Modern Day Slavery in America: Sex Trafficking in Oakland Is Big Business

7 years ago

Oakland Local, a web site run by BlogHer Contributing Editor Susan Mernit, is running an original investigative series on youth sex trafficking in the Bay area. This story is reposted from that series at Oakland Local.

Sex Worker's Day - Protest Rally

It's nearly midnight on a Thursday and teen-age girls are on every corner of International Boulevard in the dozen blocks stretching south from 41st Street. Many are dressed up. But this is not prom night or a concert letting out.

Some have bruises on their bodies; some are pregnant. Not far from any one of them is a sex trafficker who stands to make $500 a night from each girl he or she controls. Recruited with promises of love, or sometimes simply kidnapped, the girls are then put out on the streets.

These girls are commodities in a slave trade that is rampant in Oakland and similar cities across America, law enforcement and social workers say -- one that's growing with the recession. It's a trade in which adolescents peddle their flesh to make money for pimps in exchange for food, shelter and affection. Some are held against their will and continue the work to avoid getting beat up or tortured.

"They have quotas. If they don't come back with (the) quota, they stay out or get beaten," said investigator Jim Saleda, of the Oakland Police Department's Child Exploitation Unit, as he drove along International one night in an effort to rescue some girls and arrest pimps.

"Typically it's about $500," he said shaking his head. "Ten tricks," he said. Ten encounters with strangers.

"This Is Modern Day Slavery"

Trafficking children for commercial sex has become big business in Oakland and across America, rivaling only the weapons and narcotics trades in size, according to the U.S. State Department. A pimp who controls four girls -- which is not unusual -- can bring in close to $2,000 a night or an average take of $632,000 a year, according to a study out of Washington, DC, by the Polaris Project. Such easy money is making this the fastest growing criminal industry in America.

"When people think of human trafficking they think of shipping containers and Asia. But it's happening right here in our backyard with girls from Oakland and the East Bay," said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Eshraghi Bock, who created and heads the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit at the DA's office.

"This is modern day slavery," she said. "We think we ended slavery in this country 150 years ago. Well it's all over the streets of America. And it's turning into a crisis."

As the Great Recession continues, more kids are landing on the streets, leaving, or being pushed out from, families in financial stress or group homes that closed during the recession. Once on the street, they are vulnerable to being recruited into prostitution. In fact, most runaways will be approached by a sex trafficker within 48 hours, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Some youth start trading sex for food or a couch to sleep on, and then find they’re ordered to turn tricks to please the person providing them sustenance. Some are lured by seeming friendship by a pimp posing as a boyfriend. Still others are brought into this business violently: raped or kidnapped and forced to turn tricks under threat of gunpoint or physical harm. Being trafficked means they must hand over the money they make turning tricks to receive the shelter, food or clothing that a person too young to get a job cannot procure for themselves.

"It's a way to survive," said one girl who admitted she was working the streets on San Pablo Avenue one Saturday night. It wasn't her idea to make money this way: she got into commercial sex "through someone I thought was my boyfriend" but turned out to be a pimp, she said. Then she continued, not knowing what else to do. "It's been about a year" she started to say -- before walking off to meet a blue sedan that had slowed down in front of her, turned the corner, and stopped.

Youth Sex Trafficking Statistics

Traffickers prey upon vulnerable kids who run away from home or who look like they need some attention. The National Runaway Switchboard reports that the number of calls to its crisis line from homeless kids doubled in 2009 to 1,470 calls from 739 calls in 2008, while the number of calls from "throwaway kids," those who are kicked out of their homes, rose 22%.

The problem is even bigger in Oakland -- where poverty, unemployment and underfunded schools have left hundreds of young people struggling economically. According to Covenant House (which runs youth homeless shelters in Oakland and Los Angeles), one in four Oakland youth live in poverty. Meanwhile, 14% of Oakland youth aged 16 to 19 are neither enrolled in school nor possess a high school diploma. Also, 25% of locals aged 18 to 24 have neither a job nor a high school diploma.

"There are significantly more girls getting into this," said Lt. Kevin Wiley, head of the Oakland Police Department's vice and child exploitation unit, which he created eight years ago when he noticed this gut-wrenching business take hold of Oakland streets.

Moreover, "It's more violent."

"He Told Me He Would Kill Me"

Fear of her pimp is what one slender girl described when questioned by police one February night after she was detained for solicitation. Investigators and reporters listened from an adjoining room.

"He told me he would kill me if I didn't go," she said of how she first ended up on the street. The girl said she had run away from home three states away because of constant fighting and landed in Oakland. Within days she was befriended by a slightly older man. But the man soon raped her and locked her in a hotel room. After two days he brought her to "the track," as International Boulevard is known, and told her to offer sex to johns passing by.

"I didn't know what I was doing," she said -- adding that she tried to leave, but he followed her.

Because she is a juvenile, her name is not being published.

Selling Teens Instead of Dope

On an average night in Oakland, about 100 youth are trafficked for commercial sex, according to the Oakland Police Department. Nationwide, 300,000 to 400,000 kids are trafficked on the streets or traded over the Internet each year, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

"Drug dealers are leaving selling dope, and selling children instead," because of the high profits and lower risk, said Deputy District Attorney Bock.

"What's the overhead in trafficking compared to dealing drugs? A McDonald's Happy Meal and a $39 hotel room you're going to use many times? And it is less risky," she said, anger rising in her voice. "Sadly there is no more lucrative crime than selling children for sex," she laments. One trick brings in $40 or $50. Make a kid do ten tricks a night and that earns $500.

Seasoned criminals from the drug trade have switched industries, Lt. Wiley says.

"In the past two years the traditional turf wars over drug deals have moved over to this," Wiley said. He said evidence exists in the patterns of who stands on what corners and in tattoos some girls have on their bodies with initials of the pimp they belong to, similar to how cattle get marked before sale.

by Barbara Grady, Oakland Local

Oakland Local's investigation into youth sex trafficking in Oakland was made possible by a generous grant from the G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism.

We also would like to thank Robert Rosenthal and California Watch for their support -- as well as our reporters Barbara Grady and Sarah Terry-Cobo, and photographer Alison Yin -- for their amazing work.

Support more independent quality reporting like this! Please donate to Oakland Local on We are seeking additional support for continued coverage.

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