09/03/2010 05:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in NYC - An Update

The commercial sexual exploitation of children or, colloquially, child prostitution, is nothing New Yorkers would expect in their own back yards. Pictures of Phuket or Rio de Janeiro are more common to the average news consumer, but New York City is no exception. Mia Spangenberg pointed out in her study, "Prostituted Youth in New York City, An Overview," for ECPAT, that about five thousand boys and girls were selling sex for survival in New York City in the early 2000's and the numbers are increasing. There is no current study available that describes the problem in New York City, which shows that the subject is not present in the public eye. However, organizations like GEMS, Safe Horizon, ECPAT and SAVI at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City perform a valuable yet demanding service by helping young men and women in need of legal and psychological support. While they are slowly creating the necessary awareness, the City of New York is cutting some of these organizations' budgets.

Linda is twenty-two years old and found her way to SAVI, the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention program organized by Mount Sinai Hospital that is working with young women and trans-gendered persons who survived "the life."

The life as a commercially exploited minor has many facets, all bleak. Linda was seventeen when she met Peter, who quickly became her pimp, but first became her father. This is a common phenomenon described in the unprecedented 2007 documentary Very Young Girls, by David Schisgall and GEMS, that describes the destiny of girls in New York City who often come from broken homes.

In many cases these young girls never had a male role model in their lives who would pay them attention or give advice. Pimps are looking for vulnerable girls and often find them by lurking around foster care homes and high schools.

Recently this year, Bloods gang members in Brooklyn were arrested on charges of running several sex trafficking rings that recruited girls from junior high schools. Girls as young as fifteen were routinely beaten and deprived of food if they didn't earn $500 a day selling their bodies, according to the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Pimps went to schools to find girls for their operations in Bushwick, Brownsville and East New York, according to indictments that were announced in June.

When they arrive at the schools, pimps say what any girl or woman at any age likes to hear: "You are beautiful."

First they offer "support and security," then the relationship turns into a tie of dependency and ultimately, abuse, both physical and emotional. Because the girl now has to "make money," she has to pay her share into the relationship, a cynical exchange of love and attention for cash. In order to generate that cash, she sells her body.

Linda is walking down the streets of Queens Plaza on a rainy day, reminiscing about the nights when she came here to work. A lot of men would drive by in their cars, sometimes purposefully looking for a very young girl, sometimes randomly picking up the first one they could find.

"From my experience," she says, "it was the type of man who would never address a woman in a bar, who had some kind of a self-esteem issue."

Her pimp, Peter took her money when she would come back in the morning, up to $500 each night.

"I was living with him, but I was not the only one. There was another girl in the house doing the same thing."

The girls stay because "the life" becomes their normality, and the parameters for what is considered normal shift dramatically. It becomes normal to share the man they love with another girl, and it also becomes normal to walk the streets. Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, explains the emotional dependency with the Stockholm Syndrome: It is a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims.

The noticeable shift in age toward younger girls, Smolenski explains by the ongoing sexualization of youth and the growth of the sex industry in the US. Rachel Loyd, founder of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, in New York City, says, "Men are not necessarily looking for children, they don't really care how old she is and they don't really want to think about how old she might be."

Katherine Mullen, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, an organization dealing with juvenile rights practices, delinquency proceedings, and the representation of young women and men that have been charged with prostitution, holds certain aspects of American popular culture accountable for the increasing problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children. "If you release songs with titles like, 'It's hard out here for a pimp,' I am not surprised that the numbers are increasing."

Smolenski, Loyd and Mullen agree on the fact that the City of New York is not addressing the problem adequately. Mullen explains, "I don't understand why the Vice Squad that was dealing with Craigslist, for example, was closed down."

The online classified advertising site Craigslist is facing accusations that it has become a hub for underage prostitution after two young women placed an advertisement in the Washington Post this year saying they were repeatedly sold through the site to men who "paid to rape" them. The NYPD, on the other hand, quietly shut down its highly successful Vice Squad operations on Craigslist without any explanation to the officers. The move came after five years of targeting sex-for-cash ads on the site, which led to arrests in all five boroughs of the city. Only two weeks ago Attorneys General in seventeen states banded together to call on Craigslist to discontinue its adult services section.

"The increasingly sharp public criticism of Craigslist's adult services section reflects a growing recognition that ads for prostitution, including ads trafficking children, are rampant," the attorneys general said in a letter two weeks ago to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark. The letter continued, "We recognize that Craigslist may lose the considerable revenue generated by the adult services ads. No amount of money, however, can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the suffering of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the market and trafficking provided by Craigslist."

In June the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women organized a protest in front of Craigslist headquarters in San Francisco without a response by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Now that the pressure is increasing, the following response to the Attorneys' request was published:

"We hope to work closely with the attorneys general, as we are with experts from non-profit groups and law enforcement, to prevent misuse of our site in facilitation of trafficking, and to combat such crimes wherever they appear, online or offline."

Meanhwhile, The City of New York is cutting the budgets of a few organizations that were successfully dealing with the aftermath of commercial sexual exploitation, stabilizing the victims, and showing them a new life perspective. The SAVI program, Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program, at Mount Sinai Medical Center has to deal with a cut of fifty-thousand dollars, money that is desperately needed to provide long term services for victims of sexual abuse.

"We do trauma therapy, case management and try to establish a safer life for the victims based on their goals," explains Mariam Habib, a clinical social worker at Mount Sinai. With the budget cut, programs like SAVI are in danger. Another program that has been affected by the cuts is St. Luke's "male victims of sexual assault" program which is of equal importance, since boys are very often overlooked when it comes to the problem of commercial sexual exploitation.

Linda joined SAVI a few years ago and the program helped her establish a new life. She is now a SAVI ambassador, an outspoken, sharp young woman, who seems pensive at times. "This is survival every day," she says. Peter is still in her life; every once in a while she answers his phone call, but avoids any personal interaction. "Do I hate him?" she reflects, "no, because hate leaves no room for healing."