never bring down this business on the victim’s side. The driver is on the clients’ side,” said Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of the Atlanta non-profit organization A Future. Not a Past, dedicated to stopping the prostitution of children.
McCullough was one of about 80 service providers from non-profit, government and law enforcement agencies who gathered at Seattle City Hall Tuesday to focus on the problem. Few cities have a coordinated effort to help prostituted youth, and Seattle is now getting serious about tackling the problem.
The business is much bigger than many people think. McCullough shared the results of research in Georgia on the shadowy problem: 7,200 men a month in Georgia purchase sex with a female under 18 years old, and more than 400 girls are exploited each month. By 2013, that number could grow to 1,500.
Researchers counted females who appeared to be underage in high-prostitution areas, and they counted craigslist “erotic services” ads that appeared to be advertising the services of young girls. McCullough said she believes that the anonymity of the Internet is causing the overall size of the market for prostitutes to grow.
Atlanta-area charities have set up several safe houses where girls can go to help get out of “the life.” The safe houses offer intensive services to help the girls recover, but the trauma that they’ve suffered makes the work extremely difficult.
“These are probably the most challenging group of victims. They’ve got an attitude a mile wide, a mile thick,” McCullough said.
In Seattle, one researcher estimates there are 250 children, ranging from 14 to 17 years old, who are being exploited by pimps.
Seattle-based cultural anthropologist Debra Boyer, who wrote the 2008 report “Who Pays the Price? Assessment of Youth Involvement in Prostitution in Seattle,” gathered her statistics by interviewing caseworkers and law enforcement personnel about the children they served or arrested.
The problem of commercially sexually exploited children has been growing here. Seattle Police Lt. Eric Sano, who also attended the forum, said over the past three to five years, youth gangs have started to move from selling illegal drugs and guns to recruiting and controlling young girls for prostitution.
One contradiction between treating prostitution as a human-services problem versus a law-enforcement problem is that people under the age of 18 cannot consent to have to sex, but they can be arrested for prostitution. Several audience members said exploited youth should be treated as victims, not criminals. They argued that prostitution should be de-criminalized for people under 18, and that penalties for buyers and pimps of child sex should be increased.
Seattle Police Sgt. Ryan Long said that although officers understand those being prostituted are victims, they can’t be legally detained without being arrested. “I would be open to decriminalization of youth prostitution if we were given another tool to detain the child and separate them from the exploiter,” he said.
Joanna Ward, a detention case manager with YouthCare, a Seattle non-profit serving homeless and endangered youth, said another challenge in determining the line between victim and perpetrator is that often pimps will use one of their most loyal girls to recruit and control other girls.
McCullough said to help girls who are under the control of a pimp – and virtually all of them are recruited and controlled by pimps – it’s important to provide a safe house away from the places where they’ve been exploited. “They’ve got a heavy Stockholm syndrome trauma bond,” she said.
These facilities are expensive and time-consuming to run, but necessary, she said. The girls can’t be put in to foster care because pimps can find them and take them back, and if they live with general-population youth, they’ll be stigmatized for their experiences.
The recovery process is long and difficult, McCullough said. The girls resist efforts to get them to talk about what happened, but often the presence of others who have had the same experience will get them to open up. “At first they will minimize what happened, but girls who are further along in treatment will confront others for their bullshit, and say, ‘You know yourself it didn’t happen that way,’” McCullough explained.
This year, YouthCare opened a six-bed shelter for commercially sexually exploited children at an undisclosed Seattle-area location. YouthCare Executive Director Melinda Giovengo said the facility is a $1.2 million, two-year pilot project that provides services for trauma, drug and alcohol recovery. She hopes the project can serve 20 people a year.
Giovengo also hopes the energy from Tuesday’s forum can be carried into a public education campaign. “The biggest problem that we face is that the community doesn’t understand that this happens, that there are children tucked away in motel rooms with grown men. This could happen to anyone’s child.”
People need to understand that buyers of sex with prostituted children are more numerous than many think. “This is not just the scumbag with too many tattoos and piercings – it’s the businessman from Bellevue, “ said Giovengo. “We need to educate people that this is not a victimless crime.”
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