Content warning: This article contains references to the sexual exploitation of children.
The classified ad pictures a scantily clad young woman — young girl. She’s positioned provocatively in the photographs, her face not visible.
“Ass up, face down. Come see Tasha, $80 special,” the tagline reads.
Within one minute, the phone starts ringing off the hook. Hundreds of adult men would respond to this ad and Tasha would be raped by 10 to 20 of them that night alone.
Tasha is in seventh grade.
This ad appeared on Backpage.com, according to attorney Erik Bauer. Bauer recently represented three girls, ages 13, 14 and 15, in a lawsuit against Backpage in Pierce County with charges of contributing to the human trafficking of underage victims, a common occurrence in Washington state and the U.S. at large.
According to the Department of Justice, the average age of entry into the world of sex trafficking is 12 years old.
Backpage is the second largest classified advertising website, second only to Craigslist, and the host for an estimated 73 percent of sex trafficking reports in the nation, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Amazon’s taking over the world of retail, and Backpage took over the world of human sex trafficking,” Bauer said.
January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the best way to prevent trafficking is through awareness and education, said Western professor Babafemi Akinrinade, who teaches a course on human trafficking.
Washington state law regarding child trafficking
Federally, the sexual exploitation of a minor is considered child sex trafficking. The law states, “If a child is being used to commit a commercial sex act, the child is considered a victim of trafficking; no further criteria are required,” according to the Human and Smuggling Center.
There must only be an exchange of goods for sexual acts to qualify as trafficking, according to federal law. There does not need to be a third party present facilitating the solicitation of the minor, nor the presence of force, fraud or coercion.
“Most people think of pimps and vulnerable girls when they think of trafficking. There is a far more complex landscape of the commercial sex trade than what most of us understand.”
Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s consultant
Nicholas Oakley with the Center for Children & Youth Justice, a youth social services organization in Washington, contributed to drafting the Model Protocol to Provide Victim-Centered Response to Commercially Sexually Exploited Children in 2011.
This approach covers 80 percent of the state’s population today and penalizes buyers of sex instead of providers. Because of the resources the protocol requires, some rural areas in Washington are unable to implement it, Oakley said. It is not an issue of unwillingness to participate, but a lack of interdisciplinary availability and funding.
“Before 2011, there were sort of two responses to commercially sexually exploited children,” Oakley said. “One would be that they’d literally be prosecuted for prostitution – go through the juvenile justice system and be put in detention – or just be completely ignored. Folks didn’t recognize these children and never bothered to look for the signs, so the trauma and exploitation and abuse just continued.”
Those who buy or sell sex from children are being prosecuted more frequently in Washington today as a result of the protocol, Oakley said. The new approach heavily emphasizes the wellbeing of the victim by connecting them to services and, in most cases, not charging juveniles for prostitution.
Children can still be arrested for prostitution, though. Oakley said he philosophically disagrees with arresting minors for being victims of child sex trafficking. But, on the other hand, arresting children is sometimes the only way to get them out of a dangerous situation or provide them with a secure location, he said.
“It’s ironic that you have to arrest the youth so that you can better investigate the victimization of the youth,” Oakley said.
Tina Orwall, member of the Washington House of Representatives, created a work group in January 2017 to find ways to eliminate the arrest of victims and ensure no minor is prosecuted for their own victimization.
Many states are not as progressive as Washington in terms of preventing child sex trafficking.
“Washington is not doing much to deter human trafficking, but even that ‘not much’ is better than other states,” Akinrinade said.
The Attorney General’s Office has made combating human trafficking a top priority for the state. In 2003, it was the first state to pass a law criminalizing human trafficking, according to the Attorney General’s Office website.
“What I think is happening is that Washington state is kind of on the forefront of legislation and efforts,” Oakley said. “We have now a coordinated response with 80 percent of the state participating. I’m not aware of another state that has that large of a coordinated effort, although many are coming onboard and moving toward that direction.”
The increased efforts may be in response to the increased prevalence of the problem locally. Washington is a hotbed for human trafficking, according to the Attorney General’s Office. It has a shared border with Canada, numerous ports and large agricultural and rural populations, making it a target for traffickers globally.
“People don’t think the problem exists here,” Akinrinade said. “But the I-5 corridor is the biggest problem area in the country in terms of trafficking.”
Children who have been involved with the juvenile court system, foster care, child welfare and homeless youth service providers are more likely to be targeted by traffickers, said Leslie Briner, Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s consultant and adjunct lecturer at University of Washington.
This is not to say that youth who aren’t involved with these systems aren’t exploited, only that the data suggests a higher proportion of this population is impacted.
“The national research, the data available that we do have, suggests that youth entering systems come from backgrounds of trauma. And youth being exploited come from backgrounds of trauma. So it’s very, very likely that system-involved youth are disproportionately impacted by this form of exploitation,” Oakley said.
The data is somewhat inconsistent and hard to come by, Oakley said. To remediate this, a data collection initiative is in place to determine how exploitation occurs and the demographics most severely impacted in Washington.
Homeless and runaway youth seem to be the primary targets. An estimated one out of six endangered runaway youth in 2016 were victims of sex trafficking, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Other susceptible individuals may have lower self-esteem and minimal social support. Traffickers are more likely to prey on these populations, which are often minorities or other marginalized groups.
“I really have trouble with the word trafficking because the connotation is that there needs to be some kind of movement. Trafficking simply means – in the cases of youth – exploitation.”
Center for Children & Youth Justice
“Whoever the vulnerable populations are in your community – whether they be trans, homeless, people of color – those populations will be disproportionately affected,” Briner said.
“Most people think of pimps and vulnerable girls when they think of trafficking. There is a far more complex landscape of the commercial sex trade than what most of us understand,” Briner said in a training video on sexual exploitation and trafficking of youth at the University of Washington.
There is a misconception that females are disproportionately victims of trafficking. Briner referred to the hetero-female narrative as the biggest misconception in reference to trafficking. The second biggest misconception, she said, is that the boys being trafficked are bi or gay.
In the study “And Boys Too” by Norene Roberts, Commercially Sexually Exploited Children’s liaison, this claim is proved false. It found that approximately 50 percent of youth in the welfare system nationally that had been victims of sexual exploitation were non-female-identifying.
Boys and trans individuals are especially invisible in an industry that already lends itself to a lack of visibility.
Many service providers only offer services to girls because they do not believe boys are victims of trafficking or because they believe that they won’t seek services. Many boys do not seek services due to societal stigmas surrounding masculinity and homophobia, according to Roberts’ study.
Another fallacy is that trafficking is an international issue rather than a domestic one.
Americans tend to think human trafficking is a crime that exclusively occurs in foreign countries. This is a misconception. Trafficking happens in the United States to U.S. citizens in every state in the nation, according to the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center.
“Without regard to nationality of victims and with greed as their motivation, traffickers seek to exploit those who are vulnerable – the young, the desperate, and the easily manipulated,” according to the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center.
Americans generally do not refer to domestic victims of trafficking as trafficking victims. They are called criminals, prostitutes, addicts or juvenile delinquents. Traffickers are usually called pimps or criminals, according to the same study.
“Things about trafficking are invisible. Bellingham people know Samish Way is the corridor, but we drive past it everyday. We don’t see it for what it is.”
“I really have trouble with the word trafficking because the connotation is that there needs to be some kind of movement,” Oakley said. “Trafficking simply means – in the cases of youth – exploitation.”
Red flags and resources
Some common warning signs that a minor may be involved in trafficking include chronically running away, irregular school attendance, multiple cell phones, sudden change in possessions, dramatic personality changes and signs of emotional distress, Briner said.
“A youth may demonstrate all of these warning signs and not be a victim of trafficking, or none of them and be a victim of trafficking,” Briner said. “You have to take that all in context.”
If you suspect someone is a victim of trafficking, contact the 24-hour hotline, the Human Trafficking Hotline, for confidential help and information. Local resources for trafficking victims include Northwest Youth Services in Bellingham, Engedi Refuge in Lynden or Youth Care in Seattle, to name a few.
What can Western students do?
Senior Emily Husa took Akinrinade’s human trafficking course last spring. She said the most beneficial thing students can do is educate themselves about this issue.
“I was sad that I was so unaware of the prevalence,” Husa said. “It didn’t even occur to me that this could be happening in my own backyard.”
Akinrinade attributes this to the nature of trafficking as operating under the radar.
“Things about trafficking are invisible. Bellingham people know Samish Way is the corridor, but we drive past it everyday. We don’t see it for what it is,” he said.
Akinrinade said that he knows this topic can seem depressing and daunting to take on, but remains positive about the improvements made so far and the ones to come.
“It comes back to the societal ideal of taking care of people on the margins of society. When students go into their careers – if they’re making laws or designing programs to target traffickers – they can be protecting victims,” he said.
Junior Katrina James, who also took Akinrinade’s class, said this issue is extremely complex and solutions to it must be complex as well.
“Even though this is such a big, multifaceted issue, it’s really important that we don’t get discouraged. We have to keep striving toward the ultimate goal of letting children be children.”
Briner said examining the practices in your own life can help to disable the exploitation of others.
“This is about building a culture of consent,” she said. “The majority of people involved in this industry are exploitative. And even challenging those conversations – sexist jokes, trips to the strip clubs, etc. – would make more people get involved and speak out and create a more equitable world for everyone.”
Editor’s note: A survivor of child trafficking who was willing to be interviewed could not be reached for this piece. This topic is often presented through the lens of law enforcement or those removed from this reality. A conscious effort was made to include the lived perspective of this issue, but given its traumatic nature, that voice was unable to be included at this time.
Local resources –
Human Trafficking Hotline: A national hotline offering confidential help and information. 1-888-373-7888
Engedi refuge: Safe housing and care facility in Lynden, offering care to adult women who have experienced sexual exploitation. 360-922-7600
Northwest Youth Services: Non-profit organization serving homeless youth in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. 360-734-9862
Youth Care: Operating out of Seattle, Youth Care was the the first residential recovery program in the Northwest serving child victims of sex trafficking. 206-694-4500
DVSAS: Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County 360-671-5714
CASAS: Consultation & Sexual Assault Support services at Western 360-650-3700
Classes at Western –
Shurla Thibou’s class on sex trafficking: “Topics: Sex Trafficking” Women, Gender & Sexuality Study 320
Babafemi Akinrinade’s class on human trafficking: “Human Trafficking & Smuggling” Fairhaven 334K