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Vanity Fair: The Sex Trafficking of American Girls

By Erica C. Barnett May 30, 2011

Vanity Fair has a must-read online-only story about the sex trafficking of girls---an epic piece that puts to rest the notion that most prostitutes are free agents who entered the profession of their own accord.

The numbers are disturbing enough: According to stats cited in the story, an estimated 300,000 young American girls are currently working as prostitutes, and the average age they enter "the life" is now 13. Between 75 and 80 percent of all prostituted women are not acting of their own free will.

But the Vanity Fair piece, by reporter Amy Fine Collins, gives those troubling statistics a human face, tracing a massive sting operation based in Hartford, Connecticut, which led to the arrests of two area pimps who had enslaved countless numbers of local girls, by beating them, injecting them with heroin, and threatening to kill them if they left.
“At first,” Gwen recounted, “[things] were fine, and then, all of a sudden, it was not fine.” After the girls returned to Connecticut, Forbes took them to a Holiday Inn in affluent West Hartford, where there was a man waiting to have sex with them, Alicia later testified. “Brian brought us upstairs,” Alicia recalled. “We did what the guy asked. He asked for us to fool around together and then have intercourse with him.… I was nervous … disgusted … confused.” Forbes pocketed the cash paid up front by the john. “We never got any money from Brian or from any of the calls,” Gwen said. Alicia begged Forbes to take her home. He vowed they would return “that Monday,” she remembered. When he failed to keep his word, Alicia protested—and Forbes retaliated, she later recounted in court, by “forcing himself” on her. To “break down” the girls further, Forbes began to withhold heroin from them for a few days, “and still have us do the work sick, which caused even more problems because we can’t operate,” Alicia said. During the enforced withdrawal, Alicia explained, “you can’t move. You’re cramped. You shake. You don’t want to shower. You don’t want to be touched.” Gwen added, “You can’t hold your bowel movements or anything.” Caroline, the 4-H girl, whom Forbes had preyed upon several years earlier, when she was 17, notes, “Customers like it if you’re high, because they can take advantage of you.”

The first time Gwen and Alicia tried to leave Forbes’s apartment on their own, their keeper tracked them right down. (“Pimps always know everything,” says Cheryl, a gems girl.) Forbes herded them back to their bedroom, Gwen testified, and this time padlocked them in and, Alicia added, nailed the window shut. ... In addition to forcing the women to be available for sex with paying men in the padlocked room “24-7”—a term that Dr. Sharon Cooper says originates directly from “the game”—Forbes would force himself on her whenever and however he wanted, Alicia testified. “If I tried to refuse,” she said, “he would grab my throat and hold me down until he was able to get inside me.” Says Caroline, “Most rape victims get it once—for us, it happens millions and millions of times.” ...

At one point another pimp showed up, pretending to be a client, and kidnapped the two girls. He hauled them up to Boston, where they were cooped up in a shack. Though there is a system for acquiring girls from one another, known as “serving,” pimps often break their own rules and steal “bitches” outright. Gwen and Alicia were especially coveted because of their skin color. In a rigid hierarchy that clinical psychologist Melissa Farley—founder of Prostitution Research & Education, a San Francisco–based think tank—calls “eroticized racism,” the “snow bunnies” (white girls) outclass the “ducks” (black girls). “Maybe one out of 50 callers would request a black or Latina,” says Caroline. “Most asked for ‘the girl next door’—a blonde, thin teenager with big breasts. That’s candy to ants.”

The story has a happy ending---sort of. Both girls are with their families now and doing fine, and their former pimps received long sentences. The problem is that the demand for trafficked young girls hasn't abated---if anything, it's expanded, from the back pages of alt-weekly papers to forums like Village Voice Media's backpage.com and escort "ratings" sites.

One model that has been successful at reducing trafficking, Mills writes, can be found in Sweden, where johns are punished by up to six months’ imprisonment, traffickers receive two to 10 years in jail, and prostitutes are offered medical care, education, and housing. "As a result, prostitution has been reduced by 50 percent in Sweden, and the purchase of sex, which is understood to be a human-rights abuse, has decreased by 75 percent. In contrast, Europol studies show, nations such as Holland and Australia, where prostitution has been legalized, have become lucrative, low-risk magnets for international sex-slave drivers and organized crime."

Meanwhile, here in the US,
hot-pink patent-leather stiletto crib shoes for baby girls, aged zero to six months, and Abercrombie & Fitch push-up padded bikinis for eight-year-olds have been all the rage in downward-deviant fashion, prostitution is a mainstay of Las Vegas’s economy, and Ice-T has produced a documentary on the life of Iceberg Slim, who, in his dotage, expressed remorse in Pimp for his wasted youth and his squandered fortune, but never for any of the girls he thrashed into red jelly with his homemade wire whip. Slim did speculate, however, that his cruelty toward women arose from his “unconscious hatred” for his mother. “It’s disgusting,” (former teenage prostitute) Natalie says. “The pimp is winning out.”
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