A nationwide hunt for sexually exploited children wound up catching a few youth — and a lot more adult sex workers
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.
There were four men and one woman in the room, and they were all sitting there making jokes. One of the officers was very adamant about telling me that he would never pay me that much for my services.
BG: You've said they lied to you, what did they lie to you about?
M: They told me that that day they had caught an underage girl, but then I read the newspaper article about the sting about it, and they said the youngest girl that they got that day was 20. So they were trying to make it seem like they were helping all these women, helping all these girls get away from this lifestyle, when in reality they're just busting girls like me.
They looked through my phone and looked through my pictures, and questioned me about every picture in my phone. They were like, is this your pimp? They read my text messages, they listened to voice mails from my family. They don't care.
BG: The sting was for underage people being trafficked. Do you think that's a big problem? What do you think about that issue?
M: I do think that it's a problem, absolutely. But this is the very unfortunate thing about what I do for work. Whether you want to call it prostitution or you want to call it escorting. So I do think absolutely it's a problem, but it's very important for people to know that it's not the same thing, it's really, really not.
I'm probably going to get two years' probation, up to 60 days in jail and hundreds of dollars in fines. Now I'm out of work, can't get a job, and I have prostitution on my record. You know, it's just ... it doesn't help anybody.
BG: It strikes me what you were saying about the police officer saying I wouldn't pay that much. Were there other degrading things said?
M: I don't care if they're officers, I don't care what they do for a living. They're still men. And when you come in and you're a prostitute, they look you up and down. And they're thinking about that. And I had the officer asking me questions like oh, how do you clean your vibrator. Just unnecessary questions, where obviously they're getting some sort of gratification out of it.
BG: Have you ever met people who were forced into what they're doing?
M: No...I mean, we've all done things for money. You know, desperate times. Whether it's working some shit job. I mean, I look at it as a job. So in the past when I was younger yeah, you know, trying to make rent, maybe I'll do something that I wouldn't want to do as much, or not get paid as much for it. But it beats working at Taco Bell.
People sometimes think it's easy money. It's not easy money. It takes a certain person, it takes an emotionally stable and sexually stable person to do this work sustainably. It's definitely tolling. It's tolling because its therapy. It's tolling because I listen to people's problems, it's not tolling because of the sexual aspect at all.
BG: Have you gotten any help from sex workers rights organizations?
M: I did have a therapist that's sex-worker friendly offer me free sessions. I might take him up on that, but — you know, the event was traumatizing. I'm not traumatized by my work. I can tell the story and that's pretty much enough for me. I don't really need therapy for being a sex worker. I love my job. It makes me happy, its great.
BG: What do you love about it?
M: I love meeting different people, I love the psychological aspects. I just have so many fantastic stories, and amazing people that I've met. I saw a guy recently who, after our session he was telling me that his wife had died about six months previous that he had been married to for 42 years, and he started crying. And my mother passed away when I was younger, and so we were able to relate on that. And I gave him my lessons on how I dealt with it, and he had never really had somebody tell him that, and he was very touched. And I know that he will take those lessons that I taught him and use them for his grieving process.
So it's things like that. People don't realize how much therapy it really is, how many of these people just want some intimacy...we're human beings, we need sexual outlets. That's just the way that we are. "Maya" invites anyone who has been in a similar situation or wants to talk to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . An extended version of this interview can be found at sfbg.com