Heartland Daughters for Sale

San Francisco Examiner
By Adrienne Sanders
7 May 2002

Susie Johnson, 22, unfolds a hollow condom wrapper and retrieves an emergency phone number she was hiding from her pimp for months.

The emerald-eyed prostitute from Kansas just escaped from two New York johns who kidnapped her, bound her naked in their basement, assaulted her, chopped off her strawberry blond locks while shouting voodoo chants and recording it all on videotape.

She calls the Connecticut-based Paul and Lisa program that shelters the alabaster beauty in a safehouse for six months before she returns to her pimp for a few more rounds in hell. "Bones" turned her out on Witchita's streets when she was 19, and still holds her in a crushing emotional grip.

Thousands of young prostitutes in the Bay Area have similar stories, though many are younger than Johnson when they start streetwalking. The majority of underage prostitutes in San Francisco are not from impoverished Asian or eastern European countries. They are honey-haired teenagers hauled in from America's Heartland. Magnet cities along the so-called Pacific Pipeline trafficking circuit such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas can't get enough of them.

Everyday the simple equation of supply and demand snags young lives: Johns prefer young blondes and will pay a premium to have sex with them. The Nordic belly of our country overflows with fair-skinned teenagers hungering for new lives. Pimps and traffickers, eager to cash in on the demand, scoop up far too many.

Each year in the United States, four hundred thousand children are lured or forced into prostitution, according to a Justice Department report released in September. Most of them are white, working and middle-class runaways from troubled homes who start selling their bodies by 13 or 14. They are all around - in city strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services, and on the streets.

Johnson, a recent high school graduate working as a low-paid telemarketer could barely afford her own meals when she became a pimp-target. Her roommate's boyfriend disapproved of Johnson dating black men and kicked the otherwise homeless young woman out of the apartment. Johnson had "aged out" of the foster care system that raised her after suffering sexual abuse at home.

Across the street from her old apartment stood a cheap motel. She moved in, completely unaware that it was a buzzing hive of prostitution. Johnson began dating a man she met there and soon moved in with him and his mother. Shortly after, he convinced her to join a friend's girlfriend who was selling sexual favors on the city's streets.

"I was like WHAT??" says Johnson, who today works in a fast food restaurant in Oregon. "But I liked him, I guess that got me to doing it."

Once on the streets, the girl disappeared, leaving Johnson shivering and scared. She soon turned her first trick.

"I felt really alone. I didn't feel like I had control over the situation," says the former turn out, now a 30-year-old single mother of three young boys.
"It's easier to just say 'alright.' Pimps look for a person like that, who's really naive."

When Johnson called her boyfriend for a ride home, another man, named Bones answered and broke the news that her man was a junkie out getting a fix and that he would rescue her. Bones picked her up in a green sedan with two men huddled in the back seat. "Okay baby, it's time to choose up." The telemarketer found herself selecting pimps.

Baffled, she asked Bones what he was talking about - the very question reeked of cash. He told her not to worry, he would take care of everything. "I was like a goldmine because I didn't know what was going on," she says, "I was fresh goods. Everything I was going to learn, he was going to teach me. That's why they always want a turn out."

Eskimo, a 24-year-old San Francisco pimp agrees. "Middle-class girls from the isolated suburbs usually make the best 'hos. They wasn't raised full of callousness. They don't have no street in 'em."

Predators intent on exploiting America's daughters can find a plentiful supply. Midwestern friendliness makes many particularly vulnerable, says the Rev. Alvin Erickson, head of A-Stop (Alliance for Speaking Truths on Prostitution), a Minneapolis non-profit that helps exploited teens get out of the sex industry.

"We've got something called 'Minnesota Nice.' We try hard to be helpful and not offend strangers or people of different races."

"If someone asks you for a stick of gum in the mall, you're not going to ignore him," he says with a twang. "But that could end up being the most dangerous conversation of your life."

Sleepy towns in Minnesota, Oklahoma, or Missouri can't always hold the attention of adventurous teens.

"There's nothing to do in those locations, to put it simply," says Susan Breault, head of the Paul and Lisa Program that saved Johnson's life.

"Mix in some abuse in the home and a pimp who says he'll get you out of the hum-drum life providing transportation, and very quickly the girl finds herself beholden to him."

Johnson verifies that claim. Bones promised to show her the good life. His diamond-packed gold watch, mink coat and gold front tooth impressed the teen who was raised in modest homes.

"He took off all his jewelry and said 'You can have it all if we go somewhere and you can't make a lot of money."

Within days she rolled into Dallas, where johns lined up their cars waiting to have sex with her and girls several years her junior. More than half of the runaways housed at The Larkin Street Youth Center come from states outside California, the shelter's director, Anne Stanton says. A good portion of those teens come from places such as Nebraska and Texas.

In prostitute round-ups in Las Vegas police find more than half the underage streetwalkers are Minnesota imports.

"We lose about 1,000 kids a year to the trade," lamented Erickson. "Pimps have fertile ground here but the people of Minnesota haven't confronted it yet. It's our dirty little secret.

And frigid winters don't help.

"You don't want to be on the streets in Minnesota," says Carla Fletcher a former hooker living in a San Francisco safehouse. "It's just too damn cold. That's why I came here."

"Men in the program tell us they prefer white, young, blue-eyed blondes," says Norma Hotaling, founder of The City's First Offenders program.

Hotaling, a blue-eyed blonde, was a prostitute herself for two decades before escaping the streets. "That's the play."

San Francisco has more than its share of johns, transient men looking for a quickie: conventioneers, truckers and soldiers to name a few. Most johns are white and married, according to the DOJ's report. Many have adolescent children themselves.

"It's the middle class men coming from the suburbs to buy them," Hotaling says. "...the respectable, nice people who are used to buying whatever they want. It's your brothers and husbands."

Many of these respected family men toss young prostitutes a few extra dollars to leave the condoms in their purses, says Larkin Street's Stanton. To runaways using survival sex to buy food or to keep a pimp's punches at bay, it's an offer they can't always refuse.

Fresh snowy girls like Johnson are known as thoroughbreds on the streets, because of their high money-making potential. The pimps keep the cash. Why the obsession with blonds? Society teaches men that is the perfect woman, Hotaling says, which explains the abundance of bleach bottle blonds on the track.

"Their rationale is 'I'm going to have what is going to make me feel like a man but, for me, is untattainable'."



Johns tell Hotaling they go for younger girls as the thrill of buying older hookers wears thin. They also try to convince themselves heavily made-up 15-year-olds in wigs are really 20. In the First Offenders seminar, she reminds men they could end up in jail for a very long time for buying sex from a minor.

Race choosing in reverse Customers aren't the only ones looking for pale faces. Affinity for white skin actually works both ways. Pimps and prostitutes prefer white johns because they spend more money than blacks, Johnson says. Her pimp forbade her to date men of color, because "he said, 'Something is always up with them.'"

But on dry nights when Bones squeezed her for cash, Johnson broke the rules.

"One night in New York this black guy pulled out a sawed-off Mossberg shotgun, the kind with the trigger on the end and no butt," she says. "He put it right in my face and demanded money. It was so scary because I didn't have any - only maybe a quarter to make a phone call."

She begged for her life, and, without thinking, pushed the gun barrel away from her face. Miraculously the armed mugger let her go. Bones, the protector, sat slouched in a parked car a few feet away, completely unaware that his cash fountain had nearly dried up for good.

The next day, Johnson refused a black man wanting a date, explaining her bad experience from the previous night. A few minutes later she heard screams from a nearby alley and noticed a hooker-friend's wig on the ground and a man dashing down the street.

"He cut up my friend, her face was all bloody," she says. "She went down on him and as he came, he sliced up her face."

But Johnson knows white men can be just as lethal. The Kansas native worked on Brooklyn's streets in 1991, when Joel 'the ripper' Rivkin was on a prostitute-murdering spree.

Underestimating the craftiness of pimps and traffickers can be deadly for America's daughters.

"In the U.S. we do not appreciate the cleverness, entrepreneurship and ability to coerce that pimps have -both men and women," Breault says. "They use manipulation followed by violence, degradation and dehumanization, including gang rapes."

Pimps are masters at psychological control who can smell attention-starved teens states away. They often pretend to be a young girl's boyfriend, using her romantic devotion to put her on the streets.

"A 14-year-old that's hopelessly in love with you," Eskimo says, "There's nothing she won't do for you. It's brainwashing, really."

To desensitize the girls to street life, pimps expose them to increasing amounts of pornography and violence. They often begin by asking girls to turn a trick with one of their friends.

It's a slippery slope to skid row.

Slowly they begin to control the girls' every move, down to how much toilet paper they can use, says former Minnesota strip club owner David Sherman, who now helps get girls out of the sex business.

"Once you can get a person to say to herself 'I'm a prostitute' and change her identity," says A-Stop's Erickson, "You basically got her. If you melt an ice cube and add in coloring and sugar and refreeze it. Then it's no longer an ice cube- it's a Popsicle."

Teen shelters: Pimp magnets
Runaway shelters, halfway houses and foster homes scream "Vulnerable Flesh Over Here" to pimp-predators. Nowhere is safe: malls, parties and high schools are rich recruitment grounds. Hookers still attending school will even pull their classmates into the game to curry favor with their pimp. They're competing with their "wives-in-law" (other girls in the stable) to be their pimp's "bottom bitch" or his favorite girl. Meanwhile the smug felons stay safely outside school grounds.

"Right now pimping is coming back," Eskimo says. "Everybody's trying to get in. It's just like heroin being back on the streets, or coke."

Pimps and traffickers defy ethnic stereotypes says University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Estes, who co-wrote the DOJ study. They come from all ethnic groups, aging from 16 to mid 50s, some with college degrees. Many pimps work in a multi-tiered system linked together by cell phones and pagers. The fast-talking street pimps skit around on the surface, but they often answer to powerful hidden operators.

Everybody wants a piece of this multi billion dollar business. Johnson can vouch for pimps' treachery.

"If you would have told me in high school I would be 'hoing," she says. "I would have never believed you. But that's their job and they're good at it." Johnson tried to leave Bones several times during their four years together but he repeatedly sucked her back into the game. After she gave birth to their son (guards at Riker's Island prison told her she was pregnant during a short jail stay) Johnson left him to be with family in New Mexico. She found an apartment and an administrative job there and deluded herself into believing Bones might join her to help raise their son.

Instead, he kidnapped the two and hustled them back to New York City - but not before pimping her out in truck stops along the way. Back in Manhattan, she had to hire a babysitter to care for her son while she worked the streets. Pimps - who consider themselves above using condoms --frequently impregnate girls in their stable and later use the children to control them.

Johnson began drinking on the track to soothe her nerves and, one night, came home empty-handed.

"He took off his snakeskin shoes with the heel on it and beat me up bad," she says. "I grabbed my baby and thought he would stop. He was never really violent before, but he kept hitting me in the head. Blood was everywhere, I went unconscious." When she awoke, Bones was trying to plug in an iron to burn her.

It took her two months, support from her brother, the Paul and Lisa Program and a kind Egyptian store owner who bought her ticket back to New Mexico, to escape for good.

RESULT Johnson is an exception to the tragic reality that many girls never escape their pimps' mind control. Too many end up drug-addicted, broke, infected with diseases or worse.

Some are murdered. Many die spiritually and emotionally.

"Women who started in prostitution at 12 or 13 and come to us as 22 year olds - they sit across the table from me and say 'I'm used up,' or 'my life is over, I'm so tired." They've never had any feelings of hope or control over their lives. The level of psychological paralysis is phenomenal," says Hotaling, who helps prostitutes change their lives. "I find it much easier to treat a 30-year old woman with serious addictions who has been in the criminal justice system."

Like most streetwalkers, Johnson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, shaken by jarring flashbacks for years. Raising three young boys helps her stay strong, but one secret scar continues to pain her: Johnson's 8-year-old doesn't know his father was her pimp. Afraid he will be ashamed of his origin or of Johnson herself, she isn't sure she will ever tell him.

This survivor does share her past with auditoriums full of other people, however, in presentations to high school girls about the dangers of street life. She wants to help others avoid her painful history and is devastated that Paul and Lisa Program's safe house shut down to due budget tightening. "These girls are like any other girls," Johnson says. "We have a hard shell on the outside but we are soft underneath.