In my early '20s, I lived in Costa Rica. One day I went out shopping to a local mall that I had been to many times before, but this was the first time I had ever gone alone. The entire time I lived there, I had always been told to go out in groups by other residents. As the brazen, independent American woman that I am, I figured people had to be overreacting, so off I went. As I wandered trough the mall, I found a shop with beautiful things in the window.
A blouse caught my eye, and I picked it up. As I looked at the blouse, a man approached me and said in Spanish, "Do you like the shirt?" Thinking he was a sales person, I said in Spanish, with no American accent, "Yes, but I wish it was in green. Do you have it in green?" When this man saw me, he clearly did not register me as an American. It was when he spoke to me next that I realized he didn't work there.
I will never forget what he said to me with a charming smile. "What if I bought it for you?" Alarm bells immediately went off when he said this. He continued: "You see, I acquire beautiful women, such as yourself, and take them to Las Vegas in the United States to make them famous." It was in that moment I realized he was trying to buy me. I looked at him and very firmly responded, "Oh yeah? Because I'm an American."
His face went white; he excused himself and disappeared faster than I could turn around. I was very upset, and it wasn't very long after that I returned home to the United States. Looking back, I realized that this man was probably trying to traffic me.
Human trafficking is a very ugly topic that people don't like discussing, and it gets tied to prostitution far more than I would like. There is a big difference between coercing and choosing.
As a sex positive writer, I cover all aspects of sexuality and sex work, but trafficking is not sex work; it is modern day slavery. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I had let that man take me to Las Vegas. What would have happened? My guess is that I probably would not have ended up a show girl. I may have ended up in some brothel, massage parlor or as an indentured domestic slave. Any way you play out the scenario, no good is at the end of it.
Men, women and children that are taken into slavery, especially sexual slavery, have things happen to them that we simply cannot imagine. Human trafficking is something that I believe is on the rise. Human beings are seen as commodities that can be sold again and again, generating billions of thousands of dollars each year. Recently I met someone who shared with me a recent incident that happened while they were in the Tenderloin.
"Mike" was parking his car on Turk. He noticed a man in his mid to late '40s with a girl that appeared no more than 14. The man helped guide Mike's car into his parking spot. At first he assumed that they were homeless and wanting some cash for the parking help, but they did not ask him for money when he got out of his car.
What Mike was asked, was, if he was interested in purchasing the company of this young girl, in a sexual way for a certain amount of time. Mike, not knowing what to do and not wanting to cause a scene, declined and decided to call the police station on Eddy in the Tenderloin. They took a report, but they were not particularly helpful. He also told me, he was worried they would handle the situation wrong. This girl was not a sex worker; she was clearly a minor and not willing to give consent of any kind to something like this. At times police just arrest these girls, and when they get out, they end up right back with their captors.
Mike then called the national hotline for human trafficking 1-888-3737-888, and he said that they were extremely helpful. They took a much more thorough report, and they asked very specific questions. They even called him back to do a follow up. I began to wonder about this girl and what her story is. I wondered how many other people have seen her, and how many people have purchased her. I wonder if she will ever get out, or if she will disappear forever like so many others.
Sex work and human trafficking are not the same and should not be viewed in the same manner. A sex worker is someone with agency, who is over the age of 18 and willfully choosing to do sex work. Trafficking victims and survivors are people who are trapped, coerced and threatened on a daily basis. It is crucial that we find a way to separate these topics; we need to help these people, not add to their trauma. A child or adult trapped in this social injustice is not a 'child prostitute' - they are anything but empowered, they are victimized again and again.
Regardless of one's moral or personal opinion on sex work, each of us can agree that slavery is despicable. Social justice is something each of us should have the right to. If you believe you have seen someone who is the victim of human trafficking, please contact 1-888-3737-888.
Follow Vanessa Pinto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vanessalpinto