Researchers from the University of San Diego and Point Loma University released the results of a joint case study on San Diego’s underground sex trafficking economy last week. The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, claims to have produced the first “credible” estimate of annual sex trafficking victims in San Diego county.
According to USD assistant professor and study co-author Ami Carpenter, her team put effort into avoiding common pitfalls that tend to affect studies of this nature.
“The study was basically designed to address shortcomings in other human trafficking studies,” Carpenter said in an Oct. 27 press release. “[Shortcomings include the] inability to produce credible estimates, lack of primary data on sex traffickers, over-reliance on qualitative methods and small sample sizes.”
The three-year study reports that the number of San Diego sex trafficking victims sits somewhere between 8,830 and 11,773 victims annually.
Researchers gathered testimonies from 1,205 individuals, including gang members and past victims of the local sex-trafficking economy. This value, the researchers purport, makes this study “the largest, most comprehensive human trafficking case studies in the United States to date.”
The study’s findings indicate that the sex trafficking economy is the second-largest underground economy in San Diego and is valued at $810 million. In comparison, Forbes Magazine recently valued the San Diego Padres at $890 million.
Last year, the Urban Institute estimated San Diego’s sex trafficking economy at $96.6 million, a little more than a tenth of the current estimate.
The sex trafficking economy is largely run and maintained by street gangs. According to the researchers, at least 110 gangs were identified as being involved in the exploitation process, some of them with ties to organizations across the national border.
Carpenter told CBS San Diego she was surprised by the ethnic diversity expressed in the findings, which showed that the ethnicities of perpetrators as well as survivors were split almost evenly between white, black and hispanic.
“It is very diverse, very complex,” Carpenter said. “[A] much more ethnically diverse mosaic than I think we realized before. Unfortunately, there is a lot of recruitment happening in [San Diego] high schools.”
In addition to recruiting high schoolers, sex trafficking facilitators will go as far as forcibly recruiting members from their own family.
The researchers concluded that the average age of entry into sex trafficking is approximately 15 years old, as opposed to the commonly reported age of 12. These individuals tend to be runaway or homeless, LGBTQ-identifying, suffering from mental health issues or be victims of domestic abuse.
One perpetrator of sex trafficking, who chose to remain anonymous, explained the ease with which they were able to recruit.
“So many people are doing it; everybody and their mom is doing it, and the money is too good and too easy and too guaranteed,” the individual explained. “It’s really not hard to turn any female out.”
Carpenter hopes that the findings will energize organizations, both domestic and international, to put an end to sex trafficking.
“The question we are now left with is: what can we do with this information?,” Carpenter said. “Fortunately, people at all levels and many different professions on both sides of the border are taking up that question right now.”
Officials have been aware of the widespread presence of sex trafficking in San Diego for some time. The FBI ranked San Diego eighth among 13 cities with the highest incidence rate of child prostitution in a 2003 report, a list that included both Los Angeles and San Francisco.