There’s a debate in San Diego about the possible distinctions and definitions of sex-trafficked women and sex workers. As someone who has had “boots on the ground,” working with those who have been sex-trafficked, I’d like to respond to I. India Thusi’s op-ed, What Prosecutors Get Wrong About Sex Trafficking.
I have been doing this work for nine years at GenerateHope, a recovery program for sex-trafficked women in San Diego that provides housing, education, psychotherapy and adjunct therapies as a way out of the sex trade for those who want it.
Never in that time have I seen in my work, or in the work of my San Diego colleagues, women who, as Thusi said, were “forced into safe houses or rehabilitation programs against their will.” I have not forced anything on anyone, and it is absurd to think that San Diego might use its sparse resources (approximately 35 long-term beds) in that manner. In fact, at GenerateHope we turn away 20 to 30 women a month because there are so many women wanting to leave the sex trade and get started with their new lives.
I understand how interim District Attorney Summer Stephan can see little difference between women working as prostitutes and women who have been sex-trafficked. The majority of the women I have worked with were trafficked as minors; in addition, most of these women were coerced into “the life” by a trafficker or a pimp. Therefore, they are all, one way or another, meeting the criteria for having been trafficked.
As a survivor and provider, I can say very few people come into the sex trade without an outside force sending them down that path. That is, childhood sexual abuse, pimping, pandering or some vulnerability that was taken advantage of. Perhaps it is the population I work with, but I have not met anyone who was in the sex trade because they just decided one day that it might be a good idea to sell their body and give their money to another person. I don’t see this as a paternalistic label thrust upon survivors as if they have no choice.
Thusi also writes that the criminal justice system is “locking people up, asking for more penalties and prosecuting behind a closed curtain.” But that’s not what I see from my role as the co-chair for the Victim Services Subcommittee of the San Diego Regional Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council. It is my goal and the goal of the people around me to work together toward healing and supporting survivors, not to penalize them. Instead of sex workers or sex trafficking victims having to fear the threat of prosecution, I see a community working hard to help survivors who desire a change to obtain just that. I see this as empowering women and their choices.
Finally, Thusi has taken issue with a study published by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University and the numbers cited from that study. The researchers found that the average age of entry into prostitution was 16 years of age. That puts them into the category of sexually exploited children for commerce, no matter how you define them.
Call them what you will, but I see thousands of women per year in San Diego who have been taken advantage of by traffickers and pimps. They have been told that they will never be anything but “whores,” beaten and abused and treated in ways most of us couldn’t even imagine. I see women who never wanted to be in the sex trade and who desperately want out. I see a group of women with dreams and goals who are bright and worthy of the support they need to reach their dreams and goals. I see a group of women who I am honored to work with as they move on with their futures free from the trauma of the sex trade.
Susan Munsey is founder and clinical director of GenerateHope, a San Diego-based recovery program for sex-trafficked women.