Walking Prey: How America's Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery
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Walking Prey: How America's Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery

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by Holly Austin Smith

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Today, two cultural forces are converging to make America's youth easy targets for sex traffickers. Younger and younger girls are engaging in adult sexual attitudes and practices, and the pressure to conform means thousands have little self-worth and are vulnerable to exploitation. At the same time, thanks to social media, texting, and chatting services, predators


Today, two cultural forces are converging to make America's youth easy targets for sex traffickers. Younger and younger girls are engaging in adult sexual attitudes and practices, and the pressure to conform means thousands have little self-worth and are vulnerable to exploitation. At the same time, thanks to social media, texting, and chatting services, predators are able to ferret out their victims more easily than ever before. In Walking Prey, advocate and former victim Holly Austin Smith shows how middle class suburban communities are fast becoming the new epicenter of sex trafficking in America. Smith speaks from experience: Without consistent positive guidance or engagement, Holly was ripe for exploitation at age fourteen. A chance encounter with an older man led her to run away from home, and she soon found herself on the streets of Atlantic City. Her experience led her, two decades later, to become one of the foremost advocates for trafficking victims. Smith argues that these young women should be treated as victims by law enforcement, but that too often the criminal justice system lacks the resources and training to prevent the vicious cycle of prostitution. This is a clarion call to take a sharp look at one of the most striking human rights abuses, and one that is going on in our own backyard.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As a survivor of sex trafficking who became an advocate for fellow victims, Smith addresses what too many Americans are willing to ignore: that sex trafficking is very much alive in contemporary America. Her account successfully analyzes what makes American children vulnerable to sexual exploitation, exposes current weaknesses in treatment for and of victims, debunks myths about child sex trafficking, and provides advice for adults to deal with this serious problem. Throughout, Smith uses her own experience as a 14-year-old prostitute in Atlantic City to underline the severity and salience of her points. While certain factors, like early sexual abuse and unstable communities, can contribute to a child's vulnerability to pimps and predators, Smith also explores how mass-media and pop-culture tropes about love and romance play a more subtle role. In addition to pointing out warning signs and methods of prevention, Smith focuses extensively on the failings of the legal and support systems in helping child victims heal. Practical tips and resources are plentiful, and are provided for all those potentially involved: children, parents, teachers, law enforcement, counselors. Smith's approach is comprehensive and from a survivor's perspective, offering a solid introduction to the topic, our current resources, and strategies to deal with it. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

“Rarely does a book synthesize the complicated world of the sex industry with such insight and thoughtfulness. Told from a survivor's perspective, this book should be required reading for service providers, community members, and our young people.” —Lisa Goldblatt Grace, LICSW, MPH, Co-Founder & Director My Life My Choice

“Walking Prey sheds light on the shameful reality of child sexual exploitation and human trafficking within the United States. Holly Austin Smith's story helps to unravel the common mistruth that American youth are not vulnerable to human trafficking. Holly's courage and resilience is powerful, as are her thoughtful recommendations for law enforcement, government officials, and parents.” —Cindy McCain, Business Owner, Humanitarian, & Senior Advisor to the McCain Institute

“Both as a parent and as the leader of a national organization concerned with the child sexual trafficking plague, I am grateful for this book and I urge parents and policymakers to read it.” —Tim Winter, President, Parents Television Council

“In this thoroughly researched and profoundly moving account of sex trafficking in the United States, Holly Smith examines every statistic through a deeply considered reflection on her personal experience of being trafficked as a young teenager. By taking this courageous and generous approach she closes the gap between sensationalism and reality and opens the readers mind and heart past judgement and misconceptions to compassion and a desire to take action.” —Deborah Kampmeier, writer and director of Hounddog

“By candidly sharing her experience and her expertise, Holly Austin Smith helps professionals understand how they can help, not hurt, child sex trafficking victims. She thoughtfully teaches parents, educators and all of us what is within our power to do to prevent this horrendous crime.” —Melysa Sperber, Director, Alliance to End Slavery & Trafficking

“In Walking Prey, Holly exposes how the manipulative tactics of sex traffickers is made easier by the media; this revelation still makes my skin crawl. Something needs to be done so that our girls are not as easily lured by sex traffickers. Holly's story adds fuel to my fire to continue to educate girls about media literacy.” —Nicole Clark, Director of Cover Girl Culture

“Holly provides a vital voice to the anti-trafficking field and exposes the harsh realities of child sex trafficking in America. Her insight is courageous, thought provoking and timely. Anyone reading this book can use what they learn to become an active participant in ensuring a better future for our youth.” —Staca Shehan, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

“Holly Smith's Walking Prey is a brave and moving book, but it's much more besides. It stands above the traditional narratives of slavery and emancipation, achieving that mix of personal truth and intellectual analysis that marks the work of a special few like Frederick Douglass. Her story is chilling, and a strong reminder of our nation's failure to protect its children. What makes "Walking Prey different is the deep and passionate, yet cool and logical, understanding of why and how our nation has failed, and what we should be doing about it. This is a book for everyone and one that is a must read for anyone hoping to see the final end of trafficking and slavery in our country.” —Kevin Bales, Author and Co-Founder of Free the Slaves

“Walking Prey is by far the clearest and most compelling assessment I've read on the issue of child sex trafficking in the United States. It addresses the primary questions surrounding the issue and then offers practical points of engagement for those wanting to join the fight against it. I would say it's a leading resource for anyone on the frontlines of protecting the innocence of these children in our nation.” —Morgan Perry, Producer of Sex+Money: A National Search For Human Worth

“A brave and profoundly important book. In an engaging style and with wisdom gained from terrible personal experience, Holly Smith illuminates the issue of child trafficking and offers practical, compassionate, and useful advice for teenagers, parents, and people in the field. Countering the stereotype of the "victim," she shows what sets many children up for abuse. She also illustrates how advertisers and marketers fuel the commercial and sexual exploitation of children and put all children at risk.” —Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., creator of the Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women film series

Producer of Sex+Money: A National Search For H Morgan Perry

Walking Prey is by far the clearest and most compelling assessment I've read on the issue of child sex trafficking in the United States. It addresses the primary questions surrounding the issue and then offers practical points of engagement for those wanting to join the fight against it. I would say it's a leading resource for anyone on the frontlines of protecting the innocence of these children in our nation.
Kirkus Reviews
An unvarnished account of one woman's painful "journey from victim to survivor," as she came to understand the "dynamics of commercial sexual exploitation, especially child sex trafficking." In this debut, Smith, a public advocate for trafficking victims, begins in 1992 with her own experience. At the age of 14, she was briefly a prostitute before being rescued by the police. Since she was manipulated rather than subjected to violence, she was shamed by the false belief that she had chosen to be a prostitute. Only in 2009, three years after her marriage, did she feel able to reveal her story and give testimony before Congress. She blames the media for objectifying sexuality and creating an environment in which an estimated 100,000 in the U.S. are victimized annually. Smith describes how one afternoon, she was walking through the mall when a young man approached her. They flirted briefly, and he slipped her his phone number, asking her to get in touch. She describes her vulnerability to his approach. She was socially insecure. Both of her parents were alcoholics, and before the age of 10, she had been repeatedly abused sexually by a cousin. In her eagerness to have a boyfriend, she responded to his come-on and agreed to a meeting. As it turned out, he was profiling her for a pimp, and it was the pimp who met her—accompanied by a prostitute, there to show her the ropes. Their approach was nonthreatening, and they suggested that, in the future, she might have a career in modeling. Many unhappy children, writes the author, "are lured into trusting their traffickers" due to their lack of self-esteem. In the aftermath of the experience, although she finished college and had a successful career, Smith struggled with depression and substance abuse. A powerful voice on behalf of young people who should not be stigmatized but need support from schools and communities to protect them from predators.

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Walking Prey

How America's Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery

By Holly Austin Smith

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Holly Austin Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-43769-3



Many parents want to believe that their children are safe from the tactics of child sex traffickers; however, the truth is that any child can be susceptible. The very nature of being a child is a risk factor as youth often act on emotion and impulse. In a 2011 podcast, Sandra Morgan, R.N., discussed how brain maturation can effect the balance of power between children and traffickers. Morgan explained that a "brain develops from the back to the front" and that the prefrontal lobe, which is "where executive decision-making is housed" is "one of the last parts of [the] brain to develop. ... You have a major advantage when you're a 26-year-old adult and she's a 14-year-old child," Morgan says, "This is ... really important ... to understand because executive decision-making is that ability to measure the consequences, to assess the risk, and [to ask oneself] Is this a good choice? Is this responsible? Will this produce a good result for me?"

Daniel Romer, Ph.D., argues that adolescents are naturally prone to experiment with "novel (adult-like) behavior" and that their impulsivity and risk-taking is due to their lack of experience with such behavior as opposed to "a structural deficit" in brain maturation. Regardless of the root cause, impulsivity and risky behavior are natural adolescent attributes, and such attributes are attractive to traffickers. Greg told me that he was 23 or 25; however, he was actually 31. Based on police records, I believe Nicki was 26 years old. At fourteen, I believed I was capable of making independent decisions. In reality, I was being manipulated and exploited by adults. It took many years for me to recognize that, though. I needed time to mature in order to understand how inexperienced and immature I was at age fourteen.

Along with impulsivity and lack of experience, there are other factors that might predispose a child to being more vulnerable to a trafficker's tactics. The greater the number (or severity) of these risk factors, the greater the risk is for that child if he or she encounters a trafficker. The following potential predisposing factors are often associated with the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC); however, this list is non- exhaustive, and none of these factors predestine a child to become a victim of commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking. However, any vulnerability puts a child at a greater risk for any type of exploitation.


A 2012 Ohio Human Trafficking Commission report listed the following "early indicators" as "experiences of Ohio youth before involvement in the child sex trade: 41% were victims of neglect, 44% were victims of abuse, 40% were victims of sex abuse, 37% were victims of emotional abuse/psychological maltreatment, and 24% were victims of physical abuse." These experiences happened to the youth at least one year or more "before entering the sex trade," and each of these indicators was listed as statistically significant. Any type of unaddressed trauma in childhood can manifest in any number of negative ways, including self-loathing, depression, and anger. These manifestations are layers of additional risk factors.

Sexual abuse in childhood is by far the most common predisposing factor I've heard mentioned in discussions regarding CSEC within the United States. A 1983 study found that 60 percent of 200 subjects involved in commercial sex (adults and minors) were sexually exploited as juveniles. A 2012 study found that 40.8 percent of 115 subjects who identify as "being involved in the sex trade before age 18" also report having been victims of "sex abuse." Patricia Murphy cites two studies in her book, Making the Connections, that estimate that between 65 and 85 percent of prostituted women were the victims of "childhood rape." In fact, some clinicians estimate this figure to be "nearer to 100 percent." Many organizations that provide services to child victims of commercial sexual exploitation across the country have confirmed these higher statistics to me. Early childhood sexual abuse will be discussed more in depth in the following chapter.


Whether a child's family or entire community is impoverished, poverty can limit that child's options and resources. The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) states that poverty can impede a child's ability to learn, can contribute to poor health and mental health, and can contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Rachel Lloyd of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS) works with child victims of commercial sexual exploitation in New York City. In her memoir, Girls Like Us, she describes the pervasive effects of poverty on children:

Of course many children who grow up in challenging economic situations thrive, but the reality is that far too many don't, and too many children's futures can be determined by zip code. Children in poor neighborhoods frequently receive a substandard education, are often exposed to lead paint in poorly constructed buildings, have higher rates of asthma, and live in communities where there are little to no recreational or green spaces and where entire neighborhoods have been abandoned and forgotten by those in power. Children born into poverty are at risk for many things, including being recruited into the commercial sex industry.

The story of Antonia "Neet" Childs, Founder of Market Your Mind Not Your Body and Neet's Sweets bakery, exemplifies the significance of this risk factor. As a child, Neet lived in New York where her mother struggled financially. "My mom worked hard to take care of us," Neet said, "and I always felt like I needed to help and support her." Without resources to help her family, Neet began caring for her brother and sisters at an early age. "I always carry this habit of having to help everybody," Neet said in a 2013 interview with Ebony magazine. "I had seen my mother struggle and I didn't want that for her. I wanted to do everything in my power to help."

At sixteen, Neet started working at an after-school job where she met a man. For several months, this man visited Neet and asked her questions about her life. Their conversations developed into a friendship, and Neet confided her family's struggles. This man, who posed as a friend, began to drive Neet home after her work shifts ended. "He would give me $100 bills at a time," Neet said, "As a teenager ... a hundred dollars is a lot of money." The man's monetary gifts ultimately led to requests for sex. Because she had accepted money from this man, Neet says she felt both responsible and obligated to concede. The man soon began trafficking Neet to other men within a high-profile fraternity. This man preyed on Neet's vulnerability for his own profit.


Without a doubt, a history of foster care or child protective services is also a risk factor commonly discussed in child sex trafficking and other forms of CSEC within the United States. Tina Frundt, Founder and Executive Director of Courtney's House, cycled through more than twenty foster homes in Chicago, Illinois, before she was trafficked on her fourteenth birthday. "I was adopted to a wonderful family when I was twelve years old," Tina says in a 2012 training video for AMBER Alert, "but because of prior sexual abuse ... my trust on people was really low." Tina was lured away from her adoptive family by a man who claimed to have also grown up in foster care. Tina later learned that this was a lie; it was a tactic the trafficker used to bond with Tina and to gain her trust. The man then drove Tina to Cleveland, Ohio.

"And that is when he brought two guys into the room and they 'seasoned' me," Tina explained in a 2010 interview with Free the Slaves. "'Seasoned' is rape."

Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a trafficking survivor named 2011 Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine, described her early life in a 2013 Al Jazeera interview: "Like Tina [Frundt], [I] was raised in the foster care system ... From the age of basically birth to ten years old, I endured various different multiple levels of abuse — verbal, sexual, physical — which made me really vulnerable [to a trafficker] at the age of 10 years old when I was used to being more mature than my age because of my circumstance[s] ..."

In November 2012, Abby Sewell wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "[o]f the 174 juveniles arrested on prostitution-related charges in Los Angeles County in 2010, 59% were in the foster care system, according to Probation Department statistics." Melissa Snow, Child Sex Trafficking Program Specialist with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), stated that "[o]f the children reported missing to [NCMEC] who [were] likely child sex trafficking victims, 60 percent were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran."

Kids living in foster care and other child protective services are not only vulnerable to exploitation — they are sometimes directly targeted by predators. A Miami Herald article described a case in which four "alleged pimps" targeted children living in the foster care system. The article described how the men "[used] a teenage foster child as a recruiter" and then "plied [the] underage girls with cash, affection, and gifts." One of the victims, a 17-year-old girl, was stated to have "cognitive impairments." The article described how the girl was recruited by her peer and then sexually exploited by two of the alleged pimps. These men then sold her to other men; they would call her cell phone and pick her up from school or from the state facility. Commercial sexual exploitation involving children with developmental disabilities is not uncommon, making this another risk factor.


The 2012 Ohio Human Trafficking Commission's report claimed that one of the three statistically significant factors for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation was "dropping out of school"; these factors occurred less than one year before victimization. A 2002 research study, "Sisters Speak Out," found similar results; it was based on interviews with 222 women "representing various segments of the prostitution industry." Of those women first commercially sexually exploited between the ages of twelve and fifteen, only one-fourth reported completion of a high school education or GED. A child may struggle in school for any number of reasons: bullying, poor nutrition, lack of support with homework, etc. Dropping out of school can expose a child or teenager to many negative outcomes, including commercial sexual exploitation.


A child may run away from home for any number of reasons: to seek attention, to escape abuse or neglect, to seek acceptance, to seek opportunities for survival, etc. Running away is a risk factor; and the more times the child runs away, the greater the risk factor. Sergeant Byron Fassett with the Dallas Police Department recognized that children who ran away four or more times in a year were more likely to have been involved with commercial sex. The story of author and attorney Carissa Phelps is an example of this vulnerability. In her memoir Runaway Girl, Phelps describes a childhood on the run:

I decided I couldn't stay put for another minute. I bolted. Out the bathroom window, onto the roof, and over the back fence. I ran away. I left without any plans of coming back. A surge of adrenaline rushed through me. I was everything I wanted to be — out of the house, out from under my [stepfather's] roof, away from the voices and the mess, out on my own. I was free.

A chronic runaway, Carissa attempted to flee her parents' dysfunctional homes, as well as detention centers and other youth facilities. She was ultimately trafficked by a brutal pimp at the age of twelve in Fresno, California. Staca Shehan, Director of the Case Analysis Division for NCMEC reports the following glaring statistic: one out of eight endangered runaways reported missing to NCMEC in 2012 was likely [a] child sex trafficking victim. This is not surprising as traffickers, especially pimp and gang traffickers, will often hang around bus stations and youth shelters in search of young victims.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia reports several cases of gang-controlled sex trafficking in which runaways were targeted. In July 2011, Alexander Rivas, an MS-13 gang member, was sentenced to ten years in prison for luring juvenile runaways into a sex trafficking ring with a majority of his activity happening in northern Virginia, including Woodbridge, Fairfax, and Alexandria. Months later, Alonso Bruno Cornejo Ormeno, 22, was sentenced to 292 months in prison, followed by five years of supervised release, for sex trafficking girls who ranged in age from fifteen to seventeen. Cornejo Ormeno targeted teenage girls who had run away from home and served them up to clients throughout northern Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C. and Maryland.


The Ohio Human Trafficking Commission's 2012 study reports depression as an "early indicator" in 30 percent of Ohio youth "before involvement in the child sex trade." Depression is often cited as a risk factor, and I strongly believe this is true. For me, signs of depression began as early as fourth or fifth grade and were severe by eighth grade, along with anxiety and impulsivity. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also gaining attention as a potential risk factor for and effect of commercial sexual exploitation.

However, symptoms associated with any mental health issue may be a risk factor for any type of exploitation, including CSEC. The 2007 New York Study of Commercial Sexual Exploitation reports that 25 of 27 victims incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities for prostitution-related offenses had "records of previous mental health treatment." Obviously, lack of efficacious mental health treatment is also a risk factor for exploitation.


NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth reported a story in January 2012 in which a "Houston-area man and his girlfriend [were] accused of forcing her 14-year-old daughter into prostitution at truck stops and apartments." NBC 5 says that both adults were arrested "when a neighbor called police after noticing the girl near a street. The neighbor said the girl was barefoot and seemed hungry." The Houston Chronicle wrote: "Court documents show that the girl told investigators she initially accompanied her mother to apartments where the woman was prostituting herself. Customers began asking to have sex with the girl, who said she was then forced to act as a prostitute 'every day' during several weeks.

Sadly, this story exemplifies the risk associated with having relatives or friends involved with illegal commercial sex, including sex trafficking. Sisters Speak Out says that "over half of the early starters grew up in a household with prostitution." "Early starters" are reported as those women participants who were first commercially sexually exploited between the ages twelve and fifteen. The study also reports that 87 percent of "early starters had someone suggest they engage in prostitution while they were growing up." The Ohio Attorney General's 2012 report says that 33 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth have a close family member involved in the "sex trade." This report also says that 59 percent have friends involved with selling themselves and 30 percent have friends involved with selling others.


In March 2012, Project Q Atlanta reported that Atlanta drag queen personality Pasha Nicole received a fourteen-year prison sentence for "forcing a transgender teenager into prostitution," among other offenses related to sex trafficking. Nicole, known legally as Christopher Thomas Lynch, was charged alongside 35-year-old roommate and gay bar "go-go dancer," Steven Donald Lemery. In September 2012, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Lemery was sentenced to 80 years in prison for human trafficking, aggravated child molestation, and enticing a child for indecent purposes and pandering by compulsion. The article quotes Assistant District Attorney Rachel Ackley:

Two of Lemery's victims were 15 years old at the time of the offenses, and a third was 18 ... One of the 15-year-olds and the 18-year-old were brought across state lines by Lemery and forced into prostitution ... There was testimony how victims were held in the house, not allowed to leave, given drugs and alcohol ... One of the victims testified at trial [about] being forced to prostitute and while being held at a client's house, he was held down and burned as they attempted to rape them.

This case illustrates one of the many dangers faced by LGBTQ youth who are forced (or feel compelled) to seek support and solace outside their homes or communities. An anonymous survivor of child sex trafficking explained how her confusion over sexual orientation added to her vulnerability as an adolescent: "Even though I was often seeking romantic relationships with boys, I was physically attracted to girls in middle school. And I thought I was in love with someone, but I couldn't tell her. I felt like I couldn't tell anyone. Being gay or bisexual wasn't talked about; it was taboo. I didn't have anyone to help me sort through those feelings."


Excerpted from Walking Prey by Holly Austin Smith. Copyright © 2014 Holly Austin Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Holly Austin Smith is an advocate for human trafficking victims who speaks about her own experience nationwide. After becoming a victim of child sex trafficking at the age of 14, she nearly committed suicide while the man who abducted her served only one year in prison. Her story has been featured on the Dr. Oz show, as well as in the Associated Press, the Richmond Times Dispatch, the Tampa Bay Times, Cosmopolitan magazine, and Dallas Morning News. Smith writes a weekly column for the Washington Times Communities, and she has submitted testimony to Congress. She has consulted for the National Criminal Justice Training Center and AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program. She is in constant demand as a speaker, speaking over 30 times in 2012 at universities, law enforcement agencies, and government-sponsored symposiums. She lives in Richmond, VA.

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Walking Prey: How America's Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SandiMusic More than 1 year ago
I bought this book after hearing Holly speak at a conference.  Hearing about how young girls- children really- are exploited is not an easy read.  But it is a very very important one.  Holly's book is especially impactful because she shares compelling anecdotes and her own story (which is a very brave thing to do) but she also shares science- data, research on the topic overall.  it is this blend of personal story and science that make the book very powerful.  it's my feeling that every teacher, police officer and public official in the US (not to mention parents) should read this book.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who works with and/or cares about young women and their future.  The existence of trafficking in our country is a horrible shame and we need to shine a flashlight on it and take action.