East Bay rapper Joshua “Five Hunnet” Durham had a busy August. He forced an underage runaway girl into paid sex with him and others, according to law enforcement, keeping her addled with a drug cocktail of weed, cocaine and meth. He advertised her services on social media next to boasts about opening for hip-hop mega-couple Meek Mill and Nicki Minaj, a show that would be stopped after a pepper spray fight between fans.
Sex trafficking, Durham’s alleged crime, has become a major focus of Bay Area law enforcement agencies in recent months. They’ve been especially fretful leading up to Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in February. The marquee event and human trafficking are connected by widespread predictions that hordes of cash-flush chauvinists will swarm into town for the costumed war play, then ravish tens of thousands of women and children—brought here against their will—to quell their surging testosterone.
The problem is it just isn’t true.
Maggie McNeill, an “unretired call girl” and nationally published writer, has been debunking this myth ever since its first rumblings at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, human rights organizations estimated that 40,000 prostitutes would flock to the event. By the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami, the number stayed the same, except it was no longer voluntary prostitutes, but captive women and children.
“It morphed,” McNeill said. “It became a more and more interesting lie. Because force, fraud and coercion are more interesting than voluntary prostitution. Voluntary prostitution, that’s old hat. It’s known. Nobody cares about that.”
The hysteria has led to short-term prevention efforts. During the 2012 Super Bowl, host city Indianapolis passed harsher sex laws, trained 3,400 people to recognize the signs of human trafficking and distributed 40,000 bars of soap branded with the trafficking hotline number to all area hotels. Authorities made 68 commercial sex arrests; two qualified as human trafficking cases. During the 2015 Super Bowl, Phoenix law enforcement identified 71 adult prostitutes, arrested 27 sex-solicitors and found nine underage sex workers who may or may not have been trafficked.
This patterns holds. A soon-to-be-released Stanford case study of the last five Super Bowl cities confirms that there is no significant statistical basis for the claim that sex trafficking, or the demand for paid sex, increases around marquee sporting events.
The Super Bowl sex trafficking sirens seem to fly in the face of conventional prostitution economics. Most sex workers build a cache of reliable clients that provide most of their income through steady year-round visits. For the myth to be true, traffickers would have to travel from event to event, board their captives in hotels at inflated rates, advertise to attract dozens of new-in-town customers, then charge less than the local prostitutes to undercut the competition. All while law enforcement is on its most alert status.
“It’s just not a viable business model,” McNeill said. “From an economic standpoint, the whole trafficking myth is bogus. It doesn’t make sense.”
Plus the market is thin, McNeill said. Road-tripping bros blow their life savings to pack themselves 10 to a room. Many can’t afford paid sex, much less a private space for the deed. And other potential customers are often family men with the whole brood in tow.
“What are they going to say? ‘Oh, um pardon me, Mabel, could you take the kids while I go to see a whore?’ It’s ridiculous,” McNeill said. “Trade shows. That’s where we make our money. There are expense accounts, so the company is taking care of their food and their lodging. They can take their own money and pay for girls. So it’s not sporting events. It’s trade shows.”
Big Game, Big Money
The Super Bowl sex rumor helped spawn a moral panic surrounding human trafficking that has become a cottage industry for local law enforcement agencies. Truthout, an investigative nonprofit, estimates that the top 50 anti-trafficking organizations share $686 million annually. In 2014, the California Legislature appropriated $5 million to begin developing “multi-disciplinary protocols” to combat human trafficking and following that, annual funding of $14 million will keep the programs going.
These anti-trafficking efforts respond to some truly shocking—though highly questionable—estimates of a worldwide epidemic: 14.2 million people in global labor trafficking, 4.5 million in global sex trafficking, $150 billion in annual profits, up to 60,000 people being brought into the U.S. yearly, and up to 300,000 U.S. children “vulnerable” to sexual exploitation.
And yet, even the most optimistic outlets estimate that a few more than 3,000 trafficking survivors are rescued annually, nationwide.
Citing the disparity between spending and results, sex workers believe that they have become targets of a War-on-Drugs-like crusade, one which operates under the moral banner of trafficking-prevention to fund politically fashionable law enforcement activities at the expense of marginalized communities.
“Cha-ching. It’s money. It’s all about more money, more manpower,” McNeill said. “And that’s what it’s all about. This big issue is a boondoggle.”
Maxine Doogan, an active sex worker for 25 years and head of San Francisco’s Erotic Service Provider’s Union, has testified multiple times in front of the state legislature. She suggests that anti-trafficking forces may not be as idealistic as they make themselves out to be. Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, in one notable example, bullied Mastercard and Visa into blocking all transactions—even ones for clearly legal and constitutionally-protected activities—with classified ad site Backpage.com, one of the most visited adult pleasure procurement destinations.
The paradox: Backpage, which contracts with San Jose Inside’s parent company and other alternative weeklies for inbound links, voluntarily helps law enforcement track down potential exploiters by turning over any information connected to listings for minors. Shuttering the site could lead to fewer prosecutions and more abuse as the sex trade is pushed even further underground. Doogan is concerned that such short-sighted political career-building might carry over to Silicon Valley.
“You’re going to see these legislators who are using the trafficking discourse as a means to promote their own star,” Doogan said. “So they can turn around to their communities and tell them that they’re doing something when really, they’re not.”
Still, champions of the crackdown list the Bay Area and Silicon Valley as among America’s highest risk areas for human trafficking, especially labor trafficking, which is three times more prevalent than sex trafficking worldwide. Our region’s ethnic diversity and proximity to ports means that victims can be moved around without attracting suspicion, especially since most victims are smuggled in from other countries.
“What we’ve seen in the majority of those cases, is that the victims know their traffickers—family members, a friend, neighbors—from their home country, and are brought here under the pretense that they’re going to have a job, make good money, and so on,” said Perla Flores of Community Solutions, a service provider to human trafficking survivors in Santa Clara and San Benito counties. “But once they arrive, it’s a completely different situation. The smugglers keep their passport and put them into a situation where they’re being exploited for their labor and they don’t have the freedom to leave.”
Those in the grip of labor trafficking blend in. They clean homes in middle-class Los Gatos neighborhoods. They serve tapas in Saratoga. They paint nails and sell ice cream and fruit at roadside stands for 12 hours a day.
“For someone selling fruit by the side of the road, they’re seemingly by themselves,” said Sharan Dhanoa, the coordinator of the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking (SBCEHT). “So when you’re talking force, fraud or coercion, very seldom do you find it to be physical force that people can see. It’s very hard for people to see that person as a victim, especially if it’s an adult man. It’s just a lot harder to see those red flags.”
Without grizzled thugs, chained ankles or barred windows recognizable from films, signs of human trafficking are difficult to decipher. Red flags are everywhere and nowhere. They may be as vague as “avoids eye contact,” or as obvious as “shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse.” Most, however, are either difficult to spot or dismissable as someone having a bad day.
“People just don’t believe it’s happening here,” said Ruth Silver-Taube, a law professor at Santa Clara University and SBCEHT partner. “That’s why it’s harder to detect. But it’s happening right in our neighborhood. People think it’s barbed wire. It isn’t. Usually it’s just a workplace and you have to look for the red flags. It’s hidden in plain view basically. And it’s an epidemic.”
Well, maybe. Since 2006, Santa Clara County has filed 69 cases of human trafficking but only prosecuted one labor trafficking case, according to a study released last year. This could be due to the layers of marginalization piled on victims. Most are undocumented workers, who might not know English, American customs or anyone in this country apart from their traffickers. They could distrust the police or Americans in general, given the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US.
But human trafficking doesn’t happen just to foreigners. In Silicon Valley, at least, most sex trafficking victims come from America, according to the the county’s Office of Women’s Policy. And as with labor, a majority of survivors report facing multiple hardships like poverty, limited education and past abuse before being trafficked. Once ensnared, threats, drugs and emotional manipulation keep them submissive.
Traffickers come in various forms. Movies like Taken portray the rare guerrilla exploiters, who operate in an underworld of forced sex with sociopathic venture capitalists, but the more common type is the Romeo exploiter, who opens a tender relationship with the victim before the coerced sex work begins.
Still, there is no catch-all profile of traffickers or victims. Survivor and activist Minh Dang was a straight-A student, orchestra member and soccer star in Los Altos and Mountain View who had been sold for sex by her parents starting at the age of 10, continuing until she broke free from them during her second year at UC Berkeley.
Local authorities are still working to develop effective awareness strategies ahead of Super Bowl 50. Santa Clara County funded and published a 12-minute movie detailing these red flags, but the finished product reeks of amateurish iMovie editing and plods along far too slowly for the modern attention span. It has been viewed less than 900 times under the meaningless title, “07 15 15 HTC.” The video probably would have caught more attention if employees had just chucked fistfuls of dollars into a crowded intersection while shouting about red flags.
On Dec. 1, county Supervisor Cindy Chavez led a press conference announcing the plastering of human trafficking awareness signs on all 350 VTA vehicles. The predominant poster depicts a young, light brown-skinned teen with an American flag bandana blindfolding him. Next to hotline numbers read the phrase: “Don’t Be Blind: If you see or suspect human trafficking, say something.”
See what? Say what? And how fast can law enforcement provide a meaningful and effective response?
Press conferences and statements like Chavez’s, such as her claim in the Mercury News that "the scourge of human trafficking is still prevalent throughout our county,” illustrate Doogan’s star-building observation. Noble motivations aside, these awareness efforts raise an elected official’s profile, boost overtime for local law enforcement and fund public agencies’ marketing departments.
Still, these measures are considered necessary because trafficking victims cannot identify themselves. So in an effort to do something, anything, about this concealed crime, California shifted its focus to the sex trafficking of minors and passed Proposition 35 in November 2012. Earning 81.6 percent of the vote, it is the most widely supported piece of legislation in state history.
The law beefed up the penalties for sex trafficking, registered the convicted as sex offenders and funnelled any funds received from raised fines into law enforcement and victim services. Most important, prosecutors no longer had to prove force, fraud or coercion for survivors under 18 because they’re too young to consent to any form of sex.
Following this, anti-trafficking efforts jumped. According to SBCEHT partner Silver-Taube, the Bay Area now boasts 39 organizations and 140 people dedicated to providing almost anything a survivor could need. And since 2012, the SBCEHT—founded in 2003—reports to have helped 121 of 185 self-identified survivors of human trafficking. During the last five years, the San Jose Police Department has received more than $1.3 million for its human trafficking task force, but apparently won’t receive any future funding.
Santa Clara County wanted to go even further, after filing just eight human trafficking cases in 2013. The next year the county founded the Human Trafficking Task Force and the specialized team filed 10 cases that year. In 2015, the number increased to 12. For 2016, the budget for the four-person department is $743,000.
“We’re looking at these people who work in the commercial sex industry first as victims,” said Paola Estanislao, a member of the task force. “Many of these people did not choose this lifestyle. There is a tremendous amount of empathy from police officers. They don’t want to see these victims hurt any further. They want them to understand that they deserve better than this, and to help break them out of the cycle.”
As anti-trafficking agencies patrol websites linked to prostitution, they sweep up voluntary prostitutes in their nets. In 2013 and 2014 the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office arrested five prostitutes total. In 2015, they arrested 31, a more than six-fold increase in half the time. Maxine Doogan fumes over the increased arrests brought on by anti-trafficking efforts.
“A prostitution arrest is a pink slip,” she said. “It forces people to migrate to another area to find work. Anytime you’re a worker in the underground economy and you come into a new area, you are at high risk for a violent act—rape, theft, sexual assault. That’s where you start to see the force, fraud and coercion start to happen. Because of the criminalization, you can easily have a volunteer situation and turn it into something that’s involuntary and you don’t have any recourse, any access to equal protection under the law.”
Compounding this, sex workers are not allowed to legally congregate to pool resources and check up on one another. Plus, under California code, anyone who receives any money resulting from the labor of a sex worker can be considered a pimp, a felony charge punishable for up to six years in state prison.
“My son, who I was helping through school, would be qualified as a pimp,” said the pimp-free Doogan, who arranges meetings with clients online. “People that we are living with, and who are benefitting from our earnings in that we contribute our fair share of rent are pimps. Our landlord is a pimp. Our dry cleaner is a pimp. Everybody is a pimp.”
Police probably don’t use this technicality often, but this criminalization can also lead to fraud. Doogan said some busted prostitutes will falsely claim to be trafficking survivors to beat their charges and gain access to the services.
“[Anti-trafficking organizations] are all profiting from the criminalization of prostitution,” she said. “If the police weren’t out arresting people for prostitution and trafficking them into their bogus services, their ass would be out of a job.”
Doogan’s insinuation of deception outrages law enforcement and activists alike.
“That trying to serve survivors of exploitation is a ruse to stop prostitution doesn’t make sense to me,” Dhanoa said. “If anything, we’re encouraging law enforcement to take a victim-centered approach. Prop. 39 mandated decriminalization for minors. We’re moving toward the decriminalization of anyone who could potentially be a trafficking survivor, so I don’t actually see how that’s a negative.”
Obviously, voluntary sex workers don’t want to be thought of as victims or perpetrators. They want to make money and have that choice respected. Or at least those active on social media feel that way. There might be a quieter faction of sex workers who aren’t as thrilled with their profession and don’t want to talk about it.
In any case, Dhanoa and Doogan have never met, and neither seems willing to admit the other side might have a point. But there might be a compromise that would serve both sides: decriminalization.
“What decriminalization does is bring sex work out into the open,” said Jerald Mosley, a retired deputy attorney general for California who spoke at a recent hearing. “Now [law enforcement has] to figure out where to go to find underage prostitution or trafficking. But if it’s open and the sex workers are decriminalized, there’s no reason for them to hide. It’s not as difficult for law enforcement to interview folks and to investigate.”
Decriminalization seems a ways off, considering that San Francisco, a mecca of open-mindedness, failed to pass a measure in 2008. But if jaywalkers, speeders and suburban drug abusers escape the jaws of law, maybe prostitutes spotted during trafficking stings can get off with a finger-wag and a few questions about seeing anything suspicious.
Sex workers could be brought into the anti-trafficking crusade—no one knows more about the sex industry, and nobody else stands to profit from the elimination of the supposed bargain prices of sex trafficking. They might be able to fill the data gaps, leading to more efficient prosecution. Instead, this ideological wall has alienated a potentially valuable ally.
“They don’t care about me. None of those people ever come to me,” Doogan said. “The prostitute nation is alive and well in the Bay Area. We’re very visible. And they don’t have the respect to call me up, and say, ‘I want to save trafficking victims.’ Great. Go save trafficking victims, but you don’t need to do it on my back, and on the back of everyone in my community.”
If Silicon Valley is truly a hotbed for human trafficking, sex workers could help illuminate the dark corners where real offenders hide. But if we ask them for assistance, we’d better ask nicely, then compensate them for their valuable time.