A sexual exploitation scandal that has launched investigations into misconduct across multiple Bay Area police agencies has some questioning how well law enforcement is positioned to combat sex trafficking and prostitution.
So far, about 30 police officers are alleged to have had some form of sexual contact with the young woman known as Celeste Guap, who told reporters she had sex with some officers when she was only 17.
While no one disputes the illegality of statutory rape, the media have struggled with how to define Guap. At different times, she has defined herself as both a sex worker and as a victim. And legal definitions of minors involved in the sex industry also contradict each other. Under federal law, all minors involved in the sex industry are seen as victims of sex trafficking. But in California, minors can still be arrested for prostitution.
Maxine Doogan, president of the nonprofit Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project, advises many people in the local sex industry and knows Celeste Guap. She said the criminalization of sex work sets up an imbalance of power between police and people involved in the sex industry. This, she said, is what left Guap open to exploitation.
“At the heart of it is that she was concerned about being arrested for prostitution,” Doogan said. “And so she devised upon a plan to protect herself that involved having sex with the police.”
In an interview with video blogger Zennie Abraham, Guap said that decriminalizing prostitution would lead to greater regulation and safer working conditions for those in the sex industry.
Ironically, Alameda County, where dozens of cops are currently under investigation for their alleged involvement with Guap, has been central to a statewide movement to fight sex trafficking and increase penalties for traffickers.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s office leads the state in prosecuting human traffickers. And over the past 10 years, the District Attorney’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit has achieved an 81 percent conviction rate for trafficking prosecutions.
O’Malley was one of the chief proponents of California’s 2012 Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery -- or Proposition 35. Passing with more that 80 percent of the vote, it was the most successful ballot initiative in state history. O’Malley backed the law as a way to get at what she calls the human side of human trafficking.
“Many people are not literally forced, like dragged off the street and forced into it ... though some are,” O’Malley said. “Many of the young people that we’ve seen have been coerced, or ... you know, so this fake promise of love which is anything but that.”
The initiative ramped up punishments for trafficking. Sex trafficking a minor even without force is now punishable by up to 12 years in prison. With force, it can be a life sentence.
“The punishment is harsh,” O’Malley said. “And that has to be a deterrent to some who say, ‘Hmm, do I really want to go to prison for 15 years because I’m now trafficking a 14-year-old?’ ”
Today, O’Malley considers the law a success.
But Alexandra Lutnick, a researcher with nonprofit RTI International who has been studying the commercial sex industry for years, said Prop. 35 has been very problematic. The law assumes that people respond rationally to heavy penalties, she said, and simply stop engaging in deviant behavior.
“We have plenty of examples of other social issues where that just doesn’t work,” she said. “We can look at the war on drugs for a perfect example of that.”
Lutnick said cracking down on the underground sex industry doesn’t address victims’ needs -- the things that make them vulnerable to exploitation like poverty, lack of housing, education and racism. And she said criminalization of sex work gives some police the power to take advantage of young people.
“Police become one exploiter, perhaps of many, in these people’s lives, so that could be physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and taking advantage,” Lutnick said. “So it’s, ‘Oh well, if you do this I won’t arrest you or I’ll give you this information in exchange for that.’ ”
O’Malley said she doesn’t know if the sexual exploitation scandal, which her office is investigating, points to a broader failure of culture within the police departments. But she said any officers who took advantage of their authority and exploited Celeste Guap have set back law enforcement’s efforts to gain trust in the community.
“Those people need to be removed,” she said. “And they need to be removed swiftly. And if they’ve committed the crime, they need to be prosecuted.”
O’Malley says tough anti-trafficking laws are necessary to protect young people, and that most police don’t abuse their authority. But she does support legislation, currently making its way through the state Legislature, which would decriminalize minors’ involvement in commercial sex.
“I look at every one of those young people as a victim of somebody else’s exploitation,” she said. “Whether it’s human trafficking or sexual exploitation.”
It will be up to O’Malley to decide whether to charge the police officers involved with Guap as sex traffickers.
KQED partnered with Youth Radio on a related story, looking at how youth service providers reacted to the allegations of police misconduct. Two Youth Radio reporters also appeared recently on KQED Newsroom to talk about how they have covered a stretch of International Boulevard in Oakland that serves as a red-light district.