Selling Girls: Sex trafficking is happening in our own backyard

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I met a prostitute who said, although “there is nothing safe about prostituting,” she chooses to do it to survive. The woman, Kiki, said her experience, wisdom and background have allowed her to do so without a trafficker or pimp. However, Kiki admits it is nearly impossible to run your own sex business without being coerced by these traffickers to work for them. 

“The first thing they're going to say is ‘you need protection out here, and someone to manage your money,’” Kiki said. “That means giving them every single dollar you make. Whatever you need, you have to go and ask him. So, it’s like full control, and he's going to watch every move she makes. He's going to follow everywhere they go. Whatever's going on, he'll be right there. It’s a 24-hour thing -- all day.

“The younger you are, the more money you make,” Kiki added.

That’s what brought us to join Victory Outreach that night. Last year, a report commissioned by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, uncovered 500 cases of human trafficking in the city alone. In nearly a quarter of those cases, the victims were minors and almost all were victims trafficked for sex. 

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We requested data on trafficking-related cases from Sacramento Superior Court, filed between 2012 and 2016. Out of the 96 cases that were returned to us, 79 had received sentences, ranging from days to 20 years in prison. The more severe sentencing involved crimes against minors.

So far, this year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received 2,171 calls and reported 705 cases in our state. Last year, the number of calls was 4,137 with 1,331 reported cases in California.

Brianna Williams was 15 years old when she and her best friend went to an online chat room and started talking to strangers.

“We thought it was funny, we thought it was innocent,” she said.

Brianna stayed in touch with the man who told her he was an executive at a Bay Area company and was looking for someone young to “wine and dine.”

“He agreed to come and get me in the Sacramento area and took me to the Bay Area,” she said. “Once I was in the Bay Area, he wined and dined me like he said he would.” 

For days, she said, “We went to restaurants every day and he brought me clothes. It was every girl’s dream, you know to be wowed away. He made me feel like I was a princess like I could have whatever I want. And I liked it. I was 15, 16 years old and I thought that was pretty cool at the time.”

Soon enough, he brought up that since he was working two jobs, it was her turn to pay him back by doing some work and bringing money into the relationship.

“Things changed,” Williams said. “He finally told me: ‘hey, if you really care about me and I've done all these things for you, now need you to do this for me.’”

He said he would post her online and that she would have to have sex with strangers. Williams said she was in shock at the time and feeling guilty about having run away from home. Williams said she was on her way to meet her first client when police arrested her on prostitution-related charges.

“They were doing a sting and I was kind of the last person,” she said.

Police brought her back to Sacramento and charged her with a lewd act in public. That was before the passing of California's SB1322 which categorizes all minors engaged in prostitution as victims of trafficking. At the time, conservative opposition groups warned that the law would legalize child prostitution.

That’s not the case since buyers and traffickers do pay the consequences. But victims would qualify for support and assistance that would not apply to someone charged with a crime. There are 27 states where minors can still be charged with prostitution.

A tainted record could make someone feel that their options for a better life have been severed. It is often what traffickers use to manipulate a victim into thinking they are somehow damaged and cannot leave what has happened behind. 

The FBI defines sex trafficking as “inducing a person by force, fraud, or coercion to participate in commercial sex acts, or in which the person induced to perform such act(s) has not attained 18 years of age.”

In Brianna’s case, that coercion happened in the form of threats. Once she was back home safe, her trafficker reached out to her and threatened to kill her family. She was forced to return.

“He said, ‘hey, either you come and you tell me where you are exactly or I find out where you are and I’ll come and get you.’ I feared for my family, I just said ok,” Williams said.

In the years that followed, he would post her on sex sites and she would see around 20 clients every day. Clients were abusive and some tried to kidnap her. Her trafficker also beat her regularly and continued to threaten her so the idea of escaping would grow increasingly faint.

“The whole time I was thinking it was like I was brainwashed,” she said. “I was so scared stepping out of line, he would say -- that I kind of walked on eggshells.”

Meanwhile, Williams’ mother was desperately looking for her, posting flyers and posting online. She said her missing person flyers were featured at police precincts in Sacramento and the Bay Area. She recalled a buyer who told her he had seen her poster, which listed her age. That didn’t stop him. 

I interviewed local FBI agents who said technology has made it harder to save victims.

“They’re not out on the streets anymore,” one FBI agent said. “It’s more difficult for law enforcement to spot children because they’re hidden in hotels, apartments, and houses across the country.”

But in Brianna’s case, police would come to the complex where she was being held in Oakland and they never saved her. She said she was too afraid to speak up, fearing what would happen if they didn’t save her but she hoped somehow they would know, but they didn’t.

When she turned 18, Williams said she had an awakening and finally decided to run away. She feared retaliation from her trafficker but was not willing to spend the rest of her life in those conditions. She wasn’t physically constrained, but she was threatened and manipulated.

It’s hard for people to imagine how someone wouldn’t run away sooner. Ashlie Bryant, co-founder of 3Strands Global, explained, among other things, that especially with minors, “brain development isn't completely there, we know that the frontal lobe isn't completely developed.”

Bryant said teenagers have a different set of emotions and reactions that make them more vulnerable and that is what traffickers exploit.

Even so, victims like Brianna have plenty of reason to fear, as running away represents a loss to a trafficker’s business. That’s why California recently went further in the efforts to protect victims when Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 597, which expands California’s Safe at Home program to include victims of human trafficking. 

In a statement, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who sponsored the bill, said, "with the signing of SB 597, survivors of human trafficking can receive mail, open a bank account, register to vote, and fill out government documents confidentially and free from fear.”

Even if available at the time, Williams said she wouldn’t have wanted to trade her life for anonymity. When I first met her, she said she was uncomfortable speaking on-camera, so we recorded the interview showing only her eyes.

Now, she said she is glad to speak openly about what happened to her, though not about who did it. Although she didn’t press charges, she feels she can help more victims by speaking out against trafficking and speaking up about her story. 

Since she saved herself, Williams has launched a popcorn business. Catrina’s Popcorn now raises awareness and employs survivors.

“The things I went through made me stronger,” Williams said. “It gave me a tool that I can use now as I talk to people. I get to go around and tell other ladies and men how to avoid it. I get to help them empower themselves how they are, love themselves how they are and teach them you don’t need any man or any woman to tell them they are beautiful. Love comes from within, not from anything you get."