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Prostitution's Pernicious Reach Grows in the US

Sex for sale is spreading across the United States. It involves younger and younger prostitutes, sophisticated networks of brothel operators and street pimps, and women and girls from abroad who are lured into the business and held in virtual slavery. That's the bad news.

The good news is that steps are being taken to reverse these trends. Federal agencies are cracking down on sex trafficking.

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In Portland, Ore., officials have established "prostitution-free zones" where prostitutes - and the men who hire them - face additional charges of criminal trespass if caught again in those neighborhoods. In San Francisco, first-time customers of prostitutes are attending a "school for johns." Here, police and ex-prostitutes give them a sobering lesson that's kept virtually all of them from becoming repeat offenders.

In addition, many former prostitutes are back on the streets helping other women trapped in prostitution. Former prostitutes also are speaking out about the physical dangers of the profession as well as the way it degrades women. Some are confronting the "sex workers" (as some prostitutes call themselves) who argue that commercial sex between consenting adults should be decriminalized.

"There was a time when I would have told you I was on the streets because I wanted to be," says Angel Cassidy, who was sexually abused as a young girl before spending 12 years as a prostitute. "But it wasn't true, it just was not true." Today, Ms. Cassidy is married and works as a peer educator for SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a nonprofit group in San Francisco that helps victims of abuse and prostitution.

Experts from Asia, Europe, and North America gathered in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 17 and 18 to talk about trends in prostitution - especially the global trafficking in minors that is growing in numbers and sophistication.

"There is a perception that trafficking affects only developing countries," says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based organization that sponsored the Reno conference. "But it is as much an issue for us here in the United States as it is in my home country [India], as it is in Nepal and China and the Philippines."

A recent case in New York involved 31 Thai women held in a Bowery brothel. Immigration and law-enforcement officials stumbled on the situation when a housing inspector sent to the premises reported that a frightened woman said she was being held against her will.

Many women brought to the US, their passports and other papers confiscated by the traffickers, are told they will be employed in restaurants or other legitimate businesses, then informed they must "service" 400 to 500 men to pay off their $40,000 "debt" in travel and other costs.

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Several women agreed to testify against the Bowery brothel operators, and one person has been convicted so far. But most of the women refused to cooperate (some fearing that family members back home might be harmed), and officials suspect some were spirited away to brothels in Seattle and other cities.

"More often than not, these types of investigations are unsuccessful," says Daniel Molerio, assistant director of investigations with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York. "And even more often, this type of activity goes undetected."

Lois Lee, who founded Children of the Night, a recovery and treatment program for street kids in Los Angeles, says child prostitution in the US began to escalate in the late 1980s shortly after laws were passed making it more difficult for officials to detain such children as "runaways."

Paddy Lazar, a former prostitute who now works with the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland, Oregon, says the 400 women and girls her organization sees each year are getting younger and younger.

"The year before last, the youngest was 14," she says. "Last year it was 13, and this year it's 12."

Others say pimps are just as coercive as international traffickers - especially when their charges are barely in their teens. "They really isolate these girls," says Portland, Ore., vice squad Sgt. Ed Brumfield, who's spent years helping under-age and adult prostitutes get off the streets and into protective programs.

And far from providing "protection," these men typically dominate and often violently abuse the women who work for them. In many cases, pimps introduce young women to addictive drugs, which can help turn an already dependent relationship into virtual slavery. Of the women in the Portland program (most of whom had worked for pimps), 93 percent had been assaulted; 78 percent had attempted suicide.

Another trend is the movement of organized prostitution into smaller cities and suburbs. "The circuit used to be the big cities," says Ms. Lee. "Now the circuit has switched to the suburbs. The prostitution subculture has become very, very mobile."

At the Reno conference, several working prostitutes argued that strictly regulated legalization would result in safer circumstances. But most former prostitutes disagree.

"It makes no sense," says Norma Hotaling, executive director of SAGE.

"It doesn't get rid of pimping, it increases it," says Ms. Hotaling, a former prostitute and heroin addict. "It doesn't get rid of child prostitution, it increases it. It doesn't get rid of trafficking, it increases it. It's absolutely ridiculous."

Some former prostitutes are finding their way clear of a guilt-laden past through increased spirituality. Renee Vercoutere, a community outreach worker with the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center in Sonoma County, Calif., spent 10 years as a prostitute. In the years since, she says, what has become increasingly clear is "the idea that God is good ... and that if God made everything good and he made me, then I am good."

"Renee does great work," says Lynn Garric, executive director of the center. "She's a compassionate person on the street and very knowledgeable. She's wonderful."

Experts warn that the problem will not be solved until prostitution is seen as an attack on basic human rights, and until many men change their attitude toward women. Critics of current police practices note that while both buying and selling sex are illegal in the US (except for a few counties in Nevada) only about 10 percent of those arrested in such cases are the male customers.

"We live in a culture that's male-dominated," says Ms. Vercoutere. "And it's going to take a long time and a lot of voices before that changes."

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