Marjorie Saylor was raised as a devout church-goer but ran away from home at age 15 after many years of sexual abuse in her isolated neighborhood of Lake Elsinore, Calif.
Once on her own, she worked an under-the-table job for a few years until she was forced to leave it. Soon after, she found a job as a waitress at a strip club in Orange County. It was there her slow descent into the sex-trafficking world began: first as a waitress, then as a stripper, then through escorting services.
Saylor was mainly trafficked in California but also as far away as Missouri.
Today, Saylor is a victim advocate in San Diego county for survivors of sexual trauma and also assists law enforcement with helping trafficked victims when they are found. She said she talks about sex trafficking every chance she gets because it is so easy for anyone to become a victim.
“It happens to any socioeconomic class,” she said.
A recent study, conducted by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, shows sex trafficking is San Diego’s second largest underground economy after drug trafficking. The study tallied an estimated 8,830-11,773 sex trafficking victims in San Diego annually.
Because of this growing issue, the San Diego District Attorney’s Human and Sex Trafficking Task Force plans to launch its newest awareness campaign, “The Ugly Truth,” in San Diego later this summer.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, who runs the Human and Sex Trafficking Division in San Diego, said the aim of the campaign is to stop the buying and selling of men, women and children in San Diego.
“The Ugly Truth” is an award-winning campaign based off “The Voices and Faces Project,” which began in Chicago last year. “The Ugly Truth” will use billboards, fliers and public broadcasts to give victims a voice, a name and a way to share their story to bring awareness about sex trafficking.
“Sex trafficking is a crime that hides in the shadows,” Stephan said.
She said victims often do not even know they are victims because they are heavily manipulated by their traffickers, so the main way the DA’s Human and Sex Trafficking Task Force catches the traffickers is by having the community be their eyes and ears.
“We need every part of the community to come together to help us stop this problem because our victims are not calling,” Stephan said. “They are under the control of the trafficker. They’re controlled by fear, but they’re also—even more importantly—often controlled by their own shame.”
Upwards of 70 percent of the trafficking in San Diego is conducted by people affiliated with gangs, according to the study, “Measuring the Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego.”
“We can’t say that gangs are organizing this from the top to the bottom in great scale, but we do know that a lot of the people affiliated with gangs are involved,” said Jamie Gates, a sociology professor at PLNU and co-author of the study. “What we know is, on average, a trafficker controls about four or five people, and in that process are making upwards of half a million dollars annually.”
Also according to the study, the average age of entry into the sex trafficking industry is 15.
There is a grooming process sex traffickers use, similar to those of pedophiles, said Susan Munsey, the executive director of Generate Hope, an organization dedicated to rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking.
She said traffickers may seek out places like bus stops, coffee shops, malls, schools, gaming websites—anywhere they may come across a potential victim. Then they will play the protector, or “Romeo,” and lure the victim in.
This was the ploy used on her when she was 16.
“I was a runaway and very vulnerable,” Munsey said. “A guy came along who pretended to have an interest in me, and I felt very loved, and protected, and cared for—at a time when I didn’t feel any of those things. Then he slowly introduced me to the trafficking world.”
Munsey said many of the young women who come through Generate Hope are foster children, runaways or homeless. These are the people who tend to be the most vulnerable. Munsey said traffickers are always looking for vulnerabilities, but it could happen to anyone.
Saylor agreed. “It happens in any neighborhood, whether you’re out in the middle of nowhere, or in a big city,” she said.
After several years in the adult industry, Saylor said there is “no such thing as a classy gentleman’s club”—that eventually the need for extra money will arise and the opportunity will be taken. She said it is an act for everyone, especially those who do pornography, which many of the strippers end up doing.
Munsey said there is a deep connection between sex trafficking and pornography because watching pornography causes built up fantasies, which people then want to act out. Who they act it out with tends to be someone who is being sex trafficked. Munsey said the term victims use for their forced circumstances is “survival sex.”
Gates said the thing he found most surprising from his studies on sex trafficking in San Diego is the scale to which sex trafficking is happening. Much like the false stereotypes regarding victims of trafficking, traffickers also come from all social, racial and economic backgrounds.
“We think the average age is a little younger than what people have been saying,” Gates said. “We can’t, from our data, give an exact age, but we think the age is in the low 20’s rather than in the 30’s or higher. We’ve heard from the traffickers themselves that ‘the game,’ as they call it, is getting younger and younger in terms of those who are trafficking other persons.”
Saylor said one reason sex trafficking is so widespread is because our culture and media are perpetuating the idea that pimping is acceptable in society.
“Trafficking is glorified,” Saylor said. “I don’t think people really realize the effect it has, but stripping and prostitution is glorified on MTV and on the radio. Usher is singing it’s OK for you to be up on that pole as long as you come home to me—and this is what our kids are listening to.”
Stephan from the DA’s office said the idea that those involved in the sex industry are there by choice is a myth, and it is this myth that is keeping victims enslaved and is endangering the freedom of the whole community.
“San Diegans need to be aware that this is happening everywhere in our country, and right here in San Diego,” Stephan said. “In fact, the enslavement of any person threatens all of our freedom. We need to understand that with the social internet, and with the profit margin of this crime, no community is safe.”
Stephan said the Human and Sex Trafficking Task Force is teaming up with the San Diego Unified School District to train staff, teachers, counselors, therapists and students on what to look for and what to do if they notice sex trafficking.
“We know that 20 out of 20 of the schools studied in the recent, ground-breaking study by USD and Point Loma Nazarene show that in every one of those schools there are victims of sexual exploitation,” said Stephan. “So we know we have to target our schools, and that is what we’re doing.”
Stephan said law enforcement is also working with hotel industries to train and educate their employees since hotels and motels are the number one place of business for sex trafficking.
The timing of “The Ugly Truth” campaign corresponds with two major tourist events in San Diego: Comic-Con and the Major League Baseball All-Star game, since evidence has shown that sex trafficking increases as tourism increases.
“We want [traffickers] to know that San Diego is not the place to do your dirty business,” Stephan said. “We are just not going to put up with it. The entire community is banded together to protect victims from exploitation.”
She said the message especially needs to reach those being trafficked.
“The traffickers have told them lies that no one will believe them, no one will listen,” she said. “We are here to listen to them, to believe them, and to make sure that they don’t get victimized again.”