Sex Trafficking: From Naïve Innocence To Life On The Streets

By Rosemary Jenkins

Years ago when I was working with and for the homeless, I learned a lot about a neglected segment of our population. Would it surprise you to know there are young people in far greater numbers than we might otherwise imagine, females who find themselves walking the streets of Los Angeles – hopeless, filled with fear, often brutalized by the pimps – the sex traffickers, the quintessential predators with violent backgrounds? These men, so ironically, are the very people the victims thought they could depend on.

We cannot escape the fact that there are literally thousands of these women who have become “strangers in a strange land,” so it is imperative that the rest of us do something to change all that. Some girls have been molested repeatedly at home, having been subjected to horrendous abuse – often from the mother’s boyfriend. One anecdote tells of a mother’s “companion” who tried to kill the girl until she managed to escape. He had attempted to drown her in a tub, put her in an oven until her mother intervened, raped her repeatedly – and she wasn’t even a teenager.

As horrendous as these descriptions are, these children are often not even old enough to get a work permit, cannot finish school as they have no address to claim residence, often become too transient to be recipients of the little help that might be available. Officer Dawson of the LAPD has been clear that these are girls (not to be considered prostitutes but victims) are legally too young to consent to sexual acts and, therefore, should not be punished for selling their bodies. And yet, look at the treatment we often sanction on behalf of enforcement to the detriment of these mere children.

Young people run away from home because of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse – or all three. Some have been abandoned by their parents and left with grandparents or placed in foster care, resulting in their feelings of alienation. There are those parents who drive to a god-forsaken neighborhood and simply drop their teens off at the curb, telling them emphatically they never want to hear from their own children again! Many young women escape from their “homes” because they feel they have no home, no welcoming schools or friends to trust. Hungry, frightened, penniless—what do they do? Eventually, somehow, they look to the streets for salvation, for a sense of family. Instead, they find men who claim to love them but insist that the only way to demonstrate their love in return is by earning money for these monsters through soliciting more-than-willing johns.

Before these victims know it, these merciless, heartless, often brutal pimps take over, treating these once innocent girls like chattel. The girls are branded on their backs, faces, and necks to show other competing pimps just who “owns” them. To punish victim “transgressions,” they are often gang-raped by a group of pimps, thrown into trunks, threatened with death (and some do die horrible deaths). And thus they are usually too afraid to seek help even when it is offered to them.

In some ways, perhaps worst of all are the foreign sex traffickers who, like false prophets, make false promises. They promise a family that their daughter will find a good job in America and enjoy the kind of life she has only dreamed about. But there are also fathers who are willing to sell their daughters for a mere pair of boots. What are young daughters worth these days?!

I have attended a symposium on this very subject. It was hosted by the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council with guest speakers representing a broad spectrum of law enforcement and other help organizations: the FBI, DEA, ICE, Homeland Security, the former Mary Magdalene Project (now Journey Out), CARE 18 (dedicated to fighting human trafficking), LAPD (Van Nuys Vice Division) and staff from the offices of state senators and assemblymembers and LA City Councilmembers. What was shared is not easy to summarize, nor are the goals easy to accomplish, but a repeated theme was the need to change the current paradigm for addressing this pressing issue in our communities.

Arrests in themselves are counterproductive. They use up significant time, money, and resources and, in the end, unfortunately, accomplish very little. In fact, we need a more victim-centered approach. In essence, the greater part of the work pertaining to this intolerable and unacceptable abuse must be centered on the girls, not to punish them (often for circumstances over which they have had little control) but to help them make the transition out of the life.

This issue can be analogized to the economic supply and demand economic theory: no johns – no pimps – no victims! Thus, traffickers and “clients” must be punished in a significant and severe manner, making them bear most of the responsibility for what is transpiring, making their lives as unlivable as those of the young women they have victimized. If we dehumanize these females in our minds, that is how these girls will perceive themselves. The girls, who are often as young as 11 years of age, many 12-14, and some even younger (still others somehow making it into their 20s or 30s), are used up like oranges before they are finally discarded as refuse (“You can’t eat the orange and then throw the peel away” from Death of a Salesman). These young women were not born to this life and thus deserve to be helped to find a path out of it.

Our officers can no longer view these victims as dross—only good for the dust bin of society – but rather as human beings deserving of respect and dignity. Thankfully, law enforcement in our great City is beginning to understand that positive, constructive changes in policy must be made, will be efficacious, and many support doing just that. Similarly, it is up to society to change its own attitude. It is simply counter-intuitive to punish essentially innocent people who for any number of reasons have lost their way and come under the power and control of vicious, heartless “masters.” In many ways these women (and many men and boys) are indeed slaves.

It was stated at the conference that a three-pronged approach must be made to address the conundrum that has faced us (and countless other communities) since time immemorial:

  • a new law enforcement approach
  • the availability and access to victim services (with the creation and addition of effective diversion programs)
  • improved and innovative community outreach which itself takes several forms:
    ~education for everyone on all aspects of the issue
    ~changing the psychological environment
    ~addressing the physical environment (with something as simple as increased street lighting on darker streets, thus making it less attractive and more difficult for johns and victims to engage in these nefarious practices).

It should not be overlooked that illicit drugs plays a part in all of this as well. The fact is that many of these victims, who are being transported from another country to our neighborhoods, are often made to carry the additional burden of being drug mules. The drug cartels represent an abhorrent, seemingly interminable sequence that is not the circle of life but of death – starting with drugs and prostitution and even money laundering and ending with huge profits – only to start all over again and again. “Merchandise” is created in one place and sold to a willing and eager market in another. Multi-millionaires are made at the circle’s genesis – people who are willing to be cruel and murderous to advance their own avaricious purposes while victimizing the powerless.

Another aspect of the illegal practices referenced here includes child pornography and sex tourism. Certainly, our law enforcement agencies must seek out the purveyors of and participants in these kinds of pornography and then crack down mercilessly on the perpetrators with harsh, meaningful sentences (since, after all, they have “sentenced” their victims to lives forever scarred by their heartless, self-serving, horrifying schemes and tactics).

As hard as the DEA and AFT have for decades been struggling with this problem (often themselves being tortured or even killed while carrying out their duties), I am not alone when I believe not enough is being done by the higher echelons of our government. Many of us have come to view our government’s dedication to eradicating these practices with suspicion and a jaundiced eye. Too often our current laws regarding these issues are repressive, oppressive, inadequate, and, for the most part, simply unreasonable. Too frequently the victims are coerced into plea bargains that actually work against their best interests.

The true goals of government with regard to the drug trade in our neighborhoods have become blurred. This reminds me of the movie, Kill the Messenger, based upon the true story of the highly acclaimed, award-winning journalist, Gary Webb, who was (during his lifetime that was cut short) ultimately thwarted in his efforts to reveal the truths about what is transpiring at every level in the drug/human trafficking trade. As a result, the DEA/AFT are characterized within many communities as the enemy – even when they are trying to help. As a result, the officers of these agencies often become those persons from which one must run, with whom one must not cooperate. It should be obvious, then, that the neighborhoods must be re-educated about their own attitudes and perceptions. Cooperating with authorities must not carry the taboo that it has for far too long and cannot make pariahs (often with a “price” on their heads) for those trying to clean up their communities.

To quote Rabbi Hillel’s famous exhortation: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” From this I add, For those in our midst who are hopeless and tortured and feeling that there is nothing out there for them but to live out their empty, lonely, invisible lives until they die and vanish, who will help them if we do not?!

Rosemary Jenkins is a graduate of UC, Santa Barbara, with degrees in both English and history and a minor in the humanities. She is an author of literary and grammar handbooks and a book of poetry in both English and Spanish. Rosemary is also a community and political activist and specializes in environmental and educational issues.

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