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Police Target Buyers to Fight Teen Sex Trafficking

October 16, 2014

It’s estimated that hundreds of teenagers are the victim of sex trafficking every year in Washington. Some are as young as 12 years old. Police have tried different tactics to combat the problem—arresting the girls, targeting the pimps… Now prosecutors are trying a new strategy—going after the buyers. The new penalties men will face if they are caught trying to solicit a prostitute, and how men who try to buy underage girls will be labeled “sex offenders.”

Sabrina Register: It’s called the track. On any given night, hundreds of young girls and women walk the streets, search for men. Men, who are searching for sex.

Noel Gomez: I’ve survived a war.

Noel Gomez talks with journalist Sabrina Register about the 15 years she was trafficked on the street and online.

Register: Young women like Noel Gomez.

Gomez: No girl says I’m going to grow up and be strung out on Aurora. I’ve been stunned with stun guns, I’ve been hit with a baseball bat, I’ve been thrown out of cars. I’ve been raped numerous times, strangled almost to death. I’ve had my nose broken three times, everything has happened to me.

Register: Noel was 16 and pregnant when her parents kicked her out and she fell into the wrong arms.

Gomez: I ran into a guy and he seemed really great and he had money, and was cool, and he looked good, and he sold me a dream and I paid for it.

Register: Noel’s story is not uncommon.

Debra Boyer: You have to understand that people begin in prostitution at around age 13, 14, or 15. They are children. They are adolescents.

Register: Doctor Debra Boyer is a cultural anthropologist who has worked with at risk youth for three decades. She now runs Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors or OPS.

Boyer: I know from my research on early adolescents in prostitution from the early 1980s that we made the correlation that of early childhood sexual abuse and then later involvement in prostitution. This is what we learned. We learned that the molested four-year-old became the raped 11 year-old who became the prostituted 14 year-old.

Register: A port city on the I-5 corridor near the Canadian border, Seattle’s prostitution problem may be one of the worst in the nation. In a 2008 report, Dr. Boyer estimated some 300 to 500 girls and young women were being trafficked in King County. Police think that number may be conservative. And that was before the online explosion of trafficking.

Boyer: Certainly the internet has changed things absolutely. It is more hidden, they are less likely to be arrested, both for the woman and the man.

Valiant Richey: What we’ve discovered over the last four years is that there is a huge market for online sex.

Register: Valiant Richey is the senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County.

Richey: When we’ve caught men, it is almost never their first time. They usually have engaged in it many times. We have caught some men 750-1000 times before.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has identified more than 100 websites where commercial sex is available.

Register: Richey’s office has identified more than 100 web sites in King County where commercial sex is available. Pimps force girls and women to advertise online, posting pictures of themselves as well as proposed locations like hotel rooms and hourly rates. Some read like online reviews where buyers graphically describe the girls then rate them.

Register: So this online explosion of commercial sex, who is buying online?

Richey: What we’re finding is that we’re catching men that you wouldn’t normally see caught up in these stings, teachers, two pastors, tech workers, lawyers, executives.

Register: For the sex buyer, the internet is convenient. They can look at advertisements from dozens even hundreds of girls, call a phone number and arrange a setup for sex in a matter of minutes. Noel, whose pimp first prostituted her on the track, was later trafficked online where she says she met other very young girls.

Gomez: I was working with a girl who was 15. She was being sold on Back Page. She was a 15 year old girl. There was a girl who was 12 being sold on Back Page.

Register: King County has tried different approaches to end what’s estimated to be a billion dollar industry. Ten years ago, law enforcement stopped arresting the girls and women, and with the help of stronger laws, started going more aggressively after pimps. Pimps like Shacon Barbee, who was convicted last fall and sentenced to 35 years for sexually exploiting underage girls. But Richey says it’s not enough.

Richey: We’ve been down that road and we’re not winning the battle and so the time has come to look at a new strategy for trying to get the upper hand and that has turned our focus to an area that has been largely disregarded and that is the buyer, also known as the John.

King County prosecutors are warning men with ads that commercial sex is illegal and buyers will be prosecuted.

Register: King County is creating online ads, warning men that many of the girls are underage and buying sex from anyone is illegal. Those men not deterred face getting caught in online sting operations conducted by law enforcement. Buyers face tougher penalties, jail time and up to a 5 thousand dollar fine. And if involves a minor, buyers will have to register as a sex offender.

Richey: We have to show buyers that there’s a likelihood that you’re gonna get caught and if you get caught, you’re going to get hammered.

Register: Men who are prosecuted and convicted will also be required to go through a buyer intervention program, an intensive eight week session. Peter Qualliotine runs the program.

Peter Qualliotine: First we want to reframe prostitution from a victimless crime to a system of violence against women. Part of the reason these men don’t see the harm is that they’re paying not to hear about it. They’re paying for the fantasy of what prostitution is like for her, not her reality.

Register: This program, will it work?

Qualliotine: I think it’s fair to say we will reach some men and we won’t reach some men. They’ll probably be a lot of folks in between. With these men, we have one shot at intervention. So a longer rather than a shorter term intervention makes more sense because we have much more of a chance to make an impact on these men.

Register: OPS and King County will try to reduce online sex trafficking by 20 percent in two years. While unusual, Dr. Boyer says the partnership with King County may the answer to fighting trafficking.

Boyer: I think we have an opportunity that I haven’t seen in my career right now of such collaboration and understanding between social services and also public agencies. We’re sitting around the table talking the same language. I don’t have to argue that these women are victims and they need help.

Gomez: My best friend is dead. We got trafficked at the same time.

Register: Noel spent 13 years in the life before she deciding she had to get out. It then took two more years for her to finally break free. She now does outreach with girls and young women on the track and leads survivor support groups, hoping she can convince them to get out before it’s too late.

Gomez: No woman wants to do this. No woman wants to end up in this life.

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Sabrina Register

Sabrina Register is an award-winning journalist who has been covering stories that are relevant and matter to the people of the Northwest for close to 20 years. A graduate of Vanderbilt University with a concentration in political science, Sabrina began her television career in Mississippi. After spending two years reporting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sabrina moved to Seattle in the mid-1990’s to cover news of the Northwest. Sabrina’s awards include top recognition from the Associated Press and the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award for investigating reporting.

More stories by Sabrina Register

There are 4 comments

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Thank you for your special on this subject. Would like to see more episodes on this subject to increase the awareness of everyone in our area. Prostitution I agree would not exist without the demand and I will write our State Supreme Court and let them know that they must do something about websites like Backpage that sell young girls into sex slavery which includes violence against these same women. I dont know the answer to this question and would like to see other episodes that perhaps show what other places are doing. I have heard that prostitution is legal in Nevada and European countries. Would this eliminate the violence towards this women and reduce the slavery of underage girls?

I watched your show tonight on sex trafficking and I hoped you would include Asian owned massage parlors that are the highest traffickers of young women. This arena of the sex trade continues to go under the radar of shows like yours due to either your inexperience in researching a story thoroughly or unwillingness of your producers to crack open this lucrative business that is protected and ignored by law enforcement. Possibly a follow story would be in order to tell the complete story of sex trafficking and under age trafficking by Asian syndicates.

Seems mr. valient wants a name for himself . He doesn't care if you have passed a lie dector test or not. he doesn't care if you risk your life for HIS freedom in war and got a concussion, and other injuries.He wants you to plead guilty even if your innocent and in my personal OPINION,he uses intrapment on people who have never had a conviction, and was harrassed into being in the wrong place at the wrong time.hewants to destroy a war veterans life because by god he has got to be right. I wonder if his friends and family know what kind of person he really is and the low life tactics he uses to get a conviction. How does he SLEEP!!!???. He needs prayer, He needs JESUS,.I say this as a personal opinion according to my first amendment right which FREEDOM OF SPEECH> Some of this is fact and some is opinion . If you remove it I'll just keep emailing. If you don't post it I'll eventually find some one that will

You think Washington is bad, try Arkansas.A straight line across the Mississippi to the end of North Carolina, Florida, etc. But we don"t have a prosecuting attorney who gets convictions by using dirty tatics and hates vets.

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