Barbara Amaya has never come to New York City for any other reason than to sell herself for sex.
Born and raised in Virginia, Amaya was first sexually abused by her father and older brother when she was 10. She began running away from home at 12 because no one believed her. She wrote a letter to her mother, but to this day–over 40 years later–her mother still doesn’t accept it.
Amaya eventually met a friendly enough adult couple in Washington D.C. willing to take her in. They then sold her to a man named “Moses.” Amaya saw the money change hands, but isn’t sure of the amount. Moses took her to New York City, a place she had never been to before. It was 1971. She was 14 years old.
Moses didn’t harm her for the first week. After that, he started striking her with metal coat hangers. Once, he threw her down a flight of stairs.
Forced to pay Moses $200 per day, Amaya was shunted into the sex trade. She primarily worked on the corner of 57th Street and Avenue of the Americas. Her clients were wealthy, and would often take her to The Plaza, where they had a room. She always dressed appropriately.
She recalls a male client asking if she, while still in her teens, had any children. “He was a pedophile,” she said.
New York City is a central hub for all sorts of activities from art and culture to banking and finance to a burgeoning tech industry that’s growing faster than Silicon Valley, but there’s also a possibility is may be the world’s #1 location for sex trafficking.
Examples of someone in NYC paying to have sex with someone else who would have preferred not to–rape, essentially–abound. In February of this year, the Daily News spoke with a woman from Mexico who thought she was coming to Queens to work with her boyfriend in a restaurant. Instead, she was driven in a livery cab from house to house, seeing man after man. She recalls entering some houses where eight to 10 men were waiting for her. She was told to charge Hispanics $35 and Caucasians $50 or $60 per transaction. All the money she earned went toward her debt for being smuggled into the country. At least that’s what her pimp told her.
Recently, local officials charged a father-and-son team from Pennsylvania, Vincent George Sr. and Vincent George Jr., with coercing several women to sell themselves in the hotel bars and strip clubs of Manhattan. Prosecutors say the women were tattooed with the nickname’s “Mr. Vee” and “King Koby,” denoting the old man and his boy, respectively. One woman was branded with a barcode.
In a study published by Hofstra University last November, researchers estimated that at least 12,874 people have been trafficked in the New York City metropolitan area between 2000 and the time of the study’s publication, with roughly 80% of them used for sex. (Some people are trafficked for labor.) Remember: That’s at least. Like any statistic on criminal activity, it’s going to be shady due to the shady nature of criminal activity. Some victims don’t seek help. Some seek help in undocumented places. Some don’t speak the local language. Some are afraid of the police. Some are still captive. Some die. Indeed, prostitution has a much higher mortality rate than most other industries.
The final estimate of victims may not seem like a large amount when placed next to a big number, such as 4,800,000, but the Hofstra report asserts that more than two people–men are also trafficked, just far less often–were introduced to the life of sexual slavery everyday in the New York metropolitan area for nearly a dozen years straight. And with some experts reporting that trafficked persons are forced to perform 20 or 30 or 40 transactions per day, that’s a lot of involuntary fucking.
In late April, Conchita Sarnoff, a writer devoted to this issue, wrote the following for the Huffington Post: “According to several media reports including the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP report), the U.S. is the number one destination country in the world for child sex trafficking and New York City is the #1 city in the U.S. for child sex trafficking which implies that at the advent of the twenty-first century, New York City is the #1 city in the world for child sex trafficking.”
Of all the other experts asked to weigh in on this question, however, the responses ranged from “This data doesn’t exist” to “If it does, I don’t know where to find it.” In an email from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a spokesperson wrote that the agency could neither support nor negate this claim. In sum: no one knows. Perhaps this lack of statistics is why the first recommendation that the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 makes for America is to, “Improve data collection on human trafficking cases at the federal, state and local levels.”
(To be fair, Sarnoff does explicitly write “child sex trafficking,” but since most people in the U.S. are initially trafficked at the age of 12 or 13, it’s not much of a stretch to extend her claim to sex trafficking in general. Furthermore, the Hofstra study found that nearly 60% of the survivors documented were still under the age of 18 when first identified, not necessarily trafficked. Sarnoff did not respond to email requests asking for clarification.)
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry. Also: Of the 2.4 million people around the globe who are victims of human trafficking at any moment, only one out of every 100 escape.
That last statistic in particular is troublesome not only for those held captive, but also for anyone trying to figure out how much of this is going on.
But in addition to the unknown element that comes with crime and the diverse recordkeeping strategies used by various institutions–some agencies track arrests, others follow convictions, yet others depend on referrals to non-profit and government organizations–sex trafficking rates are generally all over the place for another complex reason: Not all victims identify as victims.
At one point, Amaya decided she’d had enough and was able to make it home to her parents’ house in Virginia. But because she had called him over the phone, Moses came back to get her.
“In my mind, you know why I thought he came back to get me–and this shows how screwed up and damaged I was–I thought he came back to get me because he cared about me,” said Amaya. “I remember it was night time and he was calling to me down the street outside of my home.”
Amaya returned to her life in NYC. She was arrested several times, and even spent some time at Rikers Island. She would lie about her name and age. Back on the street, she was beaten, raped, robbed. She began using heroin, but not because Moses pushed it on her. The drugs numbed her feelings.
“The drugs did a much better job of putting me on the street to make money than Moses ever did,” said Amaya. “I mean, what comes first: the prostitution or the drugs? Cause you need one to do the other.”
When 16, Amaya had one regular client named Mr. Klein. He owned some property and often made her pancakes and hot chocolate. In Yiddish, he would call her “My sheyne meydl,” which translates into “My pretty girl.” Mr. Klein got Amaya into rehab for her heroin habit. He was 85 years old, and one day he died while having sex with her.
“I can’t say that I hated him,” said Amaya. “He was really fighting for my life. I mean, he was having sex with a 16-year-old, but he was trying to help me.”
This organic, yet damaged outlook on sex and relationships isn’t uncommon for someone in this position.
“I think that sometimes woman who have been in this situation their entire lives, who really know no other way of making a livelihood, become ‘voluntary’ at some point, but it’s really more that they have no other choices,” said Fay Sardjono, Director of External Affairs at Restore NYC, a community home for survivors of sex trafficking. “It is a very interesting psychological state for them to be in. They don’t have the right framework.”
Holly Austin Smith can also attest to this. Sexually abused as a child, raped at the local skating rink by a high school senior at age 11, then, during the summer between grades eight and nine, trafficked in Atlantic City for a horrifying two days before being picked up by the police, Smith believes that the way a girl reacts to trafficking depends on what’s come before.
“By the time I met the trafficker, I didn’t understand the difference between a healthy relationship and exploitation,” said Smith. “I’d been exploited so many times that when my trafficker forced me to do these things, I recognized them as wrong, but to me, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy bad.'”
She added: “The experiences I’d had with sex were really bad, so I thought something was wrong with me. I was almost like, ‘Well if I have to do it, I might as well get paid for it, cause I hate it.'”
Some male clients, recognizing her plight, offered to help, but only after sex. Smith wanted nothing to do with them. In a book titled The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, author and journalist Victor Malarek explains that Smith’s experience with this half-hearted desire to help is not an unusual one for women in her situation. These men usually put sex-with-girl first, saving-girl second.
After her time in Atlantic City, the police sent Smith back home–a place she was always trying to run away from. Smith attempted suicide and was put into a psychiatric hospital.
“Even when the police were telling me I was a victim, I didn’t identify with that word,” said Smith. “I needed to understand that I was a victim as a kid before I could understand that I was a victim with the traffickers. Until the early problems are addressed, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
But even adults can be manipulated through force, as was the case with Shamere McKenzie. McKenzie was born in Jamaica, but came to New York City for college. As a junior, having trouble paying for tuition, she met a man who said he could help her. The first time the man McKenzie thought was her boyfriend beat her, he beat her to the point of unconsciousness. She woke up soaked in her own urine. On another occasion, he put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. It wasn’t loaded. For the next year and a half she lived in fear while servicing strangers.
“A victim can become so close and attached to their abuser, that they don’t believe that they’re being abused,” said McKenzie, who was charged by the FBI for driving a car of underage sex workers across the border into Connecticut, as she was ordered to. “People will argue that they see the girls on the street smiling, that there’s no one holding them down, but you don’t know how many times this girl was raped or beaten before she went on the street and who’s watching to see if she gets out of line.”
Given the blurry line between what is consensual and what is not, what is a voluntary exchange of money for sex between two adults on their own accord and what is not, Dr. Melissa Farley, Executive Director of the non-profit Prostitution Research & Education, believes Las Vegas, not New York, is the center of sex trafficking in North America. In 2007, she published a book about it called Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections, which draws on data from a U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons report and interviews with investigative journalists, law enforcement officers and taxi drivers. The book estimates sex trafficking in Las Vegas alone is generating about $6 billion per year.
Norma Ramos, Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-International, argues there could be hard numbers for the rates of sex trafficking in New York City and around the world if, burough by burough, county by county, authorities looked at the rates of arrest for prostitution.
“Nine times out of 10, or even more, so-called prostitutes are sex-trafficking victims–they have a pimp and pimps are traffickers,” said Ramos, whose work is geared toward emphasizing the U.N.’s Palermo Protocols, which, in addition to force, fraud and coercion, includes in its definition of human trafficking the abuse of power and taking advantage of someone in a state of vulnerability. “If you look at the world’s most agreed to definition on human trafficking, you will find that the vast majority of prostitution meets that definition.”
So why hasn’t this been attempted? Why haven’t government officials set out to document which city has the highest rates of sex trafficking? The gathering, calculating and analyzing of these statistics seem to be sparse in comparison to, say, a Miami Heat basketball game.
“Because the political will has not been there,” said Ramos. “We should know everything there is to know about this problem, and we don’t yet.”
Of course, for all those beaten and manipulated and coerced and tricked and threatened into selling their bodies for sex, it doesn’t matter much whether New York City is the place where this happens the most or the least. Sex trafficking is a one-is-too-many type deal, and the frequency with which it is happening is an uncomfortable thing to think about. And if it’s not, then that’s an uncomfortable thing to think about.
After the death of Mr. Klein, Amaya soon tumbled deeper into her drug addiction and Moses let her go because she could no longer turn a profit. She began working on Delancy Street, but more frequently and for less pay. With the help of a methadone counselor, Amaya was able to leave New York City at the age of 22. She hasn’t returned since.
Now, at age 55 and after having spent several years living alone, Amaya is writing a book about her experiences and fighting to clear her lengthy criminal record with the assistance of the Sex Workers Project and a new bill signed in 2010 that allows survivors of sex trafficking to annul past convictions for prostitution.
She admits there was something alluring about “The Life,” as she calls it, because there were rules and she knew them well. It was a private world, but a world where she felt she belonged. Leaving it meant facing her shame, convincing herself that she was worth more, adjusting to a new way of being. It’s often more difficult to change than to stay the same. It was “us versus the squares,” she said. With Moses, Amaya believes she suffered a strong yet simple case of Stockholm Syndrome–as a captive she felt a sympathetic bond with her captor.
Only about a month ago did Amaya begin speaking publicly about her ordeal, and make it known in some statistic-friendly way that she is a survivor of sex trafficking.