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August 16, 2012

Girls 4 Sale

For most businesses in the U.S., the Web has changed everything. The sex industry is no exception. Now underage girls are as easy to find online as shelter puppies, used cars, and apartment rentals.

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NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN POWELL COFOUNDED FAIR GIRLS (which stands for Free, Aware, Inspired, Restored), finding girls caught in the sex trade meant trolling city streets late at night and handing out her card or bags of cookies with her number tucked inside. Since then, like much else in America, the sex trade has been hugely affected by the Web. Now, more sex is being sold online on thousands of different websites, from explicit sex sites to mainstream social networks (just search escorts on LinkedIn). While prostitution is illegal, with the exception of a few Nevada counties, hosting online sex ads is not, thanks to section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects Web companies against liability for what users post on their sites, helping online prostitution flourish in recent years.

No site symbolizes the new business model for prostitution as well as Backpage, the Web classifieds service owned by Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, which also runs 13 alternative newsweeklies, including the venerable Village Voice in New York City. According to the research group AIM, of the five major sites it reviewed, Backpage accounts for 70 percent of prostitution advertising; the site hosts an estimated 20,000 sex ads nationwide daily.

It's also the most mainstream: This isn't some seedy, underground sex forum. It's the same place where Americans sell used cars, adopt shelter puppies, and find part-time jobs. For fees ranging from $3 to $17, depending on the location (it's more expensive in bigger cities), anyone can post an ad in Backpage's escort section. Avid sex "hobbyists" even post reviews of sex workers they find there, as if they were critiquing their latest purchase from Amazon. On the escort review site USA Sex Guide, in a recent thread from the Tucson area, a "senior member" known as Dennis1234 wrote that a "Cuban exotic goddess" found on Backpage gave a "lousy BBBJ," which stands for bareback (without a condom) blow job, but added, "that tiny ass perfect for doggy made it worth it for the $."

For Village Voice Media, cofounded by the late Norman Mailer and known for being an independent voice that exposed abuses of power, online prostitution has become a substantial revenue stream: Backpage raked in an estimated $26 million for the company last year alone.

That success has made Backpage the industry leader in online prostitution — but it's also designated the site public enemy No. 1 to law enforcement officials and activists like Powell who say Backpage is facilitating an epidemic of underage prostitution in the United States. For as mainstream as Backpage appears, hovering just below that sheen of normalcy is the dark, seamy underbelly of the sex trade. As with any illegal enterprise, the prostitution business is rife with corruption, abuse, and exploitation. For every consenting adult engaged in prostitution, there is an untold number of minors (some experts estimate 100,000), many forced or coerced into the work by pimps.

Experts say these kids have been ensnared in a form of organized crime. But instead of trafficking guns or drugs, pimps buy and sell bodies, which are cheaper and can be sold over and over again — an ideal commodity. Teenage girls are easy targets because they're more emotionally vulnerable than adults. The easiest targets of all: teen runaways or girls from broken or abusive homes, who can easily disappear unnoticed into the underworld of prostitution. "People think this kind of thing only happens in other countries," says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). "But it's happening here, in big cities and small towns, to American kids."

For sex traffickers, sites like Backpage have been a boon to business, helping them move their "product," including underage girls, at high volume. And they're doing so despite Village Voice Media's attempts to stop them. Company lawyer Liz MacDougall points out that Backpage employs a "triple-tiered policing system" to screen for trafficking cases. First, an automated filter searches for suspect phrases (much like those Powell and Alissa search for), then Backpage employees manually screen ads before and after they are posted. As a result, Backpage reports about 400 suspicious ads each month to the NCMEC hotline for missing and exploited children; it also cooperates with subpoenas from law enforcement. "Village Voice Media deserves credit for trying to screen its content," claims Allen. "But from what we've seen, pimps and exploiters adapt. It's impossible to screen your way out of this problem."

Since 2008, there have been reports of more than 50 instances in 22 states involving underage sex trafficking on Backpage. In late May, federal authorities broke up a nationwide ring that allegedly used the site to sell teenage girls. According to the indictment, the ringleader deterred them from escaping by whipping them with a belt, choking them, and threatening to kill their families. "These ads aren't all for entrepreneurs and volunteers," says Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. McKenna is one of 51 attorneys general — along with scores of advocates including Powell and about 250,000 others who signed a petition on Change.org — who has called on Village Voice Media to shut down Backpage's sex ads. (In 2010, online classifieds giant Craigslist closed its escort category under similar pressure.) "The victims are getting younger and younger," McKenna adds. "Most of them desperately want to get out but are trapped."

Not too long ago, Alissa was one of those girls. At 16, she was a high school junior in inner-city Boston. Her mother was a recovering drug addict who couldn't care for her; her father was an alcoholic who wouldn't pay the bills. Alissa ended up on the streets. But she found a lifeline — a group of older girls from her neighborhood who had their own apartment and invited her to stay with them. Soon, Alissa discovered where they made their money: in suburban hotels having sex with numerous men every night. Within weeks, Alissa decided to give sex work a try, too.

"One girl came home with $2,000 in her pocket one night," Alissa says. "I figured, I can just work about twice a month, pay my bills, go shopping, and go to school."

Alissa's new roommates showed her the ropes, dropping her off on "the track," the strip where prostitutes look for work, in downtown Boston. She was surprised to see so many girls she knew there. "It was like a high school reunion. These were girls who had dropped out of school and disappeared," Alissa says.

Almost immediately, noticing the new girl, pimps started harassing Alissa to work for them. She learned from the other girls that it was in her best interest to choose a pimp (even though it would cost her an expensive $1,000 "choosing fee"). In exchange for taking most of Alissa's earnings, a pimp would provide her protection from violent johns and bail her out of jail if she needed it. Without a pimp, Alissa would be on her own.

At first, she chose a friend's pimp, who seemed to treat his girls well, until one freezing December night when he left her walking the streets in heavy snow until 4:30 a.m. Another pimp saw her alone, shivering in the cold, and picked her up — an older, charismatic guy who flirted, told her she was being mistreated, and said exactly what she needed to hear. "He told me, 'I will take care of you. You'll always have a place to live,'" she says. "Pimps know how to exploit a girl's vulnerabilities."

Almost immediately, Alissa's new pimp put her to work, selling her through online sex ads, escort services, and on the track. Every night, Alissa slept with numerous men, forced to meet an earnings "quota" dictated in part by her skin color. Darker- skinned girls brought in less; fair-skinned blondes, known as "snow bunnies," could charge the most. Alissa fell somewhere in the middle, bringing in at least $1,000 a night. Eventually, Alissa spent less time on the streets and started getting more and more work online, which meant staying in hotels waiting for dates. "It was smarter than working the track," she says. "If police see you on the street, you're going to get arrested."

Alissa continued going to school for a while, sometimes in high heels, boy- short lingerie, and jackets, slipping out of class if she got a call on her cell that she had a "date." But eventually, she stopped going to school altogether — her life became turning tricks and taking orders from her pimp. After long, Red Bull- and booze-fueled nights of having sex with john after john, Alissa slept in hotels with her pimp and wife-in-laws. "It became the family I never had," she says, "until I realized how violent pimps could be."

One night, her pimp, suspicious that she was trying to leave him, choked, punched, and hit her on her stomach and the back of her neck — places that wouldn't be visible to customers. On another occasion, he carved her face with a potato peeler. "He was marking me like property," Alissa says. After that incident, she found refuge with another pimp who later, finding her talking to a man who wasn't a john, put on his Timberland boots and stomped on her, breaking several of her ribs and four of her teeth — that was how she knew she was "fired" and being sold to another pimp.

The abuse took its toll on Alissa. "For ages, I ate the same exact McDonald's value meal because that was the only thing my pimp at the time would let me eat," she says. "I'd think, I am not worth $5. That's about the price of condoms. I didn't think I was worth a pack of Magnums."

Alissa was sold several times to different pimps, which meant moving from city to city, including Providence, Rhode Island; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Orlando, Florida; New York City; and Los Angeles. "I traveled the whole time," she says, and online ads like those on Backpage made it easier to find work in new places. "Tricks want variety. Just like with food — you want Chinese one day, Cajun another day. For them, it's just like that buying a girl."

After six months, Alissa tried to escape the life, finding a job at a Boston Au Bon Pain, enrolling in a nursing assistant program, reuniting with a former boyfriend, and learning she was pregnant. But she learned just how hard it was to get out. Within weeks, four women — one of whom had the pimp's name tattooed on her neck — jumped her, kicking and stomping on her face, legs, and stomach, causing her to miscarry. Alissa ran five blocks to a police station, where officers took her to the hospital and called the FBI. Although she feared that talking would put her in danger, she wanted the world to know what her pimps had done. "I told them my story," Alissa says. "I said, 'These guys have to go to jail.'"

Over the next three years, Alissa helped the FBI build a case that would put six Boston pimps away for 25 years. It was one of the largest sex trafficking cases in state history, and it couldn't have happened without what the Boston Globe called Alissa's "quiet heroism." The judge said the evidence in the case was some of the most disturbing she had ever heard. Even the pimp who carved her face apologized at the trial, particularly to Alissa, saying, "I was a monster willing to sacrifice someone else's body for my own personal gain."

But putting her former tormentors behind bars wasn't enough to turn Alissa's life around. After going to authorities, she was placed in foster care, first in Massachusetts, then in North Carolina with a foster mother who Alissa says was abusive and would give her only one meal a day. The neglect and isolation made her so despondent that she ran away, leaving on a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia, where she knew exactly how she'd survive — the familiar track, pimps, hotels, and websites where she could post her ads. She stayed in the life for another year and a half.

That whole time, she remained in contact with an FBI agent, the lead investigator in the case against Alissa's pimps, who eventually convinced her to leave the life for good. "She became like a mother to me," Alissa explains. "She was disappointed that I was selling my body, that I was just as bad as the pimps who were selling me. 'Take the opportunity you are being given,' she said."

At first, Alissa went to Rhode Island, where the agent helped set her up with housing. Then, when her pimps went to trial in 2009, she moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, for her own protection through federal witness relocation. She got an apartment and enrolled in school.

And eventually, Andrea Powell came calling. This past January, after Powell saw an interview Alissa gave to a Knoxville reporter about her experience, she went to Tennessee to meet her. Within two days, Powell offered Alissa a job — to come to Washington, D.C., to help other underage victims of the sex trade re-establish their lives. "People saw in me the potential to do good things," Alissa says. "And I believe every girl should be given that opportunity."

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