“STOLEN” is a year-long NBC 7 investigation into the sex trafficking and exploitation of children in San Diego County. The seven-episode documentary series is told from the perspective of survivors, advocates -- even traffickers, and sex buyers, explaining the depth and scope of this problem in our communities and our schools. And with more children online during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say they are at greater risk of exploitation now more than ever. “STOLEN” celebrates the strength of survivors and their families, as they struggle to free themselves from the bonds of sex trafficking. See the full series here.
From hip hop videos to blockbuster movies, to celebrated video games and popular websites; the position, power, and perceived-authority of the “pimp” have long been glorified in American pop culture.
But what impact, if any, does that have on young people?
“‘B***es ain't sh** but hoes and tricks.’ I was repeating this when I was just 11 years old,” said former pimp turned writer and advocate Armand King. “There’s a catchy beat that you can dance to. I was doing just that. And so was my sister and cousins.”
King said the music, the culture, and the reverence for pimps were partly to blame for him entering that lifestyle at 16 years old while living in Southeastern San Diego. King abandoned the sex trade after a close friend was murdered and now works with the nonprofit Paving Great Future teaching young people about the dangers of sex trafficking.
“Young people are more susceptible now more than ever,” King told NBC 7’s Monica Dean. “Now, because of the internet and smart devices they can connect with others in a different area.”
But now some local musicians have stopped peddling the same dangerous notions and hope to prevent young men and women from getting lured into the sex trade.
NBC 7's Monica Dean and Tom Jones go behind the scenes on Episode Six "The Culture" and speak with a Grammy-award winning musician about his message for parents in this podcast episode of "Into San Diego." Listen below.
Nomis, a hip hop artist from Oceanside, didn't think much of sex trafficking until he began seeing it in what he believed was the unlikeliest of places; his hometown.
“I thought human trafficking was only an issue for Southeast Asia or Thailand,” the rapper told NBC 7. “I began to notice that this is happening in my own backyard, in San Diego, everywhere in this country. I began wondering, like, ‘How has this been happening under my nose this whole time?’”
That’s when Nomis began incorporating anti-sex trafficking messages in his lyrics.
“My genre, my culture of hip hop, is associated with a lot of negative things in general,” said Nomis. “I'm always wanting to show that we have more to offer other than some of the things that they want to portray us as. Rap music is just a tool, a vehicle. We artists can use it in whatever way we want.”
“Between the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, it was a solid decade of pimp culture that had infiltrated hip hop culture and was very romanticized, extremely glamorized,” said Nomis.
“I wanted to tell a story that people could relate to and move from this idea that human trafficking is just an issue that's happening in Laos, or Cambodia, or Thailand or whatever, and show that this could happen to somebody that you know,” Nomis says. “It could be your daughter. More importantly, this happens to white America, too.”
Drew Shirley, a guitarist for the San Diego band Switchfoot, is also hoping to redirect young people who may be lured down the wrong path and toward the sex industry.
Shirley says he hopes to use his influence to help those who are struggling.
“Where I see myself affecting change is with artists and promoting things that are good, something that could change how women are seen, how girls are seen, how our sisters and our daughters are viewed in society,” said Shirley.
Shirley -- who volunteers for the nonprofit Humans Against Trafficking -- believes similar-minded artists can change the stereotypes.
“It's important that celebrities, cultural leaders, influencers, whatever they might be, make fans aware that there are wolves and that we need to protect our own. As a father, as an artist, and as a musician, I'm ready to speak to everybody I know about it.”
Breaking down stereotypes and changing the narratives that perpetuate misconceptions of trafficking is considered a number one priority by Kim Berry Jones, Director of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation at Point Loma Nazarene University.
One of the most common misconceptions, she says, is the racial background of traffickers.
“While we know that the Black community is disproportionately affected with both traffickers and those trafficked, I think it is important that we continue to try to communicate to the general public that traffickers are not always Black,” Jones said.
In fact, a landmark study published in 2016 focused on trafficking in San Diego County and found the race of traffickers is pretty split, with a majority being white and Black. (To read more of our findings regarding the arrests and prosecutions of traffickers in San Diego County, click here.)
"OUR SEXUALIZED SOCIETY"
Ending the tropes that celebrate the pimp culture in music or movies is not all that needs to be done, advocates say. With the internet, sex buyers say prostitution is more prevalent and accessible than ever before.
A man who we'll call "Paul" is leading a voluntary class for those who were arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute called the Prostitution Impact Panel -- a class put on by the San Diego City Attorney’s office. Sex buyers who are cited for a misdemeanor of solicitation can take the class, and have their charge dropped to “disturbing the peace.”
For Paul, a self-described sex addict, online pornography is equivalent to meth or heroin for a drug addict, and more often than not, it is what fueled his desire to solicit prostitutes.
“You are three clicks away from an orgasm no matter what device you pick up,” said Paul. “You are three clicks away from an orgasm.”
Paul was also able to provide insight into what drives people to commit prostitution-related sex crimes.
“They're not bad people. They have a compulsion that drives them to do something. The compulsion is manageable,” said Paul. “It’s important to remember that there are solutions. I'm a part of a 12-step group. It helps to show that no matter how far down you have gone, you will see how your experience can benefit others. If I do not share this with people who need this, I'm doing a disservice. I'm doing a disservice to myself and I'm doing a disservice to them.”
While the internet and smartphone devices provide more options than ever for sex traffickers and buyers, there is also more help.
Kathi Hardy knows first hand how difficult a life of prostitution is and the dangers of human trafficking. Hardy is a sex trafficking survivor and recovering addict who spent years on the streets under the control of pimps.
In fact, it was Hardy who helped develop the Prostitution Impact Panel for sex buyers.
“They don't have a clue until they come to our class because most of them think that it's a victimless crime,” Hardy said.
Hardy now runs the Freedom From Exploitation and Survivor Network. She counsels sex buyers and prostitutes and works with young boys and girls in hopes of keeping them from following in her footsteps.
“It is an act of desperation that makes us go out and do this,” said Hardy. “The fact of the matter is nobody grows up and says ‘I want to be a prostitute one day.’ That is why it is so important to talk to your kids, or else somebody else will.”
Click here to watch the full "STOLEN," NBC 7 Investigates' seven-part documentary series on child sex trafficking in San Diego County and beyond.
- If you or someone you know could be a victim of sex trafficking or exploitation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text the words "BeFree" or 233733