Reduce sex trafficking by addressing demand

Pub date March 25, 2014


By Ellyn Bell and Minouche Kandel


Many people know that the Bay Area is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. What most people do not know is that the FBI ranks the Bay Area as one of the worst 13 areas in the country for child sex trafficking.

Many of these children have been abused or neglected, and the majority have involvement with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Lesbian, gay, and transgender youth are more likely to have engaged in commercial sexual activity, in part due to homophobic home lives that pushed them onto the street.

Some youth may not have a pimp, and engage in “survival sex” to meet their basic needs. Sex work can be a dangerous occupation, often resulting in serious trauma. This is particularly true for persons who enter into sex work before the age of 18.

Both federal and state law specifically define youth involved in commercial sex work as victims of human trafficking, even if no force or coercion is present. The “Two views of sex work” described in the Feb. 18 article in the Bay Guardian oversimplifies the issue.

San Francisco is undergoing a systemic change in our response to commercially, sexually exploited youth, as we recognize that they have experienced abuse, homelessness, and/or homophobia, and should not be treated as criminals.

For the past year, through the Mayor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, city departments, and nonprofit organizations that work with trafficking survivors of all ages have been meeting to develop policies and better coordinate the response to human trafficking in San Francisco, with a particular focus on child sex trafficking. It is a holistic effort, staffed by the Department on the Status of Women, with participation from law enforcement, public health, child welfare, the school district, and community-based organizations.

Intervening with these youth can be challenging. They may not recognize themselves as “victims,” or identify as exploited. The person exploiting them may combine affection with tactics of power and control, which can confuse a youth into perceiving their exploiter as the only person who cares about them. Yet everyone agrees we need to find other options for minors who engage in commercial sexual activity, whether by “choice” or by being trafficked by an exploiter.

The conversation becomes more complicated when it implicates adults who have entered into the sex industry. These adults may have been sexually abused minors or trafficked youth, but simply by being over the age of 18, they are considered willing sex workers. This may be true for some sex workers, and not true for others.

The SAGE Project, which has a 20-year history as a peer-led, peer model program, has a unique perspective from working with the continuum of issues that affect youth and adults whose lives have intertwined with the sex industry. SAGE does not believe “that all sex work abuses women” as stated in the Bay Guardian’s Feb. 18 article. In fact, SAGE works with all people to define for themselves their needs and choices, and utilizes a harm reduction philosophy throughout its programs.

Intervening with trafficking survivors is not enough. We cannot ignore the role of demand in creating a market for human trafficking. Without demand for sex work, there would not be a sex industry that creates a venue for those who exploit people for profit. However, we do need to be mindful about efforts to curb demand that inadvertently put sex workers at risk of more harm.

The SAGE Project and the Department on the Status of Women welcome the participation of sex worker rights groups in anti-trafficking and demand efforts. Sex worker voices are needed to give important input on the risks posed by certain strategies. We can only effectively address the complexities of human trafficking if we engage all the communities affected.  

Minouche Kandel, Director of Women’s Policy San Francisco Department on the Status of Women; Ellyn Bell, Executive Director, the SAGE Project, (Standing Against Global Exploitation)