New laws are making California a haven for human trafficking.
On a Saturday night in South Los Angeles, cars pull up and idle along the side streets of Figueroa, high beams ablaze, so that the drivers can get a good look at “the girls.” The women stand three astride in the middle of the street, in pasties and G-string bikinis under fishnet dresses. Draped over their shoulders are unzipped coats; even in temperate L.A., the night’s January chill is biting. In seven-inch Lucite heels, they teeter toward the driver of each car the way you might walk barefoot across gravel. Less than a block away, their pimps keep company on a sidewalk corner, in hoodies and loose jeans, watching their quarry, awaiting the payout. Absent is the one thing that might typically break up the party: a police car.
In early January, I joined Erin Wilson and Stephany Powell on a tour of “the track” on Figueroa, one of California’s busiest prostitution areas. For decades, Wilson, who volunteers for the anti-trafficking organization Journey Out, and her mother, Powell, have worked to combat human trafficking in Los Angeles and to help women and child victims escape this brutal world.
In our postfeminist era, prostitution is so often idealized—“sex work is work”—that it’s easy to overlook the gruesome reality of what it means to have a pimp, an arrangement closer to slavery than to any legitimate job. “The horror stories I could tell you about [prostitutes] being beaten and being choked and being burned and being gang-raped,” said Vanessa Russell of Love Never Fails, an anti-trafficking nonprofit based near Oakland. “And the PTSD and all the mental health, the trauma bonding, the psychotic breaks. Maybe you’re somebody who likes to have sex more than once a day. But nine to 21 times with different guys, some that are, like, 90 years old that smell?”
“Nine to 21 times over what period?” I asked.
“One day,” she said. “That’s healthy living? I don’t think so. The body is not even made for that. Like the pelvic inflammatory disease that you see.” She ticks off the ways a woman’s body is subjected to microbial assault: the STDs, yeast infections, and UTIs that are frequent among the women she sees. Their hospital records prove, she says, that the human body is “not meant to have that much activity going on. And then the girls that are out there—where they’re being sold—they don’t even get to take showers in between.”
While the last few decades have seen an increase in human trafficking, women at all three of the anti-trafficking groups I spoke with across California agreed: nothing compares with the stunning rise in trafficking they’ve witnessed in recent months. Powell, formerly a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Vice Division, knows the city’s streets intimately. Over the last six months, the number of prostitutes has doubled, she says. “On Figueroa, between 68th and 75th, in an hour, you might see about 30 girls out there. Now, you can see 60 to 65 girls in an hour.”
What shifted? The answer, the anti-trafficking advocates told me, is Senate Bill 357. Signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in July, the measure decriminalized loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution. The bill did not officially take effect until January 1 of this year, but from the moment it became law back in July, these women say, the on-the-ground reality changed. “The minute the governor signed it, you started seeing an uptick on the streets,” Powell said. “And on social media, the pimps were saying: ‘You better get out there and work because the streets are ours.’ ”
The pimps were right: police stopped making arrests for crimes that would no longer be charged. The anti-loitering statute had provided the grounds for officers to question women and children whom they suspected might be trapped in a prostitution ring. “As a police officer, you need probable cause to stop and investigate,” Powell explained. “So if I have a law that says you can’t loiter in this area, with pasties and a G-string, flagging down cars, I could stop you for that because you’re loitering. But if I just say I’m stopping you because you look kind of young, that’s a little weak. So, it takes away a tool.” Without the statute, police hands were suddenly tied. Henceforth, questioning the girls—and potentially provoking a violent confrontation with pimps—came to seem a Pyrrhic gamble, one that California’s police officers would now avoid.
Prostitution remains illegal in California. But police have lost significant ground in the effort to contain it, women at anti-trafficking nonprofits in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Los Angeles all emphasized. “The only time they have the right to engage and investigate is if they hear the transaction going on between the buyer and the exploited person,” said Russell, who works closely with the Oakland Police Department. “Which means it would have to be a sting operation where there’s an undercover officer posing as an exploitive person who can actually hear the transaction. Any other scenarios would not be grounds for the police to get involved.”
Sergeant Marcos Campos of the Oakland Police Department told me that his force rescued 24 underage girls from the streets in 2021. But in 2022, that number dropped to 14—most from before the law was signed. “Since, I believe, July, when we were officially told it passed, we have been directed by the district attorney’s office to not arrest for [statute] 653.22, which is loitering,” he said.
You might wonder, at this point, who actually benefits from SB 357. Sergeant Campos wonders, too. Not the communities, he said, for whom a rise in trafficking brings more gun violence, which often attends prostitution. Not the sex workers, many of whom rely on police officers for help in escaping their pimps. “I think if anything, it probably helped the sex traffickers the most,” Campos said.
Why would anyone propose such a law? Why would the California State Legislature pass it? I asked the bill’s author, San Francisco–based state senator Scott Wiener. The answer he gave is the one that he supplies for so many of the bills he authors: it was necessary to advance the rights of LGBTQ people. “If you are standing on the sidewalk with high heels, and you wear your hair a certain way, and you wear tight clothing, an officer can say, ‘I think you’re loitering with the intent to commit prostitution’ and arrest you,” Wiener said. “That is not how we should be doing things in the United States of America—arresting people for how they look,” he continued. “And when you do that, not surprisingly, it’s only certain kinds of people who actually get arrested: it’s trans women. It’s black women. . . . It’s an inherently profiling law,” he said. “Randomly arresting a bunch of black trans women for how they look is not protecting potential victims of human trafficking.”
But were the police indeed “randomly arresting a bunch of black trans women”? The anti-trafficking advocates I spoke with dispute this. For starters, Wilson, Powell, and Russell (all of whom are African-American) say that biological women and girls—not transgender individuals—constitute the vast majority of those trafficked. Nearly every report on human trafficking by global human rights organizations confirms this observation.
And if the women I saw on Figueroa are any indication, discerning which are involved in prostitution does not require sophisticated sartorial judgments but only two eyes and a brain. If a woman is wearing a G-string bikini in the middle of the street and if she’s flagging down cars—while men in dark clothes stand watch, as if holding an invisible leash—she is very likely to be a modern-day sex slave.
Russell, who has worked in tech for 20 years, became interested in combating human trafficking while teaching inner-city kids to dance. Twelve years ago, one of her students, aged 15, was raped in Hayward and then trafficked throughout California for about a year. The girl had no mother or father in her life. “She was being raised by family members. And someone did a strategy that’s called ‘Romeo pimping’ to get her to believe that they were her boyfriend. And then they introduced violence into the relationship,” Russell said. “And she ended up being sold by multiple exploiters throughout the Bay Area, in Vallejo, Southern California, and Oakland, and so on.”
Russell started Love Never Fails as part of a rescue mission for girls like her former student. “Twelve years ago, people didn’t even know what [human trafficking] was. There were all these myths about it being something that’s only happening to people from other countries. There were myths about ‘slavery has ended here.’ And so I think we did a good job of demonstrating that no, it’s alive and well, and it’s happening here in the U.S. Eighty-three percent of all cases [within the U.S.] are of U.S.-born people.”
On my ride-along with Powell and Wilson in Los Angeles, just after 10 PM—before “the track” really gets going—I saw several lines of vehicles stretching around the block, each manned by a prospective client, waiting for his chance with one of the girls. At least 35 females worked the lines, most of them white or Latina. Many looked very young—under 18. I identified only one prostitute as transgender, though Powell noted that there were likely others at a second location on Western Avenue. Powell and Wilson told me that the traffic starts to pick up at 11 and peaks at midnight. As the hour neared 11, more and more women indeed appeared along Figueroa. But Powell and Wilson made certain that we left before midnight. After 11:30, the chance of gun violence erupting around the pimps escalates. We wouldn’t be safe.
In Oakland and in the San Diego area, Russell and Marisa Ugarte, a woman who runs an anti-trafficking group out of San Diego County, reiterated that the vast majority of the trafficked are female—African-American women and girls in Oakland, Russell was careful to specify. But there’s another population Russell has seen rise in the last few years among the ranks of the victims: “those that identify as LGBTQIA+.”
Scott Wiener’s social-media antics might invite comparisons with those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar. On Twitter, he has posted pictures of himself posing bare-chested at San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, arms slung around men in bondage gear. During the monkeypox outbreak last summer, he approvingly tweeted an article encouraging gay men to cover up their bumps with Band-Aids and party on. And he threatened to make “Drag Queen 101” a mandatory part of K–12 education. (He later said that the threat was “tongue in cheek.”) Like other media-adroit, attention-seeking politicians, Wiener seems to delight in trolling his detractors.
Yet in a political era defined by legislative gridlock in Washington, Wiener stands out as one of the nation’s most effective lawmakers. In the six years since the Harvard Law grad took office, he has managed to author, and get passed, a series of radical gender- and sex-related bills. The measures have allowed biological male felons to self-ID their way into women’s prisons; assigned criminal penalties to health-care workers who fail to provide gender-affirming care; made California a “sanctuary state” for LGBTQ youth; expanded access to “gender-affirming care” for LGBTQ-identified youth, with and without parental approval; proposed jail time for health-care workers who “willfully and repeatedly” misgender patients (i.e., refer to them in a way at odds with their gender identity); decriminalized the intentional exposure of a sexual partner to HIV; and reduced criminal penalties for sex offenders.
Another Wiener bill, introduced in 2021, sought to decriminalize psilocybin and ketamine. It failed to pass, partly because of the vocal opposition of former state senate Republican Melissa Melendez, who railed against easing restrictions on ketamine, a drug notorious for facilitating date rape. “I’m like, ‘Do you guys not see the agenda here?’ I mean, honestly, in the legislature, I think people came to just sort of accept those types of bills from him because he’s from San Francisco,” she told me in a telephone conversation. Undeterred, Wiener in December reintroduced a modified version of the bill.
In thoroughly blue California, where Democratic lawmakers have, since 2018, enjoyed a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers, Republican legislators are all but irrelevant and Governor Newsom is a legislative show poodle. It’s Wiener who calls the shots. Republicans and centrist Democrats are often frustrated in trying to oppose bills coming from the Left.
As both a former senate aide and a California Republican Party strategist told me, Wiener, one of the country’s most prominent and outspoken defenders of LGBTQ rights, is uniquely difficult to oppose. “The moment you speak out against one of his bills, just like he does with me . . . he turns around and says: ‘You’re homophobic or transphobic. You’re this or you’re that,’ ” Melendez said. “I don’t care. You can call me whatever name you want. That doesn’t change the fact of what your bill does.”
Wiener indeed typically argues that his politically charged gender- and sex-related bills are needed to fight invidious discrimination against LGBTQ people. “When Greg Abbott announced that the State of Texas was going to investigate and prosecute parents who had allowed their trans kids to get gender-affirming care, we knew that we needed to do something,” he said. “And then we saw it started to spread to other states and so we sprang into action and put together [the ‘sanctuary state’ bill] to make clear that if kids did not feel safe in Texas or other states, they could come to California, and we would do our best to protect them.”
But if some of Wiener’s bills seek to protect LGBTQ youth, they also represent a golden opportunity for a different group: adults who would take advantage of them. Wiener “is an extremely dangerous person, [so] extremely dangerous that I cannot believe that people cannot read in between the lines,” said Ugarte, who runs the anti-trafficking nonprofit Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, based in National City, just south of San Diego. Wiener is turning California, she warned, into “a sex-trafficking paradise.”
Whatever the intent behind many of his bills, this does seem to be their effect: to make life better for sexual predators. Consider the Wiener-authored SB 145, a 2020 measure that amended the sex-offender registration laws in California, so that an adult having anal or oral sex with a minor could avoid getting placed on the sex- offender registry, as long as the child was at least 14 and the adult was no more than a decade older.
Defenders of the law have noted that there has long been judicial latitude in California in whether to place perpetrators of statutory rape on the sex-offender registry, if the crime involved was vaginal intercourse with a minor, the minor was at least 14, and the offender was within ten years of her age. Wiener’s bill extends such potential leniency in sentencing to statutory rape involving anal or oral sex. He has many times defended the bill as required to “end blatant discrimination against LGBT young people regarding California’s sex offender registry,” as his website declares.
“The only thing SB 145 did was to treat LGBTQ young people exactly the same way that straight young people have always been treated on the sex-offender registry, which is, if you’re within a certain age range, and there’s statutory rape that happened, then . . . judges have always had the discretion to decide whether someone should go on the sex-offender registry,” he told me.
Wiener is correct on the history: California law did treat 25-year-old statutory rapists differently, depending on the manner of intercourse that they had with their victim. That discrepancy called out for remediation: the same treatment should apply to anal sex with a minor.
But if the problem is inequality, why not place both sets of offenders on the registry? Why not amend the registry so that a 24-year-old who has sex with a 14-year-old will land on the sex registry, irrespective of whether that statutory rape is anal or vaginal? “My job is to get equality for my community so that these queer kids’ lives aren’t being ruined because of this discrimination,” he replied. “We’re just ending the discrimination. And if someone else wants to go in and try to change a law for everyone, they’re entitled to introduce that bill. No one has done that. All we’re asking for is equal treatment, and that is fundamental fairness. And it is not the gay kids’ responsibility to come in and change the registry for everyone in order to get equality.”
But who exactly are these “queer kids” and “gay kids” he’s talking about? He can’t be referring to the young gay teens who are the victims of felony statutory rape; those minors weren’t being discriminated against by the law—they were being protected by its bright-line insistence that they were sexually off-limits to predatory adults. When he refers to discrimination against “queer kids,” Wiener seems actually to be concerned with the law’s unfairness to the perpetrators of felony statutory rape. That is, he worries about a twentysomething adult—a “kid,” in his turn of phrase—who has sex with a minor.
Many of us would reasonably oppose the prosecution of, say, an 18-year-old high school senior arrested for a consensual sexual encounter with his 16-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend. But in California, that scenario doesn’t describe a felony and does not require anyone to register as a sex offender. Wiener’s bill deals with older offenders who have sexual relations with 14- or 15-year-old kids. I asked him why those young teens shouldn’t deserve the protection of the law. “Then why aren’t you asking this of any other legislator?” he replied. “I mean, honestly, what you’re doing is you’re saying to the gay people who are just asking to be treated equally: Why don’t you change everything for everyone? And no one’s asking that of any straight legislator.”
The equality argument is Wiener’s classic sleight of hand, and he’s practiced it many times. When he authored the bill to eliminate the felony penalty enhancement for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV, for example, he claimed the mantle of fighting the “discrimination” against those living with the disease. But as a consequence of the bill, there is now no justice for a gay man infected with HIV by a sex partner who lied about it. The violation of consent and bodily integrity now go unvindicated. Similarly, the violent reality of today’s pimp-dominated sex trade seems to have escaped Wiener’s legislative pen. As we have seen, the repeal of the anti-loitering statute is a boon to human traffickers, not their victims. “Has Wiener ever been down on Fig?” Powell said, referring to the sex trade on Figueroa. “Has he seen it? I really wonder.”
Nowhere is the disconnect between Wiener’s talk of LGBTQ civil rights and the on-the-ground effects of his bills more obvious than with his sanctuary state legislation, SB 107. Enacted in January 2023, the law purported to turn California into a “state of refuge for trans kids and their families,” as Wiener declared on Twitter.
To understand the impact of this law, one should begin with the bill that it amends: California’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), which deters interstate forum shopping and parental kidnapping by making the jurisdiction in custody disputes the exclusive province of the home-state courts. Forty-nine of 50 states, including California, adopted this rule, voluntarily limiting the jurisdiction of their courts. For example, a father under investigation by Wisconsin Child Protective Services cannot simply flee with his kid to Michigan to have his custody determination adjudicated in a jurisdiction that he considers more favorable.
But Wiener’s sanctuary state bill now amends California’s UCCJEA, to allow California courts to exercise jurisdiction where the parents would otherwise be prosecuted in their home states for having medically transitioned their minor children. A reaction to the laws in various states that have criminalized gender medical treatments on minors, the bill halts the extradition of such parents for these home-state offenses and refuses to cooperate with out-of-state law enforcement for this purpose.
This provision may simply be unconstitutional: California courts’ refusal to cooperate with out-of-state subpoenas and extradition orders in this context may violate the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, under which states are bound to enforce other states’ court orders. But there is another, arguably more mischievous, provision of the sanctuary state bill. It states: “A court of this state has temporary emergency jurisdiction if the child is present in this state and the child has been abandoned or it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because the child, or a sibling or a parent of the child, is subjected to, or threatened with, mistreatment or abuse, or because the child has been unable to obtain gender-affirming health care or gender-affirming mental health care” [emphasis added].
Read that carefully: a court may obtain temporary emergency jurisdiction over the care of a child if that child has been “unable to obtain” gender-affirming medical care in her home state. The law seems to equate child abuse and neglect with failing to provide gender-affirming medical transitioning procedures to a child. At the very least, the law treats them as equivalent for the purposes of letting the court take jurisdiction over the care of the minor.
Does this bill promise what it plainly seems to—invite runaways to California from across the country to undergo gender medical transition? Does it permit California minors to liberate themselves from their families by coming before a judge, declaring that they have been blocked from obtaining “gender-affirming care” by unsupportive parents, and so escape their parents’ authority? I asked a criminal-law expert with experience working on federal–state joint criminal investigations to interpret the provision for me. “That means the kid is going to come to California and go to some nonprofit, which will bring the kid before the family court. And the court would say: ‘We find you’ve been abandoned, or you’ve been unable to get necessary health care. And so, we’re going to assume custody over you and let you do that,’ ” she said.
It’s a heck of a carrot to dangle in front of a teenager already fighting with a parent desperate to set limits: come to California, where we have the power to liberate you from possibly the only adults in your life devoted to your best interests—the only reliable source of guardrails, of the unfashionable but sometimes necessary-to-protect-you “no.”
LGBTQ youth who arrive in California as a result of the bill and join the ranks of the homeless would be vulnerable to traffickers. If you build a “sanctuary state,” those seeking refuge will likely come, even if the refuge they seek is only from their parents’ rules. Homeless youth have long flocked to California. Wiener has helped make the state a magnet for many more.
In 2019, Wiener cosponsored the LGBTQ Foster Youth Bill of Rights, another law with disturbing implications. The bill granted LGBTQ-identified foster kids the rights, among other things, to abortions, contraception, and medical treatment for sexual assault, “without the knowledge or consent of any adult.” Included in this bill of new “rights” was this one: “the right to ‘access to computer technology and the internet.’ ” Suddenly, foster parents found it impossible to police the Internet activity of their foster kids.
The bill’s supporters claim that Internet access allows LGBTQ foster youth to obtain the peer support they need. Such support is necessary, they say, since so many of these kids are extremely vulnerable, lacking intact family. But that same vulnerability should make us extraordinarily wary of government handing numberless adults what amounts to a right of Internet access to these children. After all, so much harm comes to adolescents via fiber-optic cables. Why prevent foster parents—adults the state has at least vetted—from regulating foster kids’ communication with unvetted adults?
As a result of this law, adult sexual predators of all orientations in California gained greater access to child victims. The Internet has become a major tool of traffickers—particularly of boys, Ugarte told me. “Sextortion is the new trend, where there’s an avatar girl, and they befriend a boy, then send them to a chat room. And say: ‘Hey, you know, I like you. Why don’t you let me see your body? I want to see what you look like because you’re so handsome.’ He gets naked. And then once they do that, they go and tell him: ‘If you do not give us $5,000, we’re going to expose you in all the Internet. Meaning, in every single social media.’ ”
Wiener’s detractors often assign to him malign intentions, but guessing at intent is unproductive. The truth is: his intent doesn’t really matter. The effects of naïveté, ambition, or wrongheaded zeal for social transformation can be just as devastating as anything proceeding from darker motives. “I mean, he’s a smart guy,” a Republican former senate staffer said. On other issues—those that aren’t the hot-button social issues—“he likes to hear opposing opinions and likes to try and address concerns that people may have.” He’s even earned the reputation in San Francisco for being a moderate, supportive of real-estate developers (who have donated handsomely to his campaigns), for instance, and opposing far-leftists on the environment. Wiener is often “statesmanlike” and “easy to get along with,” the GOP staffer told me. And he would present a formidable candidate to replace Nancy Pelosi in the 11th District as her congressional career draws to a close.
But in terms of legislative influence, that would almost certainly be a step down. From his perch in America’s most left-leaning district, Wiener is already legislating for the country, establishing a model for ambitious progressive officeholders to follow and inviting America’s misunderstood children to flock to the Golden State.
“The sex industry has historically capitalized on people who feel lost, people who feel unloved, people who feel unseen,” Russell observed. “And, you know, they do a great job, especially when they’re in the throes of it, of making that person believe that they’re having a good time. And then later, when they’re more stabilized, they’ll come back and go, ‘Oh my gosh, that was so horrible; it was one of the worst times in my life.’”
Top Photo: San Francisco–based state senator Scott Wiener has authored or sponsored a series of radical gender- and sex-related bills, justifying them as necessary to advance the rights of LGBTQ people. (RAY CHAVEZ/MEDIANEWS GROUP/THE MERCURY NEWS/GETTY IMAGES)
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