Sex trafficking is unfortunately a way of life for many young people in San Diego.
“No matter how many resources are thrown at this, it’s not going away,” said Austin, director of security for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest.
Sex trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, where the act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform the act is under 18 years of age.
It’s a $32 billion industry in the US, and on the rise. Up to 300,000 Americans under 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade every year. The average age of a victim is 11 to 14 years; homeless people and those in the foster care system are especially vulnerable.
Other risk factors include: homeless youth, LGBTQ people, older partners, drug/alcohol use, history of prior trauma, and undocumented people.
“Anyone can be pulled into this life,” said Chrissy, Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest’s education outreach program manager.
San Diego, according to the FBI, is one of the three biggest child sex trafficking areas in the nation. It’s part of a 4-city “square” of sex trafficking (the other three cities are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix).
Large events — such as ComiCon, or the Superbowl — draw more sex trafficking to the area.
Rather than a stereotypical “pimp” situation (as in many movies), traffickers here tend to be “Romeo” types. The pimp will pretend to be a boyfriend or friend to the person, shower them with attention and gifts, then develop a coercive and abusive relationship that segues into sex trafficking.
Eventually, “a trafficked person might have 30–40 sexual encounters in one day. That’s not unusual,” Austin said.
Victims can be solicited through websites or social media platforms. If law enforcement locates and shuts down a trafficking site, another one quickly pops up in its place — making it very difficult to catch those involved.
San Diego sees a lot of gang activity as well; at least 110 gangs are involved in the commercial exploitation of people, which is less risky than drugs or guns. To put it bluntly: If you sell drugs or guns, they’re gone — while humans can be bought and sold more than once.
“They moved from narcotics to trafficking, due to border issues,” Austin said. “Human trafficking is just easier.”
Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest is conducting trainings at San Diego Unified School District and within its health centers so that its employees will be better able to spot warning signs.
Victims often use Planned Parenthood’s services, due to our reputation of confidentiality. It’s important to be able to spot warning signs and establish trust, reinforcing that Planned Parenthood is a safe space.
Warning signs can look like:
- new tattoos/brandings
- a change in dress
- new items with no new income
- physical exhaustion
- new friends
- prepaid credit cards
- calls at all hours
- frequent pregnancies
- frequent STIs
- coming home late/not coming home
“Maybe a kid’s grades drop,” Chrissy said. “You need to ask why, rather than making it a policy to automatically punish, without asking those important questions.
“We have a trauma-informed approach,” she said. “That means we look into the behavior, instead of automatically punishing it. It’s not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but: ‘What happened to you?’”
Many victims will not self-identify as victims, due to shame, distrust of authority, loyalty to their trafficker, language barriers, fear of arrest/deportation, or other factors.
“It’s a matter of providers asking the right questions, of working together. And getting that person to safety,” Austin said.
“A man came into one of our health centers a couple years ago, acting odd,” Austin said. “He’d come in for STI testing, saying he was ‘going to have sex with someone and wanted to make sure he was clean.’ He was in his 40s. He was tested and left.
“He came back a week later, but this time he had a 16-year old young woman with him. He said she was there to get tested for STIs as well. She seemed nervous and was quiet.
“He wanted to go into the exam room with her. We don’t agree to that unless we talk to the patient during their initial consultation and she gives permission for her partner to accompany her. His persistence was unusual and made us all feel that something was ‘off.’
“The provider talked to her alone, in an interview room and asked her, ‘Are you okay? Are you safe?’ The young woman broke down. She said she feared for her life. She was from Florida, but she was in El Cajon because the man had paid for her flight. She told the provider that he was trying to give her ‘gummies,’ but she didn’t eat them because she was afraid he was trying to drug her.”
The provider told the center manager, who then called Austin. He immediately went to the health center and he and the manager interviewed the young woman privately.
“We told her that this was a safe space, that what she said was confidential,” Austin said.
She told them that she’d told her parents in Florida that she was going on a weekend getaway with friends, but actually she’d been talking online with this man. He’d given her a fake story: He’d told her he was going to receive a substantial inheritance — but only if he had a kid. So he flew her to California to be his surrogate, and said he’d give her half his inheritance.
They explained to her that that’s not how surrogacy works. They told her she was probably being set up to have sex with him and other people, and asked her if he had plans to take her anywhere.
“We’re going to Mexico to see a doctor he knows,” she said, “So we can start talking about surrogacy.”
“Do you have a passport?” Austin asked her.
“No,” she answered.
Austin told her she didn’t need one, “Because you’re never coming back.”
The young woman broke down again. Austin told her they needed to contact her parents and get her back home, now. She was scared to speak with her father, so Austin did it for her.
“It was a little like a movie,” Austin said. “I told him who I was, and that his daughter was here. He was shocked. I told him she was safe, but that I believed she was being human-trafficked, and we needed to get her back to Florida now. He immediately bought her a flight home.
“We’d called 911 and the police came — as we still had a criminal in the waiting room. They went into the lobby and talked to him while we took her out through the back and to a cab. We alerted TSA security to meet her at the airport and make sure she got on her flight safely. We reported it to the FBI. The police took him away; he’s been up on many sexual assault offenses. He definitely fit the profile of a sex trafficker.
“We know to be vigilant,” Austin said, “and to give good leads to law enforcement.”
Where trafficking victims can go for help:
STARS (Surviving Together, Achieving and Reaching Success)
Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Toll-free: 1.888.373.7888, 24 hours a day
Text HELP to BeFree (233733)