By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
If you think sex trafficking only happens in faraway places like Nepal or Thailand, then you should listen to the expert on American sex trafficking I interviewed the other day.
But, first, wish her happy birthday. She turned 16 years old yesterday.
She asked me to refer to her as Brianna because she worries that using her real name could impede her plans to become a lawyer. Brianna, who grew up in New York City, is smart, poised and enjoys writing poetry.
One evening when she was 12 years old she got into a fight with her mom and ran out to join friends. "I didn't want to go home, because I thought I'd get in trouble," she said, and a friend's older brother told her she could stay at his place.
Brianna figured that she would go home in the morning - and that that would teach her mom a lesson. But when morning arrived, her new life began.
"I tried to leave, and he said, 'You can't go; you're mine,"' Brianna recalled. He told her that he was a pimp and that she was his property.
The pimp locked her in the room, she recalled, and alternately beat her and showed her affection. She says that he advertised her on Backpage.com, the leading website for sex trafficking in America, as well as on other websites.
"He felt that Backpage made him the most money," Brianna said.
Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of America's prostitution ads (many placed by consenting adults who are not trafficked), according to AIM Group, a trade organization. Backpage cooperates with police and tries to screen out ads for underage girls, but that didn't help Brianna.
Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media, and significant minority stakes have been held in recent years by Goldman Sachs and smaller financial firms such as Trimaran Capital Partners and Alta Communications. My research shows that representatives of Goldman, Trimaran and Alta, along with a founder of Brynwood Partners, all sat on the board of Village Voice Media, and there's no indication that they ever protested its business aims.
When I wrote recently about this, these firms erupted in excuses and self-pity, and in some cases raced to liquidate their stakes. I was struck by the self-absorption and narcissism of Wall Street bankers viewing themselves as victims, so maybe it's useful to hear from girls who were victimized through the company they invested in.
I met Brianna at Gateways, a treatment center for girls who have been sexually trafficked. It's in Pleasantville, N.Y., 35 miles north of New York City, on a sprawling estate overseen by the Jewish Child Care Association. Gateways is meant for girls ages 12 to 16, although it has accepted one who was just 11. Virtually all the girls have been sold on Backpage, according to Lashauna Cutts, the center's director.
Gateways has 13 beds. Cutts says she could easily fill 1,300.
"I have to turn away girls almost every day," Cutts told me.
The public sometimes assumes that teenage girls in the sex trade are working freely, without coercion. It's true that most aren't physically imprisoned by pimps, but threats and violence are routine. The girls typically explain that they didn't try to escape because of a complex web of emotions, including fear of the pimp but also a deluded affection and a measure of Stockholm syndrome.
Once, Brianna says, she looked out her window and saw her mother crying and posting "missing" posters with Brianna's photo. "I tried to shout to her through the window," she remembered. But her pimp grabbed her by the hair and yanked her back. "If you shout, I'll kill you," she remembers him saying.
"If I tried to run, I thought he might kill me, or I'd be hurt," she said. "And, if I went to the cops, I thought I'd be the one in trouble. I'd go to jail."
Pimps warn girls to distrust the police, and often they're right. Bridgette Carr, who runs a human-trafficking clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, tells of a 16-year-old girl who went missing. A family member found a photo of the girl on Backpage and alerted authorities. Police raided the pimp's motel room and "rescued" the girl - by handcuffing her and detaining her for three weeks.
That mindset has to change. Police and prosecutors must target pimps and johns, not teenage victims. Trafficked girls deserve shelters, not jails, and online emporiums like Backpage should stop abetting pimps. Sex trafficking is just as unacceptable in America as in Thailand or Nepal.