A few easy steps from confused, wayward teen to prostitute

Dallas, TX|Sex-Trafficking Minors|Add Comment
By: Tod Robberson, Dallas Morning News
Tod Robberson Dallas Morning News
Pulitzer Prize Winner

Austin Holly Smith tells a familiar story, as recounted in today’s Dallas Morning News, about being lured into a sex-trafficking ring. For her, it happened 20 years ago. But it still happens to thousands of kids across the country, including about 350 kids annually here in Dallas. Typically, it goes like this: Home life isn’t so good. A kid is fighting with her or his parents. Maybe a close relative has become abusive, sexually or otherwise. When a child can’t trust the adults in her life, the natural instinct is to get as far away as possible. And that’s what Austin Holly Smith did when she was 14 after being sexually abused.

She hit the road and wound up in Atlantic City, where she met a guy who quickly lured her into his prostitution ring. Selling your body is not something a normal 14 year old does on her own, and it takes a lot of coaxing. It takes a fast-talking adult who offers friendship and security at a time when the kid is lonely and vulnerable. Once you’re in the business, drugs and alcohol become the easiest way to deaden the feelings of guilt and shame associated with prostitution.  Smith was lucky. She only spent 36 hours in “the business” before finding a way out. But for the past 20 years, the stigma attached to those 36 hours has continued to haunt her. She was brave enough to tell her story to an SMU audience yesterday as a way of helping others understand what’s at stake here.

Another teen has a similar story. She is a 16-year-old from Oregon who went missing on June 21. Somehow, she wound up in Des Moines, Iowa, where she got lured into a prostitution ring. Her services were advertised on Backpage.com, whose Village Voice Media corporate offices in Dallas are shared with The Dallas Observer. I get the impression from the way she was found by police that she was advertised on Backpage.com as providing some kind of service that makes hotel calls. My guess is the service was “massage,” and there are scores of such ads all over the Observer’s website along with those of other Village Voice Media newspapers.

The girl was found at a Holiday Inn in Des Moines on July 12. While police were arresting the 16-year-old, who they didn’t know at the time was a child sex-trafficking victim instead of a criminal, they noticed activity in another room at the hotel. They checked it out and saw the familiar face of another woman advertised on Backpage.com.

Backpage.com could easily decline to run these ads, but that would be very bad for business. In fact, I suspect the company would not survive financially without them. In their executives’ twisted rationale, Backpage is actually helping to fight sex trafficking, not promote it. I’m still not clear how that works. But if I worked for that company, I’d certainly be ashamed every time I collected my paycheck, knowing that a big portion of that money comes from child-exploiting sex traffickers.

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