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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 sex is as easy to find online as shelter puppies, used cars, and apartment rentals. But there’s an ugly truth about this booming business: An untold number of underage girls are sold for sex online every day. Meet two women determined to get them out.

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IT'S LATE ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN THE FASHIONABLE WASHINGTON, D.C., NEIGHBORHOOD OF DUPONT CIRCLE, and not far from the area's ornate foreign embassies and art galleries, 35-year-old Andrea Powell sits cross-legged at her desk, squinting at the glowing screen of her MacBook Pro. Her work for the night is just getting started.

With her long blonde hair pulled back with a plastic claw clip, Powell clicks over to a website she spends more hours on every week than her own Facebook page. It's a shopping site — but she's not looking for her trademark platform sandals here. The site is Backpage.com, the nation's largest online marketplace for sex according to independent industry analyses, and Powell, the executive director of FAIR Girls, a small nonprofit that helps underage girls escape prostitution, hasn't come to shop.

On Backpage, Friday afternoon is like a flash sale for sex — it's payday and the start of the weekend, when demand for prostitution is high and prices are cheap. By 4 p.m., Powell has already counted at least 200 postings in Backpage's "escort" category for the Washington, D.C., area alone: "$60 specials!" "Chocolate juicy booty, oiled up and ready!" "40DDD all-natural boobs!" In ad after ad, young women sell their bodies to strangers, often for less than the cost of a pair of Nine West sandals. Suggestively posing for photos in skimpy lingerie, typically in hotel rooms or bedrooms, the girls come in all sizes and races.

What worries Powell — why she scours Backpage's ads even late at night while her husband sleeps — is that these girls come in all ages, too. Some are literally girls: minors bought and sold in the increasingly online, on-demand big business of commercial sex.

In the past several years, Powell has met hundreds of underage girls who have been sold on Backpage and other sex sites. These girls often spend days on end in hotel rooms, isolated from friends and family, having sex with as many as 10 to 20 johns in one night, being forced to give the money they make (as much as $1,000 a night) to their abusive pimps — and being beaten or threatened if they try to leave.

At FAIR Girls' D.C. office, a five-person operation with secondhand furniture and a sole social worker — one of only a handful of organizations in the country dedicated to assisting teens escape the sex trade — Powell and her staff often get calls from police in the middle of the night saying they've found a girl in a prostitution ring who needs help. Powell will snap into action, counseling traumatized girls right off the street, finding them shelter, and sometimes reconnecting them with their families.

As online prostitution becomes increasingly common, Powell does her own detective work on Backpage, searching the ads for minors. But figuring out which escorts are underage isn't easy. A 15-year-old may be listed as 19. Appearances can be altered with wigs and makeup, making a young girl look older. "These ads are full of lies," Powell says.

For help, Powell enlists one of her trusted employees, Alissa (not her real name), a 24-year-old who herself once posed in ads like these when she was a teen. "I've been there, so I know what to look for," Alissa says, scanning Backpage over Powell's shoulder. A poised, striking African-American woman dressed in conservative black pants and flats, Alissa — who works part-time at FAIR Girls, counseling girls who escape from prostitution, while also going to college part-time and hostessing at a restaurant — seems like a typical young professional. You'd never guess that the faint scar high on her left cheek is the mark of a vindictive pimp who "branded" her with a potato peeler when she was 17.

From their cramped office with bent blinds — the location of which is kept secret to protect former prostitutes from their violent pimps — Powell and Alissa scour the ads, looking for girls who bear the trademarks of adolescence, such as teen acne, baby fat, or barely developed curves. They search for key phrases like "new to town" and "barely 18," code words that may signal the girl is a minor. When they see a suspicious ad, Powell flags it for the local police officers she regularly works with, hoping they'll set up a sting with a male officer posing as a john. She reports about four ads each week. (She also sends suspicious ads to Backpage's administrative offices but says she rarely gets a response.)

Suddenly, Powell clicks on an ad that makes her wince. "ITS FrIdAAAAAY! $80 specials," the headline blares. "Ever heard freaks come out at night??? Well I'm a huge freak." The ad says she's 18, but the girl in the photos looks much younger. Slender and baby-faced, she poses on her knees on a hotel bed in a black leotard she fills out no better than an Olympic gymnast, staring expressionless at the camera through heavy bangs.

Even to Powell and Alissa, who have seen many gratuitous photos on Backpage (a girl standing in front of school lockers, another with a pacifier in her mouth), this escort seems blatantly young. "She can't be more than 12," says Alissa, who scrutinizes the ad. "Someone else was taking the picture" — as opposed to the common self-portrait with a cell phone — "so she's not alone," Alissa points out. "Maybe a pimp or wife-in-law" — term for a girl who shares the same pimp. "The hotel corners are still on the bed," she adds, "which might mean they just got into town." Powell Googles the phone number but finds no other ads connected with the number, perhaps evidence that the girl is new to the sex trade.

Putting in an earbud and picking up her pink-and-black Kate Spade-encased iPhone to dial a local police officer, Powell says urgently, "We have to report her now."

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