Four years ago, Shayna* skipped school with a classmate who promised that if they headed to a local barbershop, she would show her how easy it was to make fast money. “I had no idea what that would be until we got there, and I didn’t realize that she was recruiting me for a pimp,” says Shayna, who accepted a drink from the man upon meeting him. “He began telling me, not asking me, everything I was going to do from that day on. I was scared but interested, because he made it seem like it was the perfect situation. But I didn’t really understand the depth of what he was saying—or what it really meant I would be doing—until he brought in the first guy who bought and violated me. I was only 14 years old.”
Shayna, now 18, was trapped in that life for three years, part of the time in metro Atlanta, before she escaped. “I feared for my life through all the sexual assaults, gang rapes, beatings and weapons used by the pimp to keep me in line and generate money,” she recounts through an interview facilitated by Lisa Williams, founder of Living Water for Girls, a treatment facility that helps to restore the lives of girls who have been trafficked.
Shayna didn’t even know that her pimp had sold her on the Internet, a common practice in the sex-trafficking world.
According to a recent federally funded study on the sex trade, in Atlanta, some pimps make nearly $33,000 a week. Much of this income comes from selling young girls by promoting their business online.
I am the ultimate experience. Beautiful Young and Sinfully Tempting. Very Talented. Start with a Touch ~ Always End With a Smile.
I will provide very discreet fun sessions. AVAILABLE NOW.
There are thousands of online classified ads such as this with naked and likely underage girls erotically posing on websites such as Backpage and Craigs-list. Whoever posted the one above listed the young woman’s age as 19; experts say she’s probably much younger.
Welcome to Atlanta
According to the Urban Institute, which conducts economic and social policy research, Atlanta is the sex-trafficking capital of the United States, with more than $290 million spent in the metro area in 2007 alone.
“We have the world’s busiest airport, so travel in and out is very easy for those who want to purchase our children,” notes DeKalb County Assistant District Attorney Dalia Racine. In a state that also ranks tenth in the nation for interstate superhighways, Atlanta draws tens of millions annually to conventions and major events. Local pimps staff up, out-of-town exploiters bring their sex slaves and “johns”—the term used to describe the men who pay for sex—flock to the city for high-profile occasions.
Every month, approximately 7,200 men in Georgia purchase more than 200 girls averaging between ages 12 and 14 for sex, according to youthSpark, an organization that works to end sex trafficking. In Atlanta, 42 percent of those johns live north of the city’s perimeter, which means they’re likely White. But Jennifer Swain, youthSpark’s program director, believes that the true criminals responsible for luring these Black girls are usually much closer.
“Most of the girls I deal with in my group are being sexually exploited in their own communities,” says Swain. “It’s the people in your ’hood—that older man who’s known you and your cousins, and now he’s wanting to have sex with you.”
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 40 percent of all sex trafficking victims were Black. Racine says the majority of cases she handles in DeKalb County, which has an African-American population of nearly 55 percent, involve Black children. But interestingly enough, being Black doesn’t make you any more valuable to a pimp.
“Even within the world of exploitation, you are considered more elevated in the game if you are able to recruit White girls,” explains Racine. “Black females are called ducks and White females are called swans; you will always be able to make more money with a White child.”
Spend an hour or so on Backpage or other sites where prices are listed looking for Black girls who are prostituted in Atlanta, and you’ll find that the going rate seems to be between $40 and $100 for a variety of “services,” including some bargain-based “tonight only” sales. Trolling for White girls? You’ll rarely see a price at all.
One of these ads led DeKalb County Police Sgt. Torrey Kennedy to a seedy motel room where the carpet was dirty, the walls smudged and on the bed lay a Hello Kitty doll. An ashtray filled with cigar butts, a condom, a can of Colt 45 and a $100 bill littered the nightstand. Sgt. Kennedy, an officer in the county’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit, was there trying to convince a young woman sitting on the rumpled bed in handcuffs to enter into a program that could save her life.
“I don’t know you. I’m not your pimp. I’m not your friend. I’m not a family member. I’m not using you. I don’t want anything from you,” he told her. “My sole purpose, every day I wake up and put this gun and badge on, is to help young ladies like you.”
Looking all of 17 but actually 25, the young woman began to cry, refusing to give her name as the fear of what might come next was all too real for her. Outside, her 28-year-old pimp was surrounded by officers and giving no information except to brag that he had three children by the young woman and “kids from other girls, too.”
Variations on this scene played out until about 3:00 a.m., ending a sting that involved more than 150 officers from a dozen agencies across the Atlanta metro area. In March, 37 agencies across the state of Georgia collaborated in “Operation Broken Heart,” which netted 14 arrests, including an elementary school principal, for allegedly traveling to Atlanta to meet a child for sex.
Policing sex traffickers is getting harder for law enforcement because of the proliferation of sites targeting children on the Internet. “Social media is the No.1 recruitment tool,” says Racine, sharing that the Internet Crimes Against Children unit is the lead in the county’s sexual exploitation of children cases.
“All children are vulnerable, not just runaways,” states survivor-turned-advocate Keisha Head, who intimately understands the trafficker’s approach. For eight years when she was a child, Head was molested by two male family members. By the time she was 16, she had run away from 42 foster or group homes, only to end up being trafficked by one of Atlanta’s most notorious pimps, “Sir Charles” Pipkins.
Head was terrified. Pipkins threatened to abduct her child and had had his name literally branded across her back. She was abused regularly, forced to bring in $1,000 a night turning tricks and raped almost 20 times in her first six months on the street.
“You’re being raped, you’re being beaten and you’ve been kidnapped. Every night, a different horrific thing is happening and you’re escaping with your life,” reveals Head, who shares her story with at-risk girls and those who have been trafficked. She also helped develop youthSpark’s prevention curriculum, which dispels the glamorization of sex trafficking. “At some point, you realize that it’s not worth the money because your life is always in danger.”
Pipkins was found guilty of child prostitution, racketeering and a host of other charges. He received a 30-year prison term in a landmark 2002 case in Georgia, said to be one of the nation’s first with such severe sentencing of a convicted sex trafficker.
Head had stopped turning tricks by the time she was 18 but confesses she didn’t totally leave the life. “I became a madam and did that for eight years,” she admits. “I was thinking, ‘I’m out here hustling, making money. I’m teaching my girls we’re an entourage, and we don’t care how men think. We’re anti-pimp.’ It was just twisted.”
Like Head, most prostituted women have been exploited since they were youngsters. “The pimps’ jobs have become much easier because somebody’s already groomed these children for this life,” says Racine, who has handled crimes against women and children for much of her career. “Seventy to 90 percent of these girls have already been abused in what is supposed to be the safety of their homes.”
YouthSpark reports that some children who have been sexually abused equate love with sex and abuse because their boundaries have been violated. There are feelings of guilt and shame instead of a thriving self-worth. Add the likelihood of poverty, and by the time these girls are approached by a trafficker, many are desperate not only for someone who can provide food, clothing and shelter but also affection.
The first spokesperson for youthSpark, Sharon Saffold, 39, was once one of those girls. Having spent her early years in the tumultuous foster care system, she survived a decade on her own after her mother kicked her out when she was in the eighth grade. She partially blames the people in her housing project for aiding in the culture of exploitation by staying silent when they knew that grown men were approaching her for sex.
Advocating for Girls
In the late 1990s, three African-American women, Georgia’s Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson; Deborah Richardson, the court’s director of programs; and County Commissioner Nancy Boxill, became champions for the cause. They demanded girls not be labeled as prostitutes but as victims, advocated for services on their behalf, challenged the local media to expose the problem and started spreading the word at community events and town hall meetings.
Their work led to a coalition that changed laws to increase trafficking penalties in the state.
Using DeKalb County as a test model, Racine says they have developed a template for the state to follow, which includes having rescued girls treated by nurses specially trained in criminal sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) methods and forensic interviews conducted by CSEC-trained staffers. This particular approach aids in investigations and, more important, increases the likelihood of these girls having a normal life again.
For those young women already being exploited, Saffold says hope lies in giving them options. She endured years of violent sexual abuse, jail time, drug dealing and suicide attempts and is now a wife, mother and successful motivational speaker attending Spelman College with her daughter. “Right now, the only plan we have is to raise awareness and get them off the street so the pimps can’t hurt them and johns can’t sleep with them. But it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.”
There are organizations answering that call. Shayna entered the Living Water for Girls residential treatment facility after her mother helped her escape the life. Shayna believes meeting Williams, the organization’s founder, improved her life dramatically. “She understood what I went through and helped me see that my past didn’t have to dictate my future, and that my life had value.”
Having now completed her GED, Shayna plans to pursue a career as a veterinarian, and she recently contributed to a CNN documentary about sex trafficking with actress and activist Jada Pinkett Smith. “I hope girls watch it,” she says. “I’m sharing my experiences so that I can help prevent someone else from becoming a victim.”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity