He was only fourteen years old when it began. A highly intelligent, curious boy from a traditional family, he felt isolated and confused. One evening after his father had warned him about the dangers of surfing the internet he opened a webpage described as “men seeking men” and began to browse. Almost immediately he received a message from a 32-year-old man from Federal Way asking to meet him. That same evening the 32-year-old adult picked the boy up outside his home and drove him to a nearby park. The man gave the boy drugs and then had sex with him.
After a few weeks the boy began making regular visits to the man’s home in Federal Way. This man made him feel loved and accepted. Of course drugs and sex played a significant role in their relationship. Then one night it all changed. That night the man invited several of his “friends” to his home. The boy was given drugs and then each man took his turn. This betrayal of trust led to a cycle of sex exploitation and sex for money both on the streets of Seattle and across state lines, in Colorado and Utah. The boy became a man and is now HIV positive. He has broken away from the sex trade and works as a training and outreach coordinator in Seattle to help other victims of sex trafficking.
This is a true story. The initial rape and exploitation of this young boy did not take place on the grimy, urban streets of Seattle. It happened at Island Lake Park in Silverdale. If it can happen in rural Kitsap County, it can happen anywhere. And it does.
How do we as a society combat this insidious practice and protect the most vulnerable, our children, from sexual predation? How do we recognize the victims of sex trafficking in our midst? How do we help them escape the cycle of exploitation? What services do they need? How do we educate the public about sex trafficking in their communities? These were the main questions raised at the November 2018 meeting of the Kitsap County Human Trafficking Task Force. One of the featured presenters at the meeting was Benjamin Gauen, a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. He focuses exclusively on combating crimes related to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. A summary of his presentation “uprooting the commercial sex industry,” providing a model for “carrying out a comprehensive strategy to reduce demand and facilitate exit from prostitution” provides the substance of this article.
Most economic enterprises are driven by the principles of supply and demand. Sex trafficking as a commercial enterprise operates according to these same principles. Prostitutes represent the supply, pimps the distribution, and buyers the demand. Attorney Gauen argues that rather than look at each individual component in the sex trade cycle, we should be examining how all the components are interrelated. Particular attention needs to be focused on the buyers because they drive the demand, without which there would be no supply and/or distribution. Demand drives exploitation.
What do we know about the victims of sex trafficking? (Seattle Statistics). Most of them enter prostitution between the ages of twelve and fifteen. 62% of them are homeless or in foster care. 85% of them were sexually abused as children. 62% have been raped and 73% have been physically assaulted. It should come as no surprise then that 68% of sex trafficking disproportionately affects minorities. In Seattle 52% of victims are African American, a group that represents less than 7% of the population of King County.
As Mr. Gauen stated in his presentation,” sex buying is the practice of inequality and gender-based violence”, and that buyers are “directly or indirectly responsible for all the harm done to prostitutes.”
Who are the buyers? The buyers come from all walks of life. 54% are married. The majority are white males, 70-80%. They also have issues like depression, anxiety, and trauma. Many are heavy users of pornography, have little empathy and are more likely to have committed sexual violence in the past. Most of the buyers that have been arrested have purchased sex more than once, some up to a thousand times. Only 5% have a deviant diagnosis, many are not pedophiles, they just don’t care about age. 67% of them want to stop.
What is the scope of exploitation? (Seattle Statistics) There are 100+ websites where commercial sex is available, with 34,000 advertisements run every month. In 2014, 6800 buyers solicited sex on one site in a 24- hour period. Detectives running fake advertisements for sex receive 200-250 responses within 2 hours. Advertising a fake massage parlor resulted in 204 arrests over 10 days. The demand is so great that the law enforcement community cannot possibly arrest or prosecute its way out of the situation.
How do we as a society solve this enormous problem? Attorney Gauen suggests a comprehensive strategy, bringing together survivors of prostitution, community service organizations and local prosecuting authorities, to help victims break free from the sex trade and to deter buyers from patronizing the industry. One of the ways Seattle law enforcement is helping victims is by not charging them with prostitution, and by vacating previous convictions of prostitution. It is very difficult to find regular employment with prostitution charges on record.
What do victims need upon their exit from the sex trade? Law enforcement has recognized that it is not beneficial to rescue someone from prostitution and then return them to the streets (this was normal practice in the past). Instead it is vital that once rescued, these young people have a safe harbor/shelter to go to where they may live and receive counseling and other services. It is also imperative to help them find gainful employment. Community Service organizations in Kitsap County are currently raising funds to build a 24- hour drop-in shelter for sex trafficking victims. The county also plans to introduce a pilot program to the region’s high schools to educate students about the dangers of the sex industry, and to train them to recognize peers already involved in the sex trade or in danger of becoming so.
Ultimately though, the only way to reduce sex trafficking is to present a vigorous deterrent to would-be Buyers. This deterrent can take many different forms including prison terms, fines, undercover operations, working with employers, mandatory education, and online deterrents.
In Seattle Buyers are fined a $5,000 fee for buying sex from minors. $330,000 was collected in just four years. Undercover sting operations have been particularly successful in uncovering and prosecuting Buyer activity. The most recent notable sting operation in Seattle involved review boards. Review boards provide an online platform for customers to rate prostitutes according to categories like cost, location, sexual positions and activities etc. What is particularly disturbing about this case is that many of the customers both using and running these review boards were executives from major corporations. This case demonstrates the need to reach out to employers and help them recognize and change the behavior of their employees. A recent study showed that the most common time of day that customers respond to sex ads is at 2pm. In other words they are shopping for sex before going home and arranging dates while STILL AT WORK. Human Resources personnel and company attorneys can provide online training and assessments to help deter their employees from engaging in such practices. Personnel in large hotel/motel companies have already been trained to recognize sex trafficking activity. Defendants in Seattle are required to attend a ten week stop exploitation program which gets behind the root causes of their behavior and the background of exploited people.
Online deterrents can be very effective. For example, when would-be customers access a certain Bremerton escort review site the first thing they encounter are pop-ups explaining how to stop exploiting others. There are also chatboxes where memes appear threatening jail time and providing links to programs designed to stop sexual predation. Preventative ads can be placed on Facebook, Google etc. to target individuals using these sites to solicit sex. The media in general can be a very important partner in the fight against trafficking by reporting what is being done to fight it, and by educating the public on the harm that sex trafficking does to its victims.
Simply put sex trafficking destroys lives. It is our duty as citizens to fight this evil in our communities. There are many ways to do this: volunteer to serve on local human trafficking task forces, participate in education programs in schools, raise funds to help support local community resources provide counseling and services etc. The Silverdale-Seabeck Republican Women recently donated $1,000 to Coffee Oasis to support the effort to build a 24-hour drop-in shelter in Kitsap County. Please join this very important fight!
Please go to the following websites/organizations for more information:
Seattle Against Slavery