Nicholas Kristof: Selling Emily for sex

02/16/2014 12:00 AM

02/14/2014 5:49 PM

Emily, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, ran away from home in early November, and her parents were sitting at their dining table, frightened and inconsolable.

The parents, Maria and Benjamin, both school-bus drivers, had been searching for their daughter all along and pushing the police to investigate. They gingerly confessed their fears that Emily, a Latina, was being controlled by a pimp.

I went to Boston to try to understand the vast national problem of runaways, and I asked if they had checked Backpage.com, the leading website for prostitution and sex trafficking in America. They said they hadn’t heard of it. Since I’ve written about Backpage before and was familiar with how runaways often end up in its advertisements, I pulled out my laptop – and in two minutes we found an ad for a “mixed Latina catering to your needs” with photos of a seminude girl.

Maria staggered and shrieked. It was Emily.

A 2002 Justice Department study suggested that more than 1.6 million American juveniles run away or are kicked out of their homes each year. Ernie Allen, a former president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has estimated that at least 100,000 kids are sexually trafficked each year in the United States.

Perhaps they aren’t a priority because they’re seen as asking for it, not as victims. This was Emily’s fourth time running away, and she seemed to have voluntarily connected with a pimp.

So it’s true that no one was holding a gun to Emily’s head. Then again, she was 15, in a perilous business. And in this case, it turned out, having sex with half a dozen men a day and handing over every penny to an armed pimp.

A bit more searching on the Web, and we found that Emily had been advertised for sex in four states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The ads said that Emily (the name used in the ads, which is not her real name) was “fetish-friendly,” and that was scary. Pimps use “fetish-friendly” as a dog whistle to attract deviants who will pay more for the right to be extra violent or abusive.

“We don’t care what she did,” said Benjamin, in a shattered tone. “We just want her back.”

The ads for Emily included a cellphone number to set up “dates,” and we passed the information to the authorities. The pimp’s phone number should have made it easy to find the girl, so we waited to see what would happen.

Maria was bitter that the police hadn’t done more. She had been pleading for months for help, hounding the police – and then found that her daughter was being advertised in four states on multiple prostitution websites, and no one seemed to have checked or noticed.

There were failings here beyond law enforcement. You wonder about the men paying to have sex with a girl who looks so young. About the hotel clerks. And about why we tolerate websites like Backpage.com that peddle teenage girls.

A few hours after I sent police the link, officers located Emily in New Hampshire. Police raided a hotel, rescuing her and arresting a 19-year-old, Andy Pena, who they said was her pimp and took all the money she made. Police said that Pena was armed.

Pena is in jail in New Hampshire; his public defender declined to comment.

Emily is ambivalent about her rescue. She’s in a group home, getting support from other survivors of human trafficking through a group called My Life My Choice. She’s still rebellious, but it’s a good sign that she hugged her mom. Maria wept.

Today Emily is safe, but there are hundreds of thousands of other runaways out on the streets. These are our kids, in danger. Shouldn’t they be a national priority?

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