Billboards dot the landscape on Oakland’s International Blvd. Many display slogans like: “When I was in the life, I thought I was alone,” or “Teens sold for sex aren’t prostitutes. They’re rape victims.”
Signs like this are all around Oakland. They’re part of a campaign to end youth sex trafficking. You hear a lot about it from Oakland politicians and in news reports.
Her strategy involves public awareness campaigns, police training, hotlines, and prosecution. Supporters say it’s the attention the issue deserves. Critics call it “the rescue industry.”
“There are ebbs and flows in policing activity related to sex work,” says Alex Lutnick, with the policy research firm RTI International. Lutnick is the author of a forthcoming book on trafficking.
“I think what’s unique about this current moment is, because of the conflation of trafficking with sex work, there are new ways of justifying increased surveillance of sex work that’s happening,” Lutnick says. “People feel like, because this is in the guise of human trafficking it’s okay.”
Who's exploited, and who's making a choice?
The most black-and-white kind of sex-trafficking case is a minor that’s been kidnapped, brought across state lines, and enslaved. More common, according to Lutnick, is the story of a minor who’s run away, been abandoned, or pushed by a family member into the sex trade. So, she says, it’s not easy to tell in most cases who’s being coerced and who’s out there because home is worse, or having no money is worse.
“There’s severe collateral consequences,” says Lutnick. “The people that do get policed may not be the ones that we are actually wanting to target.”
Police records in Oakland over the past year show a surge in prostitution reports. But they don’t distinguish between people buying and selling sex. District Attorney Nancy O’Malley says the increase is because the city is cracking down on demand – and on people exploiting young women.
“I know in our community there's not an uptick of police involvement looking for and rounding up people that are involved in prostitution,” says O’Malley.
The data also doesn’t distinguish between trafficking and consensual prostitution. And because it’s not broken down, it’s hard to know who’s right. O’Malley could be right that that increase is all due to combatting trafficking. It could also just reflect a growing number of prostitutes on the street, rather than increased policing.
One thing everyone agrees on is we need better data. RTI’s Alex Lutnick says California’s major anti-trafficking legislation, Prop 35, uses data from a study that’s been disputed. The study says the number of people that are trafficked for sex in the U.S. annually is 300,000.
“That 300,000 number – there was just a piece in the Washington Post for it. Every year, there seems to be some articles in mainstream media that cover it. [It] was based on flawed calculations and it was saying that that’s the number of people that are at risk, which is very different from the number of people who are actually involved,” Lutnick explains.
Prop 35 also ratcheted up the fines and prison sentences for people convicted of trafficking. Lutnick thinks it was a missed opportunity.
“Nothing in Prop 35 decriminalizes young people’s involvement in trading sex,” Lutnick says.
How to help vulnerable teens?
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley was a proponent of Prop 35. She also wrote a law that allows local law enforcement to divert young people from juvenile hall when they’re busted for prostitution. After a minor is arrested, the charges get expunged.
But Lutnick says, “there are expectations. So you have to attend so many programs spread over a couple of different agencies. You have to check in with your probation officer.”
Sometimes there’s psychological counseling.
“There are these stipulations and if you don’t meet those, the criminal proceedings can be reinstated,” Lutnick says.
District Attorney O’Malley says that threat is necessary because “there's nothing that is going to stop a youth from leaving. There's nothing that’s going to stop a youth from running away. Some of them have run 25 times before they decide, I don't want to do this.”
O’Malley says getting youth into the courts is a better alternative to that cycle. But Lutnick says money spent on prosecution and policing would be better invested in meeting young people’s basic needs.
“By saying you have to mandate somebody to services, you’re saying there’s something wrong with them that needs to be fixed in order for this issue to go away,” says Lutnick. “As opposed to what’s happening structurally, within the larger social environment, that young people are in these situations.”
Things like no access to jobs or housing, or the unsafe home situations that cause them to run.
Law enforcement can’t solve those problems. But there’s a murkiness here, where trafficking blurs into into sex work, and sex work blurs into something that looks like a romantic relationship, or just a job.
It makes it hard to tell when someone’s being exploited. And hard to write laws that protect someone who’s not.