This week the San Francisco Chronicle finished its exhaustive four-part series on sex trafficking. (Actually if you count all the audio slide shows, podcasts and follow-up articles it's more like a 12-part series, but who's counting?) The articles center around You Mi Kim, a naive South Korean college student with a serious shopping habit who ended up getting duped into sex slavery to help her pay off her $40,000 in credit card debts. After answering an ad to work as a hostess in an American men's club ("Very gentle. No touching," the ad reportedly read), she was flown to Tijuana, Mexico, smuggled across the border and forced to spend five months having sex with dozens of men in Los Angeles' Koreatown and Ingleside neighborhoods. Later she extended her stay in hell working in a massage parlor in San Francisco's Tenderloin District for four more months, where she met a really nice john who fell in love with her and whisked her away from her former life. What a story -- a modern fairy tale of evil step-madams, coed Cinderellas and a prince in shining latex.
The series, which includes three massive "diary entries" with more details about discarded condoms and coerced sex acts than probably any mainstream media story in the history of humankind (just a hyperbolic guess), also attempts to give a sense of how large the problem of sex trafficking has become. Although reporter Meredith May admits that exact numbers are hard to come by, the stats she gathers will give anyone with an ounce of humanity the willies. According to State Department estimates, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labor and sex worldwide each year, and 80 percent of those people are women and girls. Where do they end up? Mostly in "civilized" countries like the U.S., Australia and Japan. In the U.S., asserts May, the most popular destinations are New York, Las Vegas, Texas and California.
May is careful not to overstate the issue, but she does suggest San Francisco's famously sex-positive culture is in part to blame for sex traffickers setting up shop inside the Golden Gates. Paraphrasing the opinion of Donna Hughes, a "national expert on sex trafficking at the University of Rhode Island," May writes that "San Francisco's liberal attitude toward sex, the city's history of arresting prostitutes instead of pimps, and its large immigrant population have made it one of the top American cities for international sex traffickers to do business undetected."
So after several consecutive days of "Diary of a Sex Slave" plastered in gazillion-point print across the daily's cover (no doubt a happy fact for beleaguered circulation czars), it's hardly surprising that yesterday Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to crack down on massage parlors known for prostitution and specifically sex trafficking.
But what is a liberal city to do?
From "Lusty Lady," the unionized strip-club co-op, to the 2005 Sex Worker Festival and Girlfest, the city has always wanted to have it both ways: embracing every conceivable sexual proclivity and at the same time embodying ideals of gender equality and human rights. Two years ago the city moved away from stigmatizing the massage parlors by removing them out of police oversight and into regulation by the Department of Environmental Health.
Like the Netherlands being accused of confusing multicultural tolerance with allowing intolerant Muslim groups to flourish, the idea that San Francisco's sexual tolerance has been exploited by sex traffickers presents a bit of a pickle. No doubt there will be a temptation to minimize the issue, or at least quibble over what the issue is. Already city supervisor Jake McGoldrick has been quoted as wondering if it might not be the right time to embrace the legalization of prostitution. A concerted effort to quash sex traffickers will also set off alarm bells with self-empowered sex workers and their surprisingly influential advocates. An editorial by sex-worker advocate Carol Leigh in the Chronicle written in the wake of several raids on massage parlors, aimed at busting sex trafficking last year, sounded the alarm. "Before we buy into the 'sex slave' melodrama," Leigh wrote, "we should consider the complexities of sex work, migration and trafficking. Framing the range of abuses in the sex industry as a moralistic concern about 'sex slaves' obscures the real violations (and advantages) of this industry."
Leigh's emphasis on complexity sounds good -- but advantages? If this debate were about forced ditch digging, the issues would be pretty clear. But adding sex into the mix still seems to make us muddle-headed. Like the gazillion-point type screaming from the headlines, sometimes it's hard to keep things in perspective and, well, call a slave a slave.