Special report: Controlled and abused, teens exploited in prostitution trade can’t get out
First in a series
At the age of 15, “Maria” was a Seattle teenager estranged from her family. She had gotten pregnant and had a child, and was kicked out of the house. She went to live with the baby’s father for a while, but that didn’t work out, either, and she became effectively homeless.
A few months later, she met a man, Tracey James Barnes, who was three years older than she was, who became her boyfriend. Tracey bragged about being a pimp. He had lots of money, but she didn’t take him seriously. He was physically abusive, but she was used to that at home and from previous boyfriends. Maria left her son with the baby’s father, and went to Los Angeles with the new boyfriend. “I was really excited to go to Hollywood,” she said.
Soon, she was in a motel on Sunset Boulevard, and Tracey took her identification, and told her to go out to make some money or she’d be left there. He provided her with a short skirt and high heels. “It was terrifying,” she said. She was afraid of working as a prostitute, but, “I was more scared of disappointing him, and him period. He told me he knew where my son lived.”
Physical abuse was a regular part of her life, she explained. “The way you learn the rules, you mess up, and then you get your ass kicked.”
That night a client found her. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I told him I needed money for my babysitter. We ate dinner, walked in the park. It was like an actual date. He must have thought I was the weirdest prostitute ever.” They did not actually engage in sex.
Seattle Police estimate that there are between 800 and 1,000 girls like Maria who got tricked into a life of prostitution, and cannot get out. That’s because they’re being forced to work by pimps who control them with violence and because they don’t have any home to go back to. A prostitution sweep at the beginning of November recovered 23 girls under the age of 18 in King and Pierce counties.
“These kids are victims. This is 21st century slavery,” said Ernie Allen (pictured at left), president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who estimated that 100,000 children a year nationwide are caught up in prostitution, 60 percent of whom are runaways, “thrown aways” or children rejected by their families, or homeless. He also cited data saying that one-third of prostitutes working streets are under 18.
Maria is now 37 and works for YouthCare, a Seattle non-profit organization, where she works specifically with commercially sexually exploited children. When the children got brought in during the prostitution sweep on the weekend of Nov. 5 through Nov. 8, Maria interviewed them and offered options for programs that can help them get out of prostitution and away from their pimps. As a survivor herself, she offers her own experiences to relate to girls who are often combative.
Maria agreed to speak with the PostGlobe under the condition that a pseudonym be used in this story because her not all of her new acquaintances know of her past. She did allow her work with YouthCare to be described fully because her co-workers are already aware of her background.
Back when Maria was a teenager and being initiated into the life of prostitution, her first “real night,” as she explained it, was in San Diego. She got drunk first, and went out and worked. For $50, she performed oral sex on a man in a car. She explained that she felt a mental boost when she made money. “You think the customer’s stupid. You feel closer to getting back to the hotel room. You have to make a certain amount of money to get back,” she said. At that time, the amount was $500.
“You were expected to ‘break yourself,’ give him the money, and you can go take a shower,” she said. Some days, she could make $1,000 to $1,500. She estimated she was making $200,000 a year, all of it going to her pimp, Tracey.
Tracey took her on the “circuit,” a series of cities in the West that pimps and prostitutes rotate through, leaving whenever law enforcement efforts were stepped up.
Maria stayed with Tracey for another seven years. There were three other girls he controlled. Maria says that Tracey was “Gorilla pimp,” meaning that he used a lot of violence on the girls.
“To punish you, he’d make you take off all your clothes,” Maria says, “and beat you in front of other girls.”
Cut off from friends and family, she did not see any way she could leave. She remembers two experiences when she did have contact with law enforcement and with a hospital, but they didn’t provide opportunities to get out of the life. Rather, they furthered her feelings of dehumanization.
In San Diego, a man solicited her for sex on the street. He was driving a van. Prostitutes tell each other to stay away from clients in vans, but Maria had serviced him before, and thought that she could trust him. In the back of the van, he held her down and used a stun gun on her several times and hit her with a baseball bat.
The stun gun wasn’t knocking her out completely.
“I wanted to go to sleep, but I knew I had to stay awake, or I’d be found dead. I was scratching him to get his DNA under my nails,” Maria said.
“I know what it feels like to have your last thoughts.”
Eventually, she was able to escape him, and jumped out of the van. The man started driving away. She was left in the middle of the street, screaming, with no one to help. She walked to the nearest business, an auto repair place, and the mechanic called 911.
“All the police had to say is, ‘What kind of drugs are you on?’ I wasn’t on drugs,” she said. They took her to the hospital, still in a state of panic. “I was totally freaked out. I thought, ‘this guy’s going to come back and kill me.’”
During her treatment, she was given an X-ray. In the X-ray room, the two male technicians molested her. “They were young guys, laughing and saying I was a prostitute. I just laid there and cried,” Maria recalled. She didn’t complain about the assault by the technicians, not expecting anyone to believe her because she was involved in prostitution.
She gave a description of the van and of the man who assaulted her to the police, but the police never called her back to follow up. She doesn’t know anything more about him, but wonders if he was a serial killer who didn’t have his methods refined well enough.
Another experience she had was in Arizona, where a man picked her up, and they agreed on a price for sex.
“He pulled out a bat, told me he was police, and that I was under arrest,” she said. “He handcuffed me, and had me sit in the front seat. He talked about ‘making a deal,’ and I said, ‘No, just take me to jail.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ He blindfolded me, and told me he was going to take me to a safe house to get me away from my pimp.
“Handcuffed and blindfolded, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to die.’ He took me to a house somewhere, and in the living room, he took the $900 I was carrying, forced me to give him a blowjob with no condom, and told me I’d better get out of town.” The man drove her back to the area where she’d been picked up, and let her out. Her pimp, Tracey, didn’t believe the story, but understood that they needed to leave town.
The next day, Maria went out of the hotel room and was arrested within five minutes, which made her believe that the man from the previous night was actually a cop. “I was taken to jail, never allowed to make a phone call, never allowed to see a judge, and for 90 days. They let me out in the middle of the desert at 2:30 a.m.” She and Tracey left and never went back.
If something like that happened to her today, she would complain about that kind of treatment, but back then, she didn’t. “When you’re in that kind of a position, you don’t think anybody’s going to believe you.”
After seven years with Tracey, he let Maria go, saying that she was too experienced to continue as his girl. They stayed friends, though. “He was like a god to me. He brainwashed me. To this day, I protect him. They call it the Stockholm Syndrome,” she said.
Tracey James Barnes was later convicted of sex trafficking crimes in federal court in Florida. The charges involved other girls he pimped. He was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and died in federal prison in Louisiana in 2007.
Maria continued working as a prostitute for another seven or eight years, first as an escort – setting up meetings with customers by phone – and later as a dancer at Rick’s strip club on Lake City Way in Seattle, an establishment later shut down as part of a federal racketeering prosecution.
As she neared the end of telling her story to a Seattle PostGlobe reporter a few weeks ago, her tone warmed when she talked about working for Frank Colacurcio Sr., the now-late owner of Rick’s. “He loved us. Some days when business was slow, he’d come through and give us each $40,” she said. “He wasn’t a pimp. He wasn’t saying, ‘Go, make money!’”
Maria said the setup at Rick’s was that women who wanted to dance would pay $150 per day to dance at the club, and customers would pay them with tips, both for dancing, but mostly for performing sex acts on the side, some days making $1,500 in a day. “You make more money in a strip club, because they think you’re higher class,” she said.
As she got toward the age of 30, she got into an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and there also started dealing with her anxiety problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She also started attending church, and told a woman there her entire story of what had happened to her. She got sober, and exited the life of prostitution.
Now she uses her experiences to help teenagers who are being exploited. Melinda Giovengo (pictured at left), executive director of YouthCare, said that having Maria there can provide credibility in dealing with girls who don’t believe anyone can relate to them.
“It’s really important to having someone who has an empathetic voice, who can help them get out of this awful hole,” Giovengo said.
Giovengo said that it helps to have Maria’s eyes at the drop-in center that YouthCare runs, the Orion Center. The drop-in center is open to any teenager who wants to visit, so it is possible for pimps to get in, but Maria often spots warning signs. “She can say that this person is grooming, and this person is recruiting. She’s a person who can say, ‘This is not okay,’” Giovengo said.
Maria also speaks at two classes for adults involved in prostitution. At Seattle’s “John School,” the class for the men who get arrested for soliciting sex, she tells her story, and she tries to humanize these girls. She tries to make the men understand how pimps work. Some of them thank her for talking, she said. At the class for adult women who are selling sex, she approaches being in a life of prostitution as being in a state of addiction, and going through the stages of change.
Terri Kimball, director of the city’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Office, said that having a survivor like Maria help run the “John School” class provides a direct connection between the men’s actions and their reasons for being in the school. “At first they see her as the administrator, and then she stands up and says, ‘I’m not just running the class, I was also a sex worker,’” Kimball said.
Maria relates one time when she was able to use her experience as a survivor to help a girl at the Orion Center. The girl was “pretty entrenched,” she said, thought she was in love with a guy, but this man was a pimp, forcing her to sell sex for a year and a half. Just like a domestic violence victim, this girl was keeping it secret.
“She wasn’t telling people why she was getting these bruises, but she thought she could tell me,” Maria remembered. Talking it over with Maria helped the girl build her self-esteem so she could believe that she deserved someone who didn’t make her sell herself and didn’t beat her. “When she figured that out, her love turned to anger, and that’s when she left.”
That girl later got a job as a nanny, and a job at Nordstrom, got out of the life of prostitution, and never went back.
The version of love that girls suffer from when they’re being exploited by pimps is that they’re looking for someone who pays a lot of attention to them, someone who is cool, someone who has a lot of nice things, and is the “opposite of a trick,” Maria said.
A trick, or a customer, Maria explained, is held in low regard by the girl because he can be manipulated out of his money. “The opposite of that is guys who are hard, they’re in the game, you can’t play games with their heads. You can’t get away with anything with these guys,” she said of the pimps.
Her hope is that education can break through the myths of what it means to be sexy.
“I hope that girls are not feeling like the only thing that’s good for them is that they’re sexy and they can wear little clothes and show their body,” she said. “I think self-esteem is a huge issue with our youth today because they have so much to live up to.”
Maria said that even though she left the sex trade life in 2002, she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and has a hard time finding a counselor who can relate to her experiences. “Every psychiatrist I’ve called has said, ‘I’ve never worked with anyone who’s been in the sex industry,” Maria said. There are hundreds of thousands of sex workers in the United States, but apparently not many of them are reaching for help.
“I don’t think that there’s many of us that make it out. There’s probably not a big need. They don’t get that phone call very often,” Maria said, adding, “It’s a hidden world, and it’s an ugly world, and if it’s put out in the light, everyone will see the ugliness and the pain, and maybe there will be more people willing to help.”
This series is being made possible by your donations via Spot.us and directly to PostGlobe, which receives no grants nor government money and relies on tax-deductible donations. Photo sources: Ernie Allen, California map (from Wikimedia Commons), Melinda Giovengo, Orion Center.
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Special report: Controlled and abused teens exploited in prostitution trade can’t get out
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