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.


For a girl without reliable elders, a pimp may be the most stable adult around. But in the last few years, the pimps seem to be getting younger too.

SLAVES OF NEW YORK

Among the most helpless girls in the sex trade are the illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the United States each year to work as prostitutes, but who largely remain unreported. According to a study last year by the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work, that number runs as high as 8500. Last month, New York police discovered two Mexican girls—one 17 and the other 19—who were forced into sexual slavery in Brooklyn by a 21-year-old man.

"I would just gauge from the numbers we've received of clients overall . . . that it's quite a serious problem here," says Christa Stewart, senior director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Safe Horizon, one of eight agencies nationwide funded by the government to work with trafficking victims; it's the only one in New York City.

Since January, Safe Horizon has handled 28 trafficking cases. Of those, nearly half involved forced prostitution and at least six of the victims were Mexican teens. One was just 15 years old. —A.L.L.

"You look at the old African American movies like The Macand Superfly, and you could see the pimp with the big Cadillac and the furs and all this," says George Santana, formerly of Safe Space, a nonprofit that works with street kids. "But now you talking about pimps that are [young] enough to be my son. I'm 41. They young pimps!"

He calls them "Metrocard pimps" because they're too young to afford cars.

Some believe a youthful pimp has an easier time recruiting teenage girls because they enjoy the attention and the company. Young men are also realizing that pimping is a more lucrative—and less risky—enterprise than selling drugs.

After a year dancing in clubs, Snow met a man she calls G., who was then 23, through one of her co-workers. She was 16. "He was just really understanding about my problems," she says. "He just had a lot of street knowledge, he made me grow harder inside. It made me feel more empowered."

A few weeks later, Snow moved to Brooklyn with G. He became her pimp. She was his only girl. Snow started working near the tracks in East New York in February 1999 and made about $200 a night. Because she was the lone white girl on that strip, the other prostitutes resented her. G. was her backbone: "It was just me and him against the world. I eventually grew to love him."

But in time, G. turned violent. Whenever Snow refused to go out on the streets, G. would beat her, punching her and stomping her with his boots. One night, G. hit her so hard, he broke three of her ribs, landing her in the emergency room. She went back to work within hours, still groggy from painkillers.

After two years, Snow left G. She doesn't know what's happened to him since.

Kia was fortunate that her pimp never hurt her. "He tried to hit me a couple of times," she says. "I just looked at him. I was like, 'Yo, don't even try to go there.' "

She left the streets after she and another girl were harassed by two other pimps who tried to recruit them on Pennsylvania Avenue. When the girls walked away, one of the pimps threw a scooter at Kia's companion and hit her on the back. Kia jumped into a cab. She never again worked as a prostitute.


As the number of teenage prostitutes in New York City increases, advocacy groups and city agencies are faced with the job of finding some way to help them. A 2001 report by ECPAT-USA—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—found that 80 to 90 percent of adolescent prostitutes had been sexually abused before hitting the streets.

"How much are they doing it for kicks and how much are they doing it because their boundaries have already been violated?" asks Lloyd of the mentoring project. "They already feel like their bodies aren't worth anything."

Their lives get even harder on the streets. According to ECPAT-USA, 70 percent of female prostitutes are repeatedly raped by customers. A University of Pennsylvania report found that 66 percent of the street youth encountered in Seattle suffered from mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and clinical depression.

Observers say New York lacks the clinical resources, legal means, and political will to help these girls. Jaus, of the Brooklyn district attorney's office, cites the lack of a treatment facility devoted to young prostitutes. "We have some services—counseling, some programs," she says, "but we'd like to do something more. ACS [Administration for Children's Services] has group homes, but something just for prostitutes? There's nothing that exists anywhere in this city."

Last year, the Brooklyn district attorney's office set up the Teen Prostitution Initiative, a task force that includes the Board of Education, the Department of Health, and the Administration for Children's Services. Jaus says the program has resulted in the indictment of 22 alleged pimps.

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