The STEP Project (Sex Trafficking Exploitation Prevention Project) was started by Kathleen Jackson− a long time San Quentin volunteer − and me, Louis A. Scott.
I was a pimp and I've chosen to share my knowledge of the life with the members of STEP in order to combat this crisis of Sex Trafficking that is currently plaguing our communities. Members of STEP have created PSA's, training videos on prevention, as well as have held public forums to educate community activists on prevention.
The slogan of this project is to speak up and speak out− and that applies not only to victims, but also those of us that have been offenders.
Miguel C. Fuentes, a member of STEP, says that to have empathy for others, we must have empathy for ourselves. Once we begin to suffer the consequences of our crime, we begin to fully understand the harm we've caused others. Our job is to not glamorize the lifestyle of the pimp, but show the effects on the victim.
Harry Smith, a member of STEP, was a college student when he got pulled into the life. As an ex-pimp he explains how women are victimized, saying, “A lot of these women are run aways. They have been abandoned, hurt, scared. Guys come in and they take advantage.” There are tactics used to control and install fear into the victim. Smith continues, “You’ll do whatever you can to exemplify being a God to her and being her only source. Conversation is orientated around trying to divide her from her family to make her feel like she is nothing and that nobody loves her.”
Several other of the men in San Quentin offer insight. “I know a little bit something... I got family members that’s pimps. The youngest female I ever seen out there was a 13 year old. She got to do what her pimp told her to do, if she don't do that then it's cookies,” says Dequan Moffet, an 18 year old in San Quentin.
When Moffet says “cookies,” he's talking about brutality inflicted upon the victims of trafficking, which can include any number of things, not just being beaten. Moffet continues, “She ain't gonna be able to get her clothes, she ain't gonna be able to get nothing to eat− until she go out there and bust her move.”
Another man, who wanted to remain anonymous, adds “[A woman] who doesn't have any family ties− that's the best one. Most of the girls are naïve. If you got charm or if they seem to like you, you feed off that. You'll hit her with certain spills like, ‘I want you to get some money, I can see bigger and better things.' Just make up stuff; sell them a dream basically.”
Not everyone in San Quentin is in STEP. For example, William Hearnes is not a member, and he says that were he released from prison today, he would still be a pimp: “I'm 59 years old. They can let me out here today or tomorrow, but if I get me a young girl say[ing] she ready, I'm a go…You think I'm gonna turn down some money if you give it to me? No.” Hearnes has been in “the life” (what pimping is often called) since he was 17 year's old. “Always eight, nine girls deep, and I had to do nothing. I had a prostitution going on… so that was always my trade.”
Maria Edger is a survivor of sex trafficking. She is a member of the STEP project and comes into San Quentin volunteering her time. “When I was a young girl under age, I was introduced into what they call ‘the life,’ and I was…trafficked across California and Nevada. I was forced to sell my body, image, and different sexual acts to create some type of income for myself,” Edger says.
There are many reasons why women stay in these situations, but primarily it's a form of mental bondage that enslave them, preventing them from leaving.
“I didn't stay for any reason other than I didn't have anywhere else to go at the time. I had already moved out of my friend’s place, and I was under age so I couldn't get my own place,” laments Edger. As a victim of trafficking, she endured physical and emotional abuse. She now advocates for more options to prevent others from falling prey to the life.
“It's not just the children. It's the parents. It's the whole circle. Everyone has to be watching out for these children. Things that need to be implemented are prevention and education.”
And some of that burden of prevention and education needs to be taken on by perpetrators. STEP member Miguel C. Fuentes says, “Part of the responsibility we have as offenders… is to utilize all the knowledge we've gained.” It is knowledge they have unfortunately gained through a previous life of exploitation, but it knowledge they can now use to advocate for the lives of victims.
Although STEP is helping to educate and change the mentality of offenders, there are still those who maintain misconceptions. One man said that prostitution was in essence a decision made by the woman and that no one has forced her into it. However, it is this very mentality that the STEP project hopes to change. By doing so, STEP hopes to put an end to the enslavement of those held in bondage by sex traffickers.