Denise Tejada on Tuesday, Dec. 7th
The FBI recently announced the results of Operation Cross Country V: 99 pimps arrested, 69 children rescued. Attorneys general from 17 states battled Craigslist, claiming pimps use the website to set up dates between child prostitutes and their customers. Celebrity activists Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher launched their “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign at the Clinton Global Initiative.
The problem of child prostitution within the U.S. – A preoccupation of the FBI for a decade now, a reality for many thousands of kids for much longer – seems to be everywhere in 2010.
Usually lost in the coverage, though, are the voices of girls who become victims of sex trafficking. And answers to the hard-to-ask question: what is life really like for a girl who’s being sold for sex?
“I’d wake up at 5:00, I’d be outside by 5:30,” says Brittney, a former teenage sex worker. “I would just wait and see what happened, whether it’d be in the streets or whether I’d be on the Internet. And then I won’t be able to come back inside until like two o’clock in the morning, so I’d get only, like, three hours of rest.”
Brittney, now 19, agreed to share her story with me under the condition that I use a pseudonym. She’s a native of Oakland, California, and only recently out of what’s called ‘The Game’. Less than a year ago, Brittney was being forced to work as a prostitute on the Internet and on the streets of Oakland.
“I got kidnapped when I was 15,” says Brittney. “I decided to cut school one day. I was in Oakland, on Havenscourt and Foothill, and all I heard was, ‘Man go get that girl!’ And one of them came out and dragged me by my hair and he pulled me into the car.”
Brittney was the victim of a so-called guerilla pimp, a person, usually a man, who uses force and fear to traffic women, many of whom are underage. Oakland police estimate a third of teenage girls working in prostitution were abducted and forced onto the streets the way Brittney was.
Brittney says that after she was kidnapped, at least six men gang raped her. She was then driven to Sacramento, where her 32 year old pimp put her out on the street as a prostitute. He took her phone, told her not to talk to anyone but “johns” and had his sister watch her so she wouldn’t run. She was shuttled back and forth to work Oakland’s red light district.
Darlene came into The Game a different way.
Darlene, whose name has name has been changed as well, became a teenager around the same time her native Oakland, as part of greater the San Francisco Bay Area, was named one of the 13 national hotspots for child prostitution. As she entered her teens, classmates talked about their boyfriends who had lots of money and, like most kids in the Bay Area, she listened to music by Oakland rappers, whose lyrics about pimping glamorized The Game.
“A lot of it is glorified,” says Darlene. “Oh, you’re from Oakland. Everybody has dreads, everybody goes dumb, we pop pills, smoke a lot weed, parties, sideshows and hoes.”
If you’re not part of the scene, it’s hard to believe that prostitution has become normal for so many girls in Oakland and other cities. But it’s true. Girls see it as an alternative to desperate home lives, friends getting shot, no food on the table and absent parents. And pimps take advantage of that.
Darlene became a prostitute at the hands of what Oakland police call a “Romeo pimp.” Now 18, she moved in with her boyfriend when she was 14, after she was kicked out of the house.
“On my fifteenth birthday, he was like ‘Well you know, since you’ll be staying with me, we need more food. We need to find a way to get some money’,” says Darlene. “He’s the one that like introduced me to prostitution, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Darlene says she later found out her 18-year-old boyfriend had pimped other girls before. When he became her pimp, Darlene says, he told her what to do to make money. “‘This is how you look at the guys, this is what you tell them, these are what cars to stay away from, this is how much you charge,’”
On The Track
I drove to International Boulevard, one of Oakland’s busiest streets, to see what pimps call “The Track”. In a 50-block span, I counted 20 girls. Some of them were posted on street corners; others were hanging by bus stops, or just walking the same blocks over and over.
I parked at one of the many taco trucks on International Boulevard. The guys who work the truck say that every day pimps use their parking lot to drop off girls and hang out. They say it’s common to see pimps beating girls. Basically, pimps run their businesses from this spot.
[Read a Pimp's Business Plan] Within a matter of seconds, I saw a girl getting picked up by a customer – a guy Darlene and Brittney would call a “john” or “trick”. From my car, I spotted two women. One seemed to be the leader, or what people in The Game call a “bottom girl”. She approached the Toyota Prius, spoke to the driver and instructed the younger girl to walk over. To me, the girl looked very young, no more than 17 years old.
While most Oakland residents drive by and don’t think twice about what’s going on here, the people in this neighborhood do.
“They’re always there,” says Frank Pardo, whose mother owns Yoyi’s Bridal shop on 39th and International. “You always see them and some of them are quite beautiful, looking like straight models.”
Just down the street, I see a teenage girl in a short red dress crying on a bench. She has blood coming from her mouth. A business owner who runs a clothing store says he saw the whole thing. The store owner says the man who punched the girl appeared to be her pimp, and stole her purse.
The witness would not identify himself by name, for fear of retribution from sex traffickers, which is the same reason he gave for not calling the police.
Survivors Brittney and Darlene each survived the many months they spent turning tricks on International Blvd and meeting johns through the internet. Brittney says her pimp got her hooked on drugs to keep her working around the clock and eating only one meal a day, usually a burger from McDonalds.
“It’s not the best deal to have sex with 15 different guys in one day and only get a cheeseburger at the end of it,” says Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock. Bock compares the girls’ situation to being brainwashed by a cult.
“Remember Guyana and Jim Jones where everybody’s drinking that Kool-Aid drink? Well, that’s exactly what these girls have had. Let’s call it pimp juice. They’ve all had it and they can’t see past either their affection for their trafficker, or their fear of him,” says Bock.
According to a recent survey of social service providers in Oakland and the rest of the county, 61 percent of the teen prostitutes they see say they were raped as children.
That’s what happened to Brittney. She says she was raped by her stepfather and years later by her trafficker. Brittney tries to understand how she kept going back to her pimp.
“I knew what he was capable of,” she says. “He’d beat me and he’d rape me, he’d beat me and he’d rape me and I just kept going back until I ended up being pregnant by him. And he beat me so bad that I ended up having a miscarriage.”
“I got shot at quite a few times,” says Darlene, who had been arrested for prostitution and robbery in the year after she ran away from her father’s house. She wanted to go home.
“I used to fantasize about boys that are gangsters. ‘Oh, they get hecka money and they’re just gansta and cute and it’s cool’,” says Darlene. “That’s OK when you’re in high school. After that, what are you gonna do with your life? You’re gonna be in jail or you’re gonna be dead, and I don’t want part of either one of those.”
After her last arrest, Darlene joined a program that transitions girls off the streets. Brittney got out too, shortly after she had the miscarriage.
“Six days later—it was a Sunday—and he put me on East 14th. I told him that I didn’t want to be out on Sundays because I had a bad feeling about Sundays. And I saw my aunt. And my aunt ended up snatching me up and putting me in the car. And then she took me to my mom’s house,” says Brittney.
“Two days later police came knocking on my door, saying I had a warrant.”
That warrant put Brittney back in jail for prostitution and, like Darlene, she enrolled in a community program.
It’s been less than a year since Brittney and Darlene turned their lives around. Now they are both working with community organizations to help other girls escape sex trafficking. Darlene and Brittney consider themselves survivors, navigating a new life.
“I got back in school and I graduated high school with, like, 20 extra credits,” says Darlene, who has two jobs and is planning to attend college. “When I was 15, I didn’t see myself alive at the age of 18. And now I am 18 and I can look back and say, ‘You know, I’ve been through all that and I’ve come out of it.’ It feels wonderful.”