Child prostitution goes on in America every day and every night – despite the efforts of federal, state and local authorities. For more than a year now, Youth Radio has been investigating child sex trafficking in Oakland. It's a system of exploitation that's ensnaring girls across America.
The FBI estimates 100,000 to 300,000 children and youth per year are forced into prostitution. But missing from these types of reports are perspectives from the girls themselves, who are caught up in what's known as "the game.”
In the series "Trafficked," Youth Radio tells the story of two young women, Darlene and Brittney – and that’s not their real names.
They come of age in Oakland around the time the FBI named their city one of the country’s hotspots for child prostitution. The Youth Radio investigation draws on interviews, eyewitness reporting, and city records to piece together what life is like for girls when they become trapped by pimps – and how law enforcement continues to criminalize girls the state legally defines as "sexually exploited victims."
The girl we call Brittney is now 19 –
BRITTNEY: I wake up at five I'd be outside by like 5:30. And then I won't be able to come back inside until like 2 o'clock in the morning.
DENISE TEJADA: And you would just get up and do it all over it again?
BRITTNEY: Hmm hm, everyday, seven days a week.
The other girl we call Darlene is 18. She says to understand this problem, you need to understand the girls.
DARLENE: You honestly have to believe that they are more than a girl on the corner, you know, they are somebody's daughter, somebody's niece. They're being sold out there. Some people are standing on the corner selling fruit while other people are standing on the same corner selling a girl.
Brittany and Darlene have been sharing their stories with Youth Radio's Denise Tejada.
DENISE TEJADA: Darlene and Brittney were in middle school when Oakland was named one of the hot spots for child prostitution. As they entered their teens, classmates talked about boyfriends who had lots of money, and like most kids in the Bay Area they listened to music of Oakland whose lyrics glamorized the game.
(Lyrics from song "Streets of Oakland," by Ant Banks): Oakland all day long, be pimpin' these hoes from dusk 'til dawn. Makin' cash real fast and you know it's on. Hangin' on the streets of Oakland.
DARLENE: A lot of it is glorified. Oh, you’re from Oakland. Everybody has dreads, everybody goes dumb, we pop pills, smoke a lot weed, parties, sideshows and hoes.
If you’re not part of the scene, it’s hard to believe that prostitution has become normal for so many girls in Oakland and other cities. But it’s true. Girls see it as an escape from desperate home lives, no food on the table, absent parents, and friends getting shot. And pimps take advantage of that. Darlene and Brittney escaped the world of sex trafficking but they still see it everywhere.
BRITTNEY: I would see johns that I used to date working in the Apple stores or I could be going out to eat with my family and be on the freeway and look on MacArthur at all the hotel rooms and be like, "I used to be in those rooms with johns and tricks."
DARLENE: It's funny you mention that 'cause me and my friend at this Mexican spot right on 46th, right behind the bus stop – you know how some girls consider certain streets their corner? So that was my corner, I was like, "Wow!"
Oakland police say most teenage girls get into prostitution the way Darlene did, through a boyfriend they trust who turns out to be a pimp. They call them "Romeo pimps" because they can talk a girl into anything.
(Lyrics from song "I Dog Hoes" by Doughboyz Cashout): When it comes to pimpin' hoes I’ve been truly educated, 'cause I’m so slick I make hoes turn tricks. Players’ University, class of '86.
DARLENE: On my fifteenth birthday, he was like, "Well, you know, since you’ll be staying with me, we need more food. We need to find a way to get some money." He’s the one that like introduced me to prostitution, and I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
Once a girl is working for a so-called "Romeo pimp," it's all business.
DARLENE: "This is how you look at the guys, this is what you tell them, these are what cars to stay away from, this is how much you charge," and he just said it to me like that.
There’s another kind of pimp. The "gorilla pimp," the kind that uses force and fear to get his way. Oakland police estimate a third of teenage girls working in prostitution were abducted and forced onto the streets. Brittney was one of them.
BRITTNEY: I got kidnapped when I was 15. I decided to cut school one day. I was in Oakland, on Havenscourt and Foothill, and all I heard was, "Man, go get that girl!" And one of them came out and dragged me by my hair and he pulled me into the car.
Brittney says she was gang raped by at least six men. She was put on the street in Sacramento by one of them, a 32-year-old who became her pimp. He took her phone, told her not to talk to anyone but johns and had his sister watch her so she wouldn’t run. She was shuttled back and forth to work Oakland’s red light district.
(Lyrics to an unidentified rap song): Oh, yeah! It's young Beeda Weeda F#*@ 'em, don’t feed 'em. I don’t love 'em, I don’t need' em. I just stuff 'em in a Beamer, take 'em to the track, and leave 'em.
International Boulevard is what prostitutes, pimps and police call the "track." It's where men come to buy sex.
TEJADA (in her car): It's around 6:10 and we’re driving down International. And these are girls that look so much younger than I am, and I’m only 21. In a 50-block span, I counted 20 girls. Some of them were posted on street corners; others were hanging by bus stops, or just walking the same blocks over and over.
I park at one of the many taco trucks on International Boulevard. The guys who work the truck say that every day pimps use their parking lot to drop off girls and hang out. They say it’s common to see pimps beating girls. Basically, pimps run their businesses from this spot. Just in a matter of seconds, I saw a girl getting picked up by a customer – a guy or a "john."
From my car, I spotted two women. One seems to be the leader, or what people in "The Game" call a “bottom girl." She approaches the car, speaks to the driver, and instructs the younger girl to walk over. This is what happened to Brittney and Darlene countless times.
TEJADA (in her car): It’s a Toyota Prius. It's parked behind us, and they’re waiting for a girl to get into the car. She has tight leggings, gray shirt, she’s carrying her heels. She looks like she could be 17 or something and they just left right now.
While most Oakland residents drive by and don’t think twice about what’s going on here, the people in this neighborhood do. People like 20-year-old Frank Pardo, whose mother owns Yoyi's Bridal shop. Pardo grew up here.
FRANK PARDO: They been here for all these years – what makes you think they’re going anywhere? Police see them. I mean, everybody sees. Nobody does anything.
Just down the street, I see a teenage girl in a short red dress crying on a bench. She has blood coming from her mouth. A business owner who runs a clothing store says he saw the whole thing.
UNIDENTIFIED STORE OWNER: One of them punched her right in her face. So she went down and they went right for her purse.
He says the man who punched the girl appeared to be her pimp. The store owner would not identify himself by name for fear of retribution from sex traffickers. At 15 years old, Darlene and Brittney were out on Oakland’s track. They were also on Craigslist before the adult services section was shut down and other internet sites.
(Lyrics from song "No Hoe" by D-Lo): So make that money bitch, sell it to the world, and let’s get rich. Yup! I could put you on Craiglist.
Brittney says her pimp got her hooked on drugs to keep her working around the clock. Usually she ate only one meal a day.
BRITTNEY: And that was from Burger King or McDonalds so that doesn’t even count.
SHARMIN BOCK: It’s not the best deal to have sex with 15 different guys in one day and only get a cheeseburger at the end of it.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock compares the girls’ situation to being brainwashed by a cult.
BOCK: Remember Guyana and Jim Jones where everybody’s drinking that Kool-Aid drink? Well, that’s exactly what these girls have had. Let’s call it pimp juice. They’ve all had it and they can’t see past either their affection for their trafficker.
According to a recent survey by the FBI, 61% of the teen prostitutes were raped as children. That’s what happened to Brittney. She was raped by her stepfather and years later by her trafficker.
BRITTNEY: I kept going back to #@$*&@ so many times because I knew what he was capable of. He’d beat me and he’d rape me, he’d beat me and he’d rape me and I just kept going back until I ended up being pregnant by him. And he beat me so bad that I ended up having a miscarriage.
Finally Brittney and Darlene had enough.
DARLENE: I got shot at quite a few times, and it's crazy you’re going to be in jail or you’re going to be dead and I don’t want any part of those.
After her last arrest, Darlene joined a program that transitions girls off the streets. Brittney got out too, shortly after she had the miscarriage.
BRITTNEY: Six days later—it was a Sunday—and he put me on East 14th. I told him that I didn’t want to be out on Sundays because I had a bad feeling about Sundays. And I saw my aunt. And my aunt ended up snatching me up and putting me in the car. And then she took me to my mom’s house. Two days later police came knocking on my door, saying I had a warrant.
That warrant put Brittney back in jail for prostitution and, like Darlene, she enrolled in a community program.
BRITTNEY: Since then I graduated high school and I’m starting college. When I was 15, I didn't see myself alive at the age of 18. And now I am 18 and I can look back and say, "You know, I've been through all that and I've come out of it." It feels wonderful.
It’s been about a year since Brittney and Darlene turned their lives around. It's still a work in progress.
BRITTNEY: I haven’t worn heels at all except if it was to prom. I haven’t worn heels to my cousins’ wedding. I wore flats to mom’s funeral. I’m scared to like wear flats again. I don’t dress up at all because I’m like if I get dressed up maybe someone’s gonna think I’m a ho.
DARLENE: Like I still feel that way when I wear heels. I’m like, "Gosh, I hope I don’t still walk like I used have when I wear heels." But then again, it’s the whole healing process because we’re both still healing off of it and I’m sure you’ll feel good when you dress up because you’ll know that’s not you anymore. And that’s how I felt when I wore heels on my 18th birthday. I felt empowered in a way because I’m like, "Wow, I’m not wearing heels because someone else is telling me to. I’m wearing them because I want to.
Both Darlene and Brittney are working with community organizations to help other girls escape sex trafficking. They consider themselves survivors navigating their way to a new life.
Mid-level traffickers can make more than $500,000 a year marketing just four girls. Oakland police say long standing networks of gangs and drug dealers are moving into the sex trafficking of minors because they see it as a lucrative business.
Here’s part two of Youth Radio’s investigation, reported by Denise Tejada.
DENISE TEJADA: Oakland is known as a center for sex trafficking with a specialty in children. Police say Oakland youth are trafficked from their hometown out to other sex hubs, like Portland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. Prosecutors and advocates are both frustrated by California law, which makes it difficult to prosecute pimps and johns and easy to go after the girls.
LT. KEVIN WILEY: I want to thank everybody for coming out tonight. Remember, priority number one is safety, right? Undercover officers, make sure you're aware of your 360 the entire time. No surprises out there, please.
At Oakland police headquarters, Lt. Kevin Wiley is briefing a group of FBI agents and police officers about to go out on a sweep.
Until four years ago, Wiley's Vice and Child Exploitation Unit prioritized arresting johns. But those operations and the funding that made them possible have been cut. Instead, the Oakland Police Department now targets the children who've been trafficked, in an effort to get them off the streets and to get them to give up the names of their pimps.
WILEY: We're out there looking for pimps, anyone involved in human trafficking. If we can pick up some of the girls, that's great. We're targeting children, but we do want to get the big fish, that is, the pimps out there.
Youth radio producer Bret Myers wnet on the Oakland P.D. sweep.
BRET MYERS: Undercover cops in beat-up used cars drive out to East Oakland's International Boulevard, the center of Oakland's red-light district, known as "the track."
A plainclothes officer watches from across the street as a young woman in a short skirt stands on the corner outside an empty storefront. A squad car pulls up. For these sweeps, police use a county probation rule that prohibits girls with previous prostitution arrests from going near International Boulevard. Police say they don't have to see a girl making arrangements to get paid for sex to arrest her.
Two officers from the squad car approach the woman, handcuff her, and drive her to a command center consisting of a police van parked behind a nearby Lucky's supermarket.
WILEY: It's busy. We've only been here 45 minutes, and we already have five girls that we've detained, arrested. One is a juvenile, so they're going to do an interview with her.
The 15-year-old is separated from the adult prostitutes and placed in the back of a police car. She's wearing short shorts and sandals with shiny silver straps, crisscrossing up to her mid-calves.
Police question the girl. A victims' advocate contracted by the county stands nearby and will remain in close contact with her throughout the booking process.
The police officer uses the victim's pink cell phone to dial her parents, who live about 200 miles away in Fresno, California.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER (on the phone): All right, so what's going to happen now is she's going to go down to the police department in the juvenile hall section and more than likely, you're going to have to come get her sometime tonight, Okay? I understand that you’re in Fresno but do you have any family members out here? Adults?
To release this girl, police have to put her in the custody of her parents or her legal guardian. Police say the girl's parents never did pick her up. She was sent to juvenile hall and she never divulged the name of her pimp.
By the end of this sweep, police had arrested seven adult women, three girls, one pimp and no johns. It's a small victory. Police estimate 100 minors work as prostitutes on Oakland’s track every night.
TEJADA: Though they arrest few pimps and prosecute even fewer, Oakland police say that arresting the girls is a necessary first step toward shutting down sex trafficking. But many children's advocates disagree.
NOLA BRANTLEY: The reason why we arrest them is because they’re the easiest person to arrest.
That’s Nola Brantley. She was trafficked as a teenager and now runs MISSSEY, a program that helps girls get out of the sex trade.
BRANTLEY: It's hard to arrest the johns, and they represent many different facets of society and life. It's hard to arrest the exploiters because of the amount of evidence necessary. So, the easiest person to arrest is the child.
Brantley says these children are not really prostitutes.
BRANTLEY: Every act of what's called prostitution with these children is actually a form of child sexual abuse and, to take it further, child rape. So I don't think children who are raped should be criminalized, no I don't.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock counters that arresting the girls is actually a way to save them. It gives the county a way to introduce victimized girls to social services.
SHARMIN BOCK: Having a court involved with a case hanging over your head provides that added incentive to stay in a program, at the end of which a great likelihood exists that you will in fact recognize that you were in fact exploited.
Bock says, the logistics of going after the men are daunting.
BOCK: It's very hard to get a hold of those johns. Because by the time you hear about it, they're just a number. It's the child telling you, "I had sex with 15 different men yesterday." They're long gone.
And there's another factor making it easier for johns to buy sex and for pimps to make money the Internet. Brittney and Darlene, two teenagers who escaped the sex trade, told Youth Radio they were trafficked on both the Oakland streets and online.
BRITTNEY: He had me on Craigslist, Red Book, and there was another one. I think it was like Eros, something Eros Guide, or something like that.
Craigslist has removed the adult services section that was used for the sex trade, but there are many other sites that fill the void. With help from the Internet, what used to be a local prostitution business is now global.
Marty Parker, who works on human trafficking cases for the FBI's Oakland office, says pimps aren't invisible to law enforcement.
PARKER: Even though these guys think they're not leaving any track online, they are. Just a pimp posting an ad for these girls on myredbook.com that gives us their interstate nexus right there, and we can then bring federal charges against him.
But Parker says that doesn't mean they'll be prosecuted anytime soon.
PARKER: We could do it every day if we had the manpower to do it. Unfortunately, there are too few people working in the FBI who work these cases.
Youth Radio’s investigation has uncovered another crucial part of the online sex trafficking infrastructure: Girls describe photo studios in Oakland where young women pose in sets that look like bedrooms. Studios provide lingerie, wigs, and make-up. Some routinely upload x-rated photos and write and post online sex ads in other cities. Child advocates say the laws need to catch up with what’s happening online and on the street because America’s girls are out there for sale day and night.
This piece was reported by Denise Tejada, and produced by Oakland-based Youth Radio. It originally aired on December 9, 2010.