New York Times columnist Bob Herbert is still on the "exploitation of women and girls" beat, God love him, and his column on Thursday offered a truly grim look at the booming underage sex trade in Atlanta. Herbert reported on the issue with the help of Atlanta's vice squad, and he recounts visiting a notorious pickup neighborhood and being propositioned by a girl in her early teens. Presumably because of U.S. laws and the presence of the vice cops, Herbert can't pull a Nick Kristof and invite the girl into his car, and anyway, she insists she doesn't need help. They end up parting ways in a cold parking lot.
Atlanta is known for many things -- like its prolific hip-hop scene, Civil War history, incredible suburban sprawl, multiple corporate headquarters, numerous streets named Peachtree and incomprehensible airport -- but the fact that it's a major hotbed of underage prostitution came as news to me. (Salon did report on the problem back in 1999.) The problem isn't restricted to so-called Hotlanta; Herbert notes, dispiritedly, that "the overall market for sex with kids is booming in many parts of the U.S." But the city's role as a convention and travel hub has given it a particular boost. And advocates say that the prevailing preference for ever-younger prostitutes -- fueled by "the cultural emphasis on the sexual appeal of very young women and girls" and "the widely held belief among johns that there is less risk of contracting a disease from younger prostitutes" -- has pimps and sex traffickers recruiting more at-risk kids than ever before.
A division of the Atlanta mayor's office released a study on underage prostitutes last fall, which noted that underage sex workers face manifold risks and side effects, including "rape, assault, robbery and murder, not to mention arrest and incarceration," as well as severe psychological risks. Herbert's piece does a good job of connecting the dots between the sexualization of young girls in pop culture and the sexual exploitation of young girls on the streets -- and underscores the point that when we consider using words like "hooker" casually, we should factor in the scary, sad realities of sex work.