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Minneapolis 'Shouldn't Have to Sell Its Daughters'

Kenny is 18 years old, but has been working on the streets of Minneapolis, cross-dressed as a young girl, since he was 16. He prostitutes himself to pay for "crack" - a potent form of cocaine.

Kenny used to enjoy playing baseball in school. Now the driving force in his life is crack. He makes money to pay for it mostly from men and boys driving into the city from the suburbs looking for sex with a young girl. Most never find out that Kenny is a male.

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Even though his young life is a harsh treadmill of sex and drugs, a gentle part of his nature remains concerned about other young people on the street who are starting in prostitution.

"I see these hungry little girls giving their last pocket change to their pimps and I tell them to just go home," he says. "Sometimes it works. Mostly it doesn't."

Here in America's heartland, far from gritty Los Angeles and New York, the commercial sexual exploitation of youth in prostitution, escort services, massage parlors, and strip joints is a growth business.

Minneapolis generally enjoys a reputation as an enlightened, modern Midwest city. Yet it has a thriving downtown sex industry, the largest in the region, valued at about $50 million annually. In just a decade, the city's sex district has grown from a handful of seedy strip bars to at least six warehouse-size strip clubs, one peep show, two saunas, and two large adult book/video stores - all in a 12-block radius. The Minneapolis phone book lists no fewer than 70 escort services, and massage parlors abound.

Strip club operators, pornography vendors, and escort services all stoutly deny employing underage girls. Police have, however, sometimes found underage girls working for such businesses. Former prostitutes also told the Monitor of escort services they had worked for using fake identification.

The different parts of the city's sex trade are "an underground industry that is linked together," with much common ownership, says Brian Herron, a City Council member. "They all seem to feed off of it."

But while some city politicians like Mr. Herron rail against it, the sex industry has mostly been accepted as just another component of the city's economy, long-time observers say. The booming convention business at the city's steel-and-glass heart has grown in tandem with the bricks-and-mortar sex palaces (former warehouses) nearby. "Minneapolis is using its youth to cater to America's domestic sex tourism industry," says Evelina Giobbe, director of WHISPER, an organization here that helps women escape prostitution. "A city shouldn't have to sell its daughters for sex to make a buck."

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The City Council has tried since 1986 to use ordinances to confine the sex titillation industry downtown. But, activists say, that just generates demand for prostitution for miles - and children become a target. On any given night there are about 2,000 children on the streets without shelter, according to estimates by several youth agencies. Some say that only perhaps 10 percent, or 200 children, are involved in prostitution. Others say the number is much larger.

The Southside Prostitution Task Force, which fights prostitution in Minneapolis, claims that about 1,500 women are prostitutes in the Minneapolis area with between 15,000 and 30,000 men a day. If Minneapolis is roughly in line with other American cities, then perhaps one-quarter of those in prostitution - around 300 to 400 - are children under age 18, child advocates say.

In the first six months of this year, police made 265 prostitution-related arrests in Minneapolis, but just nine involved children under age 18. That, in turn, had led some to conclude that juvenile prostitution is small. But not all.

"I can't remember the last juvenile prostitution case I heard," says Charles A. Porter Jr., chief judge of the juvenile division for Hennepin County District Court. Still, rather than feeling pleased, he says the numbers do not reflect reality. There is a "disconnect," he says, that somehow keeps juvenile prostitution cases out of the courts. Some advocates suggest bluntly that this "disconnect" is simply due to police not responding to the problem. But police say they do work with grass-roots groups on the problem but lack resources.

"I'll see a young girl or boy out for a few days and then they're gone. Our system can't move that quick. So that tells me a pimp has moved in. They've put them into a house somewhere where they're not so exposed and where they can control the kid," says Linda Kolkind, head of the Southside Prostitution Task Force. Ms. Kolkind drives daily along East Lake Street in her beat-up brown Dodge van with its warning to prostitution customers: "Johns' license numbers taken 24-hours a day" painted in huge red-and-yellow lettering on the side.

"People don't want to face this issue because it's just too hard," she says. "It's too hard to look at the ugliness. It's too hard to deal with a system that does not protect juveniles from male predators."

Yet, she notes, five Minneapolis neighborhoods have joined her group of activists in the last four months. The city council is returning her phone calls now. "People are finally beginning to see," she says, "that what we have here is not the movie 'Pretty Woman.' It's something else entirely."

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