Caught in the FBI's net

A nationwide hunt for sexually exploited children wound up catching a few youth — and a lot more adult sex workers

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"One of the officers was very adamant about telling me that he would never pay me that much for my services."

yael@sfbg.com

The mission: Rescuing sexually exploited children. Who can argue with that?

From June 20 through June 23, the FBI and local police departments and district attorney's offices throughout the United States were engaged in Operation Cross Country, three days of stings targeting pimps for arrest.

According to the FBI, the mission was successful. "Nationwide, 79 children were rescued and 104 pimps were arrested for various state and local charges," a press statement released the following week reads.

In the Bay Area, the operation resulted in "the recovery of six children, who were being victimized through prostitution, and the arrest of seven individuals, commonly referred to as pimps."

Also caught up in the Bay Area sweep: 61 adult prostitutes — ten consensual sex workers for every underage victim.

Operation Cross Country was part of an ongoing effort called the Innocence Lost National Initiative, which the FBI describes as beginning in the Bay Area in 2005 with the Bay Area Innocence Lost Working Group. According to FBI spokesperson Julianne Sohn, this June's crackdown was the sixth Operation Cross Country in the past several years.

"The FBI and our partners are looking for those who are exploiting minors for purposes of prostitution," Sohn told the Guardian. "But in the process of doing this we also pick up pimps exploiting adults, and adult prostitutes along the way."

"What we're looking at are people who traffic children for prostitution and solicitation," she said. But the pimping arrests under Operation Cross Country don't necessarily have anything to do with children. "Those are just pimps, generally speaking," said Sohn.

As Caitlin Manning, a sex workers rights advocate, put it, "This emotionally laden appeal to save children who are forced into sexual slavery is being used to further the criminalization of all sex work, these lines are being blurred. There are always a large number of consensual sex workers involved in these stings."

The Guardian caught up with one such consensual sex worker swept up in Operation Cross Country. "Maya," 22, an escort in Richmond, was targeted because officers believed she looked under 18 in her ads. After her entrapment, arrest and interrogation, she convinced them she was older. She says that sex trafficking is a terrible problem, but criminalizing working people like her is no solution.

Bay Guardian: Tell me about the arrest.

Maya: I got a phone call. All he said to me was that he was nervous and had never done this before, and that he was looking for somebody to party with. So I never said anything sexual, and he didn't either. There was absolutely no premise.

So I went to the hotel room. I walked in the door and I said, I'm glad that I found the right room. I put my bag down. I turned to the side and there was another man standing there, and my immediate thought was that I was going to get taken advantage of by another person. But then- I can't even, I don't know how many officers it was. Some came out of the bathroom, and they said Richmond PD, you're under arrest, put your hands behind your back.

They had me in handcuffs, they questioned me for a while. I was in custody for about six hours. So I guess the way that it works with that is, the phone call is initiation and showing up to the hotel room is an act in furtherance. Entrapment is legal for that in California.

BG: What was the questioning like?

M: You know, I've been through a lot of things in my life. Family tragedies. Just like a lot of people. But that was definitely hands down, probably top five most traumatic events in my life. I've never felt so degraded. They were sitting there asking me, why do you have condoms in your bag? I had a vibrator, I had lube, and I had condoms with me.

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