Carissa Phelps was only 12 years old when she ran away from the Fresno County group home where her mother had left her. Hungry and alone, the runaway was befriended by a man three times her age. And the price of a hot dog and Pepsi was all it cost the man to get her to a seedy motel.
Carissa soon found herself drawn into the world of child prostitution. It begins with men who first befriend lost girls like Carissa, then force them to have sex with other adult men and take whatever money they earn. Twenty years later, Carissa has managed to escape the desperate "survival sex" lifestyle that has become a dead-end road for many young people.
Others, however, are not so fortunate. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, child prostitution has become a problem of epidemic proportions, with estimates ranging between 300,000 and 800,000 (five million or more are prostituted globally). Those figures are likely even higher when one considers how many street kids -- runaways, thrown-aways and cast-offs from the foster care system -- remain unaccounted for in America. Left to fend for themselves, these young girls and boys quickly become prey for small-time pimps and organized sex-trafficking rings.
Amazingly, many children are introduced to prostitution by family members or acquaintances such as parents, older siblings or boyfriends. The internet, especially websites such as Craigslist, Facebook and MySpace, has made it even easier to prey on children without being easily detected by law enforcement.
Child prostitution is America's "dirty little secret," one that cuts across racial and socio-economic divides. As Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin observed, "It's one of those issues that doesn't get discussed and therefore there's an assumption that perhaps either it doesn't exist at all or the young women and girls who are prostitutes are there by their own free will." Yet there is little to suggest that these children ever willingly choose such a lifestyle. Even the term "child prostitute" is something of a misnomer, suggesting that it is the child -- and not the adult handler -- who has opted to sell him or herself for sex.
Children who are sold for sex (the majority are female) typically range in age from 11 to 17, with some as young as 9 years old. Once they have been lured or forced into prostituting themselves, these children are subjected to a full range of injuries, diseases, pregnancies, mental issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and drug addiction, not to mention criminal and delinquency charges if they are caught. For those who are "rescued" out of the system, the stigma of having once been part of the sex trade is hard to overcome.
Yet while most people are barely aware of the sex trafficking industry, it infects suburbs, cities and towns across the nation. "This is not a problem that only happens in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco," stated Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "This happens in smaller communities. The only way not to find this in any American city is simply not to look for it."
Unfortunately, Americans have become good at turning away from things that make us uncomfortable or stray too far from our picture-perfect images of ourselves. Yet the harsh reality is that this epidemic is largely one of our own making. Simply put, we have failed to prioritize or protect our young people, leaving them to fend for themselves.
There are a multitude of factors that have contributed to the explosive growth of child prostitution in recent years. These range from the rampant availability of porn over the internet and the unabashed peddling of sex by advertisers and the entertainment industry to a complete lack of role models for young people and a failure by religious organizations to engage or impact them in any meaningful way.
Yet it is the family -- and its breakdown over the past 40 years -- that has had the greatest impact on young people today. The rise of single-parent homes, the drop in marriage rates and soaring divorce rates are a testament to this breakdown. Just consider the family background of a child who has fallen into prostitution: typically, it includes an absentee parent, marital separation, domestic violence, substance abuse, prostitution activities within the family and neighborhood influence.
Sadly, while we as a society have failed to adequately register the importance of family on our children, those who prey on young people understand it all too well. According to a study conducted through the University of Pennsylvania, 75% of known child prostitutes work for pimps, who are adept at creating a pseudo-family environment by promising money, love and affection to children coming from dysfunctional homes who are seeking care and nourishment. These sexual predators then strip these children of whatever money they make and severely abuse them in order to establish a relationship of dependency.
So where does this leave the thousands of young people forced to sell themselves for sex every day just to survive to see the next day?
There are few cut-and-dried solutions. We can continue to throw money at the government -- with its task forces, sting operations and initiatives -- and comfort ourselves that something is being done. We can continue to give money to our churches and synagogues in the hopes that they will do something, perhaps by focusing on the inner cities and offering counseling and assistance to these cast-off children. We can even contact our representatives and insist that they get tough on crime by showing "no leniency" to sexual predators.
However, until each of us gets serious about this crisis, until we all start doing our part to target the underlying societal causes -- poverty, drug abuse and dysfunctional family units -- the gains will continue to be minimal. And tragically, it will be the children who pay the price for our neglect.
Follow John W. Whitehead on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rutherford_inst