"Children are being targeted and sold for sex in America every day."--John Ryan, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
The mysterious disappearance of 18-year-old Hannah Graham on September 13, 2014, has become easy fodder for the media at a time when the news cycle is lagging. After all, how does a young woman just vanish without a trace, in the middle of the night, in a town that is routinely lauded for being the happiest place in America, not to mention one of the most beautiful?
Yet Graham is not the first girl to vanish in America without a trace--my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., has had five women go missing over the span of five years--and it is doubtful she will be the last. I say doubtful because America is in the grip of a highly profitable, highly organized and highly sophisticated sex trafficking business that operates in towns large and small, raking in upwards of $9.5 billion a year in the U.S. alone by abducting and selling young girls for sex.
It is estimated that there are 100,000 to 150,000 under-aged sex workers in the U.S. The average age of girls who enter into street prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old, with some as young as 9 years old. This doesn't include those who entered the "trade" as minors and have since come of age. Rarely do these girls enter into prostitution voluntarily. As one rescue organization estimated, an underaged prostitute might be raped by 6,000 men during a five-year period of servitude.
This is America's dirty little secret.
You don't hear much about domestic sex trafficking from the media or government officials, and yet it infects suburbs, cities and towns across the nation. According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest growing business in organized crime, the second most-lucrative commodity traded illegally after drugs and guns. It's an industry that revolves around cheap sex on the fly, with young girls and women who are sold to 50 men each day for $25 apiece, while their handlers make $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year.
In order to avoid detection by police and cater to male buyers' demand for sex with different women, pimps and the gangs and crime syndicates they work for have turned sex trafficking into a highly mobile enterprise, with trafficked girls, boys and women constantly being moved from city to city, state to state, and country to country. The Baltimore-Washington area, referred to as The Circuit, with its I-95 corridor dotted with rest stops, bus stations and truck stops, is a hub for the sex trade.
With a growing demand for sexual slavery and an endless supply of girls and women who can be targeted for abduction, this is not a problem that's going away anytime soon. Young girls are particularly vulnerable, with 13 being the average age of those being trafficked. Yet as the head of a group that combats trafficking pointed out, "Let's think about what average means. That means there are children younger than 13. That means 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds."
Consider this: every two minutes, a child is exploited in the sex industry. In Georgia alone, it is estimated that 7,200 men (half of them in their 30s) seek to purchase sex with adolescent girls each month, averaging roughly 300 a day. It is estimated that at least 100,000 children--girls and boys--are bought and sold for sex in the U.S. every year, with as many as 300,000 children in danger of being trafficked each year. Some of these children are forcefully abducted, others are runaways, and still others are sold into the system by relatives and acquaintances.
As one news center reported, "Finding girls is easy for pimps. They look on MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks. They and their assistants cruise malls, high schools and middle schools. They pick them up at bus stops. On the trolley. Girl-to-girl recruitment sometimes happens." Foster homes and youth shelters have also become prime targets for traffickers.
With such numbers, why don't we hear more about this? Especially if, as Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children insists, "this is not a problem that only happens in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. This happens in smaller communities. The only way not to find this in any American city is simply not to look for it."
Unfortunately, Americans have become good at turning away from things that make us uncomfortable or stray too far from our picture-perfect images of ourselves. In this regard, we're all complicit in contributing to this growing evil which, for all intents and purposes, is out in the open: advertising on the internet, commuting on the interstate, operating in swanky hotels, taking advantage of a system in which the police, the courts and the legislatures are more interested with fattening their coffers by targeting Americans for petty violations than actually breaking up crime syndicates.
Writing for the Herald-Tribune, reporter J. David McSwane has put together one of the most chilling and insightful investigative reports into sex trafficking in America. "The Stolen Ones" should be mandatory reading for every American, especially those who still believe it can't happen in their communities or to their children because it's mainly a concern for lower income communities or immigrants.
As McSwane makes clear, no community is safe from this danger, and yet very little is being done to combat it. Indeed, although police agencies across the country receive billions of dollars' worth of military equipment, weapons and training that keeps them busy fighting a losing battle against marijuana, among other less pressing concerns, very little time and money is being invested in the fight against sex trafficking except for the FBI's annual sex trafficking sting, which inevitably makes national headlines for the numbers of missing girls recovered.