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.
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.
This is an extended version of the interivew with "Maya" published in this week's paper.
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 arrested me.
They had me in handcuffs, they questioned me for a while. Then they took me back to a different place where they read me my rights and questioned me, then they took me to a different police station to get booked. So all in all, 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. Because of the questioning, because they really badgered me and broke me down. And I’ve always been such a strong person that I think that was the hardest part of it, they really took advantage of me and put me in a very vulnerable space. Because they were very, very adamant about, basically getting me to say that I have sex for money.
They didn’t read me my rights until about an hour and a half after I was in custody. And 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. So they just sat there and asked me about it.
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. Who totally- this has made my life infinitely worse.
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: Did you tell them that you didn’t have a pimp?
BG: And they didn’t believe you?
M: Well, not at first. Because when I got arrested- my boyfriend is my safety call. I call him after I get into the room to let him know that I’m OK, and then I call him when I’m leaving . And if I don’t call him and let him know that I’m OK, that means that there’s a problem. So I knew that he was going to call and I didn’t want him to have a heart attack worrying that I was hurt or something like that. So I had to tell them that he was going to call, and they assumed he was my pimp because of that. But after they talked to him and all that, they realized that he wasn’t. Like, I’m saying they- you know, they’re trying to deal with these girls who are completely not in the realm of who I work with and what I do. Whatsoever.
BG: Have you experienced an arrest before?
M: No, never been arrested before.
BG: The sting was for underage people being trafficked. Do you think that’s a big problem? What do you think about that issue?
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 love my job, it’s unfortunate that this happened. I went to school for psychology, my main interest in human sexuality, and I was sort of doing this as a way to get into the field, essentially. I would absolutely consider it a form of therapy. Absolutely. Because I genuinely care. That’s why it’s the girlfriend experience. So yes, human trafficking is absolutely a problem. It’s not in my realm. I don’t support it, of course not. But there’s nothing that I can do about that unfortunately.
BG: Do you have any thoughts on how police could better track down trafficking in a way that doesn’t put you and other people who are in a totally different line of work in danger?
M: Yeah, I think that they need to not go after the girls, they need to go after the pimps. That’s it, period. It’s not fair to prosecute us…When it comes down to it, they say that they’re really trying to go after the pimps, but it sure doesn’t seem like it.
For me, for instance, 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: You’re out of work?
M: I can’t put ads up. I don’t have another job right now. So of course I can find work in the future, but it’s- it was abrupt. Basically everything that I’ve worked for. Because I’ve been doing sex work since I was 18. So people might not look at it this way, but its sales. It’s marketing. I’ve built my little empire with that. I’ve built the reviews, and I’ve built the experience, and essentially they just swiped it all away from me.
People I’m sure will read this article and either be completely unsympathetic or, if they take the time to really think about it, it’s a service, like any other service. This is the oldest profession in the world. If you, I’m a good and caring person. People give it such a bad name. Like the police, they think that us girls are just hustlers and pieces of shits and we’re just trying to make money and we don’t care. Which is absolutely not the case. Three quarters of the reason I do this job is because I care.
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: In total I probably talked to about 10 different officers. Every single one of them, their first question was, how old are you? And when I said 22, they got this look of disgust, and they were like, oh, you’re so young. I had multiple officers tell me, you’re a victim and you don’t even know it. Just trying to break me down.
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. My interest is human sexuality and psychology, and I know, also because of this job, I know how to read a man and how to read what they’re thinking. And like I said, when you get booked as a prostitute you just get treated like a piece of meat and they all look at you like one. They’re just completely unsympathetic, I had to sit in a jail cell in Richmond, there was blood on the walls and there’s MS-13 tags everywhere…. And they keep telling me, you did this to yourself, you put yourself in this position, and it’s your fault you’re here. And they kept telling me, you need to get out of this life.
They all just joked, they were all laughing and joking. I had an officer, I was telling them why I have condoms and he said “I call bullshit!” and they all fucking laughed at me. I was a joke to them. They were all just sitting around laughing the whole time. And they’re sitting there watching the A’s game, I’m just sitting in handcuffs in the corner crying.
It was bad enough that it took me about a week before I could even see people again. It was, yeah. I couldn’t see anybody, I couldn’t tell anybody about it. Pretty much cried all the time.
BG: I was wondering if you could talk more about pimping, because people have told me that the definition of pimping has led to peoples boyfriends getting busted for pimping. Could you talk about pimping in general, what it means, what falls under it?
M: I can only tell you so much because I don’t have a pimp. But for the standard they use to evaluate if someone’s a pimp or not, I know they were asking my boyfriend if he set up dates for me. So I think it’s the setting you- I imagine if he had driven me to my appointment, he probably would have gotten in trouble also. So it’s the driving them, being the driver, setting up appointments. And I know they asked me a lot, and I heard them asking another girl who got arrested around the same time as me, they kept asking her if she gave him money for anything. So I think that’s it, if you give them money, if they drive you, if they set up your dates. They asked me, because my boyfriend got surgery recently and I’ve been helping him out with that. And they kept prying, asking if I gave him money for groceries, if I gave him money for anything. They try to trick you. But other than that I don’t have any thoughts on pimping, other than its terrible.
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. You know, maybe I’ll do something that I wouldn’t want to do as much, or not get paid as much for it. But it’s like shit, beats working at Taco Bell. You know, that’s the way you look at it. I’d rather have one appointment with a guy instead of making the same amount of money working 20 hours that week. Its’ just the way you look at. It takes a certain kind of person to do this kind of work, its now- 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. You know, that’s anatomy. It’s not the way that people think. People always concentrate on the physical attributes, when realistically there’s so many more psychological attributes that go into this kind of work.
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 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.