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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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NOW THAT ALISSA HAS BEEN OUT OF THE LIFE FOR FIVE YEARS, with lots of therapy behind her, the ordeal is distant enough that she discusses it with matter-of-fact detachment. As she's unspooling even the most horrific parts of her story, her piercing eyes are unwavering. When she describes a beating from a former pimp, she nonchalantly raises her shirt to show a jagged scar. But while she'll tell you almost anything that happened to her if it will help raise awareness of what's happening to other girls, she occasionally loses her patience. When asked how many men she was forced to sleep with in one night, after she had offered numerous other details of her ordeal in prostitution, she makes clear that the question is out of bounds. "It makes other girls vulnerable," she says. "And I find it degrading," she adds. Another pet peeve: the oft-used phrase "teen prostitute," which to her misses the point. "Minors can't consent to sex," she says.

Although Alissa's life now — representing FAIR Girls in media interviews, teaching high school girls about sex trafficking, even emceeing a gala fundraiser last spring attended by Michelle Obama's chief of staff, Tina Tchen — is far removed from "the life," she feels a special bond with any girl who has survived what she endured, separating women into "squares" (those who have never been in the sex trade) and women like her. When she walks down city streets, she says, pimps notice her. "Pimps can smell a girl like me who's been in it — and I can smell them." At times, she likes to remind Powell, a native Texan from a stable home who got her master's degree in European studies at a German university, that of the two of them, she's the only one who really understands what their clients are going through. "The girls tell me things they won't tell anyone else," she says. And yet, Alissa is clearly attached to Powell, seeing her as an older sister and role model. "I want to be like her," Alissa says. "She will help a girl until she can't anymore."

Powell has spent half her life helping girls like Alissa. At 17, Powell left her sleepy hometown of San Marco, Texas, to study abroad in Hanover, Germany. There, she befriended Rafif, a 19-year-old girl originally from Syria whose family had sold her to a man three times her age as a form of debt payment. Rafif became the man's fourth and youngest wife and was forced to work as a domestic servant in his home, where she was beaten by the other wives.

Together, the girls plotted Rafif's escape — she'd go back to Texas with Powell. But they never had the chance to execute their plan. One day, Rafif vanished. Police said there was no record that the girl even existed since she had been brought to Germany illegally. With no paper trail and no witnesses, nothing could be done. "I thought, Why is it OK that some girls just disappear? It's not OK," Powell says. "Looking back, this work really started with her and then became my obsession."

These days, Powell and the FAIR Girls staff often work seven-day weeks, caring for girls fresh out of the life, finding them shelter, accompanying them to court dates, getting them part-time jobs. Powell and Alissa frequently buy the girls lunch or Metro cards with their own money and spend some nights talking on the phone to girls who can't sleep because they're still afraid of their pimps. As of June, FAIR Girls had 55 clients, more than double the amount last year. In recent months, teen girls who have escaped their pimps have come from as far away as Washington state, Iowa, and Vermont for help.

Powell is so busy with new clients, she worries that she's not spending enough time on Backpage searching for girls — like the one in the black leotard with the "Freaky Friday" ad who looked so young.

It took three days, but Washington, D.C., police eventually tracked down the girl in the leotard. After getting the tip from Powell, police set up a sting and confronted the girl in the hotel room where she was meeting johns. But the girl said she was in fact an adult — and didn't want help from the police or anyone else. Within a day, Powell found her posted on Backpage again with different photos. "It's just like the cycle of domestic violence when the abused returns to her abuser," Alissa says. "People don't understand how hard it is to get out."

Although Powell was disappointed that the girl didn't want help, she's accustomed to that — about 40 percent of the time, she says, the girls she reaches out to choose not to leave their pimps. "Sometimes they're not ready," Powell says. "I just want every girl to be given the chance to get out."

On a recent Saturday at 4:25 a.m., Powell, who had fallen asleep with her iPhone in her hand, leaped out of bed when she got a call that a teen girl was being dropped off at her office by police who had picked her up in a prostitution sting. Within hours, another girl arrived. By Monday morning, there were two more girls — all had been advertised on Backpage. "We just don't have the staff to handle all of these girls," Powell says. "But we also can't turn them away."

"I'd think, I am not worth $5. That's about the price of condoms. I thought I wasn't worth a pack of Magnums."

"We just don't have the staff to handle all of these girls," Powell says. "But we also can't turn them away."

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