Credit: Ira Gelb (Flickr)

BOSTON — She was only 15 when she escaped, but she had already been sold for sex up to nine times a day since she was two years old. Her parents pimped her out and beat her severely, but Mary (not her real name) is a survivor – no longer a victim.

Twelve years later, she helps other survivors in the US and abroad, volunteering with the Not For Sale Campaign.

I met Mary over lunch at a convention on sex trafficking in Boston recently and she told me her story.

It has taken “a lot of healing and hard work” to get this far,” she said.

Besides survivors like Mary, activists, government officials and law enforcement officers gathered at the intense, two-day event in Boston in May, organized by Demand Abolition, a program of Hunt Alternatives Fund. The focus of the conference was on abolishing the demand for commercial sex.

Demand Abolition aims to bring about “a cultural change in how people see the buying of human beings for sex” and to eradicate demand for what is now the world’s number two crime, along with illegal arms sales. (The drug trade is number one.)

Mary’s story, sadly, is not unusual. Most prostituted women report having been sexually abused as children, often by family members.

In its 2012 Trafficking in Persons report released Tuesday, the State Department included heartbreaking stories of trafficking victims around the world who were tricked by family members or acquantances into forced labor or prostitution. 

Estimates on the number of children sold for sex in the United States vary from 100,000 to 300,000 a year. Over 80 percent of cases investigated by the Justice Department were US citizens, not immigrants, although the State Department acknowledges that the US is not immune from the problem of international trafficking.

Contrary to the popular perception that johns are lonely middle aged or old men, most men who buy sex are between mid-twenties to mid-forties in age. Most are not lonely singles, but in relationships with girlfriends or wives. They are doctors, neurosurgeons, lawyers and corporate employees.

The convention underscored the urgency of a universal problem.

More from GlobalPost: Machismo and the threat to Latin American women

Sex trafficking is basically “an extension of slavery, that impacts primarily women of color,” to quote Vednita Carter, the founding Executive Director of Breaking Free, a Minnesota-based “direct service” organization that helps women and girls escape prostitution.

Worldwide, prostitution is largely viewed as a consensual relationship between two consenting adults, a matter of supply and demand, a ‘necessity’ for men, particularly those who are old and lonely. It’s considered a man’s “right” to pay for sex. Some argue that if women choose to enter the trade, they should be allowed to practice it, that women in ‘escort services’ are better off than the ‘street ladies’.

But the bottom line, said Carter, is that “prostitution is about a sex act, whether it takes place in a hotel room or a back alley. If it hurts one, it hurts all. The very act violates human dignity.”

But movies and television series glamorize prostitution, making it seem ‘okay’ to the public. One of the most damaging social perceptions about this trade is that it’s like any other business and that it’s okay for men to buy sex. In my own country, Pakistan, courtesans are glamourized in numerous films and literary pieces.

Lifetime Television’s new series, “The Client List,” features a young single mother who starts work at a massage parlor and turns to prostitution to “save” her family financially -- a move portrayed as “rewarding and honorable,” by Washington State Attorney Rob McKenna in an op-ed in the Huffington Post highlighting the whitewashing of the issue.

This, as McKenna points out, is “a stark departure from a reality in which prostitutes overwhelmingly don't find their work glamorous. Minors involved in the business are often runaways. A majority of adult prostitutes experienced sexual abuse as children.” (Massage therapists have initiated an online petition against "The Client List" for promoting misconceptions about their trade; several national advertisers have responded by pulling their ads)

At a workshop during the Demand Abolition convention, British journalist Julie Bindel quoted a 32-year old woman who “started when she was 12 years old… was put on crack and has been unable to leave.”

More from GlobalPost: Trafficking woes taint Taiwan's economic miracle

Most of the women Bindel surveyed during her recent research had experienced at least one form of violence, with the highest percentage being from the buyers (johns). The research, which will be published this month, finds that the “age of entry” for nearly one-third of the prostituted women surveyed was under 18 years old -- “very telling, not shocking,” she said. The average “age of entry” worldwide, including in the US, is 13.

What is shocking is that “girls as young as ten years old were being recruited on the Metro in Washington DC”, said Mary Lou Leary, Acting Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, speaking at the convention. “They were being trafficked by this ring, while still living with their parents.”

“This goes on in every community. It’s a pervasive problem,” said Leary. “This is not just a global problem, it’s a crisis right here in the USA.”  

‘Romeo pimps’ target vulnerable young girls who are seeking escape from poverty and abusive domestic situations. Once trapped, the children find it hard to escape, not just physically but also emotionally. To get them to testify against “the only daddy they’ve ever known” is hard, as Leary put it.

That is why it’s important to involve survivors who have managed to exit the trade in the investigation and prosecution of sex cases. The Illinois Cook County Sheriff’s Office employs three such survivors.

Marian Hatcher, Special Projects Assistant accompanies the Vice Unit and works with women who are caught up in the raids. “Leadership is important,” she says, giving credit to Sheriff Tom Dart. “Enforcement of the law is what makes the difference.”

When a Virginia police officer in a workshop at the convention raised a question about how to get ‘the girls to talk’, Hatcher told him that his unit should include survivors.

More from GlobalPost: In Canada, teen girls arrested for running trafficking, prostitution ring

“That’s what you’ve got to do,” she advised when he said it didn’t. “Law enforcement units busting prostitution rings must include survivors, to walk the women through what to expect and convince them to be witnesses.”

Most states in the US have laws that criminalize human trafficking (Massachusetts passed this legislation as late as November 2011, and in April, West Virginia became the 49th state to do so). However, 42 states lack "safe harbor" laws that would protect trafficked minors from being prosecuted for prostitution.

But the game is changing. With law enforcement agencies increasingly focusing on the demand (johns) rather than the distribution (pimps) or supply (prostituted women and girls), johns and pimps are changing tactics too. Throwaway cell phones and Internet transactions are on the rise. Pimps are herding girls across state borders, making it harder to track their moves. The trend towards privatization is pushing sex workers into hotel rooms and apartments where research shows they are just as vulnerable, if not more, to violence and abuse as on the street.

Will this culture of exploitation ever end? Those working to counter it believe it will, given legislation, political will and proper enforcement – in addition to a change in public opinion, which considers it socially acceptable to buy sex.

“I hope that my two-year-old daughter and forthcoming baby will find sex trafficking as incomprehensible as separate water fountains are to me,” said Lina Nealon, the young Director of Demand Abolition, her voice choking with emotion.

It’s a dream that is likely to take a long time being fulfilled. But if perceptions about slavery and segregation could change, why not about men who pay for sex?

We made this interactive map, which will be added to whenever we hear about a new, innovative way to combat trafficking. Do you know of any? Let us know and we will add it to the map!
View Ending human trafficking in a larger map

Related Stories