By Scott Johnson
Staff Writer, Oakland Tribune
Not long ago, I met with "K" -- an 18-year old woman in East Oakland who, at the tender age of 12, was lured into the sex trade. In today's parlance she was a victim of human trafficking, and, in particular, child sex slavery.
Over the years she was beaten down -- psychologically as well as physically -- a couple of times to within inches of her life, by a succession of brutal pimps. Once, when she was 14, she was kidnapped and held hostage by what's known in Oakland as a "gorilla pimp" -- a term that law enforcement often uses to describe the brutal men who beat their victims bloody, intimidate them into total submission, and sometimes kill them.
Over the last few weeks I've interviewed several of these women, in Oakland and elsewhere. K, for one, was smart, articulate and engaged. Both physically and in every other way she seemed possessed of a maturity far beyond her years. When she spoke about her years on Oakland's "track" -- the strip of International Boulevard where the vast majority of sex-trafficked girls ply their trade -- it was with a sense of resignation and sadness, and a keen desire to escape. And she did try to escape, several times, to no avail. She always found herself back on the track.
Like many of the girls who have been kidnapped, K was pretty deeply traumatized. When she spoke about her experiences, she often sank into the details of her own narrative as if it were happening all over again. The late-night phone calls, the exact words exchanged, where the pimp struck when he lashed out at her to beat her, where exactly on her throat his hands landed when he tried to strangle her -- all these details were vividly alive for her. At the end of the conversation, she was tired, understandably.
It is important that the wider world hear, and understand, what girls like K have gone through and what countless other millions of people continue to endure. Human trafficking is a huge industry, accounting for literally tens of billions of dollars in revenue across the globe each year. Its worst offenders are often to be found in East Asia and the former Soviet republics, but there is plenty of horror to be found domestically as well, including right here in California.
There are also people trying to bring attention to the issue through other means. One Oakland resident, Maria Nieto, a professor of biology at CSU East Bay, recently wrote a novel called Pig Behind the Bear, about the murder of Los Angeles journalist Ruben Salazar in the 1970s but, more centrally, about human trafficking.
As it happens, Nieto herself was a victim of human trafficking. As a child growing up in Los Angeles, a family member forced her into a for-profit pornography ring from the age of 4 to 11 where members took pictures and videos and sold them on the black market.
"I thought it was important to highlight this issue because it still isn't talked about enough, and it's such a pressing and important issue," she told me recently. "I was a victim of sex exploitation as a child, so to write that story I had to revisit my past. I'm not any of the characters, per se, but it was a healing process to write that part into the story for me."
A number of groups in the East Bay are working to bring more attention to this issue. And the victims are too many to count, and they are everywhere. In Nieto's case, the principle offender received a two-year prison sentence. These days, sentences are longer, and people know more. But there is still much to be done.
"It affects our whole community," Nieto says. "It's so very damaging."