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Indigenous & Latina Women & Children's Human Rights News from the Americas 


Latin America
Women & Children at Risk
Title:  Underage Prostitution Reaching Crisis Level on Streets of Oakland
Publisher:  (c) 2005 The Oakland Tribune
Publish Date:  2005-06-07

THE YOUNGEST girl arrested in a prostitution sting last week was 12. Just 12 years old. That's an age associated with dolls and jump-ropes, not johns and pimps.

In recent years, the number of underage prostitutes on Oakland's streets has increased steadily. In the last 18 months, it has exploded. City officials say last year 211 underage girls were arrested. This year isn't even half over, and more than 300 have been arrested.

"It's a geographic epidemic," said Nola Brantley, director of parenting and youth enrichment for the George Scotlan Youth Center in West Oakland. "The numbers are growing, and the girls are younger and younger. A few years ago we saw girls in the older end of junior high school age. Now we're seeing girls entering junior high school. Twelve-year-olds are giving strangers (oral sex) for $3."

Brantley developed an intervention program at the Scotlan Center that pairs underage prostitutes with young women from similar family backgrounds.

She said about 60 percent of the girls are from severely dysfunctional families, if they have families at all. They are the children of drug addicts and have been raising themselves and younger siblings for years. About 70 percent of those girls have a relative or close family member who works as a prostitute or has previously.

But nearly 30 percent are from stable, two-parent families and are following the lead of friends in the neighborhood. She made a startling observation.

"It's normal for young girls in the city," she said. "They're not embarrassed to tell their friends they've worked as a prostitute. To them it is part of normal culture. It is so rampant. The models are everywhere."

The girls see family members, friends and relatives of friends working as prostitutes, she said.

Brantley said rap culture in conjunction with the larger popular culture promote the image of women as prostitutes.

"One of the most popular songs has the line, 'I use my b­­ like an ATM card.' I asked the young girls if they understood what that meant. They said, 'to get money.' But they're singing along, shaking their butts to the song. They think it's cool."

She called on music artists to accept responsibility for the influence they have on young people.

"They need to be brought full circle and realize they are normalizing something for young ladies that is destroying their lives," she said. "The videos make you think (prostitution) is OK. The whole society makes you think that it's the right and easiest thing for women to do. The girls get it from the larger society all the way down to their auntie."

The results are, of course, disastrous. The girls are put in situations they don't have the maturity to handle.

"They act like kids out there. A 14-year-old acts like a 14-year-old. They can't even walk in high heels. They make the decision, and the situation they are in is immediately out of control. Once they are in, they're in over their heads and can't get out."

They don't have the knowledge to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases or seek help if they contract one.

"I've seen them burning with venereal disease and they don't know where to get health care," she said. "The chlamydia rate in certain ZIP codes in Oakland is soaring. It's a health hazard for the area. The johns go back to wherever they come from and infect someone else."

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente said police informed him pimps are sending their adult girlfriends to junior high schools to recruit. [Here we are 2/3 of the way through this story before pimps are even mentioned! - Donna]

"Adults have the right to do whatever they want and face the consequences" he said. "But children 11, 12 and 14 years old have to be protected. We have to go after those who use and abuse them."

He proposed Operation Shame, which posts the pictures of johns on huge billboards. The first ones went up last week and distorted the men's features. The next round will clearly show the faces of men convicted of prostitution-related crimes. [Why don't they put them in jail like the real criminals they are? If we catch child pornographers or child molesters we don't just put their faces on billboards, we put them in prison! - Donna]

Brantley said while the Scotlan Center counsels girls working on the streets, without a shelter it is limited in what it can do.

"If I see a girl out at 2 a.m., if I don't want to call the police and criminalize her, I have to leave her out there," Brantley said. "There's no shelter or receiving center for them. If I convince them to make a change, I have no place where they can stay. I think we need more focus on getting systems in place so they can get real help."

Brenda Payton's column appears in the local section on Tuesdays and on the opinion page on Sundays. She also writes Friday's Eye on the Arts column.