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Originally published November 20, 2014 at 5:05 PM | Page modified November 21, 2014 at 4:40 PM

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The faces behind the sex trade in King County

Children fall victim to commercial sexual exploitation when they suffer from a chronic lack of stability and low self-esteem, writes editorial writer Thanh Tan.

Times editorial columnist

Watch 'The Long Night'

Tim Matsui's film, "The Long Night," streams for free for one week beginning Dec. 1. Go to:

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How many of us associate the word “pimp” with cable reality shows about fancy cars rather than a trade that exploits vulnerable human beings?

“It used to be a noun, someone who managed people in prostitution,” says Leslie Briner of YouthCare, who has trained more than 3,500 individuals to fight the commercial sexual exploitation of children. “Now it is a verb used to promote and improve something. That, to me, is the height of normalizing this behavior.”

Here’s the new normal: Pimps in the traditional sense still recruit and solicit customers on the streets, but much of the sex industry in Washington has migrated online. Gangs are involved. Kids are selling themselves. Some of the most gut-wrenching stories involve parents soliciting their own children.

In this unfettered online market, grown men play dumb and pretend they have no idea that the “daddy's little girl” they ordered up for sex may be 12 years old.

The disconnect is disturbing. A 2008 study estimated 300 to 500 Seattle-area children work in prostitution each night, but those numbers are likely much higher. The Internet has amplified demand.

That’s why Seattle journalist Tim Matsui’s upcoming film, “The Long Night,” is an important look into the underbelly of the Northwest region’s sex trade. Anyone who cares about kids should view it.

The documentary, in stark and haunting detail, tracks the journeys of two teen girls. Lisa numbs her pain with drugs and fuels her habit by working in prostitution. With no home, family or support system, Lisa is ashamed and on the verge of a breakdown. Excruciating to watch, this is her life. And there are others like her out there.

Matsui also follows “Natalie,” whose name was changed in the film to protect her identity. She looks like she could be your daughter’s best friend. At 15, she rebels and runs away from home. Within 36 hours, other youths in downtown Seattle expose her to “the life.” She falls in love with an older man, even as he arranges several daily acts of rape against her by strangers responding to ads posted on

These brave girls put faces on a scourge that is not just a path for runaways, foster kids and abused children. Kids from loving families — some athletes, some honor students — can be just as susceptible.

Each day in King County alone, the prosecutor’s office estimates 27,000 men are actively buying sex online through more than 100 websites. Buyers find it so easy to fulfill their fantasies without consequence, they now think they can exploit a child with impunity.

Noel Gomez, 41, sighs deeply when I ask her about this. After working in prostitution for 15 years, Gomez left the life and co-founded the Organization for Prostitution Survivors. She sees a startling change: “More and more” girls have little regard for their own bodies and are caught up in a glorified vision of what prostitution gives, rather than takes, from them.

“These young girls have whole groups of friends involved. So they don't look at it as a bad thing anymore,” she said. “When these kids have no family, having things [they see on TV and social media] is everything.”

At some point, society has to address the root causes of this behavior: dysfunctional families, lack of education opportunities, low-paying jobs, male entitlement and a culture that has become indifferent to sexual exploitation.

So how do we instill in children a stronger sense of resilience and self-esteem? Watch Judge Barbara Mack for a day in King County Juvenile Court.

Many of the youths before her are trafficking victims when they enter the system for related crimes such as theft. Even if they are not being sold, they are prime targets for exploitation.

Last week in court, one defendant had an angelic face, but admitted to stealing. Authorities cannot find her mother, who is homeless and suffers from mental illness. Barely 16, the girl is alone.

Mack locked eyes with the child and asked what she needed most to stay out of trouble. The girl’s response: “I need stability.”

When endangered kids break it down so simply, it behooves us to act. That means acknowledging their suffering and taking steps to help them preserve what is left of their innocence.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is On Twitter @TanInSeattle

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