Child Sex Trafficking in the USA: What Really Goes On - The Good Men Project

A soldier talks about her journey into human trafficking rescue.

Erika Clark is a young, Air Force intelligence analyst whose career was ended by a knee injury and now works with trafficked children in the Washington DC area.  The trafficked children are shuttled on a circuit between U.S. cities to avoid detection in the sex trade, where pimps put them on the street and force them to perform sex acts with approximately eight to ten men a night. The lifespan for a trafficked child after entering “the life” is around seven years before they’re killed or die from AIDS.

“I love them so much because they are no different than I am,” said Clark. “There’s absolutely nothing I’ve done, nothing about my character that makes me any more virtuous or any better than these girls that are working as prostitutes.”

The average age a child becomes prostitute in the USA is 13 years old and it’s estimated that 293,000 children in the USA could be trafficked, with the vast majority being girls. Portland, Oregon has become a sex trafficking capital of the United States, but Atlanta, Houston, Toledo, New York City, Washington DC, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Kansas City and Los Angeles are competitors. It’s rife in every major city. According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.

Trafficking humans is not limited to smuggling people across international borders. Legally, anyone bought or sold through threat, force or coercion, put into the lifestyle against their will, is a trafficked person. Anyone who has a pimp, he’s a trafficker.

Trafficking rescue, a dangerous career

Clark was adrift and miserable after medically separated from her 10-year career in the military and she flopped about on her sofa for weeks, unsure of what to do next. She had a degree in security and intelligence with a minor in Middle Eastern studies, and studied Farsi at the Defense Language Institute in California. After six years of enlistment, she had been accepted into a Navy Intelligence Officer commissioning program and had been deployed to Qatar, where the summer temperature averages 130 degrees.After her separation, Clark was unsure what the Navy intended for her and if she needed to start a new life. Was it time for her and her soldier husband to buy a house and start a family, could she continue with the Navy or should she start a new career? She selected the sofa and in her words, “feeling sorry for myself.”

Her husband Jaimie, deployed in Afghanistan, suggested that she find something to occupy her time so she wouldn’t be so upset about her ruptured career.

“So I was like gosh, if I could do anything, what would I do?” said Clark. “I wasn’t really sure because I’d been in the military my whole life since I was 18, so I really didn’t have any idea about what I could do if I could pick.”

Clark had always been passionate about human rights and began to look at non-profit organizations. Among her explorations, she attended a fund-raiser for a Washington DC shelter for rescued minor prostitutes founded by a woman formerly trafficked as child. After learning about the organization, Clark bought the founder a drink, told her she wanted to be part of the fight and was offered the job of personal assistant.

The former soldier began her trafficking work with only clerical duties, setting up meetings and filing papers, but the girls’ stories sent her into tears, daily.

“My boss initially wouldn’t let me interact with any of the clients because she said bursting into tears is not very helpful to them, which is true,” said Clark.

After six months, she began to direct client service training (the girls are called clients), and then she began to work on the hotline and in street outreach.

For a while, Clark’s husband was not OK with her choice of work and particularly uncomfortable about the DC street outreach, which is obviously dangerous. Jaimie drove her the 45 minutes from Annapolis into DC, even shadowed her as she walked “the track,” connecting with the young girls. All out-reach workers are required to take a self-defense class every quarter of the year to protect them from retaliation and violence, and eventually Jaimie began to instruct them.

“Jaimie was raised by a single mom and has several little sisters, so he’s really passionate about women not being defenseless,” said Clark. “He teaches the outreach workers to flip him and kick him and punch him and he comes home all beaten up, but he loves it because he really wants these women to be prepared.

He’s very supportive of it now, but he’s worried about my safety. He says that’s what he loves about me, that I’ve always been very passionate about fighting for people who are oppressed, so it’s something he loves about me, but it makes him nervous.”


Q: What do you do on street outreach?

Clarke: We went out on Friday and Saturday nights. We’d identify potential victims, potential traffickers and had outreach material that we’d try to give to the girls, but we can’t obviously, if there are any pimps around or any watchers. We had to stay very situationally aware of what was going on in order not to cause problems for the girls.

Q: What’s a watcher?

Clark:They’re people that have been paid off. Often they’re homeless people, because they’re not particularly loyal to one thing or another. Say a pimp has six girls, they call it a “stable,” he can’t keep his eye on all of them at the same time. So if they’re out working, he’ll pay a homeless guy like ten bucks to keep an eye on the girls and tell him if they’re talking to anyone, what they’re doing, so that the girls know they’re always being watched.

When they’re working, these girls don’t just stay in DC, they travel around. A pimp will have little pimp friends all around the country and they go from state to state. The girls we talk to, some are from Miami, Cincinnati, they’re from everywhere, which helps divert law enforcement because you don’t see the same girls all the time and it makes it harder to outreach to them because the girls are different all the time.

Q: So they can’t develop local connections either.

Clark:Definitely not, because they live with the pimp and the other girls in “the stable,” which is wherever they’re being held. He treats them like livestock and he tells them that they are. There’s a head girl and she’ll often collect money for him and kind of be his female counterpart. But the problem is these girls are fighting to be the pimp’s No. 1 girl because sometimes she can sleep in the bed with him or ride in the front seat of the car. They all think they’re in love with their pimp.

This is a very American thing, not with girls from other countries. The girls I worked with from DC, they all thought their pimps were their friends, so they compete with the other women for the affection of this one man. It’s a really messed-up situation.

Q: I don’t get this. Why do they think that this older man who is selling them for sex with other men is their boyfriend?

Clark:Usually what happens is there’s a runaway or a girl comes from a bad family situation, there are a lot of broken homes obviously, and the pimp will befriend them. If you or I saw this, we’d think it was incredibly inappropriate, but these are very impressionable young girls and there’s a 35 year-old man talking to this 12-year-old telling her, “Oh, you’re so pretty, you’re so smart,” just filling whatever she’s insecure about, building her up.

So, inevitably when the girl gets into a fight with her parents he really fans the flame of feeling—“He understands me, he cares about me.” Then he’ll take her out and buy her clothes, take her to dinner, courting-like rituals, and he’ll coerce her to leave her house and stay with him and this is the “honeymoon” phase.

Then about three or four weeks in he’ll say, “We need to make some money. We’ve been spending all this money and I don’t have any and my friend here says if you have sex with him he’ll give me ‘X’ money and we can pay the rent, I think you should.”

Obviously, this girl is not okay with that because many of them are virgins in the first place. Then he arranges the “seasoning” period, a period of time when the girl is getting raped by however many people it takes. He’ll bring her to a restaurant where he knows a bunch of people and in the kitchen, this little girl is raped by eight men in a row, things like that. Then he blames it on her, very similar to a domestic abuse situation, and he’ll say, “Why did you make me do that? I’ve done so much for you and I’ve asked only one thing and you couldn’t even do that!”

So, she’s feeling that he loves her so much and she couldn’t perform anything for him and that she deserved all of that. Sometimes it has to happen more than once, but eventually the girl just feels so impure and dirty that she won’t even ask for help because she feels like she wouldn’t be accepted back into her family because she’s fallen so far from who she was. Once she’s realizes that she’s a prostitute now and not going back to eighth grade, she’s in shock and traumatized. Then she’s introduced to the stable. The girls that have been there longer usually do a lot of her training and handle logistics.

Pimping is glamorized. People think Pretty Woman when they think prostitution, which is completely inaccurately represented.  At the Washington DC library last summer, they had a “Pimp out your library card!” promotion. People don’t know what pimping really looks like, but it’s seeped into our vernacular and it’s glamorized here more than in any other country.

Q: What about school?

Clark: Usually they’re removed from school, but it depends. In Atlanta, these pimps might have one residence in the inner city, but they usually also have a really nice house in a good part of town. A scary part about this is that you think you’re safe because you live in the suburbs and put your kids in a good school system so they can be protected from these things. But some of these pimps will actually put some of their girls into these good public schools and use his legitimate home address. These girls attend the public high schools and they groom younger girls in the schools completely under the nose of everybody—teachers, parents—they just think this senior girl is befriending your freshman daughter. She might give her a present, spend time with her and eventually she’s groomed right into the life.

Q: Prostitution and pimping fills a lot of content on primetime TV and the expressions have worked into everyday language and men, boys and even suburban girls regularly refer to girls and women as “hos” and “bitches.” What do you make of that?

Clark: My only idea of why women use those words to each other now is like how the African culture has kind of taken the “n” word back, so it’s not offensive when they speak to each other. It’s because it was such a derogatory word for such a long time. But even though we’re in a post-modern, feminist age in America, we still have Puritanical roots, so to challenge a woman’s purity still is a really deep offense even if she is more promiscuous. To call a woman a slut or a whore or imply any of those things like dirty or impure is still very offensive to women.

Q: Why don’t these girls jump on a bus and go back to their families and teachers?

Clark:When you’re trafficked and that young, and first of all, if you’re an American, you don’t even know you’re trafficked. Second, you don’t know if anyone’s looking for you or really cares because your pimp is telling you that you’re a whore and stuff.

Q: In the USA, what’s the penalty for trafficking and what’s the penalty for a john?

Clark: It’s by state and it’s a hot topic. The punishment is very lenient even if you get a conviction and to get a conviction you have to prove an awful lot to prove that a girl was trafficked. One of the biggest issues is getting these girls to testify. They usually suffer from Stockholm syndrome, where people who have been abused over a period of time feel attached to the perpetrator.

The thing about trafficked girls in America is that they love their pimps. They think he’s their boyfriend and that they’re going to marry their pimp once they earn some arbitrary amount of money—$120,000 I heard last time—and they’ll get married and live happily ever after. They don’t understand that they’re victims when we first get a hold of them and they’re pissed off that you’re not letting them talk to their boyfriend. They think you’re holding them away from their true love and they’re very upset about it, so they’re definitely not testifying against him in court. Convictions are extremely rare.

And for the johns, all they have to do is go to “john school,” which is this four-hour Saturday class that costs like $300. They’re supposed to be learning to respect women and not buy prostitutes and if they attend john school it goes off their record. They’re rarely arrested. There’s still a mentality that prostitution is a victimless crime. They see a girl that’s working and first of all, they think she’s 18 and second, that she’s there by choice and wasn’t coerced or forced.

Q: Do cops hit on these young girls too?

Clark: Yes, it’s going on. Not all police officers, but in any profession there’s going to be some bad apples. A lot of times this girl is about to get arrested or she gets arrested and put in a car and he gives her the option of going to jail or not.

Q: Is there a connection between prostitution and sporting events?

Clark: Yes, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, any large sporting event, they have a lot of trafficked women, unfortunately, around those events. They know that’s where the business will be.

One problem with prostitution, especially in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, is that there’s more of a demand to be sure that the girls are HIV free. So the movement has been toward younger and younger girls and children to ensure that they are not infected.

There’s also a belief in South Africa and Namibia that the way to cure yourself from AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. So to make sure that she’s a virgin you have men raping toddlers—like two year-olds they will rape because they think they’ll be free from AIDS. But of course, that’s not how it works and now this little girl has HIV, too. Also, in South Africa, younger girls will have a sugar daddy situation with a much older man and that’s how the HIV is coming into the younger population.

Q: When you worked with child trafficking abroad, how was it different than in the USA?

Clark: The trend I noticed the most was the way the girls are trafficked in each country. In America, generally it’s coercion. Very rarely will you have a girl that’s kidnapped walking home from school. It happens, but not nearly as commonly as the relationship with the pimp and the grooming.

In Cambodia, it’s so impoverished. We were teaching English to some children in Phnom Penh in the slum area and one day, one of the little girls was missing from class. We found out her brother sold her to a trafficker—her own brother, not even her parents. What gives a brother the authority to do something like that?  She was seven and he was older, maybe 12. We assumed she went to Thailand. We didn’t ever find her.

There’s a lot of that in Cambodia because there’s such a crushing poverty. Mom’s a garbage picker and dad’s high or drunk all the time and the kids can’t even go to school because you have to pay to go to public school in Cambodia. They’re so vulnerable, like sitting ducks.

In Thailand, a lot of their parents were involved in it. Often these girls come from the villages and they get trafficked into the city either by an aunt or uncle or trafficker. What they do is go into villages and say, we have this great job and we’re looking for young ladies to work there—we have a new factory, or a fish company, or we need waitresses. The parents get some kind of living stipend sent back from the girls and they believe that’s what their daughters are going to go do. They aren’t educated people, they may be fishing people in a fishing village, so a lot of times the parents are involved.

India was incredibly violent and you’d hear horrible stories. These girls are on a train and they wake up and all of a sudden they’re in a brothel because they got drugged and just taken. There was the most snatching of girls in India of all the places I’ve been, and also in the surrounding countries where the girls get brought into India.

Q: If a guy goes to a travel agency in the USA, can he get book an overseas trip for a sex tour involving minors?

Clark: Obviously not an ethical travel agent, but there definitely are travel agencies that will book sex tours and trips, but they don’t advertise. Usually these men find out about sex excursions like that from other men and use the same travel service. Men operate together, so they teach other and encourage each other in trafficking. If you can change the heart of one man, so many girls are spared.

People still don’t think that human trafficking occurs in America. They think it’s something that happens to those poor little girls in Thailand, but they don’t understand that it happens to poor little girls in America too.

In America, these girls are required to make a quota every night. They’ll be out on the street all night until five in the morning and they’ll do in-call, out-call all day long, the Craig’s List stuff, basically pimps bringing them to hotels or johns are coming to them in hotels. Some girls are minors working in strip clubs in America and they’re trafficked. The clubs that usually have trafficked girls are a little bit shadier and the danger level goes up when you go into those places.

According to prostitutes, the trend with men is that they’ve become incredibly violent and more perverse. As porn becomes more violent and exploitive, so have men’s sexual appetites and these little prostitutes are paying for it. There’s more violence, punching, hitting, bruising, making these girls bleed and that applies to children as well.

Q: What do the rescued girls do at the shelter?

Clark: The girls in recovery are home-schooled because they may have been out of a school for a few years and are behind. They may do art, yoga, dance or karate. They make jewelry and sell it online. They give them the freedom to be little and they try to see what it is that makes each girl come alive, encourage them to dream again.

Trafficking is not just a women’s issue, and it’s not like the girls even keep any of the money. They say prostitution is the oldest profession and it’s always been accepted, but I say look at William Wilberforce—he took down the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That was totally legal and it was a very accepted part of the economy and he fought it and it became illegal within 20 years.

It’s slavery. Slavery happened since the beginning of time too, people are always going to subjugate weaker people. People do awful things to each other, but just because it’s been happening for a long time doesn’t make it okay. Just because there are women who are always being sold doesn’t make it an acceptable thing to do with a human being.

Other sources:

The Protection Project: Johns Hopkins University

Trafficking in Persons Report: U.S. Department of State

Shared Hope International


—Photo isaacd / flickr