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There’s Virtually No Such Thing as Voluntary Sex Work, Says DA

San Diego DA Summer Stephan, who’s touted her experience combating sex trafficking as part of her re-election campaign, has said that women involved in sex work rarely choose it on their own volition. Other California prosecutors have begun to take the same approach. But Stephan’s opponent says that view is elitist.

Summer Stephan / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The way District Attorney Summer Stephan describes it, prostitution, as a legal term, is all but vanishing in California. Virtually any woman who engages in sex work for money is to be considered a victim who should not be prosecuted for a crime, she told VOSD on a recent podcast.

Stephan has made her experience combating sex trafficking a centerpiece of her campaign for district attorney. She has served as chief of the district attorney’s office’s Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Division and chaired the San Diego County Human Trafficking Advisory Council.

On a recent podcast, she shared with VOSD some of what law enforcement has done in recent years to identify the trafficking she said is “happening in plain view.”

While prostitution involves the exchange of sex for money, sex trafficking involves compelling a victim to perform commercial sex acts through force, fraud or coercion.

Stephan says the girls and woman who engage in this lifestyle rarely choose it on their own volition and says victims are often forced or lured into it before they turn 18. Victims are often forced to hand over pay to pimps who exploit them, or are forced to work off debts and are enslaved in an escapable cycle.

“There is a limited number of people that can say that they are choosing this as a way to make a living and that they don’t have a pimp or a trafficker that’s deriving their money from that person,” she said.

The conversation appears to have particular relevance locally. The FBI listed San Diego as one of the nation’s 13 highest areas of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Local figures detailing the scope of the issue are usually drawn from a three-year study published in 2016 by researchers at the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University that said human trafficking is San Diego’s second largest underground economy, behind drug trafficking, and that the average age of girls who are lured into it is 16 years old.

Owing to 2016 legislation, no one under the age of 18 can be prosecuted for prostitution in California. They are treated instead as victims under the law.

On the podcast, Stephan went further, arguing adult women who engage in prostitution are more than likely victims, too. If a woman isn’t explicitly forced into sex work, she said, she was likely pressured into it before she could freely choose.

“Just from being on the ground doing this work for a long time, even those people that tell you they are choosing this life, they were recruited at an early age. … So in my head, you know, how do you really become free if this is all you know when you don’t have (an) education or any other line of work to sustain yourself?”

Genevieve Jones-Wright, who’s running against Stephan for district attorney, has a much different take. On Facebook, Jones-Wright issued a point-by-point response arguing Stephan is conflating sex trafficking with voluntary sex work.

“Who is Summer Stephan to say that someone needs a degree or else they’re never going to be free?” Jones-Wright said, calling the assumption elitist.

“You can’t legislate morality. Some people voluntarily want to be sex workers. And you can’t tell them they didn’t make a choice based on your own morals. This may be hard for some people to understand and digest, but some people actually made a decision as a grown adult that this is what they want to do,” said Jones-Wright.

Stephan has led a campaign to raise public awareness of human trafficking, helping schools and law enforcement agencies understand how teenagers are lured into the industry.

Between 2010 and 2016, as Stephan embarked on the public awareness campaign, the number of prosecutions for both human trafficking and prostitution plummeted. Human trafficking prosecutions dropped by 76 percent, according to the district attorney’s office. Prosecutions for prostitution dropped by 87 percent, according to the city attorney’s office.

The vast majority of defendants in trafficking cases pleaded guilty to crimes that had been reduced to misdemeanors.

Steve Walker, communications director for the DA’s office, attributes the drop in prostitution prosecutions in part to “law enforcement’s increased focus on targeting the ‘demand side’ – criminal buyers – as well as early intervention and prevention through education and training in schools, hospitals and with parents and students,” which he said made victims more likely to report crimes and gave law enforcement officials the ability to intervene early.

He added that the DA’s office also works closely with counterparts at the U.S. attorney’s office, and the human trafficking prosecution statistics his office provided do not include federal prosecutions.

Prosecutors elsewhere have begun treating prostitution the way San Diego’s DA office has.

In 2015, the San Luis Obispo County district attorney’s office announced it would begin to treat prostitutes as victims of exploitation or forced labor rather than as criminals.

And earlier this year in San Francisco, where groups have long called for decriminalization of prostitution, the San Francisco district attorney’s office adopted policies to ensure sex workers who reported violent crimes wouldn’t be prosecuted for misdemeanor prostitution.

Elsewhere, the Philadelphia’s district attorney sent his staff a memo in February advising prosecutors not to charge sex workers if they have two or fewer prostitution convictions. Prosecutors should refer anyone with three or more convictions immediately to diversion court, the memo said.

Stephan said this is in line with her policy. She said it’s rarely appropriate to prosecute women for prostitution.

“With kids you know we don’t charge. With adults, the first bastion that all of the officers have been trained in is to ascertain if this person is a victim [or] if they’ve got a trafficker or a pimp. … So now you’re left under the law with that category of folks that tell you that they’re independent and they don’t have a pimp or a trafficker.”

The law protects minors, but not those who seek to profit from their services. Earlier this year, one countywide Human Trafficking Task Force operation sent 29 men to jail on charges of solicitation of a prostitute.

Stephan told me in an interview several months ago, however, that some law enforcement officers believe there have been some unintended consequences to the law.

Because pimps and traffickers now understand that nobody under the age of 18 can be prosecuted for prostitution, they tell victims to remain quiet if they’re arrested. Whereas before police could use the threat of a prostitution charge to incentivize victims to name their pimps, police can no longer use that bargaining chip to elicit information.

Regardless, one bill signed into law this week will at least make it more difficult to sell the services online. Earlier this month, U.S. authorities seized Backpage.com, a forum that made possible the solicitation of sex services.

Stephan is hopeful the new law will cut into the illegal enterprise and men will no longer “feel the anonymity of just going online and ordering a person like you’re ordering pizza.”

Jones-Wright, however, called the policy misguided, and on Facebook said it would only drive the sex trade further underground.

“How much harder will it be for law enforcement to actually investigate and know who these people are if they’re now not out in the open? I would prefer for them to be on craigslist and Backpage, because we need to know who are they are,” she wrote.

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