Prosecutor partners to end sex trafficking
Even before Liam Neeson’s film, “Taken” hit movie screens in 2008, Tanya Fernandez had the notion that sex trafficking involved kidnapping young girls and forcing them into the commercial sex trade against their will, but that’s not the reality.
Tanya learned what trafficking actually looks like while running youth programs in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. and volunteering as a rape crisis counselor for sex trafficking victims.
“Every victim I worked with, I kept thinking, ‘How can I build a time machine and meet every person who has exploited you or let you down?’ because these victims have had a LOT of people let them down. They have been let down by negligence. Or they have been aggressively exploited in every way,” Tanya explains. “I’d think, ‘If I had a time machine, I’d go back and undo so many things for these victims.’ Moving to Seattle and working on a prevention program for exploitation is the next best thing to building a time machine.”
Tanya is now the education director for Seattle Against Slavery, an organization that works to fight sexual exploitation in the community. SAS is an important community partner of the prosecutor’s office. Tanya runs programs through area high schools to teach teens about healthy relationships, consent, and what sexual exploitation really is. She talked with us about some common myths around sex trafficking.
Myth #1: Sex Trafficking Involves Kidnapping and Force A lot of trafficking is mental coercion rather than physical force. Individuals who are already marginalized through things like poverty, race, abuse, or an absence of close family or community relationships are susceptible to being manipulated into consenting to commercial sex. “We picture someone who is taken and held against their will because we can’t imagine someone being manipulated into consenting,” Tanya says. “The truth is, someone is still a sex trafficking victim even if she doesn’t look like someone who was kidnapped and kept against her will.”
Myth #2: Young Victims Choose This “If you are under the age of 18 and participating in the sex industry in any way, it’s always sex trafficking,” Tanya says. “The truth is, someone is still a sex trafficking victim even though she doesn’t look like someone who was kidnapped and kept against her will. A lot of sex trafficking is boyfriend pimping. It is someone—usually an older male—who poses as someone who really cares about a person and manipulates them. It’s a girl who did not get to make a choice, but she feels very strongly that she did.”
Myth #3: Sex Trafficking Doesn’t Happen in the United States “People are starting to wise up to the idea that ‘Okay, this does happen in some places in Seattle.’ But we still have very specific stereotypes in mind of what a buyer looks like, what a pimp looks like, and what a victim looks like. We’re finding that a lot of those are really false,” Tanya says. “A lot of exploiters and traffickers and pimps that [King County] prosecuted recently are affluent white guys. Yet, when we think of pimps, we think of a person of color.”
And when we think of victims, we think of Liam Neeson’s daughter in “Taken” instead of girls of color who are disadvantaged and marginalized from the start. “These victims often don’t have great relationships with adults in their lives who can act as a litmus test for them,” Tanya says. Without healthy relationships with adults as reference points, they are unable to discern signs of unhealthy or problematic relationships.
The King County Prosecutor’s Office is proud of community partners like Seattle Against Slavery and the work they do to combat exploitation. To find out more about the work of Seattle Against Slavery, visit them at www.seattleagainstslavery.org or follow them on Facebook at Seattle Against Slavery.