Stones in the Backpack: The Burden of Teen Prostitution Part 2

March 4th, 2011 by admin

This is the second in a five-part Channel 2 series on teen prostitution and its toll in Alaska. In this part, reporter Rhonda McBride traces the ways in which girls can be drawn into the sex trade.

You can often find homeless kids at the People Mover bus system’s Downtown Transit Center in Anchorage, loaded down with heavy backpacks. Many also carry the weight of childhood trauma with them, but they hang out at the station to escape their problems.

In an afternoon spent at the transit center asking teens about the business of selling sex, they seemed to know a lot about it.

“I know people that have done it for either good reasons or bad reasons,” said Stephanie, 17. “I’m not going to say who, but it’s just kind of something that happens in our society now.”

A young man named Spencer, 22, says he’s met teens who have engaged in prostitution that are as young as 14.

“It’s pretty hard to tell their age, but I’ve seen some pretty young ones out here, ones that should still be in school,” Spencer said.

“It’s a natural fact of life,” said 17-year-old Amanda, who believes teen prostitution exists everywhere.

“If you present yourself as a skank and a ho, that’s what you’re gonna get approached as,” said Amanda’s friend Tani, 18.

Amanda and Tani each know several teens who have worked in the sex trade.

Those on the front lines of trying to prevent underage girls from being lured into prostitution say popular culture is one of their biggest enemies. In much of today’s television, film and music targeted at youth, promiscuous, high-risk behavior is depicted as cool.

“There definitely is a culture around this whole pimp and prostitution lifestyle,” said Jolene Goeden, an FBI investigator based in Anchorage.

Goeden’s work to put sex traffickers in jail led to the 2008 conviction of Don Webster, a prostitution kingpin who ensnared girls as young as 13.

“It’s easier to exploit them because we’re such a sexualized society, so I think that’s kind of an added stone in the backpack that a girl 15, 20 years ago maybe didn’t have,” Goeden said.

Antonio Anderson, who runs an Anchorage security company, agrees. Anderson will neither confirm nor deny that he’s ever engaged in prostitution, but claims to have intimate knowledge of the business.

“Every time you turn around, somebody is butt-naked,” Anderson said.  “You don’t think our kids are seeing that?”

Anderson says today’s culture makes a pimp’s job easier, as does an ability to manipulate women. Anderson says many pimps are children of prostitutes and have grown up in the business.

“True pimps get their start from blood — it’s bred into them from family to family,” Anderson said.

Anderson says pimps know that controlling a girl’s body begins with her mind, so they learn to talk a good game.

“They call it poetic conversation,” Anderson said. “It is to be able to conversate (sic) with a young lady and they’ll stay interested. They’ll stay engaged. You’re talking about things other than their sexuality or their body; you’re talking about things they can relate to.”

 

There are a lot of kids on the streets who have no one to relate to, which makes them vulnerable. Anderson says they’re likely to mistake a trafficker’s attention as genuine interest in them — and a pimp, Anderson says, is always sincere.

“A person that’s doing something for monetary gain is sincere, because his whole purpose is monetary gain, and they will do that by any means necessary,” Anderson said.

The means to hook kids into prostitution are readily available in today’s high-tech world. Anchorage police regularly check “escort service” websites that are in reality fronts for the sex trade.

APD Detective Dodie Warren brought up a picture on one website of a woman named Jennifer with bulging breasts, stretched out on the floor in a bikini.

“You’ve got this girl, who’s a known working girl,” Warren said.

On the website, “Jennifer” encourages people to check out another website to read about her “five-star” rating. The text reads: “Seeking a bit of erotic playtime? RU bored with gals who don’t have much spark. My sessions are reviewed as 5 Star for a reason.”

“If you look at that picture, you’re not getting someone to go out to dinner with you,” said Sgt. Kathy Lacey.

Lacey says the Internet has helped to mainstream prostitution and dispersed the crime throughout the city. Years ago, the sex trade was concentrated in Spenard, a neighborhood where escort services and other fronts for prostitution thrived.

With the Internet, however, escort businesses no longer need a base of operations. “Dates” as they’re called, can be arranged via cell phone, causing the bulk of the sex trade to migrate to massage parlors, bars and hotels. As a result, the number of streetwalkers has fallen off in recent years.

“Most teens have gotten smart about it,” said Amanda, the 17-year-old  at the Downtown Transit Center. “They don’t do it on the street any more. They find other ways: there’s the Internet, there’s cell phones, stuff like that so you really don’t see it.”

Part of the problem is that prostitution has become so pervasive it’s hard to recognize. The same can be said for pimps on the prowl for new workers.

“One trafficker recruited a girl from a coffee stand,” Lacey said. “He pulled up in his car — he had a nice car, he had nice clothes. He started talking to her, flattering her, and that’s how contact was made.”

Anchorage police say streets and strip clubs are still hot spots for luring girls into prostitution, but they’re also recruited at schools, shopping centers and even at community events like Fur Rondy.

The new technology has enabled pimps to be more efficient predators, by casting a wider net. The fact that Alaska has one of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation doesn’t help. Police say in almost all cases, teen prostitutes were molested as children.

“So this is not a huge step for them to be working as a prostitute,” Lacey said. “It may be the lesser of two evils, compared to what they were doing.”

Early exposure to sex usually leads to early exposure to alcohol and drugs, a gateway to life on the streets. Lacey says that national statistics show that within 72 hours of hitting the streets for the first time, teens will be approached by someone trying to tempt them into the sex trade.

Covenant House, which runs the only shelter in Anchorage for homeless teens, says it’s hard to know exactly how many of them have been exposed to prostitution.

Medical records show that almost half of the girls who have stayed at Covenant House’s crisis center have been victims of sexual assault, which raises the risk for sexual exploitation. Staffers have heard many stories from young people about life on the streets and brushes with prostitution.

“The one that comes to mind right away,” said Paul Flahive, Covenant House’s outreach director, “is where a girl was staying, maybe at the Inlet.”

Flahive says the man who offered to share his room with the girl actually wanted sex — and when she declined, she was back on the streets.

“She just wound up walking around the whole night, which is something a lot of them will do, if they have no other place to go — they’ll just continue moving,” Flahive said.

Flahive routinely visits the transit center and homeless camps, offering kids bottles of water, sandwiches, gloves and hats. In return he gets to hear their stories, and many are grim.

Covenant House estimates that as many of 30 percent of the teens they come in contact with have engaged in what’s known as “survivor sex,” trading sex for a place to stay.

“I mean, survival sex and prostitution are one in the same, but there’s definitely like a difference when it comes to organized prostitution,”  Flahive said. “There really are no good outcomes, when you’re talking about that issue.”

Covenant House’s crisis center has 40 beds. Last weekend, it was so crowded teens had to sleep on mats on the floor to accommodate the overflow. The average stay is about 17 days, up from 12 days several years ago. Covenant House provides a number of services to about 3,000 teens a year.

McBride, Rhonda. Stones in the Backpack: The Burden of Teen Prostitution Part 2. WSBT. 4 March 2011

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