Go to nearly any U.S. or Canadian city of any real size and chances are there's a locale, a street or boulevard, maybe, where, when the lights go down, prostitutes come out. Many are young, in their teens. Just whores, few ever stop to wonder where they come from. Just whores.
The sad truth is, many of those teenagers, both boys and girls, who are walking the big city streets were, not too long ago, small town daughters and sons loved by their families, their schools and their communities, but caught in a confused time, rebellious.
Easy pickings for pimps with the smooth talk, empty promises and grown-up enticements that such teens are most susceptible to. And kids from Bonners Ferry, Creston, Troy and Libby are just as susceptible to these oily blandishments as any child in any small town.
The fact that there are so many small towns means it doesn’t happen often in any one, keeping it below the sight line of most.
These kids run away, disappear, often enticed into the arms of an older "boyfriend" or “girlfriend,” a pimp specializing in recruitment, some even locals trained by their big-city dealer in exchange for drugs. Pushing and prostitution go hand-in-hand.
Free with alcohol, drugs, sex and adult-level freedoms, they listen to what these kids say, bolster their desires with false promises of a glamorous life in the big city, good jobs, penthouse apartments, the good life free from parents and teachers and friends always trying to rein them in.
Once lured away, the child is a beloved son or daughter no more, but inventory, a slave to be used over and over for the gratification of those who are willing to pay, a commodity. Chattel.
And once gone into this netherworld, they seldom ever return to those who love them. And when they do, they are never the same, even if gone a relatively short time.
The brainwashing and addiction is, by design, very rapid onset.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a chance for all of us who work to improve the lives of young people to reflect on the realities of child sex trafficking in America.
Attorney Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls, says there should be no difference between abusing a child and paying to abuse a child.
"That’s why we are committed to spreading the message that there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute,’ only victims and survivors of child rape," Vafa writes. "That is why we partner with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges on the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking to help exercise judicial leadership within the court and community to improve outcomes for victims and children at risk of sex trafficking."
Instances of child sex trafficking have been reported throughout rural, urban and even tribal regions of our country, but unlike other forms of violence, child sex trafficking is too often hidden in plain view.
“There are a number of federal and state laws in the U.S. that protect minors exploited in the commercial sex trade,” she writes. “Despite these protections, each year more than 700 children are arrested for prostitution in the United States. Think about that.
Federal law defines these children as victims of human trafficking, and most are too young to even consent to sex, but instead of being treated as victims, these children are often arrested and prosecuted as “child prostitutes.”
“In any other instance what happens to these youth would be considered statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor, landing their abusers behind bars,” she continues. “But because their abuse is paid for, it is the child who ends up in handcuffs and detention instead of their exploiters, making this the only form of child abuse where our response is to criminalize the abused child.”
In the mid-1980s, after leaving the military, I and my family moved to Spokane, where I worked for a time as a bartender in a quiet downtown lounge that converted to a disco and became a raucous place where pimps hung out and girls came in off the street briefly to confer with "their man," have a quick and numbing pick me up and the chance to warm up before they went back out.
A young country boy, it was a new and completely alien world to me, and I was shocked to learn how highly organized, how professionally and ruthlessly operated, that world was.
I didn't see the young ones in my bar, of course ... not because they were too young, as you might suspect, but because the pimps wouldn't allow the younger ones, even many who were 21 and over, into such establishments. Too easy for them to get uppity, I overheard, try to run away back home.
I was also surprised to learn how simple it was for pimps to keep those in their stable in line, and to keep themselves one step ahead of the law.
While not named, I came to know it as "the circuit."
Over time, I noticed that girls who were regulars for awhile would stop coming in, then return a few months later. Though not as regular, the pimps would do the same.
To keep their younger chattel in line and to make it nearly impossible for their families or the law to find them, pimps would pack them up and move them to the next city in their circuit, where another pimp would take care of them before moving them along to the next, a wiser old gentleman no longer in the trade told me.
Spokane, Portland, Anchorage and Billings was the most common circuit I learned of, but it followed no steady route and never stayed the same.
You hear the stories of people like Jeffrey Epstein and marvel, but he was just a high-end pimp; the practice of trafficking vulnerable children for prostitution is pervasive across the United States and around the world.
Only if it is recognized in the small towns where it so often begins and taken seriously as the crime it is will there ever be a hope of stopping this trade in modern day slavery. Only when we, all of us, realize that there is no such thing as a child prostitute.