From the Cradle to the Street
Kia remembers her first time well.
"He was a white guy, really old. He was, like, in his late forties," she says, piecing together the details of that night, a year ago, in midtown Manhattan. "He was fat, with a potbelly. He had a good job, I think. He was driving an Expedition."
Sitting in the kitchen of her two-bedroom apartment in East New York, Kia, who agreed to speak only if her real name wasn't used, tells her story with disarming frankness. Small, with a perennial smirk, she rocks back and forth in her seat as the details become more lurid. "I was nervous," she says. "But I was like, 'Hey, I might as well do it. I'm having sex with other guys, so I might as well just get paid for it.' "
She was with two other girls that night. All three worked for a pimp she had met earlier in the day. All three got into the customer's car. "He had wanted oral sex, so we charged him a hundred each," she recalls. "Well, actually one of the girls got $150 because he wanted to come in somebody's mouth. And it was not going to be me."
For three weeks, she hit the dark alleys along Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, and midtown Manhattan to turn tricks. "It felt good, day by day, making money," she adds with a forced grin. "I try not to remember any of this. I really do."
Social workers and cops say her experience is typical of prostitutes who work New York streets, but one aspect of her story frightens themKia is only 14 years old.
Last week, when authorities in Brooklyn and Manhattan arrested 10 people on charges of trading child porn online, they clamped down on the virtual market for young bodies like Kia's. Counselors and police say another market, a flesh-and-blood one, also thrives. Over the last four years, they've noticed an alarming increase in the number of girls under 18 being pimped on the streets, in clubs, and through escort services.
"The average age is rapidly decreasing, so it's not unusual for us to get girls as young as 12 who may have been sexually exploited for a year or two by that age," says Rachel Lloyd, director of the Manhattan-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS).
No one knows exactly how many girls in New York are pressed into sex work, but Lloyd, a former prostitute herself, estimates there are at least 1000 minorsand possibly twice that manytrapped in the industry. "The amount of new girls that are coming in is just mind-blowing," she says. "We're getting a good four to six new referrals a week of girls with some type of sexual exploitation history. It's made me start to question my figures."
One veteran cop, who asked not to be identified but whose division has been monitoring the activities of teenage prostitutes in Brooklyn and Queens, believes the number is in the high hundreds. The NYPD denied repeated requests for official information.
Law enforcement officials have been frustrated by the juvenile code. Under the current statutes, a girl younger than 16 who's picked up for turning tricks can only be ticketed for "loitering for the purposes of prostitution." After a hearing, she can also be classified as a person in need of supervision, or PINS, the lowest level of youth offenders. Once a girl becomes a PINS case, she can be put with a relative or in a group home. The problem is that many girls run back to their pimpsand away from helpbefore a judge can consider their situation.
A bill seeking to break the cycle is now stalled, for the second time, in the state legislature. Drafted by City Hall and sponsored by Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersohn of Queens, the measure would allow kids to be held until their cases are heard. They could then be placed in locked facilities where they would receive counseling and support.
"We, as prosecutors in the juvenile area, believe that the present state of the law is insufficient to meet the needs of these particular kids," says Peter Reinharz, former chief of the city Law Department's family court division, who helped write the legislation. "Law enforcement is handcuffed."
In April, the bill passed the senate, again. It is now being held by the assembly's Codes Committee, which will decide whether to call for a full vote. The committee chairman, Joseph Lentol of Brooklyn, argues that the need to mark these girls as delinquent is not strong enough to warrant drastic action. "It really stigmatizes them without first trying to get them the appropriate help," Lentol says. "And unless it's proven to the contrary, we ought not to embark upon such a dramatic change in the law."
Youth advocates like Lloyd are also wary of detaining girls who are already in fragile states. "Lacking any other options right now, I could see that this could possibly be a workable option," she says. "But in practice, sending girls to a secure facility would concern me, because it has to be rehabilitative instead of punitive."
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," 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 strippingbut 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."
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 girlsone 17 and the other 19who 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 Mac and 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 lucrativeand less riskyenterprise 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-USAEnd Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposesfound 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 servicescounseling, 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.
Also last year, the Queens district attorney's office created Operation Plaza Boys, a task force that monitored the movements of pimps and prostitutes in the Queens Plaza area of Long Island City, once a hot spot among young girls. In October, the operation led to the arrest of 10 suspected pimps, three of them for promoting prostitution of minors.
Those who have left the business say they have no intention of returning to it. "I learned my lesson, I sure did," says Kia. Now a ninth-grader in Brooklyn, she is concentrating on catching up on her studies. "I regret what I did. All of it. I don't want anybody to go through what I went through. The streets are not worth it. The streets are no joke."
Snow says she hasn't turned tricks since January, and she now works as a peer counselor at the girls mentoring program. It's a big change for her, because she's never held a steady job. "It's a daily struggle, and every day I want to quit and go back to where I was before," she says. "But when I think of the money and how empty it made me feel, all the struggles now are worth it. My life may have been empty before. But now, even if it's stressful, it's full."
When the Voice spoke with Peaches in February, she said she didn't want to hit the streets again now that she'd found a stable foster home. She had proudly hung a calendar on her bedroom wall and was keeping track of her next appearance before a judge by crossing out the days that had passed. "I'm counting through to my next court date so that I know I did good," she said then, beaming. "Like today, I did good. Tomorrow, I'll do even better."
But one morning in late March, Peaches went to school and never came home, her foster mother says. In April, the Port Authority police called to say they had detained Peaches. Now she's locked up in a facility upstate.
Lloyd says that during the time she was missing, Peaches had written to her from Pennsylvania. In her letters, she told Lloyd of the difficulties she faced adjusting to life off the streets. "She said that she just felt misunderstood at home and that it was a big adjustment to her to have curfews. She wasn't happy at school. She didn't feel like she was fitting in," Lloyd says. "Everything in her life has pretty much gone wrong. I don't think she was ready to accept that things had settled down for her."
Peaches' foster mother says she hasn't given up hope, but she knows the girl's struggle may be far from over. For so many of New York's most unfortunate cases, the tough life of the streets seems to be the only one they know how to live.
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