Kristine Marie Cummins

San Francisco Bay Area Child Sex Slavery: Complex But Grassroots Support To End It

In 2012, 150 years after the American Civil War, slavery still exists and shockingly is one of the fastest growing enterprises in the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service in 2005, “there were between 14,500 and 17,500 victims trafficked into the United States each year” (Siskin 22). Because the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries was an American economic institution, there was a more accurate record on the amount of enslaved Africans. However, since child sex trafficking today is run by illicit underground crime organizations camouflaged by massage parlors, nail salons, acupuncture clinics and private residences, statistics are unreliable. Still, it is noteworthy that in 2009 the U.S. Department of Justice reported that out of 1,229 human trafficking cases nationally, 83% were alleged sex trafficking cases from January 2007 through September 2008 (24). Further narrowing it down, the San Francisco Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids (CEEK) reported to the Board of Supervisors in 2002, “the city was home to 3,000 child prostitutes and that, in a survey of 7,000 local high school-age girls, 20 percent admitted to having traded sex for food, shelter or clothing” (Herel, SF Chronicle). The fact this criminal activity is growing within our country supports the assumption that there is a demand for it, which leads one to conclude there is a great illness infecting our own backyard. The highly complex nature of child sex trafficking requires an enormous army of professionals and funding to combat.

Awareness in the San Francisco Bay Area has increased about child sex slavery mainly over the past ten years with high-profile busts such as “Operation Gilded Cage” in 2005; yet there is still much information to be gathered and strategies to be developed to combat this problem, as well as infrastructures solidified between local law enforcement agencies and the health department. Most of all, a great deal of funding is needed to tackle the problem successfully. Post-rescue services are on standby in the Bay Area but more support is needed such as an increase in specialized shelters for children, education, literacy and vocational training, mental health support and drug rehabilitation, if applicable. The emotional scarring of sexual abuse is not easily recoverable; it delves deep into the psyche and can cause severe mental health issues, such as dissociative disorder. This diagnosis requires specialized treatment that is ongoing and costly. Author Ambika Kandasamy states, “Without long-term support, human trafficking survivors are at risk of re-exploitation”. It is imperative that a solid plan be developed to support the victims of trafficking so that an unhealthy cycle does not continue within the Bay Area community.

San Francisco is one of the largest hubs for human trafficking in the United States. Its convenient international airports and seaports, swelling immigrant population and ethnic diversity make it a transit point for other cities in the US. Other trafficking hubs in the state of California are Los Angeles and San Diego. In his book Modern Slavery, Kevin Bales states, “Many women are lured from their home countries by false promises of legitimate employment in the US, and they are primarily trafficked in three ways: the illegal use of ‘legitimate’ travel documents, imposter passports, and entry without inspection” (67).  Ninety-five percent of children used for sex slavery are female (Farrell et al. 59), and range in age from 11-14. Children are often targeted as they are considered prized virgins, untainted by disease such as AIDS and easier to manipulate by their pimps. They are promised glamorous jobs in America such as hosts and models only to be sequestered away into the basement of a massage parlor – isolated, detained and threatened into performing sex acts with local patrons.

Crime organizations in Southeast Asia, South America and Eastern Europe lure the children from the streets, schools, clubs, playgrounds or anywhere they can be scooped up. The children are unaware that their “salesman” for an abundant and better life in “America the Beautiful” is deceptive until the moment they are coerced into a sex act days later and thousands of miles away. Most of the children are not allowed outside and are crammed into small rooms or studios with as many as six people in one small area. Some children are allowed to travel from apartment to brothel but even those do not try to escape in fear of being beaten or worse, killed. They are told that if they go to the police, they will be jailed for prostitution. Because many of the young people experience corrupt police in their home country, they believe US cops are the same. The children are held in financial bondage as well—forced to pay travel debts to the smugglers much like an indentured servant. The majority of San Francisco’s illicit massage parlors are located in the Tenderloin district and are detectable by windows that are masked with aluminum foil, plastic garbage bags or paint, surveillance cameras and double security doors. There have been cases in Southeast Asia of forced methamphetamine (meth) use for endurance to service over ten patrons per day, leaving them drug-addicted. It would be no surprise if meth is used in San Francisco for the same purpose.

One of the most significant legal changes in handling the sex trafficking problem in San Francisco occurred in 2004 when the city decided that the Department of Public Health would have primary jurisdiction over the massage parlors instead of the police department. Some say this was a bad idea because it took the criminal activity away from the watchful eye of the police. Author Emmeline Sun cites, “If the city reversed the mandate and put massage parlors back under the jurisdiction of the police department, more action could be taken to stop the sex trafficking, with considerably less taxpayer money.” One former San Francisco law enforcement employee who maintains a controversial view, believes that the transition from the Police to the Health Department was not above-board and that there were underlying sinister reasons for the switch relating to money-laundering. Everyone knows the biggest money makers are illegal or bordering illegal and when big money is involved, corruption within governmental bodies has been known to happen, no matter what race is predominantly in charge. There is absolutely no question that these parlors are bringing in money. In 2005, law enforcement confiscated $2 million in cash from 10 massage parlors. The former law enforcement employee has a great idea about what to do with the money when confiscated: instead of the feds seizing it, invest it in local support services for the child victims. Since money has been a recurring theme of what the organizations need, it seems like a simple solution, but bureaucracy gets in the way.

Norma Hotaling of Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE)

Norma Hotaling of Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE)

The history of sex trafficking awareness in San Francisco started mainly in the 90s, but it wasn’t until 2005, when Operation Gilded Cage made its high-profile bust, that public awareness kicked into gear in the form of articles and documentaries. In 1992, Norma Hotaling, a survivor of childhood trafficking and sexual exploitation, founded Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE). Norma was one of the first women in the Bay Area advocating against trafficking. She spoke at conferences, counseling public policy experts and testifying before state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Norma passed away in 2008 but her organization lives on and can be found in the Mission District of San Francisco. In fact, in spring of 2012, representatives from SAGE testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Kamala Harris of Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids (CEEK)

Kamala Harris of Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids (CEEK)

In October 2007, a state task force conducted a detailed study on California’s human trafficking problem and concluded with 46 recommendations to reform criminal law, improve training and coordination among agencies and provide improved victim services. According to an article by Jason Winshell, “The group did not set up mechanisms to monitor progress. The task force disbanded shortly after releasing its report.” Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris who started Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids (CEEK), is reconvening the task force and evaluating the remaining challenges in 2012. The history of handling the sex trafficking issue in the Bay Area has had its ups and downs but with any complex issue, it takes time to sort out.

Despite a shortfall in a solid plan to end slavery and create support services, noteworthy people and organizations have followed in the footsteps of Norma Hotaling and Kamala Harris in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are organizations and people who are engaged in working on the issue from legal to personal, from lobbying for more stringent laws against traffickers to personal support services for child victims. With every yin there’s a yang and even though San Francisco has a crooked undercurrent, there is an array of methods to help combat the issue’s many branches. A range of advocacy organizations have sprung up from shelters catering to child victims to theatrical performance pieces to help educate the public on this complex social problem.

Nola Brantley of Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (MISSSY)

Nola Brantley of Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (MISSSY)

In 2007, the non-profit organization MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth) launched. This unique agency is a counseling and advocacy group based in Oakland, California co-founded by Nola Brantley and Emily Hamman. It provides direct services for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) that includes case management and resources, in addition to training and workshops, mentorship and an employment program. Their important work covers the level of support that is required to help survivors get back on their feet. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan states, “For almost five years, Oakland’s MISSSEY has unwaveringly served commercially sexually exploited children by facilitating their empowerment and inner transformation” (qtd. in Fisher, Examiner.com).

Daphne Phung of California Against Slavery (CAS)

Daphne Phung of California Against Slavery (CAS)

In Fremont, California, Daphne Phung founded California Against Slavery (CAS) in 2009. Her bold mission states, “We want to make human trafficking the riskiest criminal business in California” (Phung). She was outraged that the two traffickers highlighted in MSNBC’s documentary, “Sex Slaves in America” were only sentenced to 7 and 14 years in prison when they enslaved sixteen young women. Phung further explains, “When you do the math, the sentence of each trafficker does not even reflect one year per victim.” Within three years of launching her organization, Phung pushed for Prop 35 which Drew and Tucker of the SF Chronicle reported, “will increase maximum prison sentences for traffickers from eight years to life, depending on the circumstances, and raise the maximum fines from $1,000,000 to $1.5 million.” It passed by a landslide in 2012. Prop 35 will also require traffickers to register as sex offenders. Phung who only quit her day job a year ago must feel like she is making tremendous progress. Unfortunately, the proposition just missed the most recent prosecution of Mahendar Singh who prostituted three young women in the Bay Area resulting in only nine years in federal prison.

Jaida Im of Freedom House

Jaida Im of Freedom House

In 2010, Jaida Im launched Freedom House with a mission to bring hope and healing to survivors of human-trafficking by providing a safe home and long-term aftercare. She opened her first safe-house named “The Monarch” for adult female survivors and is preparing to open a second safe-house in late 2013 for minors—both in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her organization works closely with law enforcement and community partners. Freedom House sets a great example for practical grassroots teamwork; in order to combat human trafficking with limited resources, organizations must work in partnership with other agencies and enlist the support of the community.

Eve Ensler wrote monologue, "Creature", relating to sex, sexual abuse, and their bodies.

Eve Ensler wrote monologue, “Creature”, relating to sex trafficking

Even performance art has taken up this cause. Eve Ensler, an American playwright, performer, feminist and activist most well known for “The Vagina Monologues”—the performance monologue with women who tell stories relating to sex, sexual abuse, and their bodies––wrote “Creature,” a set of monologues which was performed by four women and premiered in the summer of 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Robert Hurwitt reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Molly Carden delivers a fiercely distilled indictment of sex trafficking, as a child raped and prostituted.” There’s something to be said for “entertainment”—it can hit to the core of you and potentially stir you into action, leading to at least one more volunteer for a local organization.

Nonprofits need to not only measure their success in the community but also make sure their organization fiscally survives to be able to roll out their community work. Since most of these people who are working to end slavery are running nonprofits, it is imperative that fairly accurate data is collected for grant writing to cover nonprofit overhead. Clearly there needs to be better methods among city and state agencies to collect solid data on child sex trafficking. By being able to collect solid data, these organizations can potentially gain the fiscal support they need to carry out their good work in the community. Only then will it be possible to make progress towards ending child sex slavery.

Norma’s SAGE, Kamala’s CEEK, Nola’s MISSSEY, Daphne’s CAS, Jaida’s Freedom House and Eve’s monologues each have their own unique contribution to help combat child sex slavery and to support the survivors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of these organizations, if not all, depend on each other to fulfil the complex package of support required to turn survivors’ lives around. Yet still more work needs to get done. The recurring theme for improvement is roll out the recommendations, gather the statistics and follow up. While a consistent plan takes shape, it is important to acknowledge and support the achievements and contributions of the organizations who have already made a big difference, just in the last few years. Their combined efforts has had, and will continue to have a lasting impact on survivor’s lives.


Works Cited

Bales, Kevin, Zoe Trodd, Alex Kent Williamson. Modern Slavery. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2011. Print.

Drew, Joseph and Jill Tucker. “Initiative to increase sex – trafficking fines passes by landslide.” San Francisco Chronicle 7 Nov. 2012, 5star-2dot ed.: A14. Print

Egelko, Bob. “9 years in prison for man involved in teen sex – trafficking.” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 Apr. 2012, 5star ed.: C3. Print

Farrell, Amy, Jack McDevitt, Rebecca Pfeffer, Stephanie Fahy, Colleen Owns, Meredick Dank, and William Adams. “Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases.” U.S. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. June 2012. Unpublished report 238795. Print

Fisher, Mark. “MISSSEY Gala goes from inspiring change to loving like family” Examiner.com. Clarity Digital Group LLC, 20 May 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Freedom House. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Herel, Suzanne. “Groups to offer shelter for child prostitutes to get off street / Report says 3,000 girls in city are selling their bodies for sex — 100 minors arrested yearly” SFGate.com. San Francisco Chronicle. 27 Apr. 2004. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

“History”. Standing Against Global Exploitation. The SAGE Project. Web 27 Nov. 2012.

Hurwitt, Robert. “Playwright preaches empowerment to girls with evangelist zeal.” San Francisco Chronicle 25 June 2012, Advance1 ed.: E1. Print

Kandasamy, Ambika. “Without long-term support, human trafficking survivors at risk of re-exploitation.” SFpublicpress.org. San Francisco Public Press. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Koh, Barbara. “SF Fights a Shadowy Industry.” About.com Guide. Human Trafficking Hub, n.d. Web.

“Part IV: San Francisco is Hub for Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation.” Humantrafficking.org. Academy for Educational Development, 6 Nov. 2006. Web

Phung, Daphne. “Origins of Californians Against Slavery.” Californiaagainstslavery.org, California Against Slavery. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

MISSSEY Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, MISSSEY Inc., Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Siskin, Alison, and Liana Sun Wyler. “Trafficking in Persons: U.S. Policy and Issues for Congress.” U.S. Congressional Research Service. 23 Dec. 2010. Report 7-5700. Print

Sun, Emmeline. “End Sex Trafficking in San Francisco (Petition)” Forcechangecom. ForceChange, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

U.S. Department of Justice. “Biennial Comprehensive Research and Statistical Review and Analysis of Severe Forms of Trafficking, Sex Trafficking and Unlawful Commercial Sex Acts in the United States.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Institute of Justice. May 2009. Print

Winshell, Jason. “Bay Area agencies improvise tactics to battle trafficking.” SFpublicpress.org.

Special Thanks
Professor M. Harrison
J. Cummins

Featured Image: That was a photo I took at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas… I loved the juxtaposition of the concrete stairwell and the lady’s sexy heels!

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