Three hundred community members and parishioners from the Allen Temple Baptist Church attended a symposium on human trafficking Saturday morning to learn about sexual exploitation in Oakland and the world.
Nola Brantley, the founder of MISSSEY, an Oakland-based group that helps sexually exploited minors, was the first of two speakers. The Reverend Harry Williams, who introduced her, called Brantley a modern day Harriet Tubman because of her contributions to eliminating sexual slavery in Oakland.
When Brantley took the podium, she explained that while not all sexually exploited women are minors, nearly all of them are recruited as children when they’re unable to understand what’s happening. Brantley quoted several of the young women she has worked with, including one who said that pimps start by “buying you drugs, taking you shopping, getting your hair and nails done, spoiling you … you ride in the front seat all the time.”
The quote, Brantley said, “is definitely the statement of a child, being excited about getting to ride shotgun. These are children too. Sometimes we don’t realize that because of that ugly word, ‘prostitute’.”
Brantley said the young girls she encounters are mostly African American or Latina girls between the ages of 11 and 17, and that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12. The girls often live at or below the poverty line, and many have suffered some kind of earlier sexual or physical abuse, Brantley said.
Nearly all of those girls, she said, had a lack of supervision, support or safety at home – the result of parents who are incarcerated, or facing addiction problems or mental illness. Still, she said, for some it was simply a parent who wasn’t paying attention.
Brantley also detailed five stages of recruitment into prostitution: recruitment, seduction, isolation, coercion and violence. During the recruitment stage, she said, an older man approaches a girl and expresses interest in a romantic relationship, and dangles the offer of physical or financial protection for the girl and often her family. This, Brantley said, is why girls who already feel a sense of instability in their lives are so easily victimized.
During the seduction phase, the pimp still acts like a boyfriend, spoiling the girl with gifts and promises of love. Isolation is the next step, when the pimp will insist on being near the girl at all times, even checking her phone and screening and her calls.
Once the girl has been effectively isolated from whatever support system she may have had, the pimp will begin the process of coercion. While it looks slightly different in every case, Brantley said, it usually happens once the man has had sex with the girl. The man often praises the girl’s sexual abilities and suggests that, since she is already so gifted, she could make a lot of money. Sometimes the man expresses interest in having a baby with the young woman, or of buying a house together, and he promises that by having sex for money for only a short time, they will be able to make these dreams a reality.
“If they don’t cooperate during the coercion phase, then it comes to violence,” Brantley said. “Even if they go out willingly at first, eventually there will come a time when the girls doesn’t want to do it anymore, for whatever reason. Violence will either get them out there, or it will keep them out there.”
Brantley said that a prostitute is 40 times more likely to be murdered than a non-prostitute. Because of this, she said, one of the biggest challenges in helping young women who are being sexually exploited is the common belief that, as unsafe as their lives might be, there is no safer alternative.
“Many are told that when you’re in, you’re in,” Brantley said. “They only way you get out is you die.”
Those with the desire and means to get out face barriers such as prior arrest records — which can make it hard to find work — a lack of safe and affordable housing, and social stigma.
Brantley was followed as a speaker by Melissa Farley, a researcher who has made a career of speaking with pimps, johns and prostitutes. Farley has traveled the world to study the psychology behind prostitution and advocate for national changes.
“Prostitution is really organized crime,” she said. “There are billions of dollars to be made. This is not just Oakland. This is mafias from all over the country and the world.”
While she said that some women do voluntarily enter into prostitution, Farley said that they make up only 2 percent of prostitutes overall. She said that these women are generally educated, and Caucasian, and that most could find other work if they chose.
The other 98 percent of female prostitutes are being exploited, Farley said. She added that 48 percent are coerced into prostitution because of poverty and a lack of opportunity, while 50 percent are literally and physically enslaved.
“I don’t care if she’s on silk sheets at the Hyatt Regency, or in a back alley on International Boulevard,” Farley said. “It’s the same thing, and it feels horrible to be sold for sex.”