After a decade in the anti-trafficking movement, I am always surprised by the shocked reactions of others when they first learn about the prevalence of child sex trafficking locally. Disgust, anger, and a strong pull toward action I understand. The shock catches me off guard. When I find myself in discussions with the shocked, I often wonder if we are living in and experiencing the same country. As a woman of color from Oakland, I understand sex trafficking as a horrific byproduct of a society that over sexualizes, marginalizes, and oppresses entire populations of people.
The truth I have come to understand is that there are, in fact, multiple Americas. This country presents as the land of safety, endless opportunity, and freedom for some and as a place of continuous strife, danger, and despair for many others. This country centers, caters to, coddles, and encourages the success of white, middle- and upper-class, cis-gendered men while everyone else exists on a continuum of worth and experiences America accordingly.
Commercial sexual exploitation exists in this context and at the intersections of the resulting oppressions. From the intersections of these oppressions, an equation emerges: the greater the experience of marginalization, the higher the vulnerability to being bought and sold. In the Bay Area and cities throughout the nation, risk increases exponentially when viewed through the lens of race.
At MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), a nonprofit in Oakland serving sex-trafficked, female-identifying young people ages 11 to 24, more than 80 percent of the survivors we see are girls of color. The overwhelming majority of girls are from low-income, under-resourced communities, and most are involved in either the foster care or juvenile justice systems. These girls come to MISSSEY abused and neglected, yet many of them do not recognize their own victimization. Society has told them their experiences of exploitation are the result of their choices and, unfortunately, most often they believe it. Associated feelings of shame and self-blame keep girls silent, suffering, and unsafe. This internalized oppression complicates an already difficult journey to healing. Changing internal narratives about one’s worth and capabilities is a lifelong struggle for many women, and for a female survivor of sex trafficking, the journey can be grueling. In a society that commodifies and impedes women, finding self-love is an essential act of resistance that has the capacity to support our movement from surviving to thriving. Fighting internalized oppression, however, is just one battle in a war that erodes women’s health, happiness, and success.[pullquote-1]
Systems that claim to serve and protect have too often stigmatized and harmed women and girls. As an example, for years women and girls have been arrested for prostitution while purchasers have been ignored. Her behavior is seen as and labeled a chronic menace to society and threat to the quality of life while his is viewed as a minor lapse in judgment with no significant bearing on his character or standing in society. Even recent Oakland Police Department statistics show a significant focus on arresting adult women involved in prostitution. Many of these adult women entered the sex trade as child victims and continue to be controlled by exploiters. It was just this past January that California Assembly Bill 1322 went into effect mandating victim status for sex-trafficked youth under the age of 18 and taking away law enforcement’s ability to arrest underage victims for prostitution-related offenses. A related bill was passed two years earlier mandating California child welfare agencies respond to trafficked youth. Before this bill passed, children identified as sex-trafficking survivors were not served through child welfare unless the exploiter was identified as a parent or caregiver. These systems are a microcosm of the larger society and most often reflect societal beliefs and values through their policies and procedures.
I spent 14 years in the Oakland Police Department. As an investigator and supervisor in the Child Exploitation Unit, I had to navigate systems in an attempt to obtain resources and justice for exploited children. The process was excruciating, as there were few options for services and placement. Laws, policies, and powerful people worked against us, and I struggled with a fairly small group of advocates, survivors, and elected officials committed to creating victim-centered system responses. I fought to change policy for trafficked girls inside of a notoriously patriarchal profession within a police department that struggled with issues of gender bias and sexual harassment. I experienced and witnessed daily micro-aggressions and regular macro-aggressions. Jokes and references to female anatomy were commonplace in the police academy, conversations and condemnations about the sex lives of female officers were everywhere from locker rooms to formal tactical team meetings, and women were underrepresented in the department and virtually invisible in the most coveted and highly regarded assignments.[pullquote-2]
I was the subject of a sex discussion by the tactical team. At the time, I was a highly competent officer and had worked my way into a specialized crime response team, but the conversation focused on questions about my sex life and who I was sleeping with, and wagers about who could sleep with me. A white male lieutenant led the conversation during formal team training. When I found out, I spoke up and was stigmatized for years. The lieutenant received a slap on the wrist, was promoted, and became my division commander. In another instance, emails were sent by high-ranking commanders discussing their unwillingness to promote a woman because she was of childbearing age and might be distracted by the pull of children. Another incident involved a deputy chief sexually harassing a woman and offering assistance with a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. Some of the higher-profile incidents of sexism and sexual harassment resulted in obligatory punishment or payout, but most of the situations were never even reported. The stakes are high in a male-dominated hierarchical culture. I learned to cherry-pick my battles and remained silent far too often.
There are good people inside the Oakland Police Department. The career successes I experienced were supported by my relationships with female mentors who provided valuable advice on navigating the environment and a small group of male allies who consistently invested in my professional development and amplified my abilities. But more often than not, good people remained silent regarding issues of equity and justice. Police are known for closing rank — the thin blue wall of silence is real — and it negatively impacts police officers from marginalized groups regularly.
I resigned from the Oakland Police Department in September 2015. While working on a master’s degree, I was engaged in deep self-reflection and chose to explore internalized oppression as a thesis topic. Heightened self-awareness, increased understanding of and commitment to issues of social justice, and growing self-confidence interfered with my ability to tolerate the culture of the Oakland Police Department. I left the organization 10 months before the scandal involving the sex-trafficked teenager broke. I had a strong emotional reaction to the exploitation of the girl at the hands of police officers. I was angry but I also felt regret and guilt. Did I fight hard enough? Train enough officers in the realities of sex trafficking? Focus on the right policy changes? I think I did what I could.
As a middle-class woman with educational privilege and positional authority, I still experience the realities of oppression. The diversity of women recently reporting sexual assault and harassment at the hands of Hollywood executives, business leaders, and politicians highlights the far-reaching impacts of sexism and the normalized violence against women. Women with a certain amount of access and privilege are not immune to harassment and abuse. Vulnerable young girls struggling at the intersections of racism, sexism, and classism are completely unprotected. Nelson Mandela eloquently told us “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” We have deep soul work to do.
Culture change is the hardest change. It is a slow, tedious, treacherous process that challenges entrenched mindsets and confronts practices that give power to historically dominant groups. It requires that we acknowledge and attack root causes of injustices. It takes us deep below the surface and out of our comfort zone and routines of responding to the symptoms of oppression with technical fixes. It requires intense attention, daily intention, and collective commitment.[pullquote-3]
The recognition that this country and its supporting systems were not built to serve or support everyone and that, in fact, the country was built on the backs of marginalized groups, particularly people of color and women, is not unpatriotic. Recognizing injustices, refusing to live under oppressive conditions, centering the voices of those most impacted by the issues, and working collectively toward a new reality are our responsibilities if we believe in the tenets of a free and just society. We are all responsible for creating a society where women, girls, and other marginalized populations are free to grow and develop fully, and those who benefit the most from historical oppression have the greatest responsibility to advocate for others. Silence is participation and freedom demands action.