SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Violent crime is way down in San Francisco, according to the latest police statistics. But one major category is bucking the trend: police recorded a 170 percent jump in reports of human trafficking in 2018.
The huge spike appears to be connected to the federal shutdown of sex-for-sale websites. The goal of shutting them down was to curb human trafficking. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect.
They’re hardly hiding in the shadows. Every Friday night, Shotwell Street in San Francisco’s Mission District is lined with prostitutes and their pimps.
Until April of last year, sex workers said they had a much safer alternative: websites like Backpage.com, where they could find clients as easily as swiping right on a dating app.
But after Backpage was linked to sex trafficking of underage girls, lawmakers in Washington voted almost unanimously to make it illegal to advertise sex work online.
“All these sites disappeared in the matter of a couple of days,” said Maxine Doogan, a longtime Bay Area sex worker.
Doogan says Backpage took prostitution out of the dark ages. “You could see this person is legitimate, you could get verification if they were a good customer, a safe customer,” said Doogan.
Now she says the new laws, named the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) are forcing sex workers back onto the street and into the hands of pimps.
“I, like everybody else, received a whole bunch of texts from various nefarious people who wanted to help me with my business as soon as those websites were taken down,” said Doogan.
“It has suddenly re-empowered this whole underclass of pimps and exploiters,” said Pike Long, deputy director of St. James Infirmary. St. James is a peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers.
Long estimates the number of street-based sex workers has tripled.
“If you are a street-based sex worker, it’s much harder to negotiate your rates, to negotiate safer sex condom use, to make sure that this person who is picking you up in a car doesn’t have a knife or a gun,” she said.
It’s not just sex workers whose lives are in danger on Shotwell St. People who live and work there say the violence is out of control.
“Really, what our concerns are, are the johns and the pimps,” said Tom Madonna, a manager at Shotwell’s Bar. KPIX 5 spoke with him and several neighbors.
“I don’t think anyone is anti-sex work. We’re ‘anti-bullets coming through our apartments,’” said Ira.
“We’ve recently had recently sex workers perform their trade in the front yard under my daughter’s window,” said David.
“Even when I was pregnant, I was propositioned just because I was walking down the street,” said Debolina Dutra.
“I do get emails, phone calls saying, ‘Tonight, it’s crazy. I can’t sleep,’” said Mission Police Captain Gaetano Caltagirone. In response, he created a Sex Workers Abatement Unit. He says they’re actually trying not to arrest sex workers.
“The goal of the unit is to help any sex worker who is being forced and wants out, and to go after the pimps exploiting these young ladies. That’s not right,” said Captain Caltagirone.
Sex workers just see the abatement unit as harassment. They want sites like Backpage to come back.
“The vast majority of people who utilize those websites were doing so because that was how they chose to make a living. Doesn’t mean that it’s everybody’s dream job. But what we are saying is that venue was taken away without our consent,” said Pike Long.
Several human rights organizations and an advocate for sex workers are now suing the government to overturn the FOSTA and SESTA laws, calling them unconstitutional for violating free speech rights.