An Inhuman Industry: Responding to Sex Trafficking in Arizona

Every year, from late January to mid-February, the city of Tucson hosts upward of 50,000 visitors, as the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase — more commonly known as the Tucson Gem Show — draws exhibitors, traders, and tourists from around the globe. It is the biggest show of its kind, and the economic impact is considerable. This year’s show, which officially wrapped last week, was projected to bring $120 million in spending to local businesses.

Effective sex education arms young people with information about consent, negotiating proper boundaries, and forming healthy relationships.

In recent years, media coverage has also put the Gem Show in the spotlight for its alleged impact on an underground economy. The annual event has become a news hook for activists, victim advocates, and social workers who believe it serves as a boon to the nation’s $3 billion sex-trafficking industry.

Although the Arizona Republic rated the claim as “mostly false” when Martha McSally made it in 2015 — noting that evidence was mostly anecdotal — the idea that large events like the Gem Show lead to a spike in sex trafficking has remained a popular talking point. For example, at an awareness event last year, held shortly before the Gem Show’s kick-off, Tucson city council member Steve Kozachik commented, “Every time you have an outside event coming to any community, whether it be a sporting event or the gem show, the numbers of trafficking incidents spike.” He added, “That means the young in this community are vulnerable.”

Federal law defines sex trafficking as recruiting, harboring, transporting, or otherwise inducing a person to perform a commercial sex act against their will — or before they are legally old enough to consent. Last year, KGUN9 suggested that, during the show, as many as 100 women are “sold for sex” every night. The report, however, did not specify if it was referring to commercial sex as a whole or to trafficked sex exclusively — and whatever role the Gem Show plays in the trade is also a murky subject.

In 2015, the Tucson Police Department noticed an increase in both sex workers and suspect advertising during the weeks of the Gem Show, but they added that the increase could have been a result of illegal activity that was driven out of Phoenix when that year’s Super Bowl, held in West Valley, brought a greater police presence to the area. There was no spike in sex trafficking reports during last year’s show, which may have taken place in a more representative year. However, as Tucson Police Detective Jennifer Crawford told the Arizona Daily Star, “that’s not to say it’s not happening.” Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the director of Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR), has explained why many people view the magnet effect as a possibility. As she told the Tucson Weekly, events like the Tucson Gem Show can draw people who have the time and money to solicit commercial sex, and who are away from their responsibilities to partners, spouses, or family members.

STIR was established five years ago to provide research that can help guide the policies and practices of law enforcement, educators, health care providers, and other professionals who could encounter sex traffickers or their victims. The Department of Justice identifies Phoenix, where STIR is based, as one of the top sex-trafficking jurisdictions in the United States, and according to a report from the Arizona Attorney General’s office, Arizona as a whole “is a prime transit and destination area for both sex and labor trafficking in the United States.”

Reliable statistics are elusive for a crime that often goes unreported — and that often gets confounded with non-trafficked sex work, especially by policymakers and law enforcement officials who paint all commercial sex work with a broad brush. Adding to the confusion is that it is often lumped together with human trafficking that is unrelated to the sex trade — for example, coerced labor in places like farms, households, and sweatshops. However, figures from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center suggest that the U.S. is home to more than 4,000 cases of sex trafficking annually. The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a project of the nonprofit Polaris, has published similar figures on its website. It reported more than 100 cases in Arizona in 2016.

Sex traffickers often target minors, exploiting teens who can be lured into being kidnapped, as well as runaways and homeless teens whose need to survive on the streets makes them especially vulnerable. The venues where the process starts can be online, like Facebook or other social media, or in public places, like shopping malls, parks, or bus stops. A 2016 report published by STIR found that among Arizona’s homeless young adults, 1 in 3 had been victims of sex trafficking. Among those victims, 36.1 percent said they were minors when they were first coerced into the trade. Their average age of first becoming victims of sex trafficking was 17.9, but the range can include people much older — and much younger. The Arizona Attorney General’s report states that “law enforcement has seen girls as young as 9 sold for sex.”

The sex traffickers who target minors often pose as friends or potential partners initially, convincing victims that they have caring or romantic feelings for them. Many minors don’t have personal experience or good models to know what healthy relationships look like, leaving them less prepared to recognize or handle emotional manipulation. Their vulnerability underscores the need for comprehensive sex education that can give them the tools they need to stay safe in these scenarios. Arizona, however, has no law mandating comprehensive sex education in its public schools. It has been up to districts like Tempe Union High School District to lead the way in voluntarily instituting improved sex education.

Effective sex education includes information about consent, negotiating proper boundaries, and forming healthy relationships — as well as recognizing that a person’s self-worth is not determined by their relationship status. Young people also need to know what resources are available if they feel threatened or need help, such as Polaris’s BeFree Textline (HELP to 233733), as well as area support networks that are available if they don’t feel comfortable turning to their friends or families. Providing that information can be key to helping young people see warning signs, navigate dangerous situations, and find safe spaces.

Shortcomings in sex education notwithstanding, Arizona has gained momentum in other efforts that could address sex trafficking. In 2015, the Department of Justice awarded the Tucson Police Department and CODAC Health, Recovery and Wellness a $1.5 million grant to study sex trafficking in Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz counties. Also collaborating on the grant is the University of Arizona’s Southwest Institute for Research on Women. The three agencies are carrying out the project under the name SAATURN, or Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network. As part of the project, CODAC is also providing education, training, and victim support.

Late last year, Phoenix established a first-of-its-kind housing complex for victims of sex trafficking and their families. Known as Starfish Place, the complex provides subsidized rent, as well as services to address victim trauma, including on-site social workers. “It’s not just giving them a bed to sleep in that’s safe,” STIR’s Roe-Sepowitz told The Arizona Republic. “It’s creating an environment of growth … that propels them out of that life and not back into that life.”

In the end, the question of whether the Gem Show and similar events provide unique opportunities to sex traffickers can in many ways sidestep the central issues. Opportunities for sex traffickers exist regardless of these major events, and they will be made easier as long as second-rate sex education leaves young people unprepared to keep themselves safe. Moreover, far too many of those opportunities will result in tragic outcomes until Arizona and other states provide a robust safety net for trafficking survivors. Visible efforts will be needed to end an underground market.