Seattle is a hub for luring teens into lives of prostitution
By Claudia Rowe: Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
December 6, 2005
The Seattle that Alisha knows is not a city of social liberalism or
glittering scenery. For her, it is just a series of worn-out highways where men
will happily pay a 15-year-old for sex.
A slight girl with bad skin and wire-rimmed glasses, Alisha spent much
of this year traipsing up and down Aurora Avenue, darting into cars outside The
Home Depot or Albertsons and stepping out 20 minutes later with $60 in hand.
All the money went to her pimp, Marquis Smith, a 19-year-old who decided
when and where she would work, kept track of her customers, tallied her
earnings, beat her intermittently, collected the cash and used it to house the
two of them in a series of local motels.
Customers were sometimes stunned to learn her age, though never enough
"One guy thought I was 16, but I told him I was 15," she said.
"He was like, 'Wow!' A little shocked. But he didn't say, 'You've got to
go home.' Mostly, I didn't tell them because it didn't matter anyway."
Alisha, now 16, worked as a prostitute for most of this year. She has
been beaten by her pimp and attacked by johns. "It's not that I'm
brave," she said. "It's just life."
As a minor and, legally, the victim of numerous sex crimes, Alisha is
being identified only by her first name. She is one of a growing number of
girls -- some as young as 11 -- who have recently come to the attention of
Seattle police and social workers for their involvement with prostitution. Some
are from seemingly intact families. Others are wards of the state, on the run
from foster homes.
Almost all were initially seduced by a recruiter, often an acquaintance,
who dangled pitifully transparent promises of money and glamour, freedom and
At a time when more obvious violent crime is down around the nation,
sociologists are debating whether teen prostitution -- or merely their
awareness of it -- is increasing. Certainly, they say, sex-for-money
deals initiated on the Internet are camouflaging activity that previously
occurred in the open.
Nevertheless, the King County Juvenile Detention Center has twice as
many girls in its cells for soliciting than it did five years ago, and national
experts say Seattle has become a major hub on the child-trafficking circuit.
"We've lulled ourselves into thinking we don't have this issue, but
we do. It is here," said Cheryl Jackson-Williams, who runs the Spruce
Street Secure Crisis Residential Center on Capitol Hill and has tracked 78 kids
-- mainly girls -- who reported trading sex for money since the spring.
"We have 13-year-olds out there working in the sex industry. Adult men are
picking them up. They're getting them in the malls, outside the schools. It's
much bigger than the traditional red zones."
Jackson-Williams' dormlike hideaway opened four years ago as a five-day
shelter for runaways. The youngsters coming through in recent months, however,
have begun to look different. They arrive in handcuffs, escorted by police, and
talk about "boyfriends" who protect them on the street, buy them
fancy clothes, pay for manicures. They wear Spruce Street's lumpy,
institutional sweat suits while waiting for authorities to arrange their next
stop, but leave sporting high heels and skimpy blouses.
"We have no idea what to do with these kids," said Maggie
Faust, a supervisor there who sees the same children month after month.
"How do you help them? How do you get a kid out of prostitution? We're
needing to stop this cycle."
Despite Seattle's extensive network of services for youths -- programs
for homeless kids, drug-addicted kids, gay, lesbian and transgender kids -- the
15-bed Spruce Street center is the only place, other than a jail cell, where
children trapped in prostitution can find respite, albeit brief. There is
nothing in the city, nor even Washington state, dedicated to helping young
people permanently free themselves from sex work.
'In love with their pimp'
Last year, the state Department of Social and Health Services found that
1,040 foster children -- 7 percent of all children under state care -- had run
away and were likely to do so again. Most were teenage girls, and the
department acknowledged their numbers likely represented "a significant
undercount." Researchers estimate that nationally, one out of every three
kids on the streets will be solicited for sex.
Often, a man presenting himself as a caring protector is the first. He
flatters and befriends the youth, paying for food, clothes and a place to stay
until she is easy prey -- financially indebted and emotionally tied.
For Alisha, the trail began in Phoenix, where she was living unhappily
at her father's home. Within days of meeting Smith, he had persuaded her to
work as a prostitute -- it was for both of them, he said -- and the two
traveled to Seattle last January.
Eight months later Alisha landed at Spruce Street, her front teeth
broken from the time Smith smashed her in the face, a cigarette burn ground
into one of her graceful, beautifully manicured hands.
She described her workaday routine blandly, as if quoting the price of
chicken at a supermarket; then, with equal candor, rattled off her hopes for
"Tap dancing is what I want to do," Alisha said. "I also
want to be a rapper. I want to be a senator. I want to be all kinds of things.
I want to do sports -- I love sports -- even though I can't play that
The verifiable facts of her association with Smith -- like the time he
kidnapped another girl with Alisha in the car, or punched her in the face, or
brought her to Florida for more work -- are detailed in court papers. Smith
pleaded guilty to federal child trafficking charges in August and prosecutors
expect U.S. District Court Judge James Robart to sentence him in Seattle next
But the more complicated essence of their relationship -- the power he
exerted, the control she willingly ceded -- is more difficult to define.
"A lot of the time, these kids believe they're in love with their
pimp," said Detective Tammy Reynolds of the Seattle Police Department's
vice squad. "It's a huge problem. They're being run by these guys.
There aren't too many 13-year-olds who wake up and say, 'I'm going to go out
and prostitute today.'"
For much of this year, Reynolds focused all of her energy on the
problem, talking to young girls on the streets, urging them to turn in their
handlers. But in August, informed that the department was shifting its emphasis
to public drinking in Pioneer Square, the nine-year detective was reassigned to
"It's to improve the beautification of downtown Seattle, to make
Seattle a more attractive place to see, and visit, and live," Reynolds
said with obvious frustration. "But what's more important that a
13-year-old selling herself on the street?"
Most girls say they ask customers to use condoms but are often ignored.
An adult prostitute working the streets for the past nine years said only once
in that time had a john brought condoms himself.
Shopping for girls
Seattle is by no means alone in its failure to confront juvenile
prostitution head-on, though some larger cities have made progress. A study
funded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2001 found that at least 250,000
children are victims of sexual exploitation in the United States.
"In Seattle it was enormous numbers of kids," said Richard
Estes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted the
research, the most far-reaching ever done on child prostitution and
pornography. Some of his findings have been disputed, but most experts in the
field agree with Estes that juveniles from every race and social class are
entangled in sex work.
"Lots of kids from intact, middle-class families -- even
upper-class families -- were involved in it," he said.
Part of the reason may be cultural. Where stigma previously silenced
discussion, the language of prostitution has now become a pop culture joke. The
MTV show "Pimp My Ride" is among the network's most popular. Several
young girls who walk Aurora recalled school friends holding
"pimp-and-ho" parties. Outreach workers sighed about homeless kids so
steeped in material culture they turned up their noses at unfashionable,
But Estes believes the main fuel for children's vulnerability is
psychological dysfunction at home. Desperate for emotional connection, the same
kids who stay up nights typing madly into Internet chat rooms may be particularly
susceptible to the overtures of a friendly man who seems to care like no one
Whatever the cause, Seattle has become a favorite spot for recruitment
among would-be pimps.
"Whenever we'd get a chance to talk to these men, they'd say,
'Well, we just go shopping.' They would get in their cars and drive up to
Seattle and find girls -- in nightclubs, on the street, everywhere," said
Norma Hotaling, founder of the anti-prostitution program Standing Against
Global Exploitation in San Francisco. She has spent 10 years studying their
"It's easy to point the finger and say that could never be me, but
these girls are someone's daughters -- they could be your daughter," she
said. "Traffickers are out there, looking for these kids, and they're very
good at what they do. If you've ever had a fight with your daughter and she's
stormed out of the house, she's at risk."
Hotaling, 54, is herself a former prostitute and has twice testified
before Congress on toughening child-trafficking laws, with some success. Since
2000, federal law has held that a person can be sentenced up to 20 years in
prison for moving children across state lines with intent to prostitute them.
And in 2003, Washington became the first state to make the act punishable with a
'New to this, aren't you?'
From Seattle, girls are moved to work the streets in Portland,
Vancouver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and various spots in
Florida, which is where Alisha was arrested, along with Smith, last May.
Spotting the activity, however, is difficult. Seattle police Detective
Harvey Sloan, a 37-year veteran of the department, recalled standing in the
middle of a Beacon Hill sex-trafficking den and being completely unaware. Women
recruiters, he added, are key to the networks' success.
Shirley, a 17-year-old SeaTac high school student, spent five days this
fall pacing Aurora at the behest of a girlfriend whom she had first met during
a short stay at Spruce Street. Shirley, a good student and member of her school
gymnastics team, was at the crisis center because of trouble at home. The other
girl, an experienced streetwalker, targeted her immediately.
Within a week of leaving Spruce Street, Shirley phoned her new
confidante. It was Halloween and she'd had a fight with her mother -- could she
stay over for a few days?
The older girl said yes, and Shirley imagined that they'd spend a few
nights playing at the GameWorks arcade, or maybe watching "Animal
But two days later that girl's boyfriend, an older man, insisted that
Shirley earn her keep, and turned her out to walk Aurora.
"I only pulled two my first night," she said, hanging her
head. She fumbled awkwardly through every transaction and the men could tell.
"You're new to this, aren't you?" commented one who, claiming
to be a police officer, took out a pair of handcuffs and raped her in the back
of his car.
Detectives finally picked Shirley up on a Tuesday morning -- she'd been
working an hour already -- and dropped the round-faced teenager back at Spruce
Street carrying her bubblegum-pink backpack covered in loopy, girlish scribble:
"Class of '06" and "I am the next American Idol."
Too old at 18
Becca, 18, talks about her life in prostitution with outreach workers on
Most of the young women interviewed for this story said safe sex was
rarely an option. Some tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade customers to use
condoms. Others like Becca, 18, just didn't care.
Born in Louisiana, Becca moved to Oregon as a teenager and ran away at
15, fleeing an abusive stepfather, she said. Soon after, she landed on the
streets of Seattle and, at 17, had her first customer.
"I felt depressed, gross," she said. "But I learned how
to turn myself off, emotionally-wise, and then it was like a normal day."
For Becca, that has come to mean a continuous relay between Capitol
Hill, where she targets older men who "look like they have money,"
and Westlake Park near the downtown department stores, where she buys drugs.
Every 36 hours or so, she sleeps beneath an overpass near the Paramount
A casual glance betrays nothing of this. Wearing cargo shorts, a zip-up
fleece and a blonde blunt-chop haircut, Becca is more Northwest-outdoorsy than
streetwalker-seductive. Her face alternates between street-tough and pixie,
depending on her mood and drug intake. She sobbed when describing her life.
"The shortest I've ever sold myself for was $15," she said.
"That makes me pretty sick to my stomach, that I'm only worth $15. I try
to go higher now. I try not to go below $20."
For a while, Becca was a regular at Spruce Street where, sporadically,
she was able to find help. But this summer, she turned 18 and the doors were
closed. As a legal adult, Becca was too old to use the center.
Parents may see no difference in maturity between a 17- and 18-year-old,
but the law does. Scant as Seattle services are for minors caught in
prostitution, once a girl crosses the threshold into official adulthood, help
is almost non-existent.
This was the problem confronting a Fremont couple who learned their
19-year-old daughter was slipping out of her bedroom each night to walk Aurora.
The young woman, whose pimp is still at large, asked to be identified
only by her middle name, Marie. She is an aspiring ballet dancer, raised by
parents who supported her artistic leanings and saw themselves as friends more
than authority figures. Trust was their watchword, openness their philosophy.
Throughout high school, as long as Marie told them where she was going and who
she'd be with, curfews did not exist.
"They'd say, 'Bye, see you whenever,' " she recalled.
Walking to the bus stop one wintry day toward the end of her first
semester at Cornish School for the Arts, a well-dressed man she had never met
came up behind her.
"Where are we going?" he said.
"We?" she asked. "I'm going home."
He kept up a flirtatious patter, telling the green-eyed blonde that she
was beautiful, describing the clothes he wanted to buy her, how they'd hit the
town in a limousine.
"He was really charming," said Marie, who'd never had a
He asked for her cell number and when she demurred, he kept at it,
joking and chatting, until the college freshman, flattered, gave in.
Afterward, he called every day, to the point that she found it odd, even
alarming, and did not answer.
But one night, bored and alone, she rang back.
They agreed to meet at the Fox Sports Grill downtown, and when she
arrived, he was sitting with another couple. There were drinks and casual
conversation. Then the quartet piled into a car outside.
"We're going to teach you how to make some money," Marie
recalls her date saying. But she didn't press it.
Not until later that evening when they were alone together did he begin,
ever so slowly, to suggest that Marie's face and body had power. There was more
money to be made using them, he said, than she could imagine.
"You are a superstar," she remembers him saying. "You're
going to have sex anyway. You might as well get paid for it."
The attention was heady, and Marie reeled.
"It was all presented like I was this high person, special,"
she said, "like we would be taking advantage of these men by taking their
Always the sort who'd been up for a dare, a new experience, a thrill,
Marie let it happen. She spent that night with her date and the next day
found herself walking Pacific Highway South and 272nd Street near Federal Way,
an apprentice to the older woman from the restaurant the night before. They
worked together all afternoon, until it grew dark.
Marie says she was afraid, wandering an unfamiliar neighborhood and
watched over constantly by her friends, to whom she dutifully handed every
dollar. Constant flattery from her new boyfriend -- the 29-year-old soon was
proposing marriage -- coupled with his implicit threats of violence and her own
quiet shame, kept Marie locked in. Several weeks later, she was working the
streets on her own.
"I was one of the most attractive girls in Seattle doing
this," Marie said. "He'd show me off to everyone. I was kind of a big
There was also the money. The thrill of making $500 wearing jeans and
sneakers dazzled her at first. But during their eight months together, Marie's
pimp also racked up thousands in debt on her credit cards, buying clothes and
jewelry. He siphoned another $4,000 from her bank account and stole the $7,000
tuition check her parents had written for their daughter's second semester at
"I was too embarrassed to talk to my parents," she said.
"I would try to call and hang up the phone. I didn't know what to
'You need to go home'
Marie's mother, though worried and confused about her daughter's
increasing distance, said she had no idea what was happening. Then a customer
"Your daughter is working as a prostitute," the would-be john
said sheepishly. "I picked her up on Aurora last night."
It was January and Marie had been walking the strip when two men pulled
up in a Volkswagen van. They seemed nervous, she said, unfamiliar with the
routine. They wanted to know how much it would be just to "hang out and
Later, she learned that they'd driven past -- almost all the way home to
West Seattle -- before doubling back to find the lost-looking girl who looked
"You need to go home to your parents," they said. But Marie
persuaded them to drop her off downtown and borrowed their cell phone to call a
friend for help.
As soon as she left, they tracked the call, spoke to the friend and
through her got in touch with Marie's mother, a school nurse, who answered the
telephone in her sunny, hand-stenciled living room utterly blind to what was
"You sit down and talk to your kids about drugs, but you never talk
to your kids about the possibility of prostitution," she said. "It's
just not part of your world."
Marie's parents agreed to be interviewed because of their shock at
learning that Seattle had no coordinated services to help girls like their
daughter -- no place to stay that was safe from a pimp, no team of specially
trained counselors. After the stranger's call, they begged police to file a
missing person's report -- their daughter was by then working the circuit,
moving from Seattle to Portland to Anaheim, Calif., and Las Vegas -- but were
repeatedly rebuffed because, at 19, Marie was too old.
Where are they now?
Marie is home now, having finally fled her pimp when he punched her in
the face for smoking a cigarette. Her days are spent working at a clothing
store, trying to earn back enough money to repay her parents. School is just a
keening memory. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, are debating whether to take
her case as another instance of interstate sex trafficking.
"I still don't know why I didn't have the guts to just say, 'I
don't want to do this,' " Marie said. "I guess I was afraid of what
his reaction would be. Maybe he'd talk me down and make me feel like
Alisha, who writes songs and poetry, in her room at the Spruce Street
crisis center. "I’m a youth and I grew up before my time, but I care about
everybody who crosses my path," she said. "I pray for everyone at
night. I sit there and say their names."
Alisha, who acted as a witness against Smith this fall, has moved to a
home for former prostitutes in the Midwest, where she spends most of her time
reading. "There Are No Children Here" is one of her favorite books.
Shirley, from SeaTac, has been sent to California to live with her
Becca is still on the streets.
P-I reporter Claudia Rowe can be
reached at 206-448-8320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.