Operation Cross Country, an FBI sweep of sex traffickers days ago, led to dozens of arrest nationwide, and recovered two children and three pimps in Sacramento. This is the ninth year of the operation. And each year, it keeps getting bigger.
“Most of the kids that we work with, who are working with a trafficker, believe that they are doing it consensually.” That was just some of the testimony Tuesday at the state capitol during a hearing on how to make better law for the victims.
“We really wanted to have a comprehensive way to deal with the problem of human trafficking,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk of Hayward.
But the room was filled with an odd mix of legislators, policy wonks, sex workers and prostitutes. Many of them were there to argue that the first step to getting a handle on human trafficking is to make prostitution legal.
“I don’t really need this kind of paternalistic attitude applied to me, just because I may or may not have traded sex before I was 18,” testified a sex worker who only identified herself as Jane Doe.
How easy is it to spot a victim in a world where many underage girls who are trapped and trafficked might call their pimp a boyfriend instead, and go back even after arrest out of fear, or love, or a perceived lack of other options?
Meanwhile, many adult sex workers say they won’t be able to protect a child, or show her how to stay safe on the streets, for fear of being arrested as a trafficker.
“A lot of the way that people are identified as sex trafficking victims, is they are arrested for prostitution. So in those prostitution sweep operations, you end up arresting a lot of adult, consensual workers,” said Maxine Doogan, who advocates for sex workers.
It makes writing good policy as hard as it is important.
“The trauma and the damage that is done is unbelievable. These girls have nightmares every night,” said Phil Ludwig, a former San Diego police officer who now runs a home for girls recovering from being trafficked.
It’s those cases the state Assembly is studying, trying to figure out how to prevent them.
“We also learned that sex work can be voluntary, sex work can be trafficking, and we have to distinguish between the two if we are going to help the victims,” Quirk said.