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Prostitution Goes Digital: Underage Girls Bought and Sold as Sex Slaves in Jacksonville

Recruited. Groomed. Prepared. Chosen. These are just some of the ways that women as young as 14 describe how they were led into the sex slave industry.

The common misconception is that prostitution only happens late at night on the wrong side of town. But in an age where commerce is moving rapidly to the Internet, the buying and selling of young women has also made the digital leap.

“I’ve been doing this for two years,” said “Beth”, a 17-year-old Jacksonville resident who currently advertises herself on the popular classifieds website Craigslist. “I’m looking for a sugar daddy. Maybe something long term. Maybe not. I just want someone to take me out. We can go dancing, dinner, whatever, you know? And if anything happens at the end of the night, then whatever.  That’s up to you and me.”

Beth asked that her name be withheld not only for privacy purposes but because she doesn’t want her mother to know the life she’s leading.

I got to know Beth when I visited the Jacksonville section of Craigslist, a website with countless community-moderated classified postings from all over the world. She is one of the thousands of women who are posted up on the Craigslist classifieds boards as though she were a commodity. We spoke by phone on several occasions and in those discussions she told me about her family, her childhood, where she grew up and how she got on the path she’s walking today.

And to be honest, it broke my heart. There was one time I had to tell Beth that I’d call her back, hung up the phone and just wept. What Beth is going through is a possibility for any girl. If you think you’re safe because you’re a middle class family too busy living the American Dream in the suburbs of Avondale, Mandarin or Riverside to be lured into the world of modern-day prostitution, you’re dead wrong.

“I had a boyfriend when I was 15 who put me up on there [Craigslist and MySpace],” said Beth. “I’ve met a couple of guys o" of there, nothing too big. Most of them cool. Maybe a dozen, two dozen, I don’t know. But he said I could make money and I did. I’m 300 dollars a night.”

“I got away from my momma when I was 14 and went with him [Beth’s boyfriend]. I didn’t like my mom. Never there. Always with her man,” Beth told me. “My younger sister came with me. He’s helping both of us out. I feel good, he feels good. I get bored and I don’t want to do nothing else.”

“If these girls don’t have good role models or a guiding force in their life, they are left wide open to this kind of activity,” said Eric Fenner, a leading advocate for the exploited and the executive director of Franklin County Children Services in Ohio. “These are smooth-talking people in most cases who have made coercing these young girls into a science. We need to recognize that these girls are victims.”

The U.S. Department of State estimates that between 15,000 to 18,000 women and girls are trafficked in the U.S. each year. Up to 300,000 may be at risk because they live in poverty, have a family history of abuse or are vulnerable for other reasons.

“All prostitution hurts women,” said Dr. Melissa Farley, Director of a group called Prostitution Research and Education. “Prostitutes are told they are untouchables’, valueless, dehumanized. The very words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ mean subhuman. Prostitutes, no matter what they say, do not want to be prostitutes. They do it out of desperation.”

With tens of thousands of women already caught in the trap, and hundreds of thousands more at risk, the face of prostitution is changing and expanding every day, especially here on the First Coast.

A recent survey of Jacksonville’s Craigslist postings in the “adult gigs” section shows that pimps frequently include females looking to recruit other females and men pimping themselves.

One call to a start-up massage parlor in Jacksonville had me talking to a woman, Maria, who was recruiting college-aged women “looking to make top dollars” as massage girls. Maria said she was looking for women for “outcalls” for what she called “full body rubs“ - a frequently used codeword.

Maria explained that because the process to fully license a woman for massage therapy was both costly and timely, the term “full body rub” is used instead.

These are not the same as massages you’d get from professionals and the girls are chosen after a screening process which Maria said includes simply sending a picture to her cell phone and letting her know that days you’d be available to work.

“We charge eighty dollars an hour, that’s the fee for the outcall,” Maria said. “Our massages are a little more sensual, light touch, stuff" like that. Most of our clientele is obviously older guys, they’re respectable men, with our girls ranging about 300 dollars a day. It’s pretty lucrative. Some girls do extra for when they need extra money, but that’s up to them.”

Even some men have begun prostituting themselves on social networking sites. One man, Will, a 20-year-old self-described bisexual living in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville, posted himself on Jacksonville’s Craigslist forum. When I responded to the ad, Will got back to me within thirty minutes, asking me if I’d like a “full body massage” for $130. When I asked him what he meant by “full body massage” he said “until you’re done” implying a sexual act. I told him I was not interested and he pleaded with me, telling me he would lower the price “if you’re good looking” and that we could even meet at my house if I wasn’t
interested in driving all that way.

At the end of my conversation with Will, I asked him what he’d do if I was a cop. He said “there’s nothing [anyone] could do since it’s only online and it’s not the same as in person.”

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE IN MAY'S EDITION OF THE JACKSONVILLE OBSERVER MONTHLY

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