But the plague of underage girls -- and to a lesser extent, boys -- who are prostituted by often violent pimps has now received a big boost in visibility.
And Alameda County prosecutors, along with leaders of a nonprofit that helps exploited youth rebuild their lives, hope that bringing the problem into the light will increase arrests while sending a signal to the victimized that there is a way out.
On Thursday, Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O'Malley and MISSSEY Executive Director Nola Brantley announced that they have teamed with Clear Channel Outdoor to launch an educational campaign at ProtectOaklandKids.org, and to plaster the city with billboards, posters and bus shelters underscoring the problem.
The campaign -- the creative work and outdoor ad space is all being donated -- aims to educate the public that underage girls who are selling sex are not prostitutes, but victims of sexual exploitation who are being sold by others.
"Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect," reads one billboard that shows two teddy bears askew on a made bed.
Viewing teen girls who sell sex as criminals rather than victims "allows communities to ignore them as invisible," said O'Malley, whose Human Exploitation & Trafficking Unit has since 2006 prosecuted nearly half of the state's child-sex trafficking cases.
(Of 325 cases filed, 278 have been resolved, with an 82% conviction rate, she said.)
"My message is clear: If you see something, community, say something. And to those who are trafficking -- buying and selling -- my office will prosecute you to the full extent of the law."
The posters, bus bench messages and massive billboards are being strategically placed to also send a message to those still embroiled in what some consider modern slavery.
"I depended on my pimp for everything and had nothing," states another billboard, quoting a survivor named Darlene who left "the life" four years ago. "Now I have my own apartment, car and money. ... I got out. U can 2."
The FBI has designated the San Francisco Bay Area as a "high-intensity child prostitution area," and by many accounts, Oakland is the epicenter.
To blame, Brantley said, are the phenomena of multi-generational abuse, particularly sexual abuse; ingrained poverty; and an absence of caring stable adults in the lives of youth recruited into the trade.
MISSSEY, which stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, currently serves about 250 clients a year and has filled each new program it has launched since 2007 to capacity, Brantley said.
High-crime cities that direct the bulk of enforcement to homicides are more likely to have vibrant markets for child prostitution, Brantley said. Both she and O'Malley, however, credited the Oakland Police Department for joining in the push to treat the youth as victims, while cracking down on pimps and johns.