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Like the threat of AIDS in the '80s, nuclear war in the '90s and terrorism in the early 21st century, it’s clouded with misunderstanding and fueled by economics. Like all threats against humanity, it continues to grow on a global basis. And it strikes home right here, in San Diego.
It is human trafficking, a gentler term for modern slavery. It’s estimated that more people today are in involuntary servitude than at any other time in history, as many as 27 million.
A common role for trafficked humans is sex slavery and involuntary prostitution, often referred to as sex trafficking. The most common trafficked victims are young females and children. Seventy percent of female victims are forced into the commercial sex industry.
Human trafficking commonly involves the transport of people away from their familiar communities to a place where they have no resources for escape. However, the term ‘trafficking’ does not require that the victim be physically moved, but that the victim is exploited for unpaid work or commercial sex. You might think of it less as a victim being trafficked ‘out’ as much as paying customers move ‘in’ on an innocent victim, such as a child prostitute.
It surprises us how many San Diegans are astounded to learn that human trafficking occurs in San Diego. We hear locals say they’ve heard of it elsewhere, but didn’t expect it "in our own backyard."
The most profitable criminal industry in the world is the illegal arms trade. The illegal trade of humans and the illegal drug trade are the second most lucrative criminal industries. Unlike drugs, which can only be used once, humans can be used over and over until entirely used up. It’s considered very cost-effective. Unlike drugs that must be grown, harvested and processed, humans can be snatched up off the street.
All of this should be especially heart wrenching to the LGBT community. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that up to 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth live on the streets of our nation. According to a 2007 study titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness” by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as many as 40 percent of these homeless youth are LGBT. Twenty six percent of LGBT youth become homeless for no other reason except their families reject them for being LGBT identified.
This same study spotlights another grim trend. When considering that 3 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT, yet up to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, it’s evident that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a hugely disproportionate rate. Simple math reveals that a large portion of our most vulnerable LGBT population – our homeless youth – are subject to becoming victims of sex trafficking.
San Diego is ideal for sex traffickers because it’s a large metropolitan city, with paying customers and a lot of runaways. On any given night, there are about 2,500 reported runaway children in San Diego, all of them are vulnerable to being kidnapped, and many are forced into prostitution.
Our runaway and homeless LGBT youth population is so much more vulnerable than straight youth that even The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that LGBT youth are seven times more likely to be a victim of crime than their straight peers . Surely, the worst of these crimes is being sex trafficked.
The issue is so pervasive in San Diego that the FBI has identified our fair city as a “High Intensity Child Prostitution Area".
The saddest reality of the sex trafficking of children is that the average child who is trafficked lives only two to four years once their enslavement begins and none of the profits made from the sex trafficked services benefit the victim who is commonly controlled by confinement, starvation, violence, intimidation and forced drug use.
Victims frequently die from AIDS, suicide, drug overdoses and physical beatings.
Many of our homeless and runaway San Diego youth who have managed to avoid being trafficked, will resort to survival sex in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Even this can lead to forced confinement and coercion into sex for profit, which profits only the person who holds the youth captive. Often these vulnerable youth are offered help at the beginning with their captors quickly resorting to fear tactics to control them once they are unable to escape.
Sometimes the most unexpected individuals are the ones to coerce children into forced prostitution. The coercive captors may be peers and seemingly trustworthy.
In January 2009, two men and one woman, in their early 20s, pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Engage in Sex Trafficking of Children and Coercion and Enticement of a Juvenile into Prostitution. They worked as a team and kept 100 percent of the income from the forced prostitution of several juveniles throughout much of 2007 in the city of San Diego.
KGTV anchorwoman Kimberly Hunt works on and off camera to combat our local issues with sex trafficking. In an undercover investigation in May 2009, Hunt () discovered 1,000 internet ad postings for sex with young girls in one night, in the Mission Valley area alone. Many were from ads on Craigslist; most of the girls were housed in hotels along Interstate 8.
Many of the youth caught in these dangerous situations are runaways who find themselves unable to escape their pimps and captors. Others are girls and boys considered missing by authorities; these are children who had no intention of leaving home and have been kidnapped and trafficked against their will.
To further complicate identifying victims of sex trafficking, several prostitution rings have a circuit they travel, by which the victims are forcibly transported and made to service paying customers in San Diego, then Los Angeles, then Las Vegas and Phoenix. By continually moving they can evade authorities by dodging attention from locals who could report their suspicious activities.
Like the worst dangers of the last few decades, AIDS, nuclear war and terrorism, human trafficking is a hard topic to digest. Its scope is enormous and its reach overlaps these other issues. For instance, the victims of forced prostitution, and their paying customers and pimps, help spread AIDS. Modern slaves are controlled by force, fear and by keeping them drugged.
One of the problems that hold us back from protecting our LGBT youth is a lack of reporting on these issues. While authorities have had some success in intercepting human traffickers in San Diego and we’ve learned much about identifying potential victims, it’s no wonder we haven’t progressed farther in solving our local trafficking issues. If local publications and news channels don’t report on the prevalence of human trafficking and forced prostitution in our city, and on the disproportionate number of our homeless and runaway youth that are LGBT, it will lead San Diegans to believe human trafficking and youth homelessness are issues outside our city.
In truth, they are pervasive problems that surround us. Sometimes, we just don’t see them, even when they affect our LGBT community.
Additional resources:The Ruth Ellis Center