Four years ago, Shayna* skipped school with a classmate who promised that if they headed to a local barbershop, she would show her how easy it was to make fast money. “I had no idea what that would be until we got there, and I didn’t realize that she was recruiting me for a pimp,” says Shayna, who accepted a drink from the man upon meeting him. “He began telling me, not asking me, everything I was going to do from that day on. I was scared but interested, because he made it seem like it was the perfect situation. But I didn’t really understand the depth of what he was saying—or what it really meant I would be doing—until he brought in the first guy who bought and violated me. I was only 14 years old.”
Shayna, now 18, was trapped in that life for three years, part of the time in metro Atlanta, before she escaped. “I feared for my life through all the sexual assaults, gang rapes, beatings and weapons used by the pimp to keep me in line and generate money,” she recounts through an interview facilitated by Lisa Williams, founder of Living Water for Girls, a treatment facility that helps to restore the lives of girls who have been trafficked.
Shayna didn’t even know that her pimp had sold her on the Internet, a common practice in the sex-trafficking world.
According to a recent federally funded study on the sex trade, in Atlanta, some pimps make nearly $33,000 a week. Much of this income comes from selling young girls by promoting their business online.
There are thousands of online classified ads such as this with naked and likely underage girls erotically posing on websites such as Backpage and Craigs-list. Whoever posted the one above listed the young woman’s age as 19; experts say she’s probably much younger.
Welcome to Atlanta
According to the Urban Institute, which conducts economic and social policy research, Atlanta is the sex-trafficking capital of the United States, with more than $290 million spent in the metro area in 2007 alone.
“We have the world’s busiest airport, so travel in and out is very easy for those who want to purchase our children,” notes DeKalb County Assistant District Attorney Dalia Racine. In a state that also ranks tenth in the nation for interstate superhighways, Atlanta draws tens of millions annually to conventions and major events. Local pimps staff up, out-of-town exploiters bring their sex slaves and “johns”—the term used to describe the men who pay for sex—flock to the city for high-profile occasions.
Every month, approximately 7,200 men in Georgia purchase more than 200 girls averaging between ages 12 and 14 for sex, according to youthSpark, an organization that works to end sex trafficking. In Atlanta, 42 percent of those johns live north of the city’s perimeter, which means they’re likely White. But Jennifer Swain, youthSpark’s program director, believes that the true criminals responsible for luring these Black girls are usually much closer.
“Most of the girls I deal with in my group are being sexually exploited in their own communities,” says Swain. “It’s the people in your ’hood—that older man who’s known you and your cousins, and now he’s wanting to have sex with you.”
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 40 percent of all sex trafficking victims were Black. Racine says the majority of cases she handles in DeKalb County, which has an African-American population of nearly 55 percent, involve Black children. But interestingly enough, being Black doesn’t make you any more valuable to a pimp.
“Even within the world of exploitation, you are considered more elevated in the game if you are able to recruit White girls,” explains Racine. “Black females are called ducks and White females are called swans; you will always be able to make more money with a White child.”
Spend an hour or so on Backpage or other sites where prices are listed looking for Black girls who are prostituted in Atlanta, and you’ll find that the going rate seems to be between $40 and $100 for a variety of “services,” including some bargain-based “tonight only” sales. Trolling for White girls? You’ll rarely see a price at all.