In February 2001, one of Atlanta’s most notorious pimps was sentenced to 22 years in prison after a Fulton County jury found him guilty of prostituting a 12-year-old girl. At the time, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the region.
On Monday, an Atlanta man was convicted of molesting and raping his own stepdaughter, and pimping her and other minors over telephone “chat lines” and at booze-and-drug-fueled sex parties. He got three life sentences plus 87 years.
We may be making progress.
For years, the FBI has considered Atlanta a hub for the child sex trade. But treating child prostitution as a real problem, and not some kind of victimless crime, is relatively new.
Before, “there certainly wasn’t a sense that they were children that were still needing society’s protection. And now we’ve changed that,” says Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of A Future Not a Past, a statewide project of the Juvenile Justice Fund.
“So, I think it speaks to an entire redefinition, where the people who are getting punished are the ones doing the exploiting, that seeking [sexual] pleasure from a child as an adult is not right.”
Law enforcement’s stepped-up efforts to prosecute pimps appear to be having an effect. The number of underage girls prostituted in a month statewide declined from a peak of 492 in February to 353 in August, according to the latest estimate from the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.
If that number is to keep falling, we have to move beyond going after only the pimps. We must take on the buyers, too.
Georgia law on the purchasers of child sex — “I’ve stopped even calling them ‘johns,’ because I think that is a term from the past that sort of makes it seem OK,” McCullough says — is adequate. But circumstances sometimes make it difficult to catch or prosecute buyers.
So, a big part of the strategy is educating the community about the prevalence of minors among prostitutes. (Child advocates tend to stay away from the question of prostitution more broadly, focusing only on minors.)
Fortunately, some fresh research tells us more than ever about the buyers in Georgia.
Researchers posing as phone operators, fielding responses to a fake online advertisement for young females, spoke to more than 200 men seeking to buy sex in metro Atlanta last fall. The researchers extrapolated that figure to the broader population and believe some 7,200 men in Georgia pay for sex with underage girls each month.
But only 3 to 4 percent of buyers say they’re looking for girls under 18. Most men, the researchers wrote in a report, “either don’t know or are willing to ignore the possibility that they are having sex with an adolescent female.” That word “ignore” seems key: 47 percent of the men they interviewed were willing to proceed even after three escalated warnings that the girl might be a minor.
And while many people think of child prostitution, and the sex trade generally, as an urban problem, two-thirds of the men were suburbanites, including 42 percent from northern OTP counties.
That last fact may explain part of the public’s reluctance to confront the problem of buyers. When a large chunk of the buyers are upper-middle to upper-class white men, McCullough says, “it changes the conversation.
“As a society, we’re going to see if we really mean it when we say that we don’t want our kids to be abused. There will probably be some people caught in those nets that are going to be embarrassing.”
Of course, it’s much more than embarrassing to be a child whose body is sold by and to adults who know better.