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From the Trenches in the Battle Against Sex Trafficking

After the drug trade and counterfeiting, human trafficking is the world’s most profitable criminal activity, raking in $31.6 billion a year.
Photo via brh_images

This article originally appeared on VICE.

Note: Jane Doe is the alias used in court for victims of sexual abuse.

Jane Doe sat on a bed in a cheap motel room in Scottsdale, Arizona, cigarette in one hand, Four Loko in the other. Her feet dangled inches above the floor. She was 14 years old.

“I have something to tell you,” Chuncey Garcia, 32, said to her gravely. “But once I tell you, you can’t leave, and you can’t tell anybody what I’ve said.”


Jane thought she was there to make some extra cash by taking calls and performing phone sex. Earlier that evening, February 22, 2013, a black Mercedes had approached her after her shift at Skin Cabaret, a strip joint in South Scottsdale where she had been working for a few days after running away from home. The tinted windows rolled down revealing Cierra Robinson, 27, a woman Jane had befriended at the club a couple days prior. Driving was Garcia, a man she had never seen before. He told her that she was stunning, and that he wanted to discuss something with her about an opportunity to make money.

“I want you to be a part of our team,” he said.

But something seemed off about this team. Later, in the motel room, Jane saw Garcia hit Robinson in the face. Cierra’s transgression was simple: She did not respond to him with the required “Yes, Daddy.” That is one of Garcia’s foremost rules. His girls are always to refer to him as “Slim,” “King Slim,” or, most usually, “Daddy.”

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After Jane agreed to his condition of silence, he unveiled to her to his secret: She’d be his newest prostitute.

Fourteen months later, on May 16, 2014, Garcia was the first person in Orange County to be sentenced for human trafficking of a minor under Proposition 35, the 2012 ballot initiative that more than doubled penalties for human trafficking and created a new theory of trafficking when it involves a minor victim. Garcia will serve 17 years to life in prison — the maximum sentence possible under the new law.


Before Prop. 35 passed, “it was relatively rare for pimps to go to prison,” according to Deputy District Attorney Daniel Varon, the case’s prosecutor. The penalty for trafficking an adult in California was originally only three to five years and up to eight for a minor. But what made it difficult for prosecutors to secure convictions was the stipulation that a court had to hear evidence of “deprivation of liberty”— where the victim’s liberty is restricted by means of force, fear, or coercion. This is notoriously difficult to prove, largely because victims usually refuse to testify for fear of retribution from their trafficker.

The reworked legislation makes it possible to convict offenders without proof of deprivation of liberty in cases in which the victim is a minor. The idea is much like that behind statutory rape laws, which presumes coercion because persons under 18 years of age are legally incapable of giving consent. Prop 35 classifies all forms of pimping a minor as sex trafficking, which before wouldn’t have necessarily been considered as such. It’s a shift that has unearthed what activists are calling an epidemic of child sex slavery.

After the drug trade and counterfeiting, human trafficking is the world’s most profitable criminal activity, raking in $31.6 billion annually. According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations that promotes workplace rights, 26 percent of victims are children, and most trafficked girls are forced into child prostitution and pornography.


Back when Prop 35 was just an idea, Daphne Phung, the executive director of California Against Slavery and one of the bill’s first proponents, marched the Bay Area streets seeking signatures in support of the bill. She’d relay people the statistics. She’d tell them that pimps lurk outside foster homes and schools to recruit girls for their ranks. She’d impress upon them that it’s all happening here in our communities, right under our noses.

“People would yell at me, call me insane,” Phung told me. “They’d say, ‘What you’re talking about doesn’t make any sense!’ The awareness was just nonexistent.”

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Phung would have to start at the beginning, explaining that child sex exploitation is far from a phenomenon contained to distant, third-world corners of the globe.

Fifty-five percent of child pornography worldwide is produced in the US, and the FBI estimates that 100,000 to 300,000 minors are sold for sex each year nationally (that’s 10-30 percent of the global market). The average age that a minor starts working in the US skin trade is between 12 and 14, according to a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US, Canada, and Mexico.”

Other regional studies found that the average age of initiation into prostitution is about 15 years old, indicating that a large percentage of sex workers started during adolescence.


Officer Michael Viscomi had been on his usual traffic patrol in Garden Grove, an Orange County suburban town famous for its annual strawberry festival, when he first met Jane Doe.

He pulled over a black Mercedes at 2:30 AM on March 1, 2013, for a broken headlight. A quick scan of the car’s interior led him from the driver, Garcia, to Robinson, who rode shotgun, and then to the back seat, where he saw one more woman and, lastly, a girl tucked up against the far window. Her tiny body looked misplaced in the multicolored, skintight dress she wore. It was sleeveless on the left arm and barely reached below her hips.

The two cars idled under a freeway overpass at Harbor Boulevard and Trask Avenue, an intersection known for its streetwalkers. That Jane Doe “looked so much younger than the others,” as Viscomi testified, in such an area, signaled to him that something was amiss.

Prop 35 requires that all law enforcement become trained to identify and approach human-trafficking victims. In order to identify victims, you have to understand how traffickers themselves identify their targets.

Sixty percent of child sex-trafficking victims in the US have spent time in foster care or group homes, according to FBI data. Other studies indicate that incest and childhood physical abuse precedes the vast majority of prostitute histories–upwards of 85 percent. Though estimations vary, all agree that at least one third of US runaways end up in the commercial sex-trade industry.


Coming from broken homes or none at all, their disappearances often go unnoticed.

Though District Attorney Varon is aware of all the risk factors, he says that the most haunting part of the Garcia case is just how many of them Jane Doe exhibited. She was a runaway. She was using methamphetamine around the time she met Garcia. Though the attorney declined to give specifics in order to protect her, he says that she testified to having had “issues and concerns” with her home life — severe enough to have led her to run away between five and ten times in 2012.

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The vast majority of sex-trafficking victims share similar sets of risk factors whose combination produces a pimp’s ticket to recruitment: vulnerability.

“These are kids who have significant lacks in their lives,” said Shannon Forsythe, founder and Executive Director of Run2Rescue, a nonprofit committed to the rehabilitation of sex-trafficking victims. “And they are hungering to fill that void.”

That void is the cornerstone of sex-exploitation psychology, a trafficker’s point of access. It starts with lavishing the victim with emotional and commercial offerings: compliments that pander to insecurities, then food, clothing, or shelter to accommodate basic needs that runaways often lack. Jane Doe informed Viscomi, according to his testimony, that Garcia told her “things she wanted to hear” when he first approached her outside of Skin—that she was beautiful, stunning. That she could make money with him.


A pimp’s team structure, borrowing domestic terminology, becomes the victim’s fill-in family. His moniker is “Daddy,” casting himself as provider and protector of the unit, the central figure of authority. His girls refer to one another as “wifeys,” “in-laws,” or “sisters.” Collectively they are known as a “stable,” and the pimping and prostitution paradigm as a whole is called the “game.”

Jane Doe failed to meet Garcia’s $200 minimum quota on her second day working the track. The troop had relocated to Buena Park, California, after a day’s journey through Southwestern desert. Garcia locked Jane Doe in their Buena Park Hotel and Suites room while he and the others went out to eat, withholding food as punishment for her transgression.

On at least one occasion, he smashed her head against the backseat of the car when he saw her looking at another pimp. And one of those first nights in Arizona, he forcibly raped her, according to court documents.

It doesn’t take long for the feigned friendship or love relationship between trafficker and victim to give way to abusive control, and the reach is totalizing. Her economic, social, and sexual well-being are all contingent on her level of compliance with her pimp’s demands.

“They convince them they’re in love with them, but on the other hand they’ll kill them if they don’t comply,” said Dr. Sharon Cooper, CEO of Developmental and Forensics Pediatrics, PA, and specialist in child sexual exploitation and trauma.


Cooper explains that physical terror becomes a pimp’s instrument of authority, used to transmit one message loud and clear: There is no way out. Traffickers take measures to sever victims’ ties to the outside world, to erase their past lives. New names are given (Jane Doe’s was Snowflake). Communication is regulated. They create new vulnerabilities by convincing the victim they’ve lost all credibility in the eyes of society. What police officer won’t just throw you in jail? What community or family — if there is one to go back to — will take back a prostitute?

The level of dependency is so pervasive that many victims develop Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and attachment toward their captors.

Phung’s hope is that Prop 35 will fundamentally change how law enforcement approaches commercial sex work. When they encounter what they might traditionally chalk up to a normal prostitution case, she urges them to withhold this assumption and investigate the possibility that there is “something else to this, behind the surface.”

“Human trafficking and pimping have always existed as the drivers of prostitution,” says Varon. “And understanding that means there is a shift in the perception of someone engaging in prostitution — from a criminal to a victim of coercion, who, most often, has been exploited since they were a kid.”

Sex exploitation is an archetype of a vicious cycle. The risk factors that make someone more likely to become a victim of exploitation are the same as the ones that make someone more likely to become an exploiter. A DePaul University study of ex-pimps in Chicago found that 76 percent were molested as children. Eighty-eight percent were physically abused. Almost half ran away from home to escape that violence, leaving them on the streets in the same condition as the victims they later target: vulnerable and without a home. Sixty-eight percent were trafficked before they began to pimp. The abused often become the abusers themselves.


Once it was clear that Jane Doe was a juvenile runaway, she was transported to Orangewood Children’s home, Orange County’s only emergency shelter for neglected and abused children, where more than 1,000 beds stay full year-round. After running away several times, she finally landed in an Arizona lockdown treatment facility in late June 2013. As of this past February, according to court documents, she continues to receive “vital treatment.” She suffers from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has nightmares daily and fits of aggression and rage. It’s taken her nearly five months to show any signs of progress.

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Though Varon refrained from giving an update about her current condition, he noted, “Generally these types of cases have devastating, life-long effects on their victims.”

Psychologists liken sex exploitation to war. It produces trauma similar to that experienced by hostages, prisoners of war, and concentration-camp inmates. In an international study, 68 percent of 900 sex workers evaluated by Dr. Melissa Farley — America’s leading researcher on the effects of prostitution and sexual violence — had PTSD. That’s far above the rates seen in war veterans, which ranges between 4 and 50 percent.

And like certain war landscapes, the field of sexual exploitation can be fatal. The average life expectancy after exploitation starts, if the subject doesn’t manage to escape, is seven years. The leading cause of death is homicide, followed closely by AIDS.

After her treatment plan is completed (usually 18 to 24 months after enrollment), Jane Doe will face reassimilation. She’ll return to her mom, who, by Varon’s accounts, is “supportive, loving, and doing everything she can for her daughter.” But many victims don’t have such a figure in their life. They’re parachuted back into society — maybe at another shelter much like the one they initially ran away from — often years behind in school, stigmatized by their time on the street. Being sexually exploited is just another bad card to add to an already miserable deck. And there are always more pimps waiting.

Garcia, wiry from a year in jail, stared blankly at his hands as Varon listed his offenses at the sentencing. Varon reminded the judge that Garcia has yet to take “an ounce of responsibility” or demonstrate “even the slightest” remorse for his actions.

“He asserts and asserts that everybody was free to do their own thing,” Varon stated.

It will be 17 years before Garcia is eligible for parole. Jane Doe will face, after just two weeks of exploitation, a lifetime of reparation. Meanwhile, the increasing demand for purchasable flesh continues to drive young, marginalized souls — both pimps and the pimped — to the streets.

“You can’t sell what people are not buying,” Phung told me. But that’s her next battle to fight.

Danielle L. Davis is a nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Intentional, LA Weekly, and on various Internet platforms, such as

Photo via Flickr