In the November issue of Los Angeles magazine writer-at-large Mike Kessler looks into the world of child prostitution, or, as advocates call it, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The details are as sobering as they are shocking, revealing a part of L.A. life that many might rather ignore. Executive editor Matthew Segal spoke with Kessler right after sending the story to the printer.
You focus on streetwalkers—girls as young as 11 who sell themselves (or, I should say, are sold) for sex. How is that even possible to do without being picked up right away by the police?
I think there are a few reasons that girls manage to avoid arrest. First and foremost is their appearance. Dressed and made up a certain way, some of these kids can easily pass for 18. So it’s not always that simple for police to know a kid’s age unless they’re conspicuously young. It’s not unlike people under 21 trying to dress the part of a 21-year-old so they can get past the doorman at a bar without being questioned. Second, the pimps move girls around. If one area is hot with police, pimps will take the girls somewhere else,or lay low and put them on Backpages.com for a bit. Finally, I think there must be some tacit ignorance on the part of police. While Lieutenant Dawson at LAPD—
Dawson figures prominently in the story.
Yes. While he is dedicated to helping these girls, not every member of the LAPD or Long Beach PD or L.A. Sheriff’s Department has the time or motivation or empathy. I think that probably has a lot to do with old attitudes versus new ones: Until everyone understands that these girls are victims rather than “hookers,” then people will continue to ignore the problem, or blame the victim, which is far easier than facing it down.
Had you thought much about child prostitution when you began reporting this piece?
Not really. I mean, I knew it existed, but like pretty much everyone I met on the advocacy side of this issue, I thought of it as a problem for the developing world, something that happens “over there.” Or that when it happened here, it was like The Wire—an isolated bust, maybe, or a bunch of young women found in shipping container.
Yeah. A lot of people you spoke to for the story echoed that same line about how they thought this sort of stuff was going on in other countries but not in the U.S.
Virtually everyone—advocates, probation officers, cops, the juvenile judge-slash-commissioner in Compton, lawyers. I even met a guy who grew up in South L.A., where a lot of this happens, who didn’t truly get it till he started working in the juvenile justice system. He was like, “Oh my god, this was happening right in front of me to some of the from my neighborhood.”
Shifting perspectives are central to the story. One of the people you focus on is Catherine Pratt, that commissioner—sort of a judge—you alluded to. She sees a lot child prostitution cases in her Compton court, and while it took some time, she eventually came to view kids as victims rather than willing participants. Why would anybody think of a 12-year-old who’s selling herself for sex—to grown men, at that—as willing participants, though?
As I mentioned regarding law enforcement, I think it’s easier to turn the other cheek, or to blame the victim. Once you admit that a 12-year-old—who by law can’t be a willing participant in a sex act—is being coerced by a pimp and is very likely the product of poverty and poor parenting, well, it’s not easy let yourself off the hook any more. That’s a lot to take on. It’s simpler to say that a kid is just a bad apple making bad choices. So, unconsciously, it’s convenient for us to think that accepting money (which goes to the pimp, by the way), makes the child complicit, or an accomplice. And we can feel less bad that way, or let it be someone else’s problem. Also, like it or not, there’s a racial and class component. This might not be a developing-world problem, but for a lot of people, places like Compton and South L.A. are “over there.”
Poverty and poor parenting are big factors. Many of the girls are victims of sexual abuse before the get into the game, as it’s known, too. But then there are the pimps, who get their way through something akin to brainwashing—along with emotional and often physical abuse.
Absolutely. I sat in juvenile court and talked to sex-trafficking survivors and read trial transcripts and met dozens of people who know this world very well, and the common theme of every conversation is the desire to be loved and looked after. Girls—and women—in “the life” refer to their pimps as “Daddy.” That’s no coincidence. Daddy’s going to feed you and take you shopping and purport to love and care for you. Once a kid is hooked on that kind of attention, which they weren’t getting at home, then the pimp can get away with serious abuse. For so many of the girls in Pratt’s court, being pimped and pampered with occasional bouts of abuse are a better option than being abused and neglected with no financial or material payoff. And for that reason, a lot of these girls don’t realize what’s being done to them. For all of their street smarts, they’re still young and impressionable. Lieutenant Dawson and I talked about this, and he explained it by paraphrasing Harriet Tubman: I freed a thousand slaves; I’d free a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.
You and I spoke during the reporting of the piece about your own discomfort. There are men doing some pretty horrible things.
Yes, being a male, and asking young survivors personal questions can be awkward, to say the least. These are young women who have little or no reason to trust adults, especially men. As a journalist, I have to ask a lot of difficult questions, which is fine when your subject is an adult. But when it’s a kid—even a kid as old as 19—and you’re talking about sex, it becomes different. You need to information, but you don’t want to pry. During these interviews I’d think to myself, “This is awful, that this kid’s ideas about sex and intimacy are completely sideways.” Being pimped is going to make their personal lives so challenging because some sociopathic dude needed to fatten his pocket and his ego.
What surprised you in terms of what you thought you knew about pimps from, say, Iceberg Slim versus what you observed when you met with a pimp in jail and read up on some other pimps?
Before reporting this story, my knowledge of pimps was limited to blaxploitation film characters like Dolomite or Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver. (Speaking of Taxi Driver, the Jodi Foster character is a perfect example of kids not knowing what’s being done to them, and even defending their pimps.) As Dawson pointed out, the pimps who work the streets with child prostitutes are not wearing fur coats and funny hats. A lot of them are gang members. The guys Dawson pointed out looked like regular young men. The pimp I met in jail was hardly a smooth guy. They’re hiding in plain sight.
You’ve covered animals in peril, cancer-causing government neglect, drug runners, and death under suspicious circumstances. In each case, there are victims and there are those who intend to fight even gravity itself to help those victims. Doggedness may be a common trait, but do you see others?
When I was a kid, I underwent some psych tests to determine why I struggled in school. The psychiatrist noted, among other things, that I was “a child with a very strong sense of right and wrong.” That carried into adult life: I’m drawn to stories of people trying to make the world better, to fight for what they think is right. But I try not to think of all of my stories as good versus evil. For example, I wrote about mountain lions partly because of the “wow” factor. Lions—in L.A.? Come ON! It just so happened that they are victims of urban sprawl, and there are people fighting for them. So I’m not always seeking stories that have these common characters and themes—not even unconsciously, I don’t think. But I do like the term “fighting gravity.” Everybody has a story. Everybody is interesting. And so much of what makes people interesting is their fight with gravity, even if there’s no victim involved. Where there’s tension, there’s a story.
Poverty is a major factor contributing to childhood prostitution, but lack of funding also limits the ability of officials and advocates to rehabilitate victims and to keep other girls from getting into the life. Several nonprofit organizations are doing what they can to help children and adults who’ve been mired in a life of being trafficked for sex. Their sites offer tips, insights, hot lines, and opportunities to donate.
Saving Innocence, Hollywood
Mary Magdalene Project, Van Nuys
Polaris Project, Washington, D.C.