A white SUV with tinted windows pulled into the drive like a white charger in the dark of night, ready to begin its work. I was invited to go along.
There were three women waiting for me: Kyla, Monique and Monica. Kyla and Monique were the leaders, the experienced ones, the women who would teach us a lot about sex trafficking in Los Angeles in the next five hours. Monica and I were the newbies. We sat in the back seat.
When I climbed in the vehicle I gratefully accepted my latte. I was told to be careful with the 32-cup stainless steel coffee urn sitting between Monica and me. It was full of hot water…eady to go for the hot chocolate we’d be handing out to the girls.
We were also handed small bags, each filled with one lip gloss with an 800 number on it, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes. In the front seat, Monique had a bag of mittens and gloves to keep hands warm against this cold night.
We turned south on the 110 and headed toward Long Beach, then on to Santa Ana/Anaheim. The Orange County area. I asked Kyla why we were leaving the inner city of Los Angeles and heading toward the suburbs. We were headed toward Disneyland, for heaven’s sake. She told me I’d understand when I got there.
It was now nearing 1 a.m. Driving along a busy street in Santa Rosa we saw a few young girls dressed like they had been out for a night of “clubbing.” Were they on their way home? They walked across the busy lanes of the well-lit retail area and into a residential neighborhood. Kyla stopped at the light and we watched them disappear into the darkness.
“Look ahead; see all those cars down going into that neighborhood? Do you see their taillights? Do you see how they are all turning left? Those are johns.”
We pulled across the street and took our place in line with them. It felt like we were in the drive-thru at McDonald’s, waiting our turn. And when we made our left turn into the neighborhood, we became part of a mass of cars, all with one driver; some old, some young, some Mercedes, some rusty old trashy cars…all sharing the same common denominator of seeking sex for hire. It was a mid-month Friday night. Payday—when not so many bills were due, when child support had been paid, rent and utilities already taken care of. So, extra money meant more to spend on sex.
Monica and I were told not to speak to the girls. We were instructed to be quiet in the back seat. We were told to make them hot chocolate if they wanted it, to make no comments, to let them be them.
It’s not that I didn’t understand sex trafficking or that I didn’t know the data. It’s not that I didn’t understand what the statistics were on DMST (domestic minor sex trafficking) or the realities of how women get trapped into this work, are abused by their pimps or by the johns, and treated as criminals by the police. I had studied the subject, had even spoken to hundreds of people in the Midwest and my home state of Indiana, about how it is a problem in the U.S., in our communities, and we must do something. I helped dispel the myth, or should I say the blindness, that permeates our daily, safe lives, that these things only happen in third-world countries.
They call it “the game.” The game of pimps owning girls, pimps competing with one another to steal their girls, pimps patrolling the streets to make sure the girls don’t talk to the competition. If the girls talk to the competition, it can be dangerous. They can be abused, cut, made to pay in a number of ways.
Sophia was the first girl I met. She was standing by herself at the edge of the street, waiting for a car to pull over and invite her in. Dressed in a red mini skirt, a black faux fur vest with a black bra underneath, and spike black and silver high heels, she walked over to us when we rolled down the window. “Hi,” said Monique. “Would you like a gift?” How about some hot chocolate? Pretty cold out there tonight, isn’t it?” “Oh, yes, thank you,” said Sophia.
Monica made the hot chocolate and handed it through to the front seat. Sophia peered in the back where we sat, hidden from the outside by the tinted windows. She fearfully said, “Oh, you have friends?” She pulled back a bit. “Yes,” replied Monique, “They’re helping us with the hot chocolate. By the way, we know about the game. You’ll find a lip gloss with an 800 number on it in the little bag.” Sophia said, “OK, thanks. And thanks for the hot chocolate.” She moved back to her spot on the street. Back to work.
There were 13 girls on that block that night. Some young, some older, some dressed scantily, others dressed in sweats, some Caucasian, some African American, some Hispanic…a mix of nationalities, but where we were…mostly African American. Some were boys, but mostly women.
We went to three different locations that night, including two in the inner city of Los Angeles. In all we talked with 43 girls; 37 of them accepted our gift bags that contained the 800 number. Six declined. In the three years Kyla has been going out every week, 300 women have been touched and approximately a third of them have entered social service programs.
So how does this happen? How does someone become a victim? How does someone get free? What’s the process? Does this process really make a difference? What happened in someone’s life to get to this point? Where are the people to help? What are the police doing? How can all of this be? What resources do we have to reach understanding…to explain the WHY and the What and the How?