"God allows U-turns." -- Kathi Torres
By Miriam Raftery
View video interview by clicking image, right
February 26, 2023 (San Diego) – Kathi Torres with Freedom from Exploitation, an organization that helps survivors of human trafficking, is also a survivor of sex trafficking. In an exclusive interview with East County Magazine originally aired on KNSJ radio, Torres speaks out on her own experience, how to protect teens from traffickers, and how to get help for victims here in San Diego County, a national hub for human trafficking.
She also calls for repeal of a state law, Senate Bill 357, that decriminalized loitering to solicit prostitution, which she says has cut off the main avenue for victims to get help.
“Because of this new law, police can’t stop, cite or arrest anyone for loitering to solicit prostitution,” including victims as well as men driving around looking to pick up prostitutes. But when police can’t detain trafficking victims, the victims don’t get referred to programs that can help them escape from being trafficked, says Torres, who was also a panelist at a recent presentation of “Stolen,” an NBC San Diego investigative series on trafficking.
Like many young people who wind up trafficked for sex, Torres was sexually abused at an early age, when she was just 5 years old, by a teen. Her mother had mental health issues. “Coupled with verbal and physical abuse that I grew up with, I started using drugs when I was 12 or 13 years old,” she says. Suffering from low esteem and addiction, she got hooked on heroin and cocaine by age 18.
She joined the military, got married, and had a son. She switched from drug abuse to alcohol addiction while in the Marines. After leaving the service, she went back to drugs. “My drug abuse destroyed my marriage,” she said. Her husband took custody of their 3-year-old son, whom she didn’t see again until he was 7. Her husband died at age 37 of cardiomyopathy, a heart problem exasperated by smoking crack cocaine.
Things got worse. “I got fired from my job…two weeks later I got evicted from my house. In a month and a half, I lost everything,” she said. She turned to prostitution out of desperation.
“I’ve been out of the life for 29 years,” she says. But many others met with chilling fates. Asked what happened to other prostitutes she knew, Torres replies, “The majority of the women I knew out there are either in prison or dead. Most of them are dead…there was a guy down here killing prostitutes. He killed 40 women; I knew a lot of them.”
Since 2001, Torres has been part of San Diego’s Prostitution Impact Panel, which educates men arrested for prostitution that it’s not a victimless crime, but actually exploits desperate young people. Torres calls it the “oldest oppression” not profession.
“From that, I realized I needed to go out and find the women and girls affected by this” she told ECM, adding that young men and boys are also targeted by traffickers. Kids today are being lured into trafficking at very young ages. Although the average trafficking survivor through the years was 16 by the time Torres met with them, she recalls, “I saw kids who told me when they were 9 or 10 years and were at the mall, older teens approached them and said, `Hey, we’re going to party tonight.” The children snuck out to meet the older teens, who took them to hotel rooms where a group of men brutally raped the children, then kidnapped them and trafficking them to others for money.
Today, Torres says, “The average sex buyer wants them younger and younger and younger, because then they think there is no disease problem, but there is.”
She’s been involved in teaching parents, teachers, law enforcement including the FBI and Sheriff, medical professionals, and others how to spot victims of trafficking.
Traffickers today increasingly lure teens or even younger children over the internet, including social media and game chat rooms. They may shower teens with jewelry, clothing or other gifts, strong inducements for those in poverty or who simply crave attention.
Boys and girls may be given extra cell phones or an i-pad, clear clues for parents and teachers that something is amiss. Other clues include talk of an older, wealthy boyfriend, trips out of town, and fatigue from late nights out. If a teen says they are staying at a friend’s house overnight, Torres encourages calling the parents to make sure they will be home to chaperone.
Often, kids are pressured to text nude or partially nude photos of themselves, after which traffickers will threaten to send photos to parents, teachers, or publish them online unless the child agrees to sexual acts for money that may include prostitution, pornography, and/or stripping. Traffickers also frequently get victims hooked on drugs, then entice them to become prostitutes to pay for more drugs. Today, many illicit drugs are laced with deadly fentanyl, add yet another layer of danger to this mix.
Traffickers also entice middle school and high school kids to recruit their friends into sex trafficking, a lucrative business. The pimp “wants more money makers out there,” Torres warns. “According to a study by Point Loma Nazarene and USD, in the county of San Diego there are $810 million every year off human trafficking.” It’s more profitable than selling drugs, she notes, because “once you sell a drug it’s gone…but a human being you can sell over and over again.”
She’s worked with trafficking victims at Las Colinas detention facility in Santee, teaching a curriculum called “Ending the Game” that is written by human trafficking survivors for other survivors. “It’s very effective,” says Torres, who has worked with over 3,000 survivors. Sadly, she says many told her their first pimp was their father or mother.
Too often in the past, police would arrest prostitutes, even minors, but the men who paid for sex with these youngsters would get off or only pay a small fine, though sex with anyone under 18 is a crime, statutory rape. Today, fines have been increased for anyone who knowingly pays for sex with a minor.
Passage of SG 357 was well intentioned, meant to protect victims of trafficking from being charged as criminals. But Torres says that trafficking survivors she’s worked with generally weren’t prosecuted for prostitution even before the law. Courts would refer the women to her class. They would pay fines, then have charges reduced to disturbing the peace, or dropped entirely, Torres recalls.
She praises new District Attorney Summer Stephan for doing more to help stop trafficking, including an “ugly truth” billboard campaign on the realities of the harmful impacts of prostitution on its victims. “If these men weren’t paying absurd amounts of money to have sex with these young girls or boys, it wouldn’t be out there,” she says of the sex trafficking industry. “They need to do broader sweeps and get more guys” arrested, Torres adds.
More should be done to find runaways before they fall prey to traffickers, too. “On any given night, there’s a good 2,500 runaway kids,” says Torres. She faults law enforcement for discriminatory practices. If a runaway is “black or brown or Native American, they don’t put the same energy into the investigation.” Even for missing white teens, law enforcement often fails to notify media promptly – and the delay can be critical, since a high percentage of runaways are approached by traffickers at bus stations or other sites frequented by kids who have run away.
She also wants more probing into why a teen has run away, to assure teens found that they won’t be returned to an abusive environment but instead, diverted to places where they can get help and be safe. Other teens are fleeing rules at home, only to wind up victimized by pumps with even more rules. “They don’t understand they’re running out of the pan and into the fire,” Torres cautions.
She warns teens never to go in a car to a hotel or someone’s house where “you don’t know who else is there or what they’re going to do.” She advises teens also, “Don’t take any skin pictures. Don’t take pictures without clothes on” even for a boyfriend, who may post it on the internet after a breakup. Sending nude selfies is also a crime, child pornography, for anyone under 18, though teens are rarely prosecuted for this and instead, law enforcement will go after traffickers.
To teens who already shared nude images and may feel too ashamed to tell anyone that they’re being extorted, she says, “Do it anyway. Reach out. There are lots and lots of organizations that can help you.” Some can try to get images taken down, though that’s not always possible once they are on the Internet. But it’s better to deal with a parent’s disappointment than to become a sex trafficking victim.
There is now an a national education campaign that’s posting flyers for trafficking survivors who need help in public places such as restrooms at train and bus stations, airports, and schools.
“Stop blaming the victims,” Torres advise everyone. Instead, blames lies with “the men that go out there and buy these children and ask them to do vile things with their bodies.”
To those who are being sexually trafficking, Torres urges them to get help by calling the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
She is living proof that survivors can have a meaningful life and make a positive impact after making the decision to escape from sex trafficking.
Her advice to trafficking survivors contemplating making that choice? “God allows U-turns."