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Girls Entering Sex Trade May Say It's a 'Choice', But Experts See Them as Victims of Master Manipulators

Heather (not her real name) knows well the mental and physical abuse that a pimp can use on children to exploit them in the commercial sex trade.

When she was 11, her mother - a heroin addict who wanted Heather to help pay for her drug habit - was the first person to introduce her to prostitution. "At first, I did it because I felt obligated to my mom," said Heather, who is now 18. "Later I did it because I had to do it."

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In seventh grade, Heather says she was abducted from her school in Toronto by pimps. From ages 13 to 16 she was forced to work strip clubs, "modeling" agencies, and escort services - all thinly veiled fronts for prostitution.

"I was working seven days a week - doing anything to make them more money," she says. When she resisted, she was beaten by pimps who "owned" her. She bears the evidence on her body. Worn out at age 16, she was given the "option" of paying a "leaving fee" of $7,000 in Canadian dollars ($5,110 in American dollars) for her freedom.

"I was of no use to them anymore," she says. "They wanted someone young and naive." She managed to make enough money to gain her freedom. Today, two years later, she attends a community college in Vancouver but still prostitutes herself two or three days a week to make ends meet. "Believe me, I will stop this as soon as I can," she says.

Is it really a 'choice'?

Child advocates bridle at the suggestion that children trapped or lured into prostitution are "prostitutes." They don't like that label because it implies children can make a reasonable choice to sell themselves.

"These are sexually abused kids, they're not prostitutes," says Kimberly Daum, author of a recent report on juvenile prostitution in Vancouver.

"In any other sector of society what happened to these children would be called sexual abuse," she says. "If a teacher does this to them in school it is abuse. But the minute a kid is persuaded by a pimp to stand on the street, society denies them their rights as a child."

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Yet society does see children in prostitution as having made a "choice," says Beverly Balos, a law professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This permits society to "demonize" them for the alleged choice and to feel it can write them off, she says.

"These kids are viewed as little sex perverts even though studies show the average age of entry into prostitution is 14 - and most of those kids have run away from sexual or physical abuse at home," Professor Balos says. "They find themselves on the streets offered food and housing in exchange for sex. What kind of choice is that?"

Al Erickson, a Minneapolis minister, says children are quite simply outfoxed by adults and that a kid in such circumstances cannot be considered to be making a genuine, well-informed, and unpressured choice. He has made it his full-time job to educate children in rural Minnesota school districts about traps laid by procurers trolling for unsuspecting youths.

"After a while the girl says to herself, 'I made this choice,' " Mr. Erickson says. "But this 'choice' has been set up by the pimp. The pimp sees something in that girl that can be manipulated. She maybe needs love and he's coming on like a real friend who would never take advantage of her. She sees this as good stuff - an individual who finally cares. She doesn't see his other aims."

Ericka Moses, a teen counselor at PRIDE, a Minneapolis organization trying to get women and girls out of prostitution, also sees calculated adult manipulation: "I don't know any 15-year-old girl who says, 'When I grow up I want to be a prostitute.' "

The hype that recruits

The procurer's technique for recruiting girls typically includes either abduction or seduction. Most prefer seducing a child by trying to discover her vulnerabilities, then telling any lie that exploits them - including the suggestion that he "loves her" or that the child is "beautiful." To gain the child's confidence and get her dependent on him, a pimp also may appeal to a child's materialistic instincts, showering her with clothes or let her stay "free" at his residence.

Inevitably, payback time arrives and the pimp begins to induce guilt, insisting the child should work the street just a little bit in return for all that he has done for her. If she refuses, however, she will be beaten until she obeys, says Craig Lewers, an officer in the juvenile task force of the Metro Toronto Police Department. "Pimps are our society's supersalesmen," he says.

'He was lying'

Jill (not her real name) tells of the powerful mental hold her pimp had, controlling all the details of her life. She began prostituting at age 12 after sexual abuse by her stepfather. Now 31 years old, she lives in Minneapolis, where she fled two years ago from her pimp on the West Coast. She left prostitution and is rebuilding her life, taking community college courses and working full time. Even after two years free of prostitution, she recently called her former pimp from a pay phone - just to make sure she was free from him mentally, she says.

"He told me all the things I expected to hear - how he loved me and wanted me back," she says. "He said if I came back I could still study for my secretarial degree - and work the streets. I finally realized then that all those years he was just lying. He only wanted me for money."

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