Pimps and traffickers get a free pass under new California law protecting “sex work”
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As fog settled over San Francisco on an early-summer Saturday night, a woman lingered outside a convenience store on the corner of Capp Street and 19th Street. She wore a short blond bob, platform shoes, a metallic gold minidress, and a long trench coat. She appeared to be in her 20s and was waiting for cars—cars containing men who would pay for sex.
As she waited, three women crossed the street. They offered her a purse filled with toiletries and asked to pray with her. She said she would accept the bag if the storekeeper would hold it until later. One of the women, Valerie Brown, rested her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said a short prayer. Then she slipped her a purple bracelet with her group’s contact information and the words, “You are loved.”
Across the street, a young man leaned against a building, staring down at his phone. Brown said he’s likely the prostitute’s pimp or a hired “watcher.” The women are always being watched, Brown added: “That’s why we have to move fast.”
Brown, 64, works with Love Never Fails, an anti-trafficking group based in nearby Hayward. She has three decades of experience doing outreach to prostitutes on San Francisco and Oakland streets. But even she is shocked by some of the things she’s seen recently. Late last year, on a winter night in Oakland, Brown spotted the youngest girl she had ever seen being sold on the streets. Brown couldn’t be sure, but she looked as young as 12. She was wearing only a neon pink swimsuit.
Vanessa Russell founded Love Never Fails in 2011. The group offers housing, training, and other exit resources for domestic trafficking victims. Russell told me there are more girls than ever before being trafficked on Bay Area streets—and less that police can do about it. She and Brown worry it’s only going to get worse.
Prostitution and human trafficking are illegal in California. But it was hard to tell earlier this year on Capp Street. In January, residents and business owners described a sanctioned red light district, with barely clothed women lining the streets, armed pimps, and buyers creating bumper-to-bumper traffic until 3 a.m. Neighbors reported gunshots, fights, and complete lawlessness. They pleaded for city officials to intervene, saying the situation had spiraled in a matter of months.
Similar scenes have unfolded across the state, including in Oakland and Los Angeles. But the chaos started in Sacramento, the state capital. In July 2022, California became the second state in the nation, after New York, to repeal its prostitution loitering law. The new law took effect in January and made it illegal for police to arrest people who loiter with the intent to engage in prostitution. The offense was previously a misdemeanor.
When Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill—named the Safer Streets For All Act—he emphasized it did not legalize prostitution. But pimps quickly posted celebratory messages on social media. Stephany Powell, director of law enforcement training and survivor services for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, saw one message proclaiming, “The streets belong to us now.”
Powell, a former vice sergeant for the Los Angeles Police Department, fought hard against the bill. She and other anti-trafficking advocates argued it would further enable pimps and traffickers while impeding law enforcement and nonprofits from intervening quickly to help victims escape the brutal realities of selling sex on the streets.
Now, what they feared is coming true.
Powell sees the evidence on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. Where she might have seen 30 girls at a time on the street last year, now it’s up to 60. “Just two weeks ago, we ran out of support bags in 20 minutes … we’ve given out as many as 60 in an hour,” said Powell, who works with the Los Angeles–based anti-trafficking group Journey Out.
In the Bay Area, Vanessa Russell said the number of women and girls selling sex on the streets has tripled.
As the nation’s most populous state inches toward legalizing prostitution, it’s leading to an increasingly dangerous situation for women and children being trafficked.
“We get pushed into these things little by little, until it’s seen as no big deal,” Powell said. “The end goal is decriminalization. The problem is, it is being shown as this sense of empowerment for women.”
VIC LACEY IS A PRIVATE investigator for Special Operations Finding Kids, a nonprofit that locates and helps missing and exploited children in the Bay Area.
On a recent Friday, I met Lacey for lunch at a Vietnamese café outside Oakland. He’s tanned with wavy, dark brown hair, wearing slacks and a dark-colored Hawaiian shirt. Despite his relaxed attire, he seems a little on edge and requests a spot where he can see the café’s front door. After finishing most of his beef sandwich and fries, Lacey pulls out his laptop and spins an empty Diet Coke can while scrolling through recent undercover videos and photos of prostitution in the Bay Area.
Scantily clad women, and in some cases what appear to be underage girls, line Oakland streets. “Here’s one I stopped and talked to,” Lacey says, pointing to a photo on his screen. The girl has long, dirty blond hair, straight and parted down the middle. “You can tell she’s new … maybe 17 or 18 years old.” I ask Lacey how he can tell. Girls who are new have awkward body language—including avoiding any eye contact—and no tattoos, he says. “When these girls get in the business, they get tattoos pretty quickly,” since pimps and gangs use the markings to let others know “she’s my property.”
Lacey has also noticed the pimps have a new boldness. “When we drive by as so-called undercover customers to talk to girls, I see the pimps respond … if you spend more than 30 seconds with that girl, they feel you owe them,” Lacey said. “They’re not afraid to confront you.”
One thing Lacey doesn’t see: police cars stopping to break up the scene. “The pimps will even tell you, ‘The police don’t care about this kind of thing anymore.’”
California’s loitering law is part of a growing movement to change how prostitution is perceived and prosecuted. The postfeminist notion that “sex work is work” posits prostitution as a valid form of employment between consenting adults. Advocates argue some prostitutes choose the occupation, and legalization would improve working and safety conditions for them, including less violence, exploitation, and mistreatment.
Others seek partial decriminalization, or a version of the Equality Model, that shifts the prosecution to pimps and buyers, not the prostitutes. Supporters of this approach, also known as the Nordic Model, say the threat of arrest and criminal records prevent trafficking victims from coming forward and hurt their prospects of finding other work.
The debate is playing out in many U.S. cities and states. Nevada remains the only U.S. state that allows regulated brothels in some rural counties. But in June, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signed a bill that decriminalizes the selling of sex (though not its purchase) while raising the penalty for soliciting a child for commercial sex from a misdemeanor to a felony. States like New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont are considering similar changes.
California’s loitering law comes on the heels of similar measures in New York and Seattle.
Critics fighting against these measures argue decriminalization will lead to more sex trafficking, including trafficking of children. Indeed, one global study found that countries that legalized prostitution “on average … experience a larger degree of reported human trafficking inflows.”
Miriam Karmali is an advocacy manager for Freedom United, one anti-slavery group that supported the measure. She noted in an email that there’s no data yet showing California’s loitering law led to an immediate increase in sex trafficking. But the fallout tells a different story.
EARLIER THIS YEAR on San Francisco’s Capp Street and on East 15th Street in Oakland, city officials resorted to putting barricades up to prevent brazen prostitution and crime. Oakland also erected barricades to deter pimps and sex buyers from certain intersections after parents complained about their young children seeing prostitution outside St. Anthony’s, a Catholic grade school.
The barricades keep getting destroyed or moved. But Vic Lacey says they only push the rampant street prostitution and trafficking to a nearby block or city anyway.
Since the new law took effect, law enforcement and officials in cities including Sacramento, San Diego, and Oakland have spoken out against the new loitering law and said it’s made catching traffickers harder. One group even attempted to repeal it. Republican lawmakers have criticized the new law, too.
At 65, Lacey is nearing the end of his career, one that includes the Marine Corps, 23 years in law enforcement in California, and investigative and consulting roles with state and federal governments. He’s also worked with International Justice Mission and other organizations involved in domestic and international human trafficking cases.
“Overseas, trafficking is more obvious,” Lacey said. “Here, we’re better at hiding it. We’re better at keeping it in the dark and behind the scenes.”
In California and elsewhere, LGBTQ concerns appear to overshadow the dangers of human trafficking associated with prostitution. Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, who is gay, authored California’s loitering law. He maintained it was necessary to protect “black and brown trans women” engaging in sex work. Wiener won favor for the bill with claims that transgender people are some of the state’s “most marginalized” and are often targets of police discrimination based on their appearance, even those who are not prostitutes.
Similarly, supporters of the 2021 New York law that banned arrests for prostitution-related loitering emphasized purported discrimination against transgender sex workers. They dubbed the former law allowing loitering arrests the “Walking While Trans Ban.” LGBTQ-supporting groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch campaigned for the laws in New York and California.
Nearly 11 percent of the 28,000 transgender Americans who participated in the 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey said they engaged in commercial sex.
But in major demographic studies of prostitution and human trafficking, victims are predominantly black women and girls. Ninety-four percent of sex trafficking victims were female, and 40 percent were black, according to one two-year review of federal cases.
LACEY SAYS CALIFORNIA POLICE previously relied on the loitering statute to detain street prostitutes, including girls they suspected could be underage, to question them. It allowed them to find out whether prostitutes were being trafficked or exploited and who their pimp was. In many cases, those interactions led to investigations.
In recent years, law enforcement has already adopted a more strategic approach. District attorneys in several major cities including San Francisco have stopped prosecuting prostitution and unlicensed massage businesses. In California, arrests for prostitution have been dropping: 4,000 were made in 2020, a 45 percent decline since 2015, according to the state Department of Justice.
Lacey says that’s because police have become more educated on the psychological effects of trafficking. Many departments now partner with anti-trafficking nonprofits and trauma-informed experts to speak with victims, he said.
“We know that if we can get in front of that girl for an hour and call in an expert to sit down and talk with her … if we do that repeatedly, she will begin to trust us,” he told me at the restaurant. “We may also find out who’s manipulating her and start investigating it from that side.”
Under the new loitering law, California legislators “took away that tool from law enforcement and made it even harder,” Lacey said.
Under both California and federal law, human trafficking includes compelling or coercing a person to engage in commercial sex acts. Nearly 90 percent of women involved in prostitution want to escape, according to one 2003 study. About the same amount reported being controlled, another 2012 study found. Seventy percent said they were raped and more than 80 percent were physically tortured, according to the 2003 study.
While trafficking cases remain underreported, California ranks the highest, with 1,334 cases involving 2,122 victims reported in 2021, and is sixth in the nation per capita, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. That same year, the hotline identified 16,554 likely victims of human trafficking in the United States.
Even when there’s enough evidence to prove a woman or child is being trafficked on the streets, it’s difficult to put traffickers behind bars. The best piece of evidence is a victim’s testimony. But that’s hard to obtain given the psychological damage, especially for a child in the sex trade.
California lawmakers seem divided over whether to take a tougher approach on prosecuting human trafficking. For years, lawmakers have been backing away from a tough-on-crime approach. Bills enacting stricter penalties for human traffickers have failed to pass since 2007, according to CalMatters. In July, the Democratic-controlled state Assembly rejected—then approved—a Republican-backed bill to elevate child sex trafficking to a serious felony. The measure moved to the Assembly Appropriations Committee when the Legislature returned from summer recess on Aug. 14.
In June, I attended a fundraising event for Special Operations, the group Lacey works with. The event included wine and hors d’oeuvres at a refurbished Berkeley home about a mile and a half from the city’s University of California campus.
Special Operations CEO Isabelle Finney introduced about 25 attendees to Lacey, who recounted a recent case involving a 12-year-old runaway girl in Sacramento. Each time the girl went missing, her single mother reported it to the police. Law enforcement and social workers labeled her a chronic runaway. Until private investigators uncovered it, no one knew a neighbor had groomed her and was reportedly selling her for sex in San Francisco and Oakland. With information from cyber intel experts and informants on the streets, Special Operations provided police with the evidence and helped facilitate her recovery.
Trafficking is often an invisible crime, meaning parents, social workers, police, and even the victims themselves, especially children, often fail to realize it’s happening. Finney says she was unaware of its prevalence until she learned a foster child in her Bay Area neighborhood was sex trafficked by his mother’s boyfriend from ages 2 to 5.
Finney realized “slavery still exists in our own backyards.”
Now, she worries the state’s increasingly lenient approach to prostitution will prove even more disastrous for children caught in the sex trade.
“The defense from pimps and buyers caught with underage girls will very quickly turn to, ‘I thought she was 18,’ or ‘she told me she was 18,’” she said.
Last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 19,000 reports of alleged child sex trafficking. One in 6 of more than 25,000 cases of runaway children reported as missing were likely sex trafficking victims.
In February, Special Operations located another missing 14-year-old girl who was reportedly being sold for sex in San Francisco by gang members. Lacey worked with two journalists to raise the alarm when police failed to respond to calls to rescue her. After the story was published, Lacey met with police officials. The next time Special Operations located the girl, police responded quickly and rescued her.
“For us to condone this as a society and fool ourselves into thinking it will be regulated correctly and prevent children from being exploited … it will do the complete opposite,” Finney said.
BACK ON SAN FRANCISCO’S Capp Street, Elizabeth Quiroz lugs one of two wagons loaded with blankets, snacks, and purses for women on the streets. She and Lisa Diaz-McQuaid run the anti-trafficking group Redemption House of the Bay Area. Both were formerly sex trafficked.
Earlier that day, the two women rented a black minivan and loaded it with supplies they collect and keep at a Santa Rosa storage unit. They counted and stuffed each donated purse with a pamphlet containing information about Redemption House support groups.
By 10:30 p.m., the supplies are running low when Quiroz, Diaz-McQuaid, and Valerie Brown approach the prostitute in the metallic gold minidress. As the night wears on, 38-year-old Quiroz remains upbeat and energetic. She tells me that for her, the street outreaches are empowering. That’s because at 16, Quiroz once stood on these same corners being sold by her trafficker to men who pay for sex. Now, she says, “I am able to speak up for the little girl that was missing and trafficked at those corners.”
Quiroz was a runaway foster child lured into selling crack and sex by a 27-year-old member of a prison gang. She thought he loved her. She describes her family’s cycle of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, drug and alcohol addiction, and gang involvement. Her yearning for affection and for a father figure made her susceptible to the trafficker’s promises to care for her, she said.
As Quiroz’s trafficker moved in and out of prison, a woman she later learned was in the same gang continued trafficking her on the streets. In one instance, she said a man picked her up in a small limousine and refused to pay her until the sex act was over. Instead of paying, he pushed her out of the car and drove away.
Quiroz became addicted to methamphetamine and was arrested multiple times, starting at age 16. She says she was labeled a criminal and law enforcement never pressed her to find out if she was being trafficked. At age 26, she lost custody of her infant son when she was arrested for selling drugs. That became the catalyst for her path toward recovery.
Many trafficked women and girls Quiroz talks to on the street share similar stories. Indeed, the majority of trafficked girls have been involved in foster care or the child welfare system.
Quiroz supports the Equality Model and wants tougher penalties for traffickers and sex buyers. Rather than a hands-off approach to policing prostitution, Quiroz advocates for more training and funding for police to coordinate with nonprofits and groups that provide exit resources for victims.
Along with support groups, Redemption House provides mentoring, a 24-hour helpline, and other practical assistance for trafficking survivors. Quiroz and Diaz-McQuaid aim to open safe houses in Sonoma County and elsewhere in the Bay Area.
In Hayward, Love Never Fails occupies a modest storefront building on a busy street surrounded by construction projects. Inside, the group’s community engagement center includes rooms stocked with hygiene and food kits and men’s and women’s clothing and shoes. One large room includes a conference table, computers for the group’s IT job training program, and a play area for children.
I visited on a Friday night, and Russell was closing up her office and shuffling keys to different envelopes for the weekend crew. She wore a black blouse and slacks in preparation for speaking at an Oakland pastor’s conference that night. As she locked up, Russell recalled her discouragement last summer when the loitering law passed. She worked countless hours trying to raise awareness of the dangers it would usher in.
Two trafficking survivors called her the night it passed. “I felt bad, because they were taking care of me, when I’m usually the one taking care of them,” Russell said.
They asked if she was OK. “I said, ‘No, I’m not OK. I feel like quitting … all these people are going to get hurt.’”
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then one girl spoke up in a soft voice: “Please don’t quit,” she said.
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