Tom Perez is the founder of The EPIK (Every Man Protecting Innocent Kids) Project, an organization founded in 2012 to combat sex trafficking online. As part of our CEASE (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) Network, EPIK has used technology to disrupt over 40,000 attempts to purchase sex by directly confronting buyers at the point of sale and educating them about the harm they cause when they exploit vulnerable people. Functioning as a highly-trained and sophisticated neighborhood watch program, EPIK also provides law enforcement officials with important information to help fight sex trafficking, such as identifying high-frequency buyers. Based in Portland, Oregon, EPIK has trained male volunteers in Portland, Oakland, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, and Boston.
As part of our Spotlight Series, we asked Tom to tell us more about his work, and the value of belonging to the CEASE Network.
Q. What have you learned about buyers since starting this work? Is there anything that surprised you?
I think probably the biggest thing is that buyers are not one monolithic segment of the population. There are varieties of buyers based on age and the frequency of their activity. We’ve learned through experience that there are segments in this market. There are some who’ve never done this before and they have the poor luck of getting one of our volunteers the first time they ever called an ad. So those guys are scared, they’re nervous, they’re confused. But at the same time, a lot of those guys end up being open to the message. We’re not trying to shame them, we’re not going to out them and make some kind of public statement. It’s just kind of a man-to-man conversation, so we find that those guys are really open.
And that’s another thing that’s surprised me, is the openness. When you have a well-trained man, who can talk to a buyer without heaping shame or guilt on him, it can be an honest conversation. Some of these guys are actually very open, so that’s been really surprising.
What’s not surprising is that the guys who are way into this and do it a lot and spend a lot of money and take a lot risks, are pretty immune to our message. They just really don’t care. I listened to a conversation with one of our volunteers, and in the middle of the conversation—and it’s scripted, we work off a pretty well-vetted script—but in the middle of it the buyer cut off our volunteer and said, “Whatever, dude. I just want to get laid,” and hung up the phone. Believe me, that’s tame compared to what we’ve had. We’ve had people threaten to kill us, threaten to beat us up. They want to know who we are; they’re going to sue us. We find there are guys like that as well, and they’re pretty immune, so that’s not as much of a surprise.
But we have found that buyers are all different kinds. It isn’t the creepy guy in the trench coat down the alley somewhere. It’s coaches, teachers, professional people, tradesmen. It’s a little bit of everything.
Q. How has being a part of the CEASE Network helped you in your work? And how have you been able to help other members of the network?
How long do you have for the first part? [laughter] We wouldn’t be here without the CEASE Network. It really is a network in the best sense of that word. The connections, the trust, almost a family-like experience. When you’re fighting this fight, you need all the friends you can get. And CEASE really has provided that for us many times over. It’s opened up a network of relationships that have allowed us to share our work broadly. Of the original 11 cities that were a part of this, Portland is by far the smallest, but we’ve grown because of the connections that we have through the network. It’s a very rich and high-quality group of individuals who are creative and think outside the box. They’re risk takers. And all of that is being brought to bear on demand, which I think is part of the reason we’re having the impact that we’re having.
I’d like to think that we’ve been able to help others in the network. The two things that come to mind that are easiest to point to is what we’ve learned from doing our cyber patrols and sharing that information with law enforcement so they can duplicate and in a lot of ways refine what we’ve done and apply it in a law-enforcement setting. We’ve learned how to do it efficiently. We’ve learned the online landscape, and what it takes to post an ad. There are probably 101 little nuances, so we’ve been able to share those with the network, which allows law enforcement people connected to the network to benefit from what we’re doing. We’re also working on a law enforcement version of the software tool that we’ve built that will allow them to operate even more efficiently.
And then the other contribution I think we’ve made is generating data on buyers and sharing what we’ve learned about them. Our volunteers have made well over 40,000 direct contacts with online buyers, so there’s a lot of data that we’ve been able to collect. From the beginning, we’ve shared that with the network, and it’s allowed us to learn things about who these guys are demographically, economically, and so forth.
Q. Why is it important to enlist men in fighting sex trafficking?
That’s the fundamental question behind how EPIK got started. As a guy, I think I intuitively knew that men were the ones creating the problem, but I didn’t see very many men engaged in trying to find solutions.
That’s not to say that men are the total solution. I just think they need to get in the fight, alongside the women who have been doing the heavy lifting for a long, long time.
I think it’s important for men to get involved because there’s a really unique voice that men have, especially when talking to other men about this issue, that can’t be heard if the same message is coming from a woman. That might sound a little gender biased, but that’s actually the feedback I get even from survivors—that there’s just kind of an innate influence that men have when they talk to other men—if they’re well trained, and if they know the issue, getting them involved in the conversation brings a different level of influence.
Q. What is the impact of interrupting an individual transaction and stopping a buyer at the point of sale? Is it just about that one buyer, or is there a broader impact?
The short answer to that question is it’s both.
The impact can be powerful on one guy. We’ve had guys that our volunteers have engaged who have called back and thanked our volunteers for reminding them of their humanity. We’ve had guys break down and confess that they have a problem and ask for help. We’ve had guys who were actually suicidal and our volunteers were able to direct them to appropriate resources. So it’s a huge impact on the individual buyer, and that has a huge impact on the volunteers. It’s a very motivating thing.
But on a broader scale, we’ve found that it can have a pretty significant effect as well in terms of market disruption.
We had a sense of this early on when we started doing these patrols, that if we can poison the well and make it feel a little less anonymous for sex buyers to use some of these online platforms, that could have a ripple effect. We’ve seen that in the cities where we’ve been doing this work for a while now, and we actually have some third-party verification of the impact on the market locally over a long period of time.
We know that it can impact the market and make it more difficult for buyers to buy because they’re afraid they’re going to run into one of our guys.
Q. How did you develop partnerships with the local law enforcement? And what have been some of the successes and challenges of working together?
That’s one of the most critical components of our work. We developed the partnerships by simply building relationships over a long period of time, more than three years of showing up to meetings with the sex trafficking unit and the district attorney’s staff. You have to show up. We built the relationship.
And then the other thing that we did is we went to them and asked for help. We didn’t go to them and say, “here’s a plan.” Actually, we did, and it was a really stupid plan, and they were kind enough to suggest an alternative plan, which is what became the cyber patrols that we’re doing. But it came out of a long period of time simply getting to know these people and building trust. That’s how those partnerships developed.
We’ve been able to leverage that relationship in other cities as we’ve gone from city to city. We provided a reference list of police officers, sergeants, prosecutors, district attorneys, and so forth, that law enforcement officials in other cities can then talk to about our work.
In terms of challenges, it’s things like turnover and politics at the local level that we don’t have any control over. Personnel get moved around, and then budgets get cut. It’s a challenge for us to constantly pay attention to that and do what we can to advocate for police as citizens, but sometimes it’s beyond our control. The Portland sex trafficking unit has been cut in half in the last couple years due completely to budget cuts.
We’re in seven cities now, so everything that exists here in Portland, it’s the same story in Boston or DC or Atlanta. We’re civilians, we’re not subject to election cycles and all of that, but we kind of have to live in that world when dealing with elected and appointed officials. So those are some of the challenges.
About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements.We want to provide a showcase for these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.
Do you know someone we should interview? Are there any questions you’d like us to ask? Please send your ideas to email@example.com.