Sex Buys Survival for Runaway Kids


by Amanda Kloer

Nothing calls attention to an issue like an article in the New York Times, and this time the media giant has deigned to shine its blinding spotlight upon domestic minor sex trafficking — sorta. Never once in the article does the author use the term “trafficking victim” the describe the children in question — American kids who run away from home and end up in prostitution either for survival or under pimp control. But legally in the U.S., any child under 18 involved in commercial sex is a trafficking victim. Semantics aside, though, the issue of American youth coerced and forced into prostitution by pimps is a significant and growing problem.

Author Ian Urbina gives prostituted runaway youth a face in Roxanne L., a 16-year-old girl from Queens who was picked up for prostitution. Dan Garrabrant, the detective questioning her, has only one hour before he must turn her over to social services. If in that hour he can get her to admit that she has a pimp, he can get her off the street and into victim services. He tries everything — pushing, commiserating, talking about other stuff, offering safety — but nothing can get her to admit that she has a pimp. His initials are tatooed on her body, but she denies he even exists overt and over. At the end of the interview, Garrabrant is forced to release Roxanne to a youth shelter. Her body is found several days later, killed by the pimp she insisted never existed. Roxanne is not the first, nor will she be the last, child to die at the hands of her pimp.

Out of the 1.6 million children who run away from home each year, about one third (or over 530,000) trade sex acts for tools of survival like food, shelter, warmth, drugs to feed an addiction, or the promise of protection and companionship.

On average, a child is approached by a pimp within her first 72 hours on the street. Pimps know what to look for in a potential victim. They like teens who have already engaged in survival sex, because they are often easier to groom for more formal prostitution. They also look for girls with low self-esteem, who have nowhere else to go, and who have histories of rape or abuse. It’s easier to break a girl down if she’s already a little broken, they reason. The pimps begin by showing affection, as grand as the promise of marriage or as simple as a meal at McDonalds. At first the sex is consensual, perhaps even affectionate. But soon, the pimp begins the process known as “turning out” a girl, or sending her out onto the streets. If she’s new to prostitution, he might ask her to start small by having sex with his friends for money. He might tell her what she has (her body, her sexuality) is so valuable, it’s a crime to give it away for free. He might tell her that they’ve run out of money, and if she loves him, she’ll do this for him. And once a girl is “turned out” and turned into a trafficking victim, she is dangerously and deeply entrenched.

So why do pimps prey on teen runaways? In part because they are easier to manipluate. But a huge part of pimps’ motivation is that these children fetch a higher price from buyers than adult women do. Men are not just willing to may to have sex with a child — they are actively seeking it out and paying high premiums for the opportunity. There is such a sense of male entitlement in society and the ojectification and commodification of female bodies has become so common, that men can see children as nothing more than a tool for their pleasure. A series of holes to rent for a few minutes. These men don’t care that they are violating a child’s autonomy, reducing her humanity, and turning her into a play thing. They don’t care about anything but getting off. And they think, as men, getting off is their right.

Yes, we need the pimps behind bars and at-risk girls in prevention programs. But the crux of this issue, the reason that runaway children become trafficking victims, is that men are willing to pay to rape them. The buyers demand the “products”, they finance the pimps, and they create the economy of child prostitution. Think of the statistics this way: if the 530,000 children who exchange sex for items of value each year only do it 5 times (a conservative estimate since many of them are in prostitution for years), that’s over 2.5 miliion men a year buying sex with children. If buying trafficked kids were a disease, that number would make this an epidemic. And instead of reading a solitary New York Times article about it, we’d be desperately looking for a cure. 

Photo credit: w.marsh

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One response to “Sex Buys Survival for Runaway Kids

  1. Thank you for this excellent analysis of the demand issue. All kinds of things make girls and women (and to a lesser extent men and boys) vulnerable to sexual exploitation but the root cause is male demand. It is shameful that we tolerate it.

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