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Nicole was 12 when she started hooking. The way she tells it, she slipped into the life rather than choosing it. Her mother was addicted to crystal meth; her father “was never in the picture.” She detested her stepfather, a crack cocaine user who “was very abusive.” Mature for her age, the preteen was often forced to care for her younger brothers and a sister. She says she reached a breaking point when her mother took off for Florida, abandoning the family yet again. “That really hurt me. So when she came back, I ran away,” Nicole says.

“I didn’t plan for it to be a permanent leave,” she says of her impulsive decision five years ago. She slept at a cousin’s house for a while, but one night, “I was at a trolley station in Spring Valley, and I seen one of my homegirls that I went to school with. She just came out with it and was like, ‘I’m ho’ing, and I have this pimp.’ She didn’t really try to recruit me.”

Instead, Nicole claims she asked to see the pimp’s house, where “I kind of bought into this game. The pimp already had cars and a house. He took me shopping. We went to L.A. that first night—to Hollywood—and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this is what it’s about. I want to do this.’”

Now 17, Nicole lives, for the moment, in the county’s Girls’ Rehabilitation Facility on Starlight Drive in Linda Vista. She says she’s torn between yearning to make a better life for herself and succumbing again to the siren song of the street.

It’s a lure to which record numbers of teenage girls are responding, authorities say. According to Laura McGowan, a vice detective for the San Diego Police Department, 41 girls under 18 were arrested for prostitution in San Diego in 2003, almost twice the number for 2002. Prostitution-related contacts between police and juveniles more than doubled from 73 in 2002 to 184 last year. Reports have circulated that a gang of aggressive pimp recruiters based in the South Bay has contributed to the increase.

A police investigation into the alleged ring is ongoing, so McGowan won’t disclose details of the department’s findings. However, she offers other insights into why increasing numbers of teenage girls are selling their bodies.

“I see this huge shift from the ’80s to now,” McGowan says. Back then, “if you went down to the Sports Arena area, on Midway Drive or lower Rosecrans, and even up on El Cajon Boulevard, it was just wall-to-wall prostitutes and transvestites.” But, she says, most of the younger girls “probably had a child at home, and they were trying to get money to take care of their child.”

In contrast, the 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old girls working as streetwalkers today “are out there for reasons completely opposite of what it was 15 years ago. It isn’t the fact that they’re poor,” McGowan says. “They’re doing it so they can buy clothes and jewelry and CDs and Walkmen. When you ask them why they’re out there, they say they want ‘stuff.’”

But there are other factors, too.

McGowan McGowan says many girls come from fatherless homes. Pimps supply them not only with compliments and promises of protection, the detective says, but also with the structure, boundaries and consequences so often craved by children. “It’s a sick relationship, but it’s very structured: ‘You’re gonna work Monday through Saturday, these hours. You’re gonna be hooking up with me after every date and giving me the money.’ If they step out of line, they get beat.”

American culture over the past decade or so has grown more tolerant of prostitution, often glamorizing it. “The word ‘pimp,’ when I was younger, had a negative connotation,” McGowan says. “It was a bad thing. But now you have a television show, Pimp My Ride... Same thing with ‘ho’ [whore]. If you were a ho, that was a bad thing; you were a prostitute, a tramp. Now, it’s considered funny. Whoopi Goldberg’s production company is called One Ho Productions. It kind of makes you think it has a different meaning now.”

McGowan says she’s asked a lot of arrested teenagers if anyone ever told them prostitution was wrong or immoral or unethical. “They just look at me with these deer-in-the-headlights looks. They’re completely bewildered—because nobody has ever told them that.”

These kids are looking at it as a part-time job,” says Kathi Hardy. A short, sturdy woman of 49, Hardy wears grandmotherly wire-frame glasses; her steel-gray hair is close-cropped. These days she works as a social-science researcher in Kearny Mesa. But from 1988 to 1993, she was a hooker, and for most of that time, she was homeless in East San Diego, arrested 15 times, raped on a dozen occasions.

“I lost count of how many times I was beat up and robbed,” she says. When Hardy finally entered a drug-rehabilitation program, her health was shattered. “I had been treated for gonorrhea. I had been treated for syphilis. I had hepatitis B. I had a lump in my breast. I had an abnormal Pap [smear] for five years,” she says.

Drugs took her down this sorry path. Born and raised in Dallas in a middle-class white family, Hardy started using marijuana, LSD and other drugs at 13. Throughout high school, a stint in the Marine Corps, marriage and motherhood, her usage escalated, even as she held down a series of jobs in medical offices. But during one bleak period, she lost custody of her son, got fired from her job and was evicted from her house. “In a month and a half, I went from being what I thought was a functional addict ... to being homeless,” she says. “Many people think it couldn’t happen to them. But we’re all just a paycheck or two away from that if we don’t keep our guard up.”

Hardy says her homelessness and addiction finally drove her to sell herself. “I thought it would be an easy way to make money,” something she would endure for “not more than a couple of weeks, tops,” she says. Years later, she only escaped her degradation after the intercession of some concerned police officers, who kept arresting her and urging her into rehab. She got sober in October 1993.

Since then, she’s become involved in trying to aid and educate active and recovering prostitutes. Hardy visits the Girls’ Rehabilitation Facility, located next to Juvenile Court, every other Friday to spend an hour or two talking to teenage girls incarcerated because of prostitution.

“Last year I spoke to 113 different little girls there,” she says. Hardy echoes McGowan’s words when she reflects on why their numbers have been increasing: “Kids have come to see this as a viable way of making money. They see kids at school with cell phones and clothes, et cetera, and they get involved. With some of these kids, their parents give them everything. But they want more.”

Hardy says teenaged “tennis-shoe pimps” trick some girls into prostituting themselves. Such a boy might convince a girl to go to Tijuana and do some table dancing in order to earn extra money. “They think it’s harmless, but it lowers the girl’s self-esteem,” Hardy says. It also gives the boy a means of blackmailing the girl into more outlandish actions.

Other girls succumb to pleas for financial help from males with whom they’re smitten. Then they find themselves being forced to continue selling themselves. “The boys will say, ‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll do something to your family’ or ‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll get your little sister out there.’ There’s several different ways of manipulating these things,” Hardy says.

Girls who join gangs are also vulnerable, according to the ex-prostitute. “Part of the initiation might involve turning a trick. And once they get into that, they end up being pimped out by the gang—or lent to various people in the gang to service them. It’s part of the economy of the gang.”

On a spring afternoon, eight girls trickle into one of Hardy’s educational meetings at Girls’ Rehab: five African-Americans, two whites and one Hispanic, all wearing baggy purple T-shirts, heavy navy pants or shorts and institutional sandals. The girls seem reserved at first, but when Hardy starts playing a videotape about a San Francisco program that helps women escape from prostitution, the teenagers come alive, hooting and smirking at the images of the street life. Despite their youth, these are brawny, knowing, irreverent young women, whose raucous, slang-choked repartee at times reaches ear-splitting volume.

They quiet and appear sympathetic when Nicole, the girl who’d entered prostitution at 12, describes her experience after an abortion last November. Her cervix had been cut accidentally, and when she began to hemorrhage heavily, fear that she might never be able to have children gripped her, she confesses.

“Do you plan on having a family one day?” Hardy probes.

“Oh yes,” Nicole responds On another occasion, in private, Nicole confides she also aspires to become a nurse. “I love helping people. And I have really good communication skills,” she says. It hurts to think she would be graduating about now if she had continued in school and never left home. “Time just goes by so fast,” she says. “Here I’ve never held a real job. Never gone to a prom or taken driver’s ed. Stuff like that.”

Nicole may have a chance to reclaim some of what she’s lost. Scheduled for release this month, she’s struck a deal with her probation officer, who’s promised to end her probation and seal her records (which include a felony). All Nicole must do is live with her mother and stepfather (both now clean) until August, when she’ll turn 18. With her felony expunged, she’ll be able to join the Navy and make a new life for herself.

But she could earn far more money on the street. A typical streetwalker “will make at least $150 an hour,” Nicole says. “It depends on what area you’re in. But like San Diego? I charge at least $80 to $100 for sex.” At the same time, “You have to give it all to your pimp,” she says. That’s one of the myriad rules of the game. “He’s like the king. He’ll say, ‘Whatever you need, just ask me, and I’ll get it for you, or I’ll give you the money to go get it.’”

Most of the time, pimps delivered, according to Nicole, although she says, “I don’t have nothing to show for it now. Nothing. I’ve made so much money during those years—thousands and thousands of dollars. And I don’t have a penny now.” All she’d gained was a drug addiction, acquired early in her years on the street. “I can’t prostitute if I don’t smoke. I just can’t build up enough will, you know what I mean?”

Not all teenage prostitutes are in the grip of drugs. A week before her scheduled release from the Girls’ Rehabilitation Facility, one 15-year-old, Shannon, says, “Maybe I should have [used drugs]. Some people say it makes it easier to go out there. But that was never me. Me, I just did it for the money. That’s my addiction —money.”

Shannon would appear to be at home in the halls of any high school. She wears her ginger-colored hair pulled back tight from a face that is pale and round. A trace of acne betrays how young she really is. She says that she first learned about prostitution from some of the pimps in her neighborhood.

“They never really tried to get me to go out there,” she says. In fact, at first she vigorously rejected the notion she would ever have sex with strangers for money. But when she was 14, she and her older sister decided to run away from the grandmother who had raised them. Faced with supporting themselves, and lacking other ideas, “the first thing that popped into our heads” was to contact one of the pimps.

It wasn’t a tough decision, Shannon says. “I’m kind of a strong-willed person. I don’t cry much. I’m not really emotional.” Even when she was arrested in Los Angeles, just one month after she started hooking, “it didn’t really faze me,” she says That first time she was locked up, “I lied to myself and everybody,” Shannon says. “I said, ‘Oh, when I get out, I’m not going to do it.’ Just to say it.”

But this time, having spent almost six months in the rehabilitation facility, “I’ve been looking at it from a different point of view,” she says. “One of the counselors here told me to write a letter to prostitution, saying goodbye, like it’s a friend. And you know, that really gave me insight into how I thought about it myself.”

Still, there were a lot of plusses, she says. “I’m a very materialistic person. I think that’s because I don’t have much. I have everything I need, but I just want more.” She also liked the attention, she believes. “I have the attention of my pimp, because he’s appreciating the money I’m bringing him. I have the attention of other pimps, always trying to run after me and get me. You know, in an odd way, ho’ing boosts your confidence, ’cause pimps are like, ‘Damn! You look good. I want you on my team.’

“But I found a lot more minuses,” Shannon says. One was the threat of AIDS. To protect herself, “I use condoms for everything. To have sex, for oral sex ... you have to have a condom on. And I’m always watching the trick very closely, because I had an incident one time when I first started. Now, I don’t do any awkward positions. I’m either on top or you’re on top, and sometimes I don’t even let the other person on top because that means I’m not going to be able to get up.”

Even taking such precautions, Shannon recognizes that “as soon as I step in that car, I could be raped, robbed, killed on the spot. And even though I’m not dead yet, I’m still tormented in a way. I remember everything I did, and the things I had to go through.”

Acquaintances had warned her she would never be able to love anyone after her street experience. “I’m not sure. But I’m hoping it’s not true,” she says.

When she looks into her future, “I know what I want to be doing,” Shannon says. “I know I want to finish high school. I don’t want a GED, because that doesn’t really get you anywhere these days. I want a high school diploma, and then I want to go to college. I either want to be a kindergarten teacher or a pediatrician, ’cause I really like kids. So I’m probably gonna major in medicine and child psychology. And eventually have my own little family—a couple of kids and my little house.

“In a way, I regret being put in the game, but in a way, I don’t,” she says. “It was a learning experience, and I have to admit, some of it was really fun. It was exciting. I had everything I wanted. An outfit every day. New shoes every day. Going out to eat. Having a nice car. Getting your hair done all the time; your nails done.”

But whenever Shannon looks at it closely, “I get really serious about it, like: Man, I need to stop before I get more drawn into it,” she says. “Before I die.”
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