Lured into 'the life' & pow­er­less to es­cape

For­mer vic­tims re­veal how NYC pimps prey on the young & vul­ner­a­ble

New York Post - - NEWS - By GABRIELLE FONROUGE, SHAWN CO­HEN and YOAV GO­NEN Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Ruth Brown gfon­rouge@ny­post.com

T HEY sit next to you on the sub­way and at­tend school with your chil­dren.

Some come from money; oth­ers were born into poverty.

There is no cookie-cut­ter mold for the city’s sex-traf­fick­ing vic­tims, a hid­den — and bur­geon­ing — part of its pop­u­la­tion.

“It’s that con­flu­ence of a su­pery­oung, vul­ner­a­ble per­son meet­ing a preda­tory in­di­vid­ual who is ul­ti­mately part of a bil­lion-dol­lar sex in­dus­try,” said Rachel Lloyd, founder of the anti-sex traf­fick­ing group Girls Ed­u­ca­tional & Men­tor­ing Ser­vices and a sur­vivor her­self.

“They don’t re­ally stand a chance.”

In Day 2 of The Post’s three-part se­ries on New York’s sex-traf­fick­ing epi­demic, sur­vivors, ad­vo­cates and law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials pro­vide a glimpse into what it’s like for the thou­sands of women and men who are bought, sold and abused across the five bor­oughs ev­ery day.

Their sto­ries re­veal how choice and con­sent get blurred in the face of des­per­a­tion — and the last­ing ef­fects of the psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare car­ried out by their ruth­less pimps. ‘A LEXIS” was a fresh­man in high school when she was lured into “the life.” The Bronx res­i­dent, who asked that her real name not be used, bounced in and out of fos­ter care from age 2 and was mo­lested by her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther start­ing around age 8. Soon, it was rape.

Her mom, mean­while, would sell her­self in the fam­ily’s apart­ment while the kids were home.

When Alexis was 14, she had a kit­ten but couldn’t care for it and asked a stranger on the street to take it. He was a neigh­bor­hood pimp.

“He man­aged to get in a con­ver­sa­tion with me about a party that he was go­ing to do, and that a fa­mous celebrity, Meek Mill, was go­ing to be there . . . So he asked me if I’d like to go,” Alexis, now 22, said in an in­ter­view at The Chil­dren’s Vil­lage, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that as­sisted in her res­cue.

The pimp told Alexis to come back that night in heels and sexy clothes. He said he also needed racy pic­tures of her — for the party’s “VIP list.”

He gave her a cup of sparkling wine in the car on the way to the party, and sud­denly, “I felt my jaw was like locked. I started get­ting, like, hot,” Alexis said.

The hustler brought her to a Yonkers mo­tel room, where men were wait­ing to pay to rape her — hav­ing seen ads he had made with her pho­tos on Backpage.com.

The pimp en­cour­aged Alexis to “slide into the loop” — his eu­phemism for pros­ti­tu­tion — and she re­luc­tantly agreed.

“At that mo­ment, my mom and I and my sis­ter, we were strug­gling to pay rent, we were strug­gling to pay for food. Prior to that, all the apart­ments we had, we used to get evicted for not be­ing able to pay rent on time,” Alexis said.

She spent two years be­ing traf­ficked, es­cap­ing only when a friend told her of The Sanc­tu­ary, a Westch­ester shel­ter run by The Chil­dren’s Vil­lage.

Six years later, Alexis has a full­time job at a Bronx coun­sel­ing cen­ter and a 2-year-old daugh­ter.

Alexis shares a com­mon thread with do­mes­tic sex-traf­fick­ing vic­tims in New York and around the coun­try.

As many as 90 per­cent of kids who are sex­u­ally traf­ficked were al­ready vic­tims of sex­ual abuse, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Jus­tice.

And 50 per­cent to more than 90 per­cent of vic­tims have spent time in the child-welfare sys­tem, fed­eral data show. S HANIFA Ben­nett was a ju­nior at John Adams HS in Ozone Park, Queens, when a pimp she met on so­cial me­dia promised her the money she des­per­ately needed to sur­vive.

Ben­nett, then 17, was reel­ing from an “un­sta­ble child­hood” and didn’t have money for ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties — from school sup­plies to even un­der­wear. Then her strug­gling mom left, and Ben­nett be­came home­less.

“What am I sup­posed to do?” Ben­nett said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at the Covenant House, a youth home­less shel­ter. “I have no clothes, I need books, I need pen­cils, I need just cer­tain ba­sic things for me to go to school.

“So, un­for­tu­nately, I got into the life.”

Ben­nett’s pimp promised her pro­tec­tion and a “fam­ily,” but he was soon deny­ing her food, show­ers and con­tact with the out­side world — and beat­ing her if she got out of line. She de­scribed it as a form of brain­wash­ing.

“I’m get­ting beat, but I have a place to stay. I’m not al­ways eat­ing, but I have un­der­wear,” she said, ex­plain­ing why she stayed.

Such a com­bi­na­tion of abuse and “care-tak­ing” cre­ates a bond be­tween a vic­tim and cap­tor, a psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect called Stock­holm syn­drome. That loy­alty makes cases hard to pros­e­cute.

“Nor­mal and av­er­age” peo­ple just don’t un­der­stand this phe- nomenon, said Queens As­sis­tant District At­tor­ney Jes­sica Mel­ton, chief of her of­fice’s Hu­man Traf­fick­ing Unit.

“‘Well, why didn’t you just run? Why didn’t you scream?’ It’s hard to get into the mind of some­body who’s been in­un­dated and brain­washed,” she said.

One of Ben­nett’s friends from high school who would see her on “the track” — a des­o­late area where men prowl for paid sex — per­suaded her to get help.

Now 21, Ben­nett is steadily em­ployed and pur­su­ing a ca­reer in so­cial work. J ENNIFER’S route into forced pros­ti­tu­tion is a shock­ingly com­mon one: Her abusive hus­band made her do it.

She was an im­mi­grant from the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, and the cou­ple had a daugh­ter when he

co­erced her into the life by threat­en­ing to have her de­ported.

His friend would drive Jen­nifer to pri­vate apart­ments and ho­tels in The Bronx and other ar­eas. The money she earned would be split be­tween him and her hus­band — typ­i­cally $25 for 15 min­utes.

It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that the 37year-old Jen­nifer now likens to a food-de­liv­ery ser­vice, where “I’m the de­liv­ery.”

“It’s dis­gust­ing. Peo­ple that you don’t know touch you like you are a piece of bread,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of things out­side that you can com­pare to some­thing like this.”

Jen­nifer said she reg­u­larly con­tem­plated sui­cide and sur­vived mul­ti­ple at­tempts. What saved her was her ar­rest. Af­ter be­ing busted, she was put in touch with the sup­port net­work at the non­profit Sanc­tu­ary for Fam­i­lies. She’s now a liv­ery driver.

NAT Paul was beaten and abused by a mother “who never wanted” her while grow­ing up near Buf­falo.

When she was 19, she was mis­taken for be­ing gay, kicked out of her home and ex­com­mu­ni­cated from her church.

Paul was sleep­ing in her car when her friends in­tro­duced her to an es­cort ser­vice.

She said her han­dlers were be­yond abusive to her and her co­work­ers, but she didn’t feel like she had an al­ter­na­tive.

“They were . . . say­ing we’re no bet­ter than an in­flat­able doll any­way and reaf­firm­ing you were never worth any­thing. ‘You have noth­ing, so go out and do the only thing you’re good at,’ ” she said.

For months, she was on the streets of New York City, sleep­ing over sub­way grates on 42nd Street.

Paul said she quit sell­ing her­self af­ter an HIV scare. She was told she had the dis­ease but doesn’t. The scare was enough to per­suade her to get out of the life.

She is now part of the Na­tional Sur­vivor Net­work with CAST, an LA-based anti-traf­fick­ing group.

‘JONESIE” didn’t even know what sex-traf­fick­ing was when her de­vel­op­men­tally de­layed daugh­ter van­ished from their Har­lem home in late 2016.

The 51-year-old mom, who also asked that her real name not be used, would learn her 17-year-old had been ad­ver­tised by a pimp on Backpage.com and traf­ficked out of dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions in Man­hat­tan.

Four days af­ter her daugh­ter’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Jonesie got a phone call from a num­ber she didn’t rec­og­nize. It was her daugh­ter.

“Im­me­di­ately, the first thing she says is, ‘ Mom, I’m OK. I’m safe,’ ” Jonesie re­called.

The mother said she replied, “Yeah, right you’re OK. I haven’t seen you in three or four days. Where are you?”

“It’s con­fi­den­tial,” her daugh­ter an­swered.

Af­ter some pry­ing, the girl mum­bled an ad­dress, and Jonesie made a bee­line for the build­ing, which would have been just a blocks from their home — only it didn’t ex­ist.

The next day, a neigh­bor who used to at­tend school with her daugh­ter called Jonesie to say she had seen the teen with an older man out­side on a cold day with­out a coat and not look­ing well.

Us­ing the de­scrip­tion of what the miss­ing girl was wear­ing, the po­lice tracked her down two days later with an ac­com­plice of the traf­ficker, who was ar­rested.

Jonesie said her daugh­ter is cur­rently at an up­state school, strug­gling with psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues but at least out of harm’s way.

MOST of the city’s sex-traf­fick­ers are “Romeo pimps” — hus­tlers who prey on young vic­tims des­per­ate for at­ten­tion and love, woo­ing them as a pro­tec­tive “boyfriend” might, even while mak­ing the girls have sex with mul­ti­ple men ev­ery night, law en­force­ment says.

“Not ev­ery vic­tim is be­ing held against their will in an apart­ment or a cel­lar or some­thing like that. They’re con­trolled in dif­fer­ent ways,” said In­spec­tor James Klein, com­man­der of the NYPD’s Vice En­force­ment Unit.

“They don’t even know what love is, but they’re in love with this guy, and they’ll have sex be­cause, ‘Hey, baby, we need money. You gotta do this for me.’ ”

Lloyd, of Girls Ed­u­ca­tional & Men­tor­ing Ser­vices, said pimps “en­gen­der loy­alty” with this cy­cle of “love” and abuse.

“One minute, he loves you, the next minute, he’s beat­ing you,” she said.

“One minute, he’s tak­ing you to din­ner and leav­ing all the girls home. The next, he’s forc­ing you to strip naked in the shower and beat­ing you with a coat hanger.”

SUR­VIVORS: Alexis (right), who asked that her real name not be used, tells her story at The Chil­dren’s Vil­lage, which took her in af­ter she was co­erced into a life of pros­ti­tu­tion by a pimp. Shan­ifa Ben­nett (be­low) says she was home­less and des­per­ate when she fell for a pimp’s false prom­ises of se­cu­rity.

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