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Sex Trafficking Is No Foreign Matter

Shoko Oda |
October 12, 2013 | 1:27 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

For some Americans, sex trafficking may not come across as a major local issue.

It may be easier to mentally categorize this issue as something that happens in Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, where many young women are trafficked for sexual exploitation each year. Stories of young women and men who have been sexually exploited by the prevalence of sex tourism in Cambodia are naturally covered by the media, informing the public of the international concern. 

But how does the issue compare domestically — more specifically, locally right here in downtown Los Angeles? 

Here in California, sex trafficking is covered under the laws that deal with human trafficking. According to the State of California, human trafficking is defined as "all acts involved in the recruitment, abduction, transport, harboring, transfer, sale or receipt of persons, within national or across international borders, through force, coercion, fraud or deception, to place persons in situations of slavery or slavery-like conditions, forced labor or services, such as forced prostitution or sexual services, domestic servitude, bonded sweatshop labor, or other debt bondage."

SEE ALSO: Proposition 35 Sex Trafficking Measure Passes

This type of human exploitation is a huge issue right here in Southern California, just beyond the gates of the University of Southern California (USC).

"Most of what constitutes sex trafficking is actually local or domestic," explains Victor Rodriguez, assistant head deputy at the sex crimes division of the L.A. County District Attorney's office. "Seventy-two percent of victims of sex trafficking in California were actually U.S.-born Americans. So it's really more of a domestic, local problem." 

While there are many forms of sex trafficking — be it escort services, massage parlors or private homes where prostitution takes place — Rodriguez notes that street prostitution is the most common.

Street prostitution occurs in various "tracks" or areas, such as in Long Beach and Compton and on Sepulveda Boulevard. More specific to USC, street prostitution is known to take place just near the campus on Figueroa Street and Western Avenue. 

One of the more daunting truths of sex trafficking is the fact that vast majority of victims of sex trafficking are minors. The average entry age into sex trafficking for girls is 12 to 14. While the majority of victims of sex trafficking are females, males as young as 11 to 13 are also solicited into sexual exploitation. 

"What we are seeing at our program is women coming into our residential home with 8 to 10 years of being trafficked and they are anywhere from 18 to 24 years old upon entry," notes Donna Sarullo, an outreach coordinator at The Mary Magdalene Project, a nonprofit organization established to support and assist women who have been affected by sex trafficking and want to leave the lifestyle for good. 

"Girls have gotten younger," says Dianna Amato. "There were younger girls back when I was working, but not like it is now." 

Amato, a project director at The Mary Magdalene Project, had previously worked as a prostitute in cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Around age 35, Amato realized she "simply couldn't continue the lifestyle" and began to seek ways out.

After returning to community college, discovering her passion for knowledge, and building up the courage to leave her pimp, she left prostitution for good. 

A majority of young women who get involved with prostitution work for a pimp. Pimps employ a vast range of tactics for recruiting their prostitutes — from snatching women off the streets, to creating false advertisements that mask commercial sex acts as modeling and acting jobs.  

However, Sarullo explains seduction and coercion are the most frequently used method to procure women. 

"The girl or woman has bought completely into the idea that she loves him and needs to take care of him," says Sarullo. "The pimp will develop a relationship with the victim, the victim falls in love … He will eventually say he is having financial difficulties and asks her to have sex with another for money." 

"The trafficked woman might have actually liked him in the beginning. We've seen cases where they think that they're in a dating relationship with the trafficker," adds Rodriguez. 

However, with society becoming more technologically inclined, the Internet has become an alternative source for traffickers to target young women. Online advertisements have allowed traffickers to expand their customer reach and lure in more young women to their businesses.

READ MORE: Human Trafficking Coalition Gears Up In Fight Against Gangs, Backpage.com

In addition to procuring these women, pimps often set quotas and wages prostituted women must achieve. When they are not met, it is common for these traffickers to physically, verbally and psychologically abuse the women.

The consequences of such physical and psychological abuse are long-lasting and extremely detrimental to women — even after they leave prostitution, explains Amato. 

"The first year I was out of the business, I was either crying or screaming at people," recollects Amato. "You are finally out of the chaos, and you're finally sitting still — and that's very hard to do in the beginning, because everything comes flying back at you — all the abuse you suffered, guns, violence … it's just a lot of things to deal with."  

It is clear that sex trafficking is no unusual matter right here in Los Angeles, and the issue has become even more extreme within the last couple years, with more minors being trafficked into sexual exploitation. Technological advancement has also worsened the situation, as the vast Web allows pimps to gain a wider clientele.

What can the community do to alleviate this local problem?  

Amato argues the public needs a clearer understanding of the situation that young women who enter into prostitution are in when they first get involved, the business and of the dynamics of pimping and why it's so hard for the women to leave. 

"There's very little understanding of the dynamics of why these girls are out there," argues Amato. "There's a popular stereotype that these girls "want to be out there," that they're all stupid … and that they're drug addicted." 

"When you see one of these girls out in the street, she could be a kid. She might look tough to you, but that kid could be out there against her will," adds Rodriguez, whose district attorneys have worked with several trafficked minors. "At a certain point, when you really get to know them, she's just a kid under that exterior." 

Furthermore, Amato believes there needs to be more legislation that target the pimps and more financial resources put into uncovering and apprehending the traffickers.

She also points out decriminalizing prostitution will allow victims of sex trafficking to have a cleaner criminal record, increasing their ability to reintergrate with the larger society. With such tremendous stigmatization against prostitutes, these women often have a harder finding jobs and community support.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, believes there should be more resources pumped into the intensive process of investigating these cases.  

For most people, perhaps recognizing it as a local issue that takes place in our own backyards might be a step forward. 

"Cases that attract the most attention are those involving foreigners brought in — but a majority of the cases you're going to see are just down the street on Figueroa," noted Rodriguez.

Reach Staff Reporter Shoko Oda here.  



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