Orange County’s Invisible Traffic(k)

Fictitious Hollywood versions of sex crimes divert from the true nature of it. Movies normally portray women as shameless, lacking in self-worth and serving as a scapegoat for society. In narration, these people litter the streets of downtown urban ghettos, but never affluent areas such as Irvine, California.

By Summer Sharma

Fictitious Hollywood versions of sex crimes divert from the true nature of it. Movies normally portray women in scantily clad apparel standing at the corner or walking along a street at 2 a.m.. With bold makeup and hair, they’re bent over to talk to the conveniently “lost” driver who has asked for directions, ready to make big bucks for a few moments of their time. These women are portrayed as shameless, lacking in self-worth and serving as a scapegoat for society. In narration, these people litter the streets of downtown urban ghettos, but never affluent areas such as Irvine, California.

Nonetheless, these neighborhoods harbor a dark, almost invisible secret; the selling and abuse of children and young women by men of all backgrounds. The last place we expect it to happen is here in Irvine, not to mention the amount of sexual exploitation of children in particular. A person all too familiar with this distorted perception of a “prostitute” is Jim Carson, the project manager of the Orangewood Foundation which is dedicated to preparing youth for independent adulthood. The Lighthouse is a program under the Orangewood Foundation for survivors of sex trafficking in Orange County.

In an interview, he narrated a conversation that took place over dinner with his friend Bryan, Bryan’s wife, and Oree — a victim of sex trafficking. While on the topic, Bryan asked Mr. Carson, “It doesn’t happen in South County, right?”

Without missing a beat, Mr. Carson asked him to open his computer and pull up the adult side of Craigslist — which has since been shut down. It showed a girl’s ad available in real time for either a body rub or escort — an escort being a date presumably followed by sexual intercourse, and a body rub being a massage including sexual intercourse. After finding the ad for an escort, the two called the number provided to prove how predominant the issue was. After about two rings, a female voice answered, and the pair asked for an outcall service. This is usually when a caller would drive to the girl’s location for the service. After a short conversation, the girl texted him the address five minutes later. Bryan quickly googled it and found that the meeting point was a mere 4.1 miles away from his house at the Irvine Suite — an area that Mr. Carson has rescued many girls from.

“Who comes to date in Irvine?” Mr. Carson said to Bryan. “It’s here, and people are using it.”

According to Mr. Carson, just because you don’t see girls on “track”, doesn’t mean this issue does not exist. In the rapidly growing cyber market, sexual exploitation is harder to detect. He explains it doesn’t take a lot for someone to become a victim, especially for children in the foster system who are already abused. Coupled with the close proximity and lack of awareness among communities, sex trafficking becomes an “invisible crime”. 

He explains it doesn’t take a lot for someone to become a victim, especially for children in the foster system who are already abused. Coupled with the close proximity and lack of awareness among communities, sex trafficking becomes an “invisible crime.”

“It’s a hidden crime,” Mr. Carson says. “There’s no ‘track’ in Orange County; if there was, do you know how fast it would get shut down? It’d take all of two minutes for the police to show up.”

But of course, while movies portray those on the “corner” as fully grown women capable of making their own choices, no one sees the children coerced into this life. Unbeknownst to most, foster youth are at a huge risk of falling into the trap of sexual exploitation due to their lack of family support, unstable childhood, and previous abuse. Magnified by a fear of homelessness after the age of 18, many victims fall for the fake and glamorized life fed to them by their pimps. It is the gap between fantasy and reality that worries Mr. Carson.

21-year-old Oree, a former foster youth and survivor, works closely with Jim Carson to bring awareness to the community. Today, Oree talks to a variety of audiences, from firefighters to government officials, highlighting issues and explaining the best measures to take for helping exploited children.

After being trafficked from the ages of 11 to 15, Oree understands the ins and outs of “the life” far too well. With her 22nd birthday approaching in a few months, Oree remembers with crystal clarity the time she was abused and used as a source of income at her own expense.

For five years across the street from Disneyland, Oree slept when the sun was up. Day in and day out, she woke up at 10 p.m. to begin her day. She walked for hours along numerous streets, was approached by numerous men of different kinds of professions — businessmen, fathers, ministers, officers to name a few — and was expected to make “x” amount of money if she wanted to sleep, eat, or avoid a beating. “Survival sex” was what she named it, and over the years of living in survival mode, her trust for people began to disappear. Her pimp was her only form of comfort, and like many girls who want to leave, she had no one to run to.

Oree explained on an occasion when she had the opportunity to run.

“I was running for the first two blocks in high heels, then I was trotting, then jogging, and finally I walked, and then I realized ‘where am I running to?’” she thought, before returning to the same man she so desperately thought she could get away from.

“The system wants to lock you up, and people look at you with fucking disgust. Why would I want to go to that?” Oree says. Children in this cycle of shame, hurt, and abuse look at the world with a skeptical eye and, “Even though majority want help, they don’t think they can get it.”

Most children are not lucky enough to have someone who cares and is willing to work with them. “Social workers don’t care, police officers are untrustworthy, and everyone hates you,” Oree explains.

While Oree took the steps to gain agency over her life, there are many children and young adults at this moment who are unable to leave their abusers for multiple reasons. In Oree’s case, it was a perfect mix of her determination to leave along with Mr. Carson’s help that allowed her to make the transition from “the life” to recovery.

She went on and explained how the children who get stuck in this life become so warped into thinking that it is their only way to happiness, they cannot even picture ever leaving.

Any child is susceptible to being a target.

While most children targeted and coerced into this life come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, Oree explains that she has talked to girls from every background imaginable. “People tell me they only see minorities, or they don’t expect people of affluent backgrounds to be involved, and they are wrong.”

Pimps come in all forms, and that is why you get girls from different geographic locations. Oree ran through a quick run-down: the “Romeo” pimp plays the role of the knight-in-shining-armor, the “Gorilla Pimp” uses brute force, “gangs” buy and sell girls, and the “CEO Pimp” falsely promises fortune through business connections — all contributing to the ongoing problem of this invisible crime.

For many young women, exploitation, as well as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, ironically creates a dependent relationship between them and their pimp, which then makes it harder for people like Mr. Carson to intervene. He explains that children who have been belittled and beat down throughout their lives are easier to coerce with false stories of riches and glamour. While the public degrades the women for their choice, understanding what life is in their shoes may paint an empathetic picture as to why they begin and why they can’t leave.

A new wave of open conversation regarding child exploitation has been changing the public view. For the past 5-10 years, the sex trafficking epidemic was commonly misunderstood because the children involved were classified as criminals due to the fact that prostitution is illegal in the US. Despite being underage, they were branded as prostitutes on their criminal record, or “RAP sheets”. As Mr. Carson explains, since a legally binding contract cannot be made between a child and his or her “pimp”, officials have begun to stray away from labeling these individuals as criminals, instead marking them as victims. Ongoing research and education about the hidden crime has also begun to thaw the stringent ideas surrounding it. With seminars and education provided by those previously involved in the lifestyle, people around the world are coming to view this crime as a modern form of slavery.

Legally in our nation, there have been big changes happening in the last few years to combat child sex trafficking, such as Prop 35, which requires convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders and law enforcement to receive training on human trafficking. This results in a greater emphasis on a victim-centered approach so that those trafficked are seen as victims rather than criminals. Furthermore, implementation of Prop 35 allows courts to have more control over regulation and in assigning legal labels to criminals that are trafficking individuals.

With legislation changing and women like Oree providing us a better understanding of the realities of sex trafficking, people will slowly realize what it’s truly like.

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Summer Sharma is a content writer and copy editor at InSight who believes in the importance of addressing the hard issues not discussed in everyday conversation. Additional to studying Criminology and Literary Journalism at UC Irvine, she also works at the UCI Police Department assisting officers with their cases.

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