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Sex slavery: A global nightmare in your own backyard
An estimated 30 million people or more live as slaves today – working against their will for someone else. And every year, some 17,500 are trafficked into the United States. Many of these people don’t have allies, but here in the Bay Area, there’s one non-profit that’s standing with them.
Not For Sale has a self-described simple and collective challenge: “Stand with those who are enslaved, work together to free them, and empower them in their freedom to break the cycle of vulnerability.”
President and co-founder David Batstone came by the studio to talk with KALW’s Ben Trefny about the organization and its work.
BEN TREFNY: David, share a story of something you’ve seen while investigating sex slavery.
DAVID BATSTONE: One of the most startling early experiences I had was to visit undercover in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, a group of young girls who were in a situation that they couldn’t get out of. They were young, 11- and 12-year-old girls. I had gone to Phnom Penh to explore, really to investigate: How does trafficking happen? This was very early on in my experience.
Even in Cambodia to traffic or to sell a young 11- or 12-year-old girl is something that might get you in trouble. Sell an older woman (older meaning 18 or 19 years old) and no one cares. But 11 or 12, you still might get in trouble.
So the contact took us up the back stairs and we went inside a second story living room. In there were about 15 girls of this age, 11 or 12 years old. I was pretending to be a “John,” someone who was there looking for young girls to buy.
I was with an Australian intelligence officer who fortunately was much more experienced than I was. He had a cool demeanor, pretended to play the part, whereas as soon as I saw these little girls and they were told to flirt with me… oh my gosh, I lost my cool, I lost my demeanor. But I struggled along, got through it, and we were offered to buy two young girls each. I think it was about $12.
So I remember seeing those girls, looking at them, and walking out that night. Our exit plan was we’d come back later (we had a hidden camera; we got all this on camera), but it took another three months to close that place down. But I remember not being able to sleep for a week, just thinking about those young girls and what they were going through each night.
TREFNY: So 11- and 12-year-old girls in Cambodia; 15- and 16-year-old girls in Oakland. The sex trade is a very dark, mysterious industry. How much of that is the result of human trafficking? How many people do you think, by your definitions, are involved in that against their own will?
BATSTONE: I would say inside the United States we probably have between 150,000 and 200,000 people living in sex slavery.
The average age of a girl who goes into what we call prostitution is 13 to 14 years old. Here in Oakland, young girls every day are being brought into the sex trade and they can’t get out. This is the distinction: Maybe they were convinced, because of money or some short-term opportunity, that if they sold their body it wouldn’t be so bad. But you’ll notice that these young girls have someone managing them, a pimp, who won’t let them leave and will use violence against them. This is really a problem.
When I drive down International Boulevard in Oakland, and I see a group of 14- or 15-year-old girls, I think, “Terrible! How can they make those choices? How could they ever put themselves in that situation?”
What we often don’t see is 100 yards away there will be someone, usually a man, controlling them, managing them, and not letting them leave. This really is the story of human trafficking.
There’s a great organization here in Oakland called MISSSEY run by Nola Brantley. Nola works with these 14- or 15-year-old girls. And it’s a real dangerous and tough business getting them free from their traffickers.
TREFNY: These girls who are on the streets of Oakland, a lot of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, see the opportunity for quick money and then they get stuck in it because of whoever’s running the show for them. They’re obviously Americans. Is there a much larger trade of international people coming into the country who are part of the sex trade than people who are born in the U.S.?
BATSTONE: Yeah, very much so. You have regions. In, say, Oakland, mostly East Oakland, West Oakland, and then up to Vallejo in the East Bay, you have a lot of local, domestic girls who are trafficked, U.S.-based.
A lot of what people think of when they think of sex trafficking is the movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson. That is less dramatic. Usually you don’t have someone going into a home and kidnapping a young girl. That still happens, but it’s rare. It’s more likely that someone is drawn into it and can’t leave.
In all of the thousands and interviews I’ve done with trafficking survivors and my relationships with them, in almost every case, someone in a uniform was contributing to their trafficking. Whether it was a police officer or a customs officer, someone with authority – legitimacy according to the state – has participated in their trafficking. So they’re not thinking, “I’ll go out and find a police officer and he or she is going to help me.” They just see themselves as trapped in this cycle that they can’t get out of.
TREFNY: How, in a city like San Francisco, with massage parlors all over downtown, can one tell the difference between a legitimate business and one engaged in sex trafficking?
BATSTONE: Well, some of the things you look for are vigilance towards those who are working there – the women or men who are a part of that establishment. Also, bars on windows that prevent them from coming out. There’s also barbed wire fences that are keeping people in rather than keeping outsiders out. You’ll find that there’s heavy security around – cameras. The window shades are always pulled shut.
Part of this is that they want to maintain their own privacy and withhold from law enforcement. You’ll also find that there’s a great deal of control in the young women and men. If you’re not allowed to talk to them, they’re very frightened to say anything about their background and who they are. Most likely, there’s a risk of trafficking in those situations.
TREFNY: I live in San Francisco’s Sunset District, which is a pretty retiring, quiet, residential neighborhood. And yet, every now and then, there’s a news of a house that’s being used as an international brothel. Can you tell me what you know about these places? I’ve always been curious about how hidden it is. You can be on a street that looks like any street of houses, plain old houses, little boxes built in the ‘50s or ‘60s, and one of them, or several of them, are housing an international sex slavery.
BATSTONE: Absolutely. It’s the trend to move out of more visible, downtown San Francisco massage parlors to more residential districts. The Sunset is one of the more frequent ones in San Francisco. They still have to advertise themselves to potential clients. The easiest ways to get access to information for us is through Internet sites. They’re not that subtle in terms of what they’re offering. It’s a question of whether this involves human trafficking or is a choice by those who sell their bodies.
TREFNY: That definition is very difficult.
BATSTONE: It is. It’s hard for FBI. It’s hard for local law enforcement to make that distinction. When people are asking why there aren’t more convictions, why isn’t there visibility around the address… if it’s such a problem why is it so hidden? It’s the very question you raised.
It doesn’t take a very sophisticated trafficker to be able to tell the young women, “If you say anything, you’ll be thrown in prison, you’ll be deported, you’ll be punished. I know where your family lives.” There’s lots of reasons a young woman wouldn’t cry out for help in a public way.
So, how would you distinguish if you’re in 30th Avenue in a house? These young girls just feel trapped. I’ve been inside these places. It’s hell on earth. These five to six young girls just wait for the next guy to show up. It’s prostitution.
TREFNY: What can I do to make a difference in this?
BATSTONE: There’s lots of things we can do as individuals. We have two parts of what we have in the classical economical economics: the demand side and the supply side. We built an app where you can walk into a store and scan the bar code on a product. It will give you A, B, C, or F. Just like school, you want to get an A, not an F. The grade is based on 50 factors involved in making that product. We call it Free2Work. All people should be free to work.
I think that most of our listeners today don’t want to wear people’s suffering. They don’t want to tread on people’s dreams with their shoes, or consume people’s tragedy with their morning coffee and sugar. But we want to make sure people’s lives are enhanced in the making of the product that they’re linked to.
So we have this app that’s on the iPhone, on the Android, talking to the people on Nokia about putting it on the Nokia phones – and it’s a free download. We just launched it, so we have about 25,000. We want to get a million consumers who go into the store and make decisions based on that. That’s going to change our behaviors on the side of the consumer. That’ll have a ripple effect all the way back to the producer.
On the supply side, we want to train and equip smart activists. There’s a lot of dumb activism out there, quite frankly. It’s good, with good intentions, but what is it really going to do?
I hate those rubber arm bands. They make me think I’m doing something, but they really yield nothing. In terms of what I can do in a very solidarity way, in a very simple way, what can I do that’s actually going to have an effect, that’s going to change people’s lives?
We have all over the world these academies, and one in San Francisco. They are three-day academies. We keep them really low cost. You learn how to document trafficking in your region, how to be a first alerter, how to work with law enforcement in your community, what citizens can do that law officers won’t do. We will not tolerate human trafficking in our own backyards.
If you live in the Bay Area, as I’m sure most of you do, the Bay Area is the home of Not for Sale. Learn the difference between consequently action that actually means something, and inconsequential action that maybe makes me feel better but doesn’t really make a difference.