Stephen Smith: From APM, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Bought and Sold: The New Fight Against Teen Sex Trafficking”
Caller: Hey, I saw your ad so I thought I’d give you a call. Are you available today?
Amanda Larscheid: I tried it and when I seen how much money was involved I didn’t want to stop.
Melissa Snow: We’re failing these kids not just once but over and over and over again. The pimps are actually doing a better job.
Valiant Richey: We cannot arrest our way out. The volume exceeds the criminal justice system’s capacity by such a dramatic measure.
In the coming hour, a new response to underage victims of sex trafficking and their buyers.
First this news.
Smith: A word of caution: some material in this documentary may not be suitable for young listeners.
Grant Snyder: The reason the tape recorder is on is so that I have a record of us talking today. OK? Just go back and tell me the story about, you know, from you guys running from Eau Claire. Tell me what happened.
Bobbi Jo Larson: Um, it all started on like July 4…
Sgt. Grant Snyder is interviewing a 17-year-old runaway. They’re in an interview room at a Minneapolis police station. Bobbi Jo Larson ran away from a treatment center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and by the time Snyder found her she was selling sex. She was posting escort ads on the Web and working with a guy she calls E.
Snyder: When did you start posting ads when you were with E?
Larson: Um, I don’t know.
Snyder: Like the next day after you met him, a couple of days you think?
Larson: Probably like the next day or something. He’s like, like, I know a couple girls, or a couple of my friends that have done it and I’ve never really, like, dealt with it.
Snyder: So he told you he’d never done it before?
Larson: He told me he’s like been around like prostitutes and stuff but he told me, “I’m not a pimp, I’m a player.” (laughs)
Snyder: OK, so first of all, that’s not true. He’s been doing it for a long time. OK? You understand?
Bobbi hasn’t slept. She’s high on four different drugs and hasn’t eaten in days. She does not want to hear Sgt. Snyder trash talk the guy she was with.
Larson: He didn’t force me to do nothing!
Snyder: OK, I understand that. This is something I know a little bit about so I want you to listen to me. OK? Any guy that allows a young lady like yourself to be victimized like that, to do degrading things, you know, that speaks of their character. You understand that, right? You know what I’m saying is true, don’t you? I mean you feel it in your heart, right? I know you do. Because you said when you’re with these guys that it makes you feel s—–. I’ve talked to, like I told you, hundreds of women over the years you know and they all say three things to me, OK? I’m only doing this because of the money. I wish I could do anything else—but they can’t because of the money that’s involved—and it makes me feel s—–. How many of those things are accurate for you?
Larson: All three.
Bobbi is sent to a group home two hours north of the Twin Cities. Almost immediately she runs. This time she ends up in the hands of even more dangerous men. Snyder finds her two weeks later, and she’s back in the interview room.
Snyder: You don’t want to be out here doing this s—. It’s dangerous, you got raped this time, you got a gun put against your head. The world is filled with evil f——. And you know that because you’ve met most of them, right?
Snyder: And these people aren’t your friends. We’ve told you this before. We are your friends even though right now you’re irritated with me because I’m asking you questions.
Snyder: OK. But so, we haven’t lied to you. When you run away we keep looking for you and we find you and we bring you back, OK?
Sgt. Snyder is not going to have Bobbi charged with a crime for selling her body. In many places around the country, it’s still routine for girls who sell sex to face delinquency hearings. But a new approach to juvenile sex trafficking is starting to take hold – one that looks at underage people who sell sex as victims, not delinquents. Grant Snyder doesn’t want to punish Bobbi. He wants to keep her safe.
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Bought and Sold: The New Fight Against Teen Sex Trafficking.” I’m Stephen Smith. In this hour, we’ll hear about new efforts to get teenagers out of the hands of sex traffickers, to catch the people who are selling them, and to stop men from buying sex from juveniles.
When Grant Snyder became a cop 20 years ago, he didn’t think prostitution was a victimless crime. The victim was the public, the homeowner, the city. But he kept winding up in that interview room with women and girls who had awful stories to tell. Teenagers who’d been coerced into selling sex by men who lied to them. Girls who’d been threatened and beaten and raped. And he began to think there was another victim here. Even if the girls themselves didn’t think so.
Snyder: Bobbi was one of the more challenging victims that I’ve had to work with. She was very uncooperative like most of our victims are.
Now Sgt. Snyder is a frequent public speaker at community training events like this one in a suburban high school.
Snyder: Most victims lie to us, they fight with us if they have opportunity, they’re very distrusting and they’re very, very difficult to like.
On the other hand, you kind of have to admire them.
Snyder: Victims are incredibly resourceful. When Bobbi Larson ran away from Eau Claire Academy, within a period of one hour – she ran away in an orange jumpsuit that said Eau Claire Academy on the back of it! – Within one hour she had met a woman who gave her money so she that could buy clothes, she got a phone from somebody, got on a chat line, met a guy she’d never talked to before and convinced him to drive from St. Paul to Eau Claire to pick her and her friend up and drive them back to Minneapolis. I can’t even get my kid to put the dirty dishes in the sink (laughter) OK? And they accomplished all that in an hour.
The first time Snyder caught Bobbi, it didn’t seem like she was listening. But it turned out she was.
Larson: The number one thing that I will always remember is him saying from this day on, you will be protected.
Bobbi Jo Larson is now 21 years old. Grant Snyder caught her five times before she stopped running away. She got treatment for drug addiction. Now she and her fiancé live in an apartment above Main Street in a quiet southern Minnesota town. They have a 6-week-old baby. And Larson is grateful to the cop who wouldn’t give up.
Larson: His heart was so big and at that point in my life that’s all I needed, and that’s all I was looking for from day one is love and a big heart and I saw that with him so honestly I don’t know why I opened up, but I did.
Larson has been out of prostitution and drug-free for almost two years now. She’s done a lot of thinking about what made her so vulnerable to being trafficked. Partly it was that she wanted to get high. But she wanted something else, too.
Larson: In a way, I felt really beautiful that all these guys are paying to, you know, get services from me. Or the pimps, I thought at the time they loved me. So, even though I’ve always had a really good loving family, I was adopted at a young age so that was something I also struggled with, like, ‘Why did my parents give up on me and not love me?’ – my biological parents. And it seemed like my, you know, adoptive family, it wasn’t enough.
Girls who are seeking something – affirmation, love, escape from abuse – are easy to spot for pimps like Darren Edmondson.
Darren Edmondson: You can tell a lot through the eyes. Body language tells it all too. You know, you can tell if someone is insecure about themselves. A lot of men play on those insecurities and when you make these girls feel secure they’ll give you the world. (prison door slams) So you gotta play on their insecurities.
Edmondson has close-cropped hair and a goatee. He sits in a cinder block room in an Illinois prison. He’s serving a seven-year sentence for burglary and for promoting prostitution of a 19-year-old.
Edmondson met young women who lived in a group home next door. He drew them into his enterprise with affection and the lure of fast cash. He says he didn’t force them to sleep with men for money.
Edmondson: I didn’t have to. And it was more like – you know what? I might have played a worser role than one of those guys that use violence because mental manipulation is something that can scar a person forever. A wound’ll heal. You know? But when you get into a person’s mind, I think it hurts ’em worse. And like I say, I’m doing this to pay my debts to society. I wanna inform people about what goes on.
Edmondson doesn’t admit to selling underage girls, but he says some of them had been at it before he met them.
A recent study of the U.S. sex trade found that close to 40 percent started as minors, and some researchers think the number is probably higher. Researchers also struggle to estimate how many juveniles are in this underground economy. A recent federally funded study put the number between 8,900 and 10,500.
Often it starts when a teen runs away from home.
In 2015, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children determined that one in five runaways reported to the Center was likely a victim of sex trafficking. Nearly three-quarters of those likely victims ran away from state care: places like foster families or group homes.
The Center’s Melissa Snow says every time they run, it gets more dangerous.
Melissa Snow: The first couple times you run, you can stay with friends, you can stay with cousins, you can kind of stay with people who are within your safe sphere. And then when you get to your third run or you get to your third week, parents start asking questions, maybe you have a fight with the friend that you’re staying with; those safer resources begin to exhaust themselves. And as a result you are pushed into reaching out to people that you don’t know as well in order to get some of your basic needs met.
Not everyone starts as a runaway. When she was 15, Joy Friedman was dating a neighborhood pimp. One night he held her hostage while he and a buddy took turns raping her. It’s a technique in the sex trade; some pimps use rape to break their victims’ spirit. Joy Friedman felt like dirt. She spent the next 22 years being sold by a string of men that she thought of as boyfriends, who used manipulation and violence to keep her in line.
Joy Friedman: “Put your hand on the table,” if I spent money I wasn’t supposed to, because it was considered stealing. How do I steal from myself? I never understood that. But I’d have to keep my hand out there and they’d take a metal ball and put it in a sock and I’d have to wait for them to hit me, and it wasn’t right away, so the anticipation and the anxiety levels were high. And if you moved it, it was like if you don’t put it back down there it’s just gonna be in your head.
And the men she had to sleep with for money? Friedman hated them.
Friedman: I wanted to die, gag, throw up, and I did sometimes – on them (laughs) and uh, I wanted to cut their throats. I would have rather beaten them and robbed them than go through with what they were requesting for their money.
At age 37, Friedman had sunk to the lowest point in her life. She was a streetwalker, homeless and an addict. Her children had been taken away. She heard about an organization that was trying to help women out of prostitution.
Friedman: So I remember in the winter, taking buses clear across town, and I walked in this group and Vednita Carter was running the groups.
Vednita Carter had gotten out of prostitution two decades earlier.
Friedman: The things that Vednita said that really had an impact on me and that stuck with me were: It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t cause it. And that I was worth saving.
Friedman didn’t believe her, but she was intrigued.
The way Vednita Carter talked about prostitution was raw.
In the 1990s, in an old house, a block away from where she once worked in a strip club, Carter was helping other women see the trap of prostitution.
Vednita Carter: So I asked every woman in the group to tell me. I said, “I want you to tell me about what you liked about prostitution. That’s all I want to hear. What did you like?”
They told her they liked the nice cars. The money. Getting dressed up. Fancy hotels.
Carter: I said, “But you haven’t told me anything about prostitution.” They said, “We just did.” I said, “No you didn’t. Prostitution is about an act of sex.” And see, and that’s what people forget about. They try to think about everything surrounding that. But really it is about sex. It’s about an act of sex. I said, “I want you to tell me about how you felt when he told you to get down on your knees and open your mouth.” It started getting quiet then. “What did you feel when he said lay down, he went behind. Took it from behind.” Then I start seeing tears come down. I said, “That’s what prostitution is about.”
Vednita Carter sees prostitution and trafficking as a form of violence against women, especially women of color. The majority of sex trafficking victims are people of color. Buyers are mostly white.
Carter saw the women in the sex trade as victims, not criminals, and she wanted the police to stop arresting them.
In the year 2000, Congress did pass a law recognizing that many people in the sex trade are not willing participants. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act created new penalties for anyone who uses coercion, force, or deception to make someone perform a commercial sex act. The main idea was to combat international labor and sex trafficking.
Amy Farrell: And more and more people, even at that early stage, started to say, “Well, this is also happening in our local communities.”
Amy Farrell is a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Farrell: In addition to people being transported across borders, there are people that are in very similar ways being moved and coerced in the United States.
The U.S. was waking up to a domestic problem. States passed their own anti-human trafficking laws.
It was already illegal under state law to arrange clients for a prostitute. But the new trafficking laws were tougher. If a pimp used threats or coercion, he could face a much longer sentence. And under these laws, anyone selling a minor was guilty of trafficking, because minors can’t consent to being sold.
But the trafficking laws were rarely used, and states continued to bust prostitutes. Including minors.
Javille Sutton was 14 when she got into a car with a man twice her age. He took her all over the country for six years.
Javille Sutton: I was arrested over like 40-some times, different states. Never once did they ask me how old I was. Never once did they ask me, “Why are you giving us all these different names? Who are you for real?” Never once did anyone ask any questions.
In the mid-2000s, a group of teenagers in New York fought back against the arrests.
Rachel Lloyd: We were the shortest, most motley-est crew of advocates to ever descend on Albany – that bastion of integrity. (laughter)
The girls were from Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, a program in New York City for girls who’ve been victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
In a speech in 2015, GEMS Founder Rachel Lloyd described the lobbying trips, where girls faced white men in suits – men who often resembled their former customers.
Lloyd: And it was girls and young women of color. It was girls who’d been in the child welfare system, girls who’d been in the juvenile justice system, girls who’d been in the criminal justice system because they were being prosecuted as adults and being sent to Rikers Island. It was girls who’d been beaten by law enforcement. It was girls who’d been raped repeatedly by johns over and over again, it was girls who’d grown up in poverty and had been seen as nothing, and no one, and worthless. And this little ragtag group of phenomenal kicka– young women changed the law.
In 2008, New York became the first state to recognize prostituted youth as victims, not delinquents. The new law was called “Safe Harbor.” It meant that young people would be offered shelter and help dealing with trauma – not punishment.
It’s a movement that’s spreading to other states.
But if these kids can’t be locked up in juvenile detention, where do they go? How can they be kept safe from traffickers – and from themselves?
Sasha Aslanian looks at how Minnesota has tried to answer those questions.
[Sound of tractor]
CeCe Terlouw: That’s what I like to see, first day bravery! (laughs)
Sasha Aslanian: At a horse farm in Western Minnesota, CeCe Terlouw greets a new girl who’s just arrived.
The girl picks her way through the mud, clearly not used to farm life.
Terlouw’s worked with troubled girls here at the Heartland Girls Ranch since the early ’90s, but recently added a program for girls who’ve been trafficked.
It’s one of several new shelters across the state where kids who’ve been exploited can go if it’s not safe for them to return home.
Terlouw says the rural location offers a peaceful setting to recover.
Terlouw: I don’t think we’ve ever had a pimp come to Benson, Minnesota, to track down a girl.
The girls are here with the support of a new state law. The Safe Harbor law was passed in 2011 and went into full effect in 2014. It said young people who engaged in prostitution would no longer be prosecuted as delinquents. Instead, they’d be considered children in need of protection. The law covers transgender youth and boys as well as girls, but girls are much more likely to be identified as victims of trafficking than boys are. The state put up eight million dollars for help for minors who are trafficked: things like drug treatment, mental health care. Or a safe place to sleep, like Heartland Ranch.
Two of the girls join me in Terlouw’s office for a chat. The first girl is 16 and Native American. She’s slight, with dark hair and glasses.
She has a long history of running away from foster care.
Girl #1: I actually liked being, like, free on my own doing whatever I wanted to.
Terlouw asks her about it.
Terlouw: What was the longest you were out on run or, you know, where people who were responsible for you didn’t know where you were?
Girl #1: Seven and a half months.
Terlouw: Oh my goodness.
Girl #1: Yes. Yeah it was when I first got into “the system” when I first got took away from my parents.
The girl’s social worker sent her here. She kept running.
Girl #1: I ran for, like, my first eight months here maybe.
Aslanian: How often?
Girl #1: Every day.
Now she’s decided to stick it out for the school year. The girl used to running alone is working on opening up to people.
Girl #1: My boundaries and my relationship skills. I’m not very good at, like—
The second girl, who’s older, helps her out.
Girl #1: I don’t know, like knowing—
Girl #2: Knowing what’s healthy, yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
Girl #1: And what’s not.
The older girl is 17, with long reddish-blond hair. She’s outgoing, and seems to be thriving at the ranch. Three months ago, she was found in California after six months on the run. She’s just moved to the Ranch’s transitional house in town and is getting ready to live on her own.
Girl #2: Before I’ve been getting help here, um, I’ve been very male dependent and I learned that it’s OK to not be. And I’m gonna hold off on a male relationship for a while just cause I feel like it’s best for me.
[Sound of horseback riding]
One relationship she’s working on is with her horse, Shine.
Girl #2: He just won’t go straight, he wants to go back over there!
Horse program director Bridget Kinnell coaches her.
Bridget Kinnell: OK, so what about you?
Girl #2: Well, I’m probably a little tight. But now I’m loose.
Kinnell uses horses to help the girls gain insights about themselves and how they relate to others.
Kinnell: So you’re unbalancing him and what are your eyes telling him right now?
Girl #2: To go to the floor.
Kinnell: Yeah OK so chin up, look somewhere, send some energy out, confidence in yourself, believe that you can do it and then he will respond to that.
Girl #2: OK. OK, come on, buddy.
Making sure young people have safe places to go, and adults who are trained to respond has been a big part of the law change in Minnesota.
Safe Harbor director Lauren Ryan says it’s also changing people’s thinking.
Early in her career, she worked on domestic violence. Many people involved with Safe Harbor see sex trafficking as a similar battle. What once was considered a private, unsavory choice people made to stay in abusive relationships, is now viewed as intimate partner violence, with laws and public support for victims.
Ryan wants to see the same patience for people trying to leave prostitution.
Lauren Ryan: Why is it so different that we accept a domestic violence victim will go back seven to 10 times to their abuser and we have an understanding of, “That’s OK, that’s what it takes for them to get to a point where they can leave the situation,” but prostitution somehow is very different and then it’s so much easier to wash our hands of it and say, “Well, she’s choosing to do that. There’s nothing I can do to help.”
Right now, if a victim doesn’t get out before age 18, the support dries up.
That’s a point that longtime survivor-advocate Vednita Carter is desperate to make.
Carter: I love Safe Harbor, but that – we’ve got to end it for everybody.
Carter sees herself as an abolitionist. She points out that when slavery ended, it wasn’t just the kids who were freed.
Carter: The majority of ladies we work with started as little kids, see. And they all turned 18. But they started when they were 12, 15, 17. These are all kids, you know. And so something magically is supposed to happen to them at 18. They should know better.
Supporters are pushing to extend Safe Harbor shelter and services to young adults in Minnesota up through age 24.
Smith: This is Stephen Smith. By spring of 2016, 14 states and the District of Columbia had stopped prosecuting juveniles caught in prostitution. Two states had done the same for kids 15 and under. Several others had adopted provisions to protect kids from serving time for being exploited. More are expected to follow. Still, in 2014, more than 600 minors were arrested for prostitution in the United States.
A Safe Harbor response like Minnesota’s can help victims recover their lives, but advocates say what would be even better is to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of traffickers in the first place.
An effort in Boston is trying to get upstream of the problem.
Audrey Morrissey: Let’s talk about anything we know about being in the life.
Audrey Morrissey started on the streets when she was 16. Now she’s 53. She’s got a silver buzz cut and she works with an organization called My Life My Choice. Her group has trained people in 29 states to use its prevention program for girls.
American RadioWorks got permission to record a session with girls living at Youth Villages-Germaine Lawrence Campus in Arlington, Massachusetts. It’s a mental and behavioral health treatment facility for girls 12 to 18 years old. Some have already been involved with prostitution. Morrissey reviews something that they learned in an earlier session: the four tactics a pimp might use to draw them in.
Morrissey: Force is a big one. What else? Befriending, force, two more. What’s the word when he makes you fall in love with him? Begins with an S.
Morrissey: There you go.
Co-leader: Seduction, yes.
Morrissey: Seduction. And then the other one is kind of tricky. I’ll give an example of it. It’s the one where they’ll use somebody close to you, like if you don’t work for me I’ll make your sister work for me.
Girl: That’s what I was thinking of but I don’t remember what it’s called—
They may not know the words, but they’ve seen guys use these tactics.
Girl: So I was at my aunt’s wedding like two weeks ago and I got a Facebook notification from a message from some guy, and I looked at it and he was like, “Oh you’re beautiful.” He was like, “How about you come work for my movie productions,” like XX videos, I’m like, “Nah, chill.” And it was, like, scary. I got scared. He was like, “I know where you are.” I had just posted something, too, about where I am, you know how you can do the location thing?
Morrissey: So, “I’m following you.” Yeah, that’s creepy.
Girl: Yeah and he said, “I know where you are,” he’s like, “I’ll come pick you up.”
Morrissey: And how many girls – some girls think that’s fabulous, think somebody saying all that means they’re special. And fall for that.
My Life My Choice classes are always led by a survivor like Morrissey, and also a trained clinician. The girls take a test before and after the 10 sessions to see if they can spot things like grooming behavior to recruit a girl. In one group, only 30 percent of girls were able to correctly identify a pimp in a sample anecdote. By the end, 90 percent could.
Morrissey warns the girls not to reveal much to someone who seems to have too sympathetic an ear for their problems.
Morrissey: When you start telling people, “Oh I hate my mother, I’m in the program, I hate the program, I hate my mother, dah dah dah,” you gave them what they need. They wanna hear, “Nobody cares about me.” Oh, they’re so understa– Oh, oh!
Girl: “I’ve been in that situation before.”
Girl: Yeah, yeah, “I know exactly how you feel, I’ve been there before.”
Girl: “If you out in the rough, you know I got you. ‘Cause I know what the struggle is.”
Girl: “Oh, you need a place to stay tonight? You can come crash at my crib, you’ll be safe there. I got food, I got weed, I got bottles. Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.”
Morrissey: All the things a young girl – right. All the things that—
Girl: Netflix and chill?
Girl: “And I won’t even try anything,” that’s what they’ll say too, they’ll be like, “I’m not gonna try nothing, I’ll sleep on the couch. You can sleep in the bed.”
Morrissey: Oh, oh, God. Yeah, so the game hasn’t changed is what you’re saying. OK.
Morrissey gets the girls to talk about the reality of prostitution and the girls list off what it feels like. You get beat up. You look dead from not eating. You imagine you’re somewhere else in your mind. You use drugs to escape. You pretend you like it.
Girl: When I was on the street a lot of the other girls that were with me, I tried to act all cool and be like, “Yo it doesn’t matter to me, yeah I’ll go sleep with him for like $20 or something like that,” but on the inside it really sucked. It was hard for me. So I just turned myself in.
Morrissey: Right and I’m glad you shared that because the myth, right, because we will verbally say, “Yeah girl I’m getting money and I’m used to getting money and I’m down and that’s how it is,” right? But I had to tell myself, like you, I had to tell myself something. But I didn’t want to be out there.
The National Institute of Justice is funding a study to see how effective My Life My Choice is in keeping girls out of prostitution. Researchers will follow them for six months.
Lisa Goldblatt Grace, the co-founder of the program, says it’s not on the shoulders of girls to prevent their own exploitation, but some knowledge can help.
Lisa Goldblatt Grace: There’s a multi-billion dollar sex industry that goes looking for the most vulnerable kids in our communities and we’re trying to provide the kind of resources that they may need to make it less of an unfair fight.
Smith: You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Bought and Sold: The New Fight Against Teen Sex Trafficking.” I’m Stephen Smith. We’ll take a short break, and then go inside a police sting:
Marc Chadderdon: You were thinking two girls for some money, OK? To have a sex act for cash and that’s illegal, OK? I’m not judging you or whatever else. Like I say, you’re not the first guy that’s here today and you’re probably not the last.
We have more about this story on our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can see photos of the Heartland Girls Ranch. You can also find our complete archive of American RadioWorks documentaries.
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Support for this program comes from Laura and John Arnold.
Our program continues in just a moment from APM.
Stephen Smith: From APM, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Bought and Sold: The New Fight Against Teen Sex Trafficking.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Caller: Yeah, I saw your ad?
Amy: Yeah, this is Amy.
Caller: Yeah, are you available today?
New Ulm, Minnesota, is a conservative small town known for its brewery and Oktoberfest. But today, officers here are holed up in a hotel room, running what they call a “John Sting.”
[Sound under of Marc Chadderdon talking]
Nicollet County Investigator Marc Chadderdon pulls up Backpage.com, the most popular website for escort ads. The decoy ad shows a young woman’s face and cleavage, and the headline: sweet brunette ready to play.
Chadderdon: And that is our ad, which is basically asking guys if they’re ready for an amazing time.
It won’t be amazing in the way they think.
Amy: Hi, this is Amy.
The woman answering the phone is an undercover cop:
Caller: Are you in a house or apartment?
Amy: I’m at a hotel here.
Caller: Oh OK, cool. Your photos look nice. Can you tell me about yourself?
Commercial sex buying has largely migrated from the streets to the Internet, but online ads are sometimes described as the Achilles Heel of the sex industry. They allow law enforcement a way to see what’s going on, and to try to disrupt it. Sasha Aslanian picks up the story.
Sasha Aslanian: Officers say they could run these stings all day, every day, in any town. When they post an ad, the first call or text always arrives within minutes. The Web is crawling with buyers.
Caller: What’s your bra size?
Amy: It’s a 32C.
Caller: Nice. Um, OK. Um, what’s your donation?
“Donation” is a euphemism for price. It’s supposed to throw law enforcement off the trail, but it doesn’t.
Amy: It would be $100 for a half or $175 for an hour unless there’s something else you’re looking for. That would just be straight sex, of course.
Caller: Yeah, sure. Um, yeah well I’m kind of interested in the half hour.
Chadderdon’s ringtone is a freight train.
[Freight train ringtone]
This ad, in a town of some 13,000 people, generates more than 100 responses today from men across the region. Every call and text message is recorded for future evidence.
An investigator from the New Ulm Police Department checks the phone numbers of the callers. One guy’s a doctor. Another one’s president of a Lions Club.
Text messages scroll by on a large monitor set up in the hotel room. The officers assign a number to each potential buyer so they can keep track of where they are in the negotiations. They write their numbers in marker on white boards that keep filling up.
Chadderdon: I got 44!
Chadderdon: 44 is 7:00.
Investigator: 44 has agreed to $175.
The bathroom in the hotel room doubles as a makeshift holding cell. The first guy they’ve nabbed is in his early 40s, with a slight mustache and ball cap. He knocked on the hotel room door, and cops emerged from the room next door with handcuffs. This guy was already caught in another a prostitution sting north of the Twin Cities. He hasn’t even been to court yet and now he’s facing another charge.
Buyer #1: I was just kind of shock you know, I mean I know I need help and either it’s alcohol or this you know, or drugs or something, but no I’m not gonna do any of that stuff but it was very surprising that there was cops, so.
Aslanian: And how many times have you tried this before?
Buyer #1: Probably about 10.
Aslanian: What are your thoughts about the people who work in this industry? The women?
Buyer #1: Well it’s their choice you know, I mean I didn’t force them to do that, you know, that’s their choice so—
[Shuffling, “All right, we’ve gotta run”]
The sting is also designed to arrest men seeking to purchase sex with juveniles. The undercover officer tells a caller she has a 17-year-old girl who’s also available.
Buyer #2: What did you mean earlier, though? Like before, you were like, “I’m training someone in” or something?
Amy: Well I’ve got a girl with me here, so obviously you don’t learn how to do this game alone. So—
Buyer #2: So how much would – it would be the same price for both of you?
Amy: It’d be $240 for an hour for the both of us. But she doesn’t do—
Buyer #2: I only have $100. That’s why—
Amy: OK. Well would you rather do something with her instead and I would just watch and make sure everything’s OK? And at least you’re not this creep that’s gonna assault her or anything.
Buyer #2: Oh, no. Um, how about both of you? As far as like, could we make, like, less time with both of you?
After some haggling, the man agrees to buy oral sex from someone he thinks is 17 years old.
The room is tense, as the officers wait for the man to show up. It’s a felony.
Chadderdon: Now, 1:40 was his first call. We’ve been talking to that sucker for five hours. He’s here, he’s nervous right now. I would be too.
The team puts on their bulletproof vests and handcuffs him in the parking lot. They bring him into the room. He’s a 22-year-old man dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. And he’s clearly scared.
Buyer #2: One question.
Investigator: What’s that?
Buyer #2: Am I going to go to jail?
Investigator: You know what? There’s a very good chance you’re going to go to jail.
Minutes later, a 55-year-old man arrives for his date. He wasn’t interested in a juvenile. He’ll be charged with a gross misdemeanor.
Buyer #3: Three failed marriages and, uh, yeah. So I guess we won’t be trying this again.
Chadderdon says when men realize they’ve fallen for a sting, they all react the same.
Chadderdon: The wind’s out of them and they know what they’re doing is wrong. So, “Hey, can I go home?” Or “Am I going to have to stay?” or what, you know. Everybody has a sad story.
Most men answering ads don’t get caught. Stings like this are expensive. They can be dangerous. Many departments have their hands full responding to all the other crimes happening in their communities. But if they do a John Sting, at least the buyers are plentiful and pretty easy to catch. It’s tougher to snare the traffickers.
Tim Hoppock: We’ve had many cases out of here.
We’re in Austin, Texas, with Detective Tim Hoppock of the Austin Police Department. Hoppock works in the Human Trafficking and Vice Unit. We’re parked in a motel parking lot on the north end of town. Hoppock wants to show me why it’s so hard to bust pimps.
Hoppock: You know, a lot of the pimps are rather intelligent as far as where they’ll position themselves. So a lot of our cases are back in the back. See where those two people are sitting on the third level? They’ve got a great view of who all comes in.
Hoppock points to two people hanging out on an outdoor walkway.
Hoppock: They can do lot better, you know, surveillance on us, counter surveillance.
Next door is another motel that looks down on the one we’re in. Hoppock explains how pimps use this terrain to their advantage. They can stay out of sight, make sure their girls are working and watch for cops.
Hoppock: You got a perfect view and you’re completely out of the mix. Like you’re – we’re not going to see you. So on more than one occasion we’ve had girls say, “He stays over there,” and it’s impossible for us.
Hoppock says even if they catch a pimp, it can be an uphill battle to get a trafficking case through a courtroom. Trafficking laws are relatively new, and if they can put away a pimp on a drug charge or sexual assault of a child, those cases are easier for juries to understand.
Amy Farrell at Northeastern University found in a 2013 study that even though they had new trafficking laws with tough penalties that they could have chosen to use, prosecutors often charged traffickers with other, lesser crimes.
Farrell: Prosecutors, like all of us, do the things that we believe are familiar and are more certain. And so in conditions of uncertainty, when new laws are passed and there are not established legal structures, the evidence necessary to make those legal cases is not known, prosecutors are more leery of trying an individual that they believe is guilty of a crime with a crime that they’re less certain will result in a conviction.
Farrell says states’ use of trafficking laws is growing, but it’s uneven. California accounted for nearly 40 percent of trafficking prosecutions in Farrell’s latest study.
Even with the threat of long federal and state sentences, the money selling sex can be too good to resist. Darren Edmondson, the man you heard from earlier who’s now serving time in an Illinois prison for promoting prostitution, thought he knew how to avoid the cops.
Edmondson: Any time somebody mentions money on the phone we’re gonna hang up. We only accept donations. Anytime somebody mentions sex on the line we’re gonna hang up, because we ultimately do sensual massages. That’s what we do.
Edmondson says he had eight women working for him, and each would turn over $1,600 to $1,700 a day to him, although it’s impossible to verify that.
Edmondson says he used to sell drugs. But the profits are lower and the prison sentences are longer. It was a no-brainer to switch.
Edmondson: Drug dealers that stand on the corner and risk their life to make $300 in a day, risk getting shot by other drug dealers and stuff, and they can’t go spend their money. They’ve gotta save it because they’ve gotta buy more drugs. Me, the product is always there. I don’t have to go, (laughs) you know, I don’t have to go cop new drugs, or – I can go to the mall and spend $6,000 today on a couple outfits and some shoes and not have a care in the world about where I’m gonna get the next money from tomorrow because it’s always gonna be there. You know, the money is always a little bit higher than the drugs. Especially in the city of Chicago. Everybody’s selling drugs. It’s too much competition. There’s not too many people, you know, selling sex.
What finally tripped Edmondson up was a police officer caught him brokering a deal for a 19-year-old woman to provide oral sex to a trucker at a truck stop.
Edmondson says he never thought he’d get caught. By his own admission, he’s been doing this since he was a teenager.
And somebody’s probably taken his place. That’s how Michael Shively looks at it. Shively is a researcher at Abt Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who studies efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex.
Michael Shively: I’ve asked many law enforcement people around the country the same question, you know, what would happen if you could magically arrest every pimp that you know of in your jurisdiction? How long would it take for the market to sort of regenerate itself? And they say weeks, you know. Days, weeks, months. That there are profits to be made and you can take the players out and there’s that revenue stream going by and there are plenty of people that are eager to pull out a net and start dipping into it.
Smith: I’m Stephen Smith. Some communities are trying a new solution. What if commercial sex were approached like smoking? King County, Washington, is trying to change public attitudes so it’s no longer acceptable to purchase sex.
[Sound of traffic]
A 62-year-old retiree named Bob has become a kind of crusader on the issue. He wants to make up for something he did. He takes me to a McDonald’s parking lot not far from Safeco Field near downtown Seattle where he went one day in March of 2014.
Bob: I was sitting here supposed to meet this woman who was bringing a 16-year-old – supposedly – to meet and go to her place to have sex. The designated time was noon. And I got here about 11:20.
Smith: Was this your first time buying sex?
Bob: No, no. I had a handful of times before that. Yeah.
But Bob says there were a few red flags. The woman he was communicating with said the 16-year-old lived and went to school nearby. That seemed fishy to Bob, since it was a downtown industrial area. But his curiosity overrode his caution.
Bob: I did agree to pay for sex, to have sex with a minor, which is just very difficult for me to even admit that.
Bob was a mortgage banker who’d taken early retirement due to a medical disability. He lived in an affluent suburb of Seattle, and was married and had three adult children.
He waited in his car for the woman he’d met online.
Bob: About five minutes later a police van pulled in behind me and blocked me and I got arrested. Sitting there, handcuffed to a chair, knowing my life was about to drastically change was, it was just very difficult. I’d been pretty delusional in my thinking that I would never get caught doing something like this.
Smith: What were you looking for when you were scrolling through Backpage or whatever it was? And what were you looking for when you were here in this parking lot in a McDonald’s?
Bob: Yeah that’s a good question that I still haven’t got a good grasp of the answer to that. But trying to fill a void and some of my own insecurities that I’ve had in life. I used to always just write it off as, you know, just going out and having sex. But it’s deeper than that. It’s um, some of the issues I’ve had over the years maybe with my own self-worth and when I started watching so much pornography it was like kind of a trigger that I thought that I would find some joy or some, some sort of affirmation that I’m a man or something like that, and that never was the case. You know, I always came away feeling dirty and depressed and I would swear I would never do it again and then a year or two later there I was, you know, slowly drawing myself back in.
[Sound of traffic fades]
Valiant Richey: Bob was going down a dark road.
Valiant Richey is the man who prosecuted Bob. He’s a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County.
Richey helped engineer a shift in King County to go after the buyers. He says it began a few years ago, after prostitution survivors challenged him on why so many women and children were getting arrested instead of the men buying the sex. Richey told them he wasn’t sure that was true. He’d check and get back to them.
Richey: I still remember the day that my interns brought the charts to me and showed them to me. It was dismaying. Because I had prosecuted many pimping cases, I knew what these girls and women had been through, I knew about their vulnerabilities, I knew about the exploitation they had been through, and yet here in front of me was a chart telling me that our community was arresting and prosecuting them far more often than the men who were buying them.
Richey took the information to his bosses. He said they needed to change how they looked at human trafficking.
Richey: Unfortunately, there is an opinion that the root cause of trafficking is vulnerability. That there are vulnerable people out there and therefore they get trafficked. That’s totally incorrect. Vulnerability is what traffickers take advantage of to respond to the root cause, which is demand. If there was no demand there would be no business and traffickers would not exploit people. They’re not in it because it’s entertaining; they’re in it because they make a lot of money.
King County studied the scope of the problem. It found more than 130 websites selling sex locally. Nearly 7,000 men were responding to Backpage ads in a 24-hour period. In 2011, only 39 sex buyers were charged. Richey says they had to attack the problem differently.
Richey: We cannot arrest our way out. The volume exceeds the criminal justice system’s capacity by such a dramatic measure that there has to be a broader community-based response. Or you’re not gonna move the needle.
Lots of different organizations in the community are working together to try to reduce demand. An employers’ alliance encouraged companies to talk about the issue with their employees. A thousand high school students learned about healthy relationships as part of a trafficking prevention program. Hundreds of students in fraternities and sororities participated in discussions on three college and university campuses.
In 2014 King County flipped its numbers, for the first time, charging more buyers than people selling sex.
The County wanted to make sure the ones who got caught wouldn’t be repeat customers, so it created a 10-week sex buyer intervention program. That’s the class Bob went through. Peter Qualliotine designed it. He’s Director of Men’s Accountability for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle.
20 years before, he had started one of the first “John Schools” in the country in Portland, Oregon. But over time, Qualliotine’s thinking changed. He saw that barraging men with stories about the harms of prostitution wasn’t getting to the heart of what makes men pursue commercial sex.
Qualliotine: I think what I learned from the classes where they just show up for the class is that they come in and that they’re pretty defensive. And they tend to have this little tape that runs over and over in their head that’s saying, “This shouldn’t be a problem, this should be legalized and regulated, it’s just these uptight people who are imposing their ideas about sex on me,” and they’re not really open to kind of taking a look at how sex buying has functioned in their lives.
Qualliotine’s program isn’t just for men who’ve been arrested. Some men enroll after they find out about it while searching for sex online.
[Stephen Smith stand-up]
Smith: I’m in Seattle, I’ve opened my laptop and I’m typing in “cheap escorts.” [Sound of typing] Uh, and I have a lot of different cheap escorts in Seattle, Washington. Ah, and down at the bottom of the page there’s the ad from Seattle Against Slavery. “Want to buy sex? Don’t want that awful feeling?” And if I click on that, “You’re not alone, there is help available. Make the choice without regret and contact us today.”
Robert Beiser: We can see that we had 2,000 people clicking through in the last month.
Robert Beiser is the executive director of the group Seattle Against Slavery. 160,000 people searching for commercial sex in King County were shown this ad in the past month. On average, 2 percent of users clicked through to learn more, which Beiser says is not bad for an Internet ad.
Beiser is also using social media to reach young men. Seattle Against Slavery got some help from friends in the tech sector to create Internet memes that ended up in the Facebook feeds of nearly half the young men in King County. Beiser says the aim is not to foster book group-style discussions, but rather to slip an idea into the back of someone’s head: Maybe buying another human being for sex isn’t cool.
Beiser: It’s the type of slight change that could be the difference between a guy saying, “Yeah, it’s OK if we hire someone in prostitution for a bachelor party or for a 21st birthday,” or someone saying, “Why would we do that? Someone might be trafficked. They might be a victim of violence. That’s not the way I wanna celebrate my birthday or, you know, celebrate getting married to someone else.”
Seattle’s “Buyer Beware” campaign has gotten pushback from adult sex workers who argue it conflates all sex work with trafficking. These sex workers say that the campaign is most likely to deter their nicest clients from paying for sex. Safe, nonviolent guys. They worry that means a bigger percentage of clients will be men who want to hurt sex workers, making their work more dangerous.
But some of those “nice guy” clients say they don’t want to buy sex anymore.
Qualliotine: It’s really good to see each of you…
At our request, Peter Qualliotine has gathered a group of men who have gone through his program. One is a prosperous-looking man wearing a crisp white shirt and dress slacks.
Man #1: I had a pretty good job. I was a manager of financial planning, an advisory business. I got fired as a result of this. I think that was short sighted on their part, having gone through this class now. Um, my wife, you know, I – thank God that, you know – we’re still together. It certainly – you know, also my children, and has brought me closer to them. But I don’t think a lot of men realize the risk they’re putting their lives and families to.
The 10-week course these men took is in addition to heavy fines and jail time. The men who tried to hire minors had to register as sex offenders. And they’ve had to hear how what they did affected the women they paid for sex.
The men vividly recall a “day in the life” letter written by a woman in prostitution.
Bob: The hopelessness and misery that she was going through in her life, you know, hour by hour, the overwhelming desire for her just to get somewhere warm for five minutes, by herself, to have peace and quiet instead of finishing earning the $500 she was ordered to go out there and get, and there’s just, you know – and then negotiating with a guy that he’s trying to beat her down on his price and you know, “What’s $25 mean to you?” And he has no idea it means everything to her. That gets her off the street for the rest of the night and just, yeah it was bone chilling to listen to that.
Man #2: Yeah and like just having no food and waking up in a place you can’t wait to get out of but then by the end of the night you can’t wait to get back there. So it’s like, just a circular trap of hell.
The guys say it was a relief to have each other to talk with. The group meant so much to Bob that after he finished his court-mandated 10 sessions, he voluntarily re-enrolled.
Nearly two years after his arrest, Bob is still working to restore his relationships. It was wrenching to tell his adult children what he had done.
Bob: When I got to the part of what I got arrested for, my youngest daughter went – got up and went in the bathroom and threw up.
Bob’s still hopeful that he can reconcile with his wife. He says by facing what he’s done, he’s getting to a place where he can believe he’s not a horrible person. He just did a bad thing.
Not everyone who buys sex is looking for someone who’s 16, the way Bob was. But considering the number of sex workers who start when they’re minors, there are a lot of men out there paying for sex with teenagers, whether they know it or not. One young woman we talked to was 11 the first time she traded sex for money. She wishes she could ask the men who bought her some questions.
Survivor: Am I trash to you? I wanna know. I just wanna know. I mean, maybe these are questions that are going to break my heart, but I still wanna know. Do you—what do you really think I am? Am I even a person to you? An individual? Do I have a soul to you? A spirit, a mind, or am I just an object? I wanna know.
A patchwork of state laws reveals a country still very much in flux on prostitution and human trafficking. Advocates draw parallels to the domestic violence movement, which decades ago changed public attitudes about violence in relationships. Some skeptics of the movement say trafficking gets blurred with adult prostitution, which they’d rather see legalized. Most people in the sex trade are adults, but in the 21st century, America is seeing a sea change at the entry point with more help for juvenile victims, and less tolerance for those profiting from and buying young bodies.
Part 2 Outro
Smith: You’ve been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Bought and Sold: The New Fight Against Teen Sex Trafficking. It was produced by Sasha Aslanian with Emily Haavik, Kate Ellis and me, Stephen Smith. The editor is Catherine Winter. The Web editor is Dave Peters, Web producer Andy Kruse. Mixing by Craig Thorson. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ryan Katz, Samara Freemark and Chris Worthington. This program is part of a reporting collaboration between ARW and Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
We have more about this story on our website, American RadioWorks.org. You can learn about the research into sex trafficking and see photos from a police sting. We’re interested in knowing what this documentary made you think about. What kinds of questions did it raise or thoughts did it inspire? Let us know at American RadioWorks.org.
Support for this program comes from Laura and John Arnold.
This is APM.