by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
You’ve probably seen the scenario in a hundred bad or mediocre movies or TV shows. The innocent young teenage runaway, newly arrived in the big city, suddenly realizes what a tough time she — sometimes he — is going to have finding food, a place to stay and any stability in her life. Then she’s approached by a nice young man who offers to help. Let me buy you breakfast, lunch, dinner, a new handbag, a manicure, some cosmetics. He gives her money and puts her up. Maybe they start dating and for a few weeks she thinks she’s one of the lucky ones who’s found a lover and ducked the dangers of the streets.
Then it’s payback time. He tells her she needs to start earning back the money he’s spent on her. He’s got a few friends who want to have sex with her and they’re willing to pay him for the privilege. If you really love me, he says, you’ll go along with this. Just this once. And then again. And again. Soon she finds that she’s “in the life” — the common euphemism people who have sex for money (usually money that goes to someone else, not them) use to refer to such an existence. She’s also likely to find herself hooked on alcohol and/or drugs, given to her by her “boyfriend” — really her pimp — both to help her face the rigors of “the life” and to make it less likely that she’ll resist or try to escape. And to make doubly sure she doesn’t do anything to weasel out of it, he’s likely to threaten to hurt or kill her family if she tries it.
It may seem like a hopelessly clichéd scenario, but it happens every day on the streets of San Diego, said San Diego Youth Services social worker Michelle Atkins to the Queer-rights group Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) at their Hillcrest headquarters March 14. Indeed, according to Atkins, San Diego is one of the top 13 cities in the U.S. for what she refers to as CSAC — “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children” — mainly to avoid the loaded word “prostitution,” which makes the girls (and boys) seem like criminals instead of victims. What’s more, the traffic in human beings for sexual exploitation has become the number two source of income for criminal gangs, behind drugs but ahead of illegal weapons sales, Atkins said.
Atkins spoke mostly about STARS (Surviving Together, Achieving and Reaching for Success), the program she runs under San Diego Youth Services auspices to help teenage girls get out of “the life” and on track for a positive and productive future. She could have told horror stories all night, but Atkins wanted to focus on her group’s success stories. Indeed, she brought one of them with her: a young girl who’s recovering from the ordeal of being trafficked but who still visibly bore the scars of her experience. Except when Atkins asked her to address the group, she sat on the floor in a corner of the room, turning down the offer of a seat, looking at her laptop and obsessively fiddling with her cell phone — a remnant of the electronic leashes pimps turn their women’s cell phones into, requiring that they continually text them how many tricks they’re turning, how much money they’re making and where they are.
“One young woman we worked with was 13 and already had a child by a rape,” Atkins recalled. “Her family had kicked her out, and she met people who said they could find her work as a maid. They took her child, and took her to the work camps at Escondido and forced her to have sex with 40 men a day. They told her if she left, they would kill her child. Eventually she did run, and she went to a house in Escondido where they called the police. We got her out, but it took us more than seven months to find her child. That was one of the more severe cases.”
Atkins made the point that virtually all the women who are trafficked have been put at risk by other things going on in their lives well before they hit the streets and are suckered into “the life.” “Before they are trafficked, 34 percent have a history of domestic violence in their family, 40 percent have an incarcerated parent, and 45 percent have been touched by an adult in a way that made them feel uncomfortable,” Atkins explained. “Of the girls who are trafficked, 83 percent have run away from home, 90 percent are using alcohol and/or drugs, 27 percent self-injure, 24 percent attempt suicide and 20 percent are teen moms. Eighty-four percent are or have been homeless, and one out of every three youth on the streets are solicited within 48 hours; that was in 1999, and it’s probably a lot higher now.”
Indeed, one of the things that most amazes Atkins is how brazen the pimps are. “Even with me there, people will come up to the young women I’m with,” she said. Most of the pimps are just trying to make their money, and don’t know or care who else is involved.” Atkins explained that 75 percent of the women she works with say they have a pimp, “and it’s actually higher because some still call him their ‘boyfriend.’ … If you see a young person with new nails, purses, clothes or hair, they’re probably from a pimp or someone grooming them for ‘the life.’”
Helping these young women out of “the life” is a tall order, Atkins acknowledged. It involves coordination between a lot of authorities that usually don’t even speak together very well, let alone work together. “The young women in STARS have consistent contact with law enforcement, social services, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions,” Atkins said. “Somebody has to fight for these people.”
Another problem is breaking the hold the pimps have over their “girls,” Atkins explained. “They’re either physically or psychologically controlled by the pimp,” she said. “They’re so emotionally identified with them they won’t testify against them. They’re trained to tell lies. Their experiences make them distrustful of service providers and law enforcement. They’re moved around a lot so they don’t get to create a center” — a permanent home or campsite where they might feel secure enough to establish a sense of their own identity and self-worth.
Indeed, Atkins displayed a circular “cycle” as part of the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her talk and compared it to the similar, but much better known, “cycle” of domestic violence. Like battering husbands, pimps subject their victims to “controlling and dominating relationships,” Atkins explained. “When I first start to work with a woman, they’re on the phone all the time with their pimp or with tricks. And they’re definitely not in control of their money; if they try to keep their money, they’ll be beaten.”
Atkins grimly listed the “barriers” facing these women in seeking help: “captivity, confinement, isolation, use of violence, fear, shame, self-blame and hopelessness.” Unless a police officer has been trained in how to deal with teenage victims of sexual exploitation, Atkins explained, he’s likely to treat them as criminals and arrest them for prostitution — and some unscrupulous cops either demand “freebies” from them for not arresting them, or demand the “freebies” and arrest them anyway. Once they’re convicted, they often serve longer sentences than the pimps or the “johns” (their customers), a quirk in the law Atkins wants to see changed.
And even women who make it out of “the life” and back home face more troubles from both their parents and their peers, Atkins explained. “You try to go back to your family and your school, and people will call you ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ at both home and school,” she said.
Ironically, Atkins cited National City as a local example of how victims of commercial sex abuse of children should be treated. “We went in and did meetings with police officers to train them,” she said. “We did ride-alongs with the police. They would look for the johns or the pimps, and we would reach out to the girls.” Another aspect of the program in National City was training local business owners to spot victims and encourage both business owners and residents to report hot-spots of sex trafficking.
According to the San Diego Youth Services Web site, STARS is “a program designed for teen girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who have experienced sexual exploitation and prostitution. The goal is to empower young women to escape sexual exploitation by developing their inner strengths, building a sense of community and supporting their reintegration into mainstream society.” Among the services offered are individual and groupo counseling, case management, community referrals (including schools, health care, job placement and housing), recreational activities, child care for teen mothers, and a “graduation ceremony and certificate of completion” to give the women who complete the 12-week program a tangible sign of achievement.
The activists in CFAC asked Atkins what they can do to help the girls in STARS, and in particular what items they need donated. The answers were surprising. “They really want to make some T-shirts and sell them to keep the survivors’ group going,” Atkins said. Other things STARS members have asked for are help in making professional-quality audio recordings so they can get their stories out, art supplies so they can make “vision boards” expressing their feelings and hope for lives outside “the life,” and one predictable item: independent living skills.
“I measure success in small ways,” Atkins said. “You show up to group, you use less, you graduate from high school, you get into college, you haven’t talked to your pimp in the last week, month or year. Some women get out of ‘the life’ and some women are still in it but manage it more safely: they insist on condoms and don’t go out high.”Questions from the audience at CFAC ranged from whether it would be possible to reach out to vulnerable people before they’re approached by pimps to teach them to avoid the lures — maybe, Atkins said, but there’s no way to find out through her program because there’s no funding available for prevention — to whether legalizing sex work would help reduce the risks. No, said Atkins; the people who want to legalize it usually assume it’s a career choice like any other, and at least in her experience it isn’t because there’s nothing voluntary about it. “All the people I have encountered have been through traumas, and sex work was the result,” she explained.