Atlanta has the largest underground sex economy of any city in America. That's according to a report released in March by the Urban Institute.That economy grossed $290 million in 2007.
As major highways like I-75 flow through Atlanta, so does the city’s sex trafficking. According to the FBI, connected cities like Augusta, Savannah and Macon are part of the route that pimps travel with their victims.
A group of Mercer University students decided to address the problem of underage sex trafficking through peer leadership.
Earlier in April, a group of seniors in a marketing class created what they called a “shock and awe” type exercise to be conducted in some after school programs in Macon.
During one hot and busy afternoon at a program in Macon’s Davis Homes public housing community, seven college seniors turned the lunchroom into a “pop up” school store.
As groups of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 wandered into the store, expecting to shop for things like pencils and notebooks or snacks from the vending machine, they were instead greeted by the Mercer students, each one holding a “for sale” sign in their hands. Confused and curious, they became silent as “Shannon” told her story:
“My name is Shannon. When I was 14 I was really shy and had a hard time making friends. I spent a lot of time on the internet because it provided a way for me to fit in. One day in a chat room I met a boy named Lenny who said he was 14 too. We hit it off instantly. We liked each other so much and I was happy to find he lived close. One night without my parent’s permission I walked over to meet him and when I go there he was not the Lenny I knew. He was older. He threw me in a room with other men who wanted to have sex with me and paid him money. That was my first day in the sex trade.”
Shannon is actually Eleanor Griffin. Griffin is not a sex trafficking victim, but she’s telling the true story of someone who was.
After the workshop concluded, Griffin said the reaction she saw from students was exactly what she hoped for.
“I hate to say it, even though it’s a good thing, they were very scared,” said Griffin. “One girl got emotional. I hate to put that on her, but that was something that we really wanted to drive home, that this is for real, and it is scary and it needs to be prevented.”
David Cooke, District Attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, has made it a priority to break up sex trafficking rings in Middle Georgia. Last December, Arthur Gerald Reid of Macon pled guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking of children.
In his plea agreement, Reid, known as “Boopy” on the street, admitted that he prostituted 3 juveniles from various motel rooms in Macon and Tybee Island, through Backpage.com, an erotic services website.
Cooke says trafficking in Macon has recently shifted from massage parlors to the internet.
“It’s a recurrent problem and something we are beginning to see as organized crime,” said Cooke. “We know that several gang members are participating in sex trafficking and we have several cases that we’re working right now.”
Mercer student Kelsey Jones says they've surveyed over 83 students in Macon during these school store exercises, and learned something disturbing.
“One in 10 students knew someone who was selling themselves for sex. That shocked me.”
District Attorney Cooke says the average age a person goes into the sex trade is 12 to 14. Once they are in it, the average life expectancy is another seven years. The most common cause of death, he says, is homicide.
If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. It is confidential, anonymous and operates 24 hours a day. They will then contact the proper authorities for your area.