From the Cradle to the Street

Girls as Young As 11 Are Selling Themselves in New York. Stopping Them May Be Difficult, But Helping Them is Almost Impossible.

So why are more girls choosing to sell their bodies at such a young age? All of the counselors, social workers, and officials interviewed for this article agree that the problem stems from poor self-esteem among girls raised in abusive or dysfunctional homes.

"They feel that prostitution is the best that life has to offer them, where they can make the best money," says Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Sex Crimes and Special Victims Bureau at the Brooklyn district attorney's office. "And by making money, they can obtain the items that they want at this time. That seems to be the overriding theme in speaking with these girls: that they don't deserve a better life."

"Snow," no longer turning tricks, says she got $80 from her first john: "Money is power. That was all I had at the time."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
"Snow," no longer turning tricks, says she got $80 from her first john: "Money is power. That was all I had at the time."

"Snow," now 19, started working as a dancer at two local clubs when she was 15. A stocky girl with curly brown hair, pale skin, and a warm smile, she chose her stage name because she was one of the few white girls working there. Between dance numbers, she would have sex with customers in the V.I.P. rooms. "I used to say, 'I'm hot like ice. I don't give blowjobs, I give snowjobs,' " she explains in a high-pitched voice with a trace of a Brooklyn accent.

Snow says she saw prostitution as a way to escape a difficult family life and assert her independence. "I just wanted to get money. I was tired of living, being kicked out of my house and being shipped off to shelters and group homes."

She fell into the business when she struck up a conversation at a Manhattan shelter one afternoon with two girls who persuaded her to leave with them. "They're like, 'There's this lady. She said I can dance for her and I'll get paid a lot of money,' " she recalls. "I was really down and ready to do anything, so I said, 'Well, it can't hurt.' And I gave it a shot."

The woman gave the girls clothes, and Snow donned a black negligee and high-heeled shoes. When she stepped onstage, Snow says, she didn't even know how to dance. The speakers blared Akinyele's "Put It in Your Mouth."

Her first john offered her $80, and she accepted without hesitation. "I felt strong," she says. "I didn't feel ashamed. Money is power. That was all I had at the time. The only thing that could have got me out of the whole situation I was in was to get independent, get money, get my own clothes."

Like Snow, Peaches, now 15, started working as a prostitute by stripping—but at the age of 11. Her course took her from sex clubs to the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Along the way, she was kidnapped, raped, and sodomized. She never hit the brakes. Last year, she finally crashed into the cops.

Peaches, a slightly plump girl with flawless skin and inquisitive eyes, was turning tricks along the subway tracks of East New York last August when a car pulled up. She went over and asked the driver if he wanted a date for 50 bucks. Within seconds, a police car pulled up, and she was arrested. The john was an undercover officer.

She lied about her age, telling the cops she was over 16. That enabled them to hold her until she was placed in Boys and Girls Town in the Bronx. Released in February, she moved in with a foster family in Queens.

On a winter evening in her new home, she tells of a childhood sent spiraling by the death of her mother. After running away from another foster placement, where she was verbally abused, Peaches stayed with a friend in Bedford-Stuyvesant and started partying. Although she was only 10, she drank heavily and smoked pot. During one of these parties, she met a 21-year-old man who said he was a pimp. "He told me you could make thousands of dollars a night dancing or just having sex," she says, her voice gentle, her demeanor reticent. "Well, it's money. I mean, hey, let's do it."

Soon she moved in with him, at first just laying low and learning street smarts from his other girls. "They taught me how to get a male to give you his money," Peaches says. "They taught me how to rob them if they was drunk. They taught me how to dance."

Five months later, her "daddy" took her to a strip club in East New York to work. She was so petrified, she got drunk before climbing onstage. A white guy in his thirties came up to her and asked her to go to the V.I.P. room, where they had sex. She blocked out all thoughts except one.

"I was trying to think of me being somewhere in a happy place, just not having to worry about no problems, no trouble," she says quietly. When it was over, "I went in the bathroom and I cried because I was like, I can't believe I'm doing this. But then I have to, because there's nobody else here that's going to take care of me. I got myself back up and I went back out there."

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