Confronting the Realities of Human Trafficking in the Sex Trade

February 23, 2016

Confronting the Realities of Human Trafficking in the Sex Trade


By Cathleen Galgiani

For far too long, our society failed to confront the realities of human trafficking in the sex trade.

When a young runaway turned to prostitution to survive, we saw it as a sad consequence of her decision to leave home. If she was an adult, we chalked it up to a shadowy business deal, the oldest of commerce between a willing seller and a willing buyer.

Too often, we ignored or mythologized the role of the pimp or madam. By not focusing on the coercion involved in the crime, we failed to see its most cruel and exploitive aspects.

 Attitudes began to shift a decade ago when the FBI, in response to the growing problem of human trafficking in the sex trade, teamed up with state and local law enforcement to launch the “Innocence Lost National Initiative.” Nothing short of a coordinated effort was needed to combat a $32-billion-a-year global industry that stands as the most common form of slavery today.

 Problem is, that commerce is aided and abetted by popular music and reality TV shows that depict young women as mere sexual objects and glorify a pimp’s life. Likewise, social media has become an easy avenue of recruitment for criminals looking to lure young women into their traps.

 Just this month, during Super Bowl week, seven teenagers were rescued from forced prostitution in the San Francisco area. Some of the victims, who had been reported missing by their parents in faraway cities, were as young as 14 years old. More than a dozen pimps and their associates, lured by the big dollars of sex trafficking during the football fest, were arrested in multiagency sweeps.

 Here in the Central Valley, law enforcement agencies are working diligently to arrest and prosecute human traffickers, while local non-profit groups are working to rescue their victims and prevent a new generation of young women from falling prey to the threats and violence employed by such criminal enterprises.

 In Stanislaus County a very active faith based non-profit organization, Without Permission, Inc., founded by Debbie Johnson has been doing remarkable work in the fight against human trafficking. They have collaborated with community leaders, first responders of law enforcement, social services, educators and medical staff in serving victims and educating the community that the problem is right here.

 As the State Senator serving Senate District 5, I believe it is imperative for California to continue to build on these efforts. For instance, we need to expand state criminal law to include human trafficking for sex as a violent felony in cases where violence or threats of violence are used to coerce victims. Under legislation I have introduced this year, human trafficking would now be considered a violent felony subject to additional prison time.

 The victims of human trafficking often come from the ranks of society’s most vulnerable. In one recent case, a pimp deprived a 17-year-old girl of food, water and sleep for four days while he sold her to a variety of men. She managed to alert local law enforcement to her plight by dialing 911 on her cell phone and pretending, in front of the pimp, that she was providing her address to a client.

 As part of a 2012 state law that requires human trafficking informational posters to be prominently displayed in public places, staffers from my office have been canvassing our communities and will continue to do so. We have posted the large notices written in three languages in airports, hospital emergency rooms, businesses that serve alcohol, farm labor contractor offices, massage parlors and adult-themed shops.

 The message is a simple one: human trafficking for sex isn’t commerce between two willing parties who stand on equal footing. There is a third party, a criminal standing in the shadows, who exerts such power over the victim that she cannot exercise free will. A metaphorical—and sometimes very real—gun is pointed at her head.

 Recognizing human trafficking in the sex trade as a potential crime of violence, a crime that comes with additional prison time is the next important step we must take