I now know that what I saw in 2012 was an instance of sex trafficking. In California, the age of consent is 18, without the act being considered statutory rape. The average age of exploited youth in the U.S. is 12 to 14. I’ve since learned that a pimp is a sex trafficker, and a sex trafficker is a pimp—even when pop culture makes light of the word “pimp” or glamorizes it. Pimps coerce and exploit victims and will go to any length for their own gain.
Where the waters get murky is the talk of prostitution (or “sex worker”) and sex trafficking, but think about it—a “worker” must be age 18 or over. A popular slogan resurfaced this past summer, when 45 people were arrested in Alameda County as part of a nationwide sting: “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.”
“Traffickers and abusers in other states know that you can come to Oakland to buy children. This issue affects every single child,” a narrator said in the film Surviving International Boulevard, which details the injustice of children for sale in Oakland. Only last week, a U.S. District Judge sentenced an Oakland man to 14 years in federal prison after he met a teen girl through Facebook, and had her trafficked the very next day on International Boulevard.
International Boulevard (a.k.a. “The Blade”) in Oakland is notorious for minors being sex-trafficked, and it’s most visible there. But traffickers do business in every nearby county around the Bay by luring in johns (sex buyers) through backdoor sites or popular review apps such as Rubmaps.
In fact, California consistently has the highest number of human-trafficking incidents reported in the U.S., according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. And the FBI has called San Francisco “one of the world’s major sex-trafficking hubs,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Alameda County’s H.E.A.T Watch reported that local at-risk youth in the Oakland area who are subject to commercial sexual exploitation, or youth who are already in “the life” as it’s referred to, can be broken down as a group as follows: 98% are girls; 1% are boys; and 1% are transgender individuals. Of these youth, 64% are African American; 15% are Latino/a; and 11% are Caucasian; and the rest are of other races.
They say that a hub like ours makes it easy for traffickers to move their victims in and out of the many airports, like the ones in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, which are all international airports.
How has the Bay Area, the tech and data capital of the world, swept these alarming statistics under the rug? Why is this happening, and why aren’t we hearing more about it?
“There is a public perception that prostitution is a consensual transaction. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Aron J. DeFerrari, a deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County. “The majority the public perceives as ‘prostitutes’ are in fact victims of sex trafficking. They are being coerced through physical force, fear, emotional coercion, false promises, or drug dependency. The sex ‘trade’ is really not a form of trade at all; rather, it’s the practice of modern-day slavery.”
With 40.3 million human-trafficking victims globally, as stated by the International Labour Organization, Alameda County statistics are hard to come by — largely because these cases appear as domestic violence or other crimes. “Trafficking” means that a trafficker (a pimp) will slip under the law’s detection by moving their victims around to different cities and ethnic enclaves.
“Measuring local stats as increasing or decreasing is difficult because trafficking is not well tracked in our justice system, and the crime occurs so deeply under the radar,” Brian Wo, co-founder of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, told me.
Some authorities, like Wo, attribute the Bay Area’s epidemic to the many diverse transportation options. They say that a hub like ours makes it easy for traffickers to move their victims in and out of the many airports, like the ones in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, which are all international airports.
“Incidents have also been reported on buses and with ride-share companies,” said Wo. “If the victims don’t know where they are, don’t make connections with people around them, or are far from friends and family, it’s much more difficult for a victim to escape.”
Vanessa Russell, founder of Love Never Fails, an East Bay nonprofit that helps restore, educate, and protect victims, goes a step further, explaining that “the most compelling reasons have to do with the existence of extreme affluence in the Bay Area alongside the existence of extreme poverty and vulnerability, especially among women and people of color.”
There is a desperate need to make ends meet for families and individuals living in economic disparity. It’s also true that a crime can exist only in the context of supply and demand — both of which are sky-high in places such as Oakland.
“The economic boom in San Francisco definitely impacts trafficking,” Wo said. “It increases demand, which, in turn, incentivizes traffickers to provide more supply. The demand comes from men, typically, who work in office jobs. They make ‘dates’ online in the afternoons from their office. Silicon Valley is full of men who fit this description.”
Fortunately, some women find light at the end of the dark tunnel. For example, the I AM House safe-housing program, a restoration component of Love Never Fails, includes multiple phases that take a survivor from victimization to advocacy.
“I used to feel I was in a nightmare. Now I will do everything I can to stop the next young woman from having to go through that,” said Brianna, age 19, a survivor and learning advocate whose words appear on a Love Never Fails brochure.