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The struggle to control Seattle’s burning underage prostitution problem

Westlake Park, site of the "45 minute" meme. Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrew

How can you tell when an issue has gotten traction? When it spawns its own urban legend.

Last year, King County’s Committee to End Homelessness issued a fact sheet that included this alarming stat: “In a recent study by Seattle Police Department, 76 percent of unaccompanied minors were approached by either a known gang member or pimp in less than 45 minutes.” This “45-minute rule” is still a meme on the move: the director of one of the area’s leading service providers for at-risk youth repeated it and told me she’d heard it from a member of SPD’s downtown precinct.

“That study has been altered, revised and bastardized beyond recognition,” says another cop who knows better, Captain Eric Sano (above), commander of SPD’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. “The actual study was from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They say that one in three teens will be recruited by an exploiter. In 2009 we tested that theory in Westlake Park. We put a very youthful female member of the department by the fountain and within 45 minutes she was approached by two members of the Westside Street Mobb” – a local gang notorious for “breaking” and pimping young girls.

The 45-minute rule appears to be a conflation of that incident and studies like those cited by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which reports that 70 percent of youth on the street and 30 percent in shelters become victims of sexual exploitation, including “survival sex” exchanged for food, drugs and/or a place to stay.  

The fact that it’s been so readily misstated and bruited suggests two things about juvenile sex trafficking: It’s getting a lot of attention (also evidenced by the fact that it now has its own anonym — CSEC, for “commercial sexual exploitation of children”), and many things about are still unknown or misunderstood.

Qualitatively, some aspects of what used to be called “juvenile prostitution” are now well understood, and reaffirmed daily in the experience of the police, advocates and service providers who deal with it daily. First, that its so-called practitioners are much less the willing agents suggested by the term; rather than prostituting themselves, they’re prostituted — conned and coerced by pimps, driven by fear and desperation.

“We’ve come to realize that the vast majority, 80 to 90 percent, were sexually abused as children,” says Val Richey, a King County deputy prosecutor who’s interviewed scores of prostituted teenagers in an effort to build cases against their pimps and johns. “That’s a pretty high correlation. There’s a very high rate of runaway youth involved. Most youth were first engaged in this between the ages of 11 and 14.”

Prostitution, like smoking cigarettes, is something people tend to fall into when they’re young or not at all. “Of all the women I’ve talked to in the business,” says Sano, “95 percent started out as commercially exploited teens — damaged, hurt, abused, neglected, bullied children.” With one difference, he notes, thinking back to the 1980s, when he started as a patrolman in the CD and Yesler was the track: The girls seem younger now.

Juvenile custodians elsewhere report similarly high correlations between sexual exploitation and a history of domestic sexual or physical abuse: 93 to 95 percent in Dallas, 71 percent for sexual abuse alone in Las Vegas.

“The question has to be asked,” says Val Richey, a King County senior deputy prosecutor who handles sexual exploitation cases. “Why is that correlation so high? Can you really say it’s a voluntary election at that point? Or is it a decision made at the end of a long series of impacts?”

One impact in that series is homelessness, a common sequel to domestic abuse and, in the words of Leslie Briner, of the homeless-service nonprofit YouthCare, “an incredibly big risk factor for being sexually exploited.” The county’s Committee to End Homelessness calculates that 4,000 to 5,000 young people spend some part of each year homeless. Most return home fairly soon; but about 1,000 do not.

The phenomenon is nothing new around here. About 30 years ago, in the heyday of Guenter Mannhalt’s donut shop, hundreds of homeless and footloose kids milled around Pike Street and First and Second avenues. It looked for all the world like lunchtime at high school, until one girl would step to the curb, lean over one of the cars cruising slowly by, open the passenger door and, with a quick over-the-shoulder glance, duck in and ride off.

In those pre-digital days, the only way for most pimps, johns and tricks to connect was in person, through a windshield rather than a laptop or smartphone screen. The trade concentrated in a few places by the Market, along Yesler Way in the CD and Rainier Avenue, on the Aurora Avenue “Track” from Denny Way north and, most dangerously, Pacific Highway South.

Today some desperate souls still walk Highway 99 and, rarely, Rainier Ave. But smartphones and the internet make the whole world a track. When police search motel rooms for prostitution and pimping paraphernalia, they look for drugs, cash, condoms — and laptops.

Jim Theofelis, the executive director of The Mockingbird Society, which advocates for homeless and foster youth, tells of one girl he knew from Yakima. She met a guy on a chatline. She thought he was her own age, and ever so sweet and understanding. When she complained about a spat with her family, he told her to take the bus to Seattle and meet him in front of a juice stand in Northgate Mall.

“So she’s sitting there, getting more and more anxious, while three or four guys sit at another table, waiting until she’s breaking down," recalls Theofelis. "She ends up at a hotel room, getting raped all night. Forty-eight hours later she’s a different person.

“We watch Westlake and the University District," adds Theofelis. "But we don’t have outreach workers looking for solitary youth in Northlake Mall, [or] in the Central District or Rainier Valley.”

How many kids are falling through the cracks in that imperfect oversight and getting roped in by the pimps? The most oft-cited estimate comes from “Who Pays the Price: Assessment of Youth Involvement in Prostitution in Seattle,” an influential 2008 study done for the city by anthropologist Debra Boyer. By reviewing case files from six agencies and conducting extensive interviews, Boyer identified 238 individuals who’d been involved in prostitution in 2007.

Their average age when they came into the system was 15.2 years (which accords with findings elsewhere, and suggests that many got caught up much younger than that). Boyer conservatively estimated that 300 to 500 were actually involved in prostitution, a figure many in the field consider low.

Compare that to the less rigorous estimates of the national trade. “Somewhere between 100,000 and 3 million,” a U.S. Justice Department attorney for child exploitation said in 1998. “We just don’t know.” The official federal estimate, as close to a consensus figure as there is, is 300,000. At that rate, the Seattle/Bellevue/Everett/Tacoma metropolitan area would have more than 3,000 kids being sold for sex.

Sound implausible? Follow the money. Last month the Urban Institute released the study “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities.” Of the eight cities studied, Seattle was the boom market. From 2003 to 2007,  the sex industries in the other seven declined in dollar value. Seattle’s more than doubled, to $112 million a year, surpassing the skin trades in Dallas, San Diego and Washington, D.C., all of which were formerly larger.

Seattle wasn’t among the 15 cities examined in a 2013 Arizona State University study which asked how many men seek to buy sex online. Based on responses to dummy ads placed on the classified-ad site, the researchers concluded that 5 percent of adult men nationwide shop for paid sex online. The percentage was highest in Houston (21 percent) and lowest (0.6 percent) in San Franciso. Kansas City and Las Vegas also ranked high in online sex shopping, and Baltimore and Atlantic City low. If the Seattle metro area merely matches the national estimate, it has about 60,000 online sex shoppers.

That’s in spite of much-touted efforts to squelch the trade by suppressing supply — the equivalent of trying to stop the drug trade by spraying poppy fields and nabbing dealers and traffickers. Nearly three years ago, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn raised a ruckus over the online classified-ad site, which does a whopping business in prostitution ads — in part because, unlike local print outlets, it doesn’t require proof of age from the advertisers. McGinn even withheld city advertising from the Seattle Weekly, which was then owned by Backpage’s parent company. Grandstanding, perhaps, but it seemed to work: The owners sold the Weekly to Sound Publishing, a local community-newspaper publisher, and the Weekly stopped serving as a Backpage portal.

That may be good news for the Weekly. But it’s a largely symbolic victory in the campaign to stop the sale of minors for sex. The same can be said for Craigslist’s earlier decision to stop carrying “escort service” ads. Craigslist’s “escort” ads migrated, more discreetly, to its “discreet encounters” category, or to the scores of other ready outlets. Those trolling for what used to be called “jailbait” don’t need a link on to find Backpage. It continues its lucrative sex-ad trade, touting its procedures to monitor for conspicuous underage offerings but insisting that it would be unfeasible to card every advertiser face-to-face.

King County prosecutor Richey insists that such efforts to cut off supply aren’t merely “squeezing the balloon.” But he admits that, like the air in a balloon, the supply keeps popping up elsewhere: “We’ve identified more than 60 websites where people can go to buy sex.”

In 2010, the Pacific Northwest Innocence Lost Task Force, an FBI-initiated project that includes SPD and other local agencies, announced a stunning victory against a particularly vicious crop of adversaries. The task force had “dismantled” the West Side Street Mobb, the gang that had replaced traditional solo-operator pimping with bold, even brazen organization. The name almost says it all: “Mobb” stood for “money over broke bitches.” The Mobbsters printed their slogan on T-shirts.

They were the sort of young thugs who might otherwise be selling drugs or doing stickups and strong-arm robberies. “Gangs have gotten into commercial sexual exploitation because it’s a very low-risk, high-reward activity,” says SPD’s Sano. “If you’re holding onto drugs or a gun, you could get stopped and frisked. If you’re with a juvenile you’re exploiting you can say, ‘She’s just my friend.’”

Nevertheless, despite all the head-trippings, beatings and even torture they’d suffered, enough victims, plus one pimp, agreed to testify, which put 10 Mobbsters behind bars. Later that year the FBI announced another triumph, this time in its annual nationwide sweep of  juveline sex exploiters. For the third year running, the Northwest task force rescued more young girls from prostitution (23) than any of its counterparts around the country. It also busted nine more pimps.

But has anything really changed? No one seems to think so. Some of the West Side Mobbsters have since gotten out and been arrested again — for pimping. You’d think they’d learn to apply their skills at ungentle persuasion and opportunistic exploitation to something more stable, say, corporate raiding or enhanced interrogation. “It’s hard to say any prosecution made a difference in the level of crime,” concedes prosecutor Val Richey. But, he adds, busting the West Side Street Mobb was nevertheless valuable: “It had a very real impact on the victims of those traffickers. It was a very real effect, to get them out of that situation.”

The balloon keeps popping up. Police and prosecutors, in Seattle at least, have graduated from busting the girls who get pimped to busting the pimps themselves. That’s an epochal advance. But even those who devote their lives to doing it know it’s not enough.

Coming soon: How local enforcers and care providers learned to distinguish between victims and victimizers in the child sex trade. And the special perils for homeless LGBTQ youth adrift in the commercial sex jungle.

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