California, Demand Side, Domestic Human Trafficking, Escort Directory, Exploitation, Massage Parlors, MyRedBook.com, Proposition 35, Prostitution, Sex Slaves, Sex Trafficking, Sexual Exploitation, Solicitation, The Massage Industry, The Sex Trade, Wiretapping, Women and Children, Zoning
Inspectors with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, working in tandem with the SFPD’s Special Victims Unit and SFFD building inspectors, conducted unannounced inspections of a select group of massage parlors in San Francisco looking for violations, sexual misconduct and evidence of human trafficking.
California’s booming economy, international population and liberal politics are what has made it one of the nation’s top spots for human trafficking. But in 2014, state leaders got serious about standing up to the problem.
Human trafficking is an industry that earns about $32 billion worldwide every year, and the products are the world’s most vulnerable human beings — overwhelmingly women and children. The risks may be high for trafficking — under the statutes of Proposition 35, human traffickers who get caught can be put in prison for 15 years to a life sentence — but so are the profits. A trafficker who has four girls turning 10 tricks a night, for example, can earn $730,000 a year, tax-free. For many traffickers, the chance to make that kind of money is irresistible.
In 2008, the Legislature passed a law that created a state-sponsored regulatory body for massage parlor licensing and restricted local governments from using zoning to weed out parlors that were offering a little something else with that massage.
The change was designed to professionalize the massage industry, but it was disastrous. Parlors mushroomed all over the state and local governments had no tools to stop them. Many of the workers inside the parlors that offer more than massage were human trafficking victims, and local health departments were overwhelmed by the number of violations that took place within their communities.
One of the biggest statewide changes is AB1147. AB1147 passed the Legislature this summer and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It returns regulatory zoning power to local governments, who have a better idea of how many of these establishments are appropriate for their communities.
Other big changes include SB955, which allows the courts to authorize wiretapping for the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking; SB1165, which allows California public schools to offer prevention education against sex trafficking; and AB1585, which will allow those convicted of prostitution or solicitation offenses to clear their records if they can prove that they were victims of human trafficking.
Another huge shakeup this year happened when the FBI seized and shut down MyRedBook.com. This notorious website, a long-standing online escort directory based in San Francisco, had been operating with impunity for years. Two people suspected of running the website were arrested and charged with money laundering, racketeering, and other violations of state and federal law.
The bust represents a major shift in the way that officials are looking at human trafficking. Shutting down MyRedBook.com ensures that other websites will have to assume some responsibility for the activity that happens as a result of their online business.
That’s a lot of positive change for one year. But much remains to be done.
“An issue I think we should be looking at in 2015 is solicitation of commercial sex activity,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. “There’s no difference in the current penal code between an adult who’s soliciting sex from an adult sex worker and one who’s trolling the streets for a 12-year-old child. And we can’t deal properly with the demand side of this until we know exactly who’s buying, how and why.”
Those are critical distinctions to make, and they have to be accomplished through further legislation, which won’t be easy. Thanks to a laissez-faire culture that dates back to the Gold Rush, California has historically been reluctant to aggressively pursue people who purchase sex. But as the last year has shown, people who purchase sex are often buying into a desperate chain of exploitation. Stopping people from buying sex from women and children who have been trafficked isn’t about individual punishment — it’s about collective responsibility.
Sources: The San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Short