San Diego's sex trade is second-largest underground economy after drugs

We need our hearts broken over this

Andrea Smith was introduced to the life of prostitution at age 11, through her mother
  • Andrea Smith was introduced to the life of prostitution at age 11, through her mother
  • Image by Andy Boyd

A leopard-print sign hanging on Andrea Smith’s front door announces, “I am a luxury few can afford.” Three years ago there was heavy truth in that statement. Smith was bringing in about $2500 a night turning tricks.

“I charged $500 for a half hour, full service — meaning blow job and sex — and $1000 for the girlfriend experience. That was the loving, the hugging, the kissing, the affection, and the holding. A lot of people wanted that because they might have a girlfriend or wife at home, but they wanted something [different] with me.”

Smith gave up drugs and prostitution after a severe beating handed down by her pimp and his friends landed her in the hospital and caused her to miscarry twin babies. She is now living at a seven-acre women’s rehabilitation center in San Diego with her two children, a sixth-month-old and three-year-old. The program provides a free two-bedroom, furnished, apartment for up to a year until Smith gets back on her feet.

“I was introduced to the life of prostitution when I was 11 through my mother. I was selling my body in order for her to get high off of crack cocaine.”

They will prey on the weakest member of a pack.

They will prey on the weakest member of a pack.

The first time Smith sold her body, her mother was on her menstrual cycle. “She said, ‘Baby, could you do this favor for me; just this one time? I need you to suck [my client’s] dick. It will only be this time. I promise.’ Instead of giving the guy head he ended up proceeding further and he had sex with me. He paid my mom $70–$80, I think. I remember crying myself to sleep. My mom came into the room and said, ‘Why the fuck are you crying? He only had sex with you!’ I said, ‘But I didn’t want to do it.’ I just wanted to wash it away and feel pretty again, but that never happened. By the age of 14 I had already slept with over 40 men,” Smith recalls.

In 2001, the FBI listed San Diego among the top destinations for child sex trafficking in the United States. Fifteen years later, the problem has intensified. The sex trade is now the second-largest underground economy in our city after the sale of drugs. According to a recent study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University on the relationship between gangs and sex trafficking in San Diego, sex trafficking grosses an estimated $810 million dollars annually in San Diego. What enables sex trafficking to be so lucrative for local gangs is that there is no initial investment or need to keep an inventory. One woman can gross anywhere from $500 to $10,000 a day, depending on sporting events or conventions in town, and she rarely sees a penny of the profit.

Perhaps more alarming is the average age in which local girls enter the trade: 15. The national average is even more startling — between 12 and14 years of age. The number-one place for both recruiting victims and for selling them is online. The University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene study suggests that between 8830 and 11,773 women, mostly young girls, are victimized in the San Diego sex trade. That’s more than twice the population of Del Mar.

Senator Marty Block is pushing a bill, currently on hold, that would increase the fines for men who buy sex. Seventy-five percent of those funds would go toward rehabilitation for victims. Senate Bill 1193 requires businesses, such as massage parlors, bars, farms, bus stops, and emergency rooms, to display a poster that includes a list of warning signs and a hotline number to report human trafficking.

Each large dot on this map represents 20 confirmed human trafficking cases.

Each large dot on this map represents 20 confirmed human trafficking cases.

Courtesy of Bilateral safety Corridor Coalition

There have been several high-profile sex-trafficking busts in recent years. In 2011, a group of gang members was busted in Oceanside for running a ring. Thirty female minors were involved. In 2014, 24 gang members from the local BMS gang based out of North Park were arrested for running a ring that spanned 46 cities in 23 states. Women in their ring were branded with tattoos, bar codes, or a pimp’s name.

Andrea Smith testified against two of her pimps and one of the men who brutally attacked her back in 2013. They are now serving time for charges including kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and pimping.

In early April of this year, San Diego law enforcement held a conference for hotel and motel owners and employees. It provided training on the warning signs, distinguishing, and addressing trafficking within their businesses.

Smith believes that these efforts are making an impact in San Diego, “My pimp would get me a [room] and pay my bill every day to keep me afloat. People at the motels and hotels didn’t have a damn clue in the world. Now they do because the new task force makes sure they understand what trafficking looks like. If they see suspicious activity that could possibly be human trafficking of sexual exploitation they notify the police department immediately. Before, the [hotel industry] had no idea. I stayed in hotels all over the county and no one had a clue what I was doing. I stayed at Extended Stay America in Mission Valley, Budget inn in El Cajon, Heritage Inn off Baltimore in La Mesa. I had rooms in Carlsbad, Oceanside, Encinitas, La Jolla, National City, Chula Vista, you name it.”

Smith also sees a difference in the number of girls working the streets in San Diego. Three years ago, Smith worked the beat (the streets) during the daytime hours. At night she posted ads. She would trick until the early morning hours. “I posted ads on Backpage, Craigslist, Bigdaddy.com, Redbook, Hot Local Escorts; I have been on every single freaking site you could possibly think of. If you go down El Cajon Boulevard nowadays you won’t see prostitutes. That’s because of the sex trafficking task force. They’re not there anymore.”

We’re not prepared

Sex-trafficking victims are interviewed here at the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition

Sex-trafficking victims are interviewed here at the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition

Marisa Ugarte has worked closely with sex-trafficking victims for over a decade. She began as a crisis counselor and case manager for runaways and foster youth for the Eye Counseling and Crisis Service in North County. When that counseling center closed she opened the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition to aid victims of human trafficking. One of her first clients was a 15-year-old girl named Reina, who was forced to work in open-air brothels in North County that serviced mostly migrant workers.

Through her nonprofit, Ugarte runs an emergency shelter. Her shelter has four beds reserved for sex-trafficking victims.

Marisa Ugarte

Marisa Ugarte

Ugarte is a petite, no-nonsense woman, in her mid to late 50s. Sitting in her National City office amid piles of paperwork and a constantly ringing phone, she appears exhausted. Ugarte sighs deeply and deliberately before saying, “The tragedy in San Diego is that there are only 29 beds for sex-trafficking victims — 29!” She pauses and then continues, “Here we are training the community, raising awareness, educating them that there are victims out there, but what we are missing is the infrastructure to help. Where is the infrastructure? We only have one emergency shelter in all of San Diego for them that has only four beds. I just had to turn away six [sex-trafficking victims] because I didn’t have any room. Generate Hope has nine beds [for sex-trafficked victims], the Alabaster Jar has five beds, Mary’s Missionaries only has five beds, and they are full!...

“We are putting up billboards, writing newspaper articles, doing TV segments on sex trafficking. People are beginning to identify victims, but we are not prepared for the problem. With only 29 beds, how can we do it? And the funding? We don’t have the money. We need money to do the right thing.“

Two traumas

Seven years ago Susan Munsey was similarly frustrated. She was aware of San Diego’s sex-trafficking problem and its inadequate facilities to address the issue. Munsey now runs a comprehensive rehabilitation center for sex-trafficked victims located in a serene setting tucked away in a rural part of southeast San Diego. The home has a Victorian feel. It has a swimming pool, narrow hallways, creaky wood floors, and a stunning view. The 13-bedroom home once served as an orphanage for boys.

Susan Munsey

Susan Munsey

Munsey’s organization, Generate Hope, opened its doors to house victims five years ago. Munsey’s motivation to create the facility “was the realization that there wasn’t anywhere in San Diego for these women to go. There were two housing programs but no treatment programs. I am a psychotherapist, a licensed clinical social worker. Myself, and a small grassroots group, just couldn’t sit with that. We started doing some training. We started getting our 5013c together. We put the program together. You can imagine there is a lot of trauma involved in sex trafficking. I found that the majority of the women had also had a child sexual abuse history. So, you have those two traumas ongoing. Also, many of the women didn’t have their high school diplomas. No education, no job skills, no ability to get out and make it on their own. So, housing alone didn’t sit well with me.”

Generate Hope living room

Generate Hope living room

On an average day, the women at Generate Hope spend two hours in group therapy, two hours of academics, and also participate in an adjunct therapy activity that includes activities such as dance, music, art therapy, or equine therapy. On the day I visit, the women are gathered in a big family room for an afternoon yoga session.

Munsey feels a special connection with the women of Generate Hope because she was trafficked as a youth.

“What happened with me is the same thing that happens with most of the girls. When people think about trafficking, they usually think someone had been kidnapped. That does happen — one woman we had here went on a dating website. She met this guy in a public place. They went out to dinner...nice guy, nice dinner. Wakes up the next morning, her drink was drugged, and she is in handcuffs. She was trafficked for two years after that. Now she is in college getting her life together. We had another woman and a [man in a] van did snatch her, but that is few and far between. What usually happens is boyfriending. That is what happened to me. I was a runaway. My parents had gotten divorced. I had gotten lost in the divorce, lost in school, and so on. I made the colossal mistake of running away to Hollywood.” Munsey chuckles, far enough removed to laugh at her teenage decision.

“I met a guy. He was 24. He seemed interested in me and wanted to be my boyfriend. I was enthralled. It was my first love. I think so many people will do whatever for their first love. What typically happens in these situations is that they will buy you things. They will listen to your concerns. It’s all part of a ploy. There comes a time when they say, ‘I am having financial problems. Will you do this favor for me? Just this one time?’ Once a woman has allowed that to happen, things change drastically. This is when physical, psychological, and sexual abuse come in. For a kid, it’s hard to figure your way out. I was very fortunate that just a couple of months in, I was arrested [for prostitution. The arrest] gave me a break to think about it and realize that I had been duped. I had enough of a decent upbringing that I had some self-esteem — not much — to pull myself out of it.”

Munsey’s father had to pick her up from the station. She recalls that his way of dealing with the situation was not to talk about it. Taking her father’s lead, Munsey pretended that it never happened.

“I stuffed it and went on with my life.”

In college, Munsey studied social work and then clinical social work.

“During that time, I realized I had some counseling to do for myself. I needed my own healing. I was fortunate to find a good therapist. I also found God along the way. That made a big difference on how I felt about myself — feeling forgiven and cleansed. I knew that God would use my experience in some way in the future.”

Munsey believes that some of the ignorance surrounding the sex trade in San Diego is due to a belief that trafficking only affects runaways, those in low-income areas, and women across the border.

“The average San Diegan doesn’t recognize that 95 percent of women that are trafficked [in the nation] are American girls. Only about 5 percent are international victims. Those, usually in San Diego, are Mexican women. And they are young women — 14, 15, and 16. I think that is really important to know that the traffickers are really preying on the young and vulnerable. Traffickers are in our shopping malls, at our Starbucks, they go on our public transportation. They will even send girls into schools to recruit for them. They will recruit from special ed. It’s like a wolf or a lion looking for the weakest member of a pack. They prey on kids from the foster-care system, kids from the child-welfare system, and runaways.”

Andrea Smith fit the mold of what pimps are looking for. She came from a broken home. Her father was long gone. The only man she ever called dad, a boyfriend of her mother’s, began molesting her when she was seven. Her mother was absent and drug-addicted. Smith was extremely vulnerable. She believed the men who pimped her also loved her. That is why she didn’t mind handing over her money to them. She thought they were taking care of her. They paid her meager bills, housed, fed, and kept her in tight clothes and high heels. When she became pregnant with her pimp’s twin babies, she was excited. She thought that maybe he would see her as his baby’s mother instead of just a prostitute. That wasn’t the case.

“I was just his bottom bitch, meaning, I was the loyal, the one that made all the money. I took the orders and gave them to the other girls. Anytime anything went wrong with the other girls I would get the beat-down. That’s all I was,” Smith admits.

She realizes that the reason she was able to make more money than the other girls was based largely on the fact that she had been prostituting since adolescence. She was removed from it. It was normal.

“To me it was just a job.” Smith says, her eyes filling up with tears.

At Generate Hope, Susan Munsey counsels women like Andrea who have been prostituting since childhood.

“Since we work with [adult] women, they have been in it a long time before they come to us. We started with 18 and up intentionally because it’s a lot more difficult to work with minors. We thought, Let’s get our feet wet with adults. We did have a minors program for about a year. The owners sold the property we were renting, so we had to close that. We look forward to opening that again at some point because there isn’t any place for minors now, as far as treatment is concerned.”

Your heart breaks all over again

Grace Williams founded the Children of the Immaculate Heart in 2013. Her organization provides housing and rehabilitation for three sex-trafficked women and their children. Williams is in the process of raising $1.5 million in order to purchase a property where she will run San Diego’s only group home specifically for sex-trafficked girls between the ages of 12 and 17. Once opened, funding will largely come from the government. Since most of the youth in her center will be wards of the state, the money used to care for them will go to the Children of the Immaculate Heart.

Grace Williams

Grace Williams

“Our goal is to open it by next February. I think it will happen. Depending on how things go in the fundraising department, we may end up leasing rather than buying. We have a site but the owner isn’t being very cooperative,” Grace says with an unexpected chuckle while pushing a strand of sandy blonde hair behind her glasses.

In the small time I spend with Williams it becomes clear to me she is an optimist. With a smile she describes a month-long process of getting rid of bed bugs — that she became host to while helping one of her clients move in to a new apartment — as an adventure. The petite, modestly dressed, thirtysomething knows that it is essential to have a good attitude in her line of work when she is surrounded by tragedy.

“It’s tough seeing young girls trafficked, but on some level we get used to it. Every once in a while something happens and your heart just breaks all over again and you can’t believe this is really happening. We need to have our hearts broken over this. If we don’t have compassion for this population who are we going to have compassion for?” says Williams.

While Williams waits to reach her fundraising goal and open her group home for minors, the Children of the Immaculate Heart aids a few women in their 20s and 30s. Her organization provides for their basic needs, including furniture, clothing, toiletries, medical expenses, and housing. When the group home for youth is opened, the current program assisting adult victims will be phased out.

“The apartments we rent for the women are in separate locations. It is a little bit difficult to find apartment complexes that want to rent to us. It’s hard. I get it. People don’t understand. They think it might be dangerous for them to rent to us. In theory, it could be. Usually we go around [looking for housing] and everyone says, ‘No! No! No!’ and then we find one person who totally gets it. The most recent person we found said, ‘If you ever need another apartment, I would be happy to rent to you.’”

While Williams is in agreement with Marisa Ugarte on the need for infrastructure, she also believes that there needs to be a societal shift in order to halt the sex-trade problem. She notes a correlation between the porn industry and sex trafficking.

“Pornography effects trafficking in several ways. Oftentimes, these images are people being trafficked. Secondly, traffickers make their girls, or their women, or their boys, watch pornography to normalize what is going to happen to them, so they know what people will ask them to do. It is being used as an educational tool. The third way is the buyers, the Johns, once they have gone down that path, the pornography is not doing it anymore. Now they have to go out and buy. I mean, there are so many layers. It’s an addiction. Pretty much everyone involved in this movement sees the connection with pornography. It is not a popular subject, but for those of us involved in the anti-trafficking movement, we see it,” says Williams.

Ugarte shares some of Williams’ views. She is often invited to speak to local school children on safety and topics related to sex. “I’ll ask the kids, ‘Raise your hand if you have ever seen or been sent a naked picture online.’ I always raise my hand and that gives them the courage to raise theirs. All of them raise their hands. Nowadays, eighth graders and seventh graders know everything there is to know about sex, probably more than you and I,” Ugarte shakes her head. “Also, we have to look at what kind of music our girls are dancing to. Listen to the lyrics! They are dancing to words like, ‘I’m a bitch, bitch, bitch! I am a ho, ho, ho.’ That is not okay. We need to stop glamorizing this lifestyle. I read a recent stat that says most girls assume its okay to be raped if a guy couldn’t stop. If he was too excited. If a guy doesn’t stop he is liable! We need to teach that. We need a cultural shift. I don’t mean Puritanism. That doesn’t help. Just instilling morals and ethics will help. Ethics and morals should be taught in school.”

Susan Munsey sees funding as the biggest obstacle in fighting the sex trade locally.

“There is not much allocation of finances for sex-trafficking survivors. There are a couple of federal grants that are highly competitive across the country. The State of California does not have any money available. The county doesn’t. There is not money earmarked for this specific purpose.”

Ugarte agrees.

“We need money to do the right thing for the victims,” Ugarte explains before cutting our interview short to greet an Arabic translator in her waiting room. He is there to aid her in communicating with a young Muslim human-trafficking victim who is also sitting in the lobby.

“Sex trafficking is just one piece of the pie in San Diego,” she says while walking me out. “There are 143 clandestine massage parlors just in San Diego. Clandestine — meaning, happy endings. You see, if we just deal with a small piece of the pie, nothing is going to change. We need to address all of it. In sex-trafficking cases, labor, servitude, and domestic workers are involved. There are so many factors involved. Addressing only sex trafficking is good, but that is not the whole pie.”

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I love the women in this story who have given their lives to making a difference despite many obstacles.....so inspiring! Great informative article Siobhan Braun.

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