Americans care a lot about money.
We talk about jobs and taxes and pay checks, but here’s what we don’t talk about: right here, in the United States, there is a thriving underground economy based on selling children for sex.
If sex sells, then business is good. It was almost a billion dollars, according to an Urban Institute 2014 study. But these dirty profits come at a huge cost.
This is how sex traffickers do business. It’s all about supply and demand.
First, they need someone to sell. Traffickers target young people in their own homes, by combing through social media profiles, looking to spark a conversation. The trafficker targets pre-teens and teens by finding something to bond over and earn their trust.
It could be the promise of a modeling career. The trafficker might buy them drugs or alcohol or provide protection from an already dangerous situation at home.
Traffickers gain psychological control and use violent threats to force victims to stay. Once the child is isolated from family and friends, the trafficker puts them up for sale. This is where the demand comes in.
Traffickers use internet sites to connect with buyers or “johns.” But calling them johns is too polite. They are abusers. They are purchasing kids for sex.
So who are these buyers?
Court records show they’ve been teachers, pastors, cops and judges. They could be the guy next door.
The trafficker gets the money. The buyer gets the sex. The child victim gets exploited and sold.
So how is this different from prostitution, pornography or other sexual acts? These victims are minors. Legally, they cannot consent.
This isn’t the movies. It’s not like “Pretty Woman” or “Taken.” Richard Gere is not the buyer. Liam Neeson isn’t there to save the day.
This is sexual exploitation.
This is trafficking.
This is modern day slavery.
It’s selling girls.
Carol* looked toward the darkness before her, then back down at her hands.
She cleared her throat.
She’d just been reminded that she was only 14 years old the first time she was sexually trafficked. Carol says met a guy on Facebook who called himself “Motivation.” He friended her, sold her on a life of no parents, no rules and being able to do whatever she wanted.
Court documents say Joshua “Motivation” Jones took nude pictures of her to post on the internet. He told her after every sex date, she should bring the proceeds back to him. That she didn’t have to wear a condom with clients, but she had to wear one with him. That did she have any other friends who would like to work?
When she told him she had a friend, but she was only 14, court documents say he replied: age doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Then, since the internet on his phone wasn’t working to post those nude photos of her, he forced her on the streets to sell her body for sex.
Carol’s first buyer was an undercover cop.
She was arrested for prostitution, despite federal law, which defines her as a victim.
According to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, all children under the age of 18 who are commercially sexually exploited are victims of sex trafficking. Unlike adults, there does not have to be “force, fraud, or coercion” under the law. The very age of the child makes them a victim.
Police arrested Jones and he pled guilty to compelling Carol into prostitution.
His sentence for the crime? Eight years probation.
He called it a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Carol was disappointed, but not surprised.
“It made me feel like what happened wasn’t really that serious and that it doesn’t really matter,” Carol said of Jones’ sentence. “It happens all the time, like who cares if it’s just another girl? Who cares if it’s you this time?”
When Carol got out of juvenile detention, another sex trafficker recruited her.
Therein lies the revolving door of sex trafficking — victims often get lured back into the sex trade because they never received specialized care. Pimps do the crime because they often do very little time.
Court records show “Motivation” continued trafficking young girls. It was only after a second arrest that he received hard time -- 12 years in prison.
“Sit your daughter down and let her know,” Jones said through a telephone in a Texas penitentiary. “There’s people out there really ready to manipulate her.”
*Carol’s name was changed to keep traffickers from finding her.
Megan* grew up in church and got straight As in school.
She calls herself the “pretty typical girl next door” and she had big hopes and dreams.
One of those was to one day become a music star.
She went to an online dating site and met a guy. She said that guy had a business partner who she was told was a music producer.
“My dream was to play guitar and sing and make music,” she said. “So when he asked if I wanted to go and make music, I didn’t hesitate and was like, ‘Yeah, sure.”
But there was never a music studio. She never saw any instruments or any recording equipment.
“It was all a lie,” she said.
Megan was sold on Backpage.com, a popular website where people post ads for sex.
“The next thing I know, I’m selling my body for money,” she said. “And $30,000 later, I haven’t kept any of the money. They’ve taken everything.”
TIMELINE: The history of Backpage.com
But traffickers don’t merely hide on the internet.
RaeAnn worked at a fast food restaurant to help her family make ends meet. A group of young adults, led by a girl RaeAnn’s age, often ordered at the drive-thru and flashed money around.
Monica, RaeAnn’s mother, said her daughter was asked how much she made.
“She was like, ‘$7.50,’” Monica said. “They’re like, ‘Uh, you work so hard.’ They would talk to the managers and be like, ‘Y’all need to give her a raise.’”
The girl in the group later befriended Monica’s daughter on Facebook. Little did RaeAnn know, she was actually a recruiter luring new girls to be trafficked.
They promised her a lot more money than she was making serving burgers. And RaeAnn’s family was in a difficult spot, so the extra cash sounded good. Plus, she was told she would be going to Wisconsin to sell purses.
“That was the story,” Monica said.
But it wasn’t purses being sold. It was RaeAnn.
She was advertised on Backpage.com with the term “new in town,” one of many secret codes used to suggest an underage female.
“I kept trying to call her, trying to call her, and it kept going to voicemail,” Monica said. “I felt out of control. I had no control of the situation. Helpless. I felt mad.”
RaeAnn spent eight days in hotel rooms before relatives recovered her. Monica called it a living hell for her daughter.
“With some of the things she’s had to do,” Monica said, “some of the things she’s seen, she will never be able to undo them.”
*Megan’s name was changed to protect her safety.
The daughter of Michael* and Lynn* vanished for more than three weeks.
“You don’t sleep,” Michael said. “You don’t eat. You’re out driving around. You don’t know what you’re gonna do if you find her.”
While her desperate parents searched, traffickers lured their 13-year-old daughter away with free alcohol and drugs.
They found their daughter at a motel just blocks from home only to discover she had been forced to have sex for money.
“It was probably the most devastating moment, honestly, that I ever experienced,” Lynn said. “She broke down sobbing and said, ‘You won’t want me anymore. I’m so dirty. I’m so dirty, mama. You won’t want me anymore.”
But she wasn’t the only girl recovered at the same motel -- located across the road from the local high school.
Amber Cammack investigates missing teens cases for the non-profit Operation Found Safe.
“There have been dozens of girls linked to this motel: 14, 16, 12 years old,” she said. “And she’s not the only 12-year-old that we found there.
“We’re close enough (to the high school) for these kids, when they go on their lunch break, they can come over here and party or get whatever they want.”
Traffickers often use “free” drugs and alcohol to lure kids but only to tell them later that they have a debt to pay. The way they pay off that debt is by turning a trick, or being forced to have sex.
Lynn and Michael’s child was only 13 years old when she was trafficked out of the motel across from the high school she would have attended.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Michael said. “She’s been through some things that people just aren’t supposed to go through.”
They said their daughter still suffers from PTSD and acute sexual trauma.
“My child thinks that I will not love her,” Lynn said. “She doesn’t want me to hug her because she’s dirty. There’s no way that I can hug her or talk her out of it. She’s got to get professional help.”
But nationally, there are fewer than 600 beds dedicated to specialized long-term care of child sex trafficking victims. And 27 states do not have any beds for long-term recovery.
*Michael and Lynn’s requested their names be changed given the sensitive nature of this subject.
This is the story of two people: one paid for sex, one was sold for it.
We’ll call the buyer Jason.
Jason claims he purchased girls for sex without ever thinking about their age.
“All of this operates in the shadows,” he said. “All this operates in secrecy. I’m sure there are guys that say, ‘I don’t go to underage because I know.’ You don’t know.”
The average age of trafficking victims is just 15 years old, according to Shared Hope International research study. The non-profit group works in the prevention of sex trafficking and the restoration of those who have been victimized through sex trafficking.
Jason said he purchased sex more than 25 times and never got caught.
“When I was in the midst of it, I never thought of sex trafficking,” he said. “I was paying to escape for 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour to escape.”
The Shared Hope International analysis also took a close look a who is purchasing girls for sex. They found the buyers are most often men around 40 years old.
“Typical American guy. Baseball, apple pie and mom. That’s me,” Jason agreed.
Jason says he had a great marriage for the first five to seven years. But after the birth of his second child, his wife seemed to lose interest in him. He still wanted that physical affection. But he said he was no longer getting it, so paying girls he found on Backpage.com became a way for him to fulfill that desire.
He got the sex he wanted, but lost his family.
“One of the worst days of my life, to have to tell them what I’d become,” he said. “I had it all and I chose to throw it away.”
Jason says he got divorced and lost custody of his children.
According to Shared Hope International, nearly a quarter of buyers hold a position of authority or trust, such as an attorney or law enforcement. Approximately one in five buyers have a job working with children.
Jason now says he regrets buying girls like Gaby. For two years, Gaby’s body was sold for sex. But now, she's becoming a voice for the thousands of women and girls who are lured and trapped into the world of trafficking.
Gaby hopes to expose what’s happening in bedrooms all around us.
“You wait for a knock on the door,” she said. “Then you have to hug them in a specific way where you would put your hands up the middle of their back and then go back down and around their hip because you had to check for guns, knives.”
She said she was kept on duty for eight hours a day, staying drunk and high to take away the pain. Buyers would pay up to $750 for an hour with her.
Gaby believes the man who trafficked her—and several other girls—was a college professor.
“He would open his laptop and make me read reviews on me,” she said. “He wants to make sure that his clientele isn’t disappointed.”
Gaby’s buyers revealed personal details about their lives. They were women’s husbands and daughters’ fathers.
The husbands and fathers who purchased Gaby and thousands of girls others like her are the reason so many girls are exploited, manipulated and assaulted.
If you see something or someone suspicious, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. Tips are anonymous.