She was 10 when she was first raped and soon after sold for sex. The nightmare she lived for two years of being trafficked didn’t stop until her 12-year-old little-girl body started to develop.
“The clients lost interest in me,” Lexie Smith told the woman in the audience when asked how she escaped the abuse.
Smith, 24, a survivor of sex trafficking, now lives in Nashville and travels to speak at conferences such as “Innocence Stolen: Protecting Our Children” held last Friday at Napa Valley College.
At 10, she was a product and the clients weren’t hers, they were customers of her trafficker, an older teenage boy, who was a neighbor. The night her trafficker first raped her, he raped her repeatedly. At least six times, Smith said.
And when she would try to fight or run away back to her family across the street he threatened to do the same to her sister.
The other times, he sold her for sex. Sometimes those rapes occurred in her own suburban Chicago home, or just across the street, always without her family’s knowledge.
Then the young man who was selling her went off to college. He was never prosecuted.
Speakers at the child sex trafficking conference included Gary Lieberstein, Napa County district attorney; Jane Anderson, attorney adviser for AEquitas – a prosecutor’s resource on violence against women; keynote speaker Kim Biddle, founder and executive director of Saving Innocence, and Brian Wo from Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition.
The afternoon was filled with workshops on such topics as pornography’s link to sex trafficking, sex trafficking in your own backyard, true stories from survivors – both girls and boys — cybercrime, and more.
The workshop on social media and the Internet was presented by Napa Police Detective Todd Shulman and Napa County Sheriff’s Office Detective Nathalie Hurtado, who shared experiences from real cases in the county.
Worldwide dangers of the Web are close to home
Cyberbullying is not just about kids getting picked on, it’s tied to sex trafficking, Shulman and Hurtado said. Predators know where to find kids on social media and hide in the shadows to watch a girl get bullied, then step in to be the hero, the one who tells her she’s beautiful and how all those bullies are jerks.
Predators are masters at building up a girl’s self-esteem only to break it down later and gain control, they said.
“They (the girls) are basing their self-worth and self-esteem on what (random people) on the Internet say” to or about them, Hurtado said.
Sexting – the practice of texting explicit messages or nude photos – among teens is growing, according to a survey that indicates 40 percent of teens have been involved in the practice, Shulman said. And since the survey to which he referred was taken two years ago, he surmised that number has grown.
In some cases, teens sext as a precursor to sex, or to show they are interested in entering into a relationship. Some do it out of peer pressure. They don’t realize that those images are considered under the law to be child pornography and even asking someone under the age of 18 to send a naked photo is a crime called soliciting child pornography.
Shulman, who has been with Napa Police for 16 years, and Hurtado, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for six years, reviewed some of the most popular social media sites and how they and the Internet are used nefariously in the child sex trafficking world and how it happens in and around Napa County.
One teenage boy set up a fake Instagram account pretending to be a pretty teenage blonde girl whose identity he had stolen – including naked photos of the real girl, Shulman said. The boy used those photos to lure in other boys by asking the boys to share nude photos of themselves, which many did.
Then the boy sold those photos to a child pornography ring. Police eventually caught up to him, but not before a horde of nude photos was spreading like a virus.
“You can pretend to be whoever you want,” Hurtado said. “You can be a creepy old guy pretending to be a cool skater kid.”
In an Instagram case in 2014, a teenage boy used nude photos his girlfriend had sent him and also collected nude photos of other girls, then shared them on “napahoezexxposed.” None of the girls consented, but even if they had, that act, carried out by a teen, amounts to child pornography, Shulman said.
In another example, Hurtado said a 31-year-old man cultivated a relationship with a 13-year-old girl for three years, eventually traveling from his out-of-state home to meet the girl at her high school when she was 16. He was “very sophisticated” in how he pursued the girl.
He learned what kind of music she liked, what movies she had seen, the television shows she watched, and he knew her insecurities – all learned through social media. The man used the information to become her friend by saying he liked the same games and bands, and gained her trust by manipulating her lack of confidence, Hurtado said.
In another example of how social media is misused, predators look for hashtags on Twitter that might reveal a frame of mind such as low self-esteem, loneliness, unhappiness, neediness, vulnerability, and those who appear less likely to tell about the abuse.
A lonely girl might use a hashtag such as #solo or #alone, and in a quick search of those words a predator can find a host of opportunities for future abuse. The predator “follows” the girl on the app, reading her posts and gathering information before he starts an online conversation, but by then he’s learned a lot about her and uses that information to later control her.
Once a photo or video is out on the Web, there is no getting it back, they said. Even when something is removed from a website or app, someone else may have already used a separate device to shoot the initial image, thus creating a whole new life for the photo or video.
In one case, Shulman said a drunk girl was sexually assaulted and the boy who assaulted her video-recorded the incident. He shared it through Snapchat, an app that deletes images after they have been viewed, giving the illusion of some form of privacy, but another boy recorded the first boy’s Snapchat video with a different phone and shared it from there.
“We charged 10 kids for child pornography,” Shulman said.
Now that Facebook is bursting with adults, kids have fled and sought other social media apps such as Snapchat, Kik, Catfish, TextNow and Whisper, Shulman and Hurtado said.
“Kids are very comfortable with technology,” Hurtado said, so it is important parents stay up to date on what’s new and available, and understand how it works.
What you can do
Shulman and Hurtado offered tips on what parents can do to prevent their children from being victims of child prostitution.
— Educate yourself on what apps and websites kids are interested in and understand the nuances of what’s accessible. Don’t think that if your child doesn’t have a smartphone that they are sheltered. Learn all the ways how kids can get on the Web. They can connect with an iPad or video game, too.
— Get involved in your child’s life. Know who their friends are, and who their friends’ parents are. Take the time to meet everybody face-to-face and talk to them.
— Monitor your child’s Internet activity. Parents try too hard to not be nosy or mean, but done the right way, being nosy or mean can also mean protecting your child from falling into a bad situation. If your child has a computer, or other Internet-connected device, in his or her room, move it to an area where you can monitor their online activity, they advise. It’s not being nosy, it’s being a responsible parent.
— Educate your children on the dangers and consequences of sending and/or receiving sexually explicit messages or photos. Talk to your kids about what sexting is and how and why to avoid it.