Opinion » Commentaries

It can happen here--and does

It's time to talk about human trafficking



That’s pretty appalling stuff happening in Nigeria, girls being abducted and sold into marriage or slavery. And Nigeria is just the latest atrocity to be reported. It seems to be a perilous time for girls all over the globe.

But as horrible as those barbarities are, they’re happening halfway around the world. Thank goodness nothing bad like that can happen here in safe little San Luis Obispo County. I mean, our girls are as safe as safe can be, right?



• Girls are being prostituted out of some local motels, which are used as a way station for large, organized trafficking rings that have their bases in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and other larger cities.

• “Survival sex”—trading sex for food and lodging—is taking place in the county, often among children who have fallen on hard times.

• Predators, who never rest, are constantly prowling for new victims, and not just among the downtrodden. Because these vultures are sophisticated in using technology, especially the Internet, any child, starting at our “safest” schools and on up to students at Cuesta and Cal Poly, is a potential target.

• The Internet has become a particular weapon. There are websites luring young girls, and even sites on how to be a pimp.

• Predators have become so skilled at exploiting the emotional needs of children who are having trouble with their families that even those youngsters who have been trained to be wary can be, and sometimes are, fooled. These vultures start working on girls as young as 10 or 11.

The recent arrests of young prostitutes in San Luis Obispo are just the most recent and visible indicator of the problem and for the dangers it poses. There is much more going on, beneath the surface, little noticed by the community at large.

Even the blanket term generally used to describe it, “human trafficking,” is vague and enshrouds a cornucopia of evils being perpetrated against the defenseless and vulnerable.

“The forest has many trees,” says a member of the anti-trafficking Mountainbrook Abolitionists.

The methods used to ensnare youngsters are particularly insidious, and begin with making the girls helpless and dependent. Anti-traffickers are well-versed in how it happens, as well as how to combat it, and are working around the clock to get that knowledge to the general public.

As I researched the mountain of material available for this piece and learned of the quiet and heroic efforts of so many people in San Luis Obispo County, a question began to emerge:

How come this isn’t getting more public discussion? The whole conversation seems to be carried on in whispers. Sex trafficking was brought up at a candidate forum for District Attorney, but was subordinated in news coverage to a contretemps about dirty politicking.

The low visibility given human trafficking frustrates local abolitionists. They—and I—believe that denial is a big reason for the near silence. This sort of thing just can’t happen here in the happiest place on earth, or whatever limiting label Oprah dropped on us.

There is also a “blame the victim” mentality. Prostitution is a crime, after all, and that allows the general public to not view the girls as victims.

For me personally, the lack of urgency in the local media—New Times and The Tribune editorial pages excepted—is particularly frustrating. We are celebrating the centennial of the golden age of progressive journalism, a time when the great reporters—Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and others—operated under the rubric of “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In recent decades, too many of those who control the media have joined the ranks of the comfortable. From that vantage point, you can’t see the afflicted.

Rebecca Turner of Arroyo Grande, an Azusa Pacific graduate who is fighting sex trafficking through the Mountainbrook Church, says it is time for a paradigm change.

Not only does the discussion need a larger, better-lit stage, she says, but boys and men need to be educated, including those who use the “services” of these girls.

“We need to create a culture where men are aware of where these girls are coming from,” Turner says.

Carissa Phelps, the courageous author of Runaway Girl, believes people will help if they are given the chance.

“I have hope,” Phelps says. “People don’t want to recognize a problem until they are asked to do something to change it.”

There are many ways to help, including becoming a mentor through, say, Big Brothers Big Sisters. And of course the schools must be involved, as many already are.

What I want to do here is expand awareness about human trafficking, get a larger segment of the broader public involved, and nudge the established leaders and organizations in the community—government, law enforcement, churches, the media—to slide it higher on the list of things that urgently need attention.

There are young women who need our help, desperately.

“Every issue seems to have its time,” Turner says. “Now is the time for human trafficking.”


Bob Cuddy, an award-winning journalist and former Tribune columnist, lives in Arroyo Grande. Contact him at (805) 489-1026 or [email protected]. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].

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