Bianca Morales-Egan is the Technical Advisor, Human Trafficking and Gender Equity at Project Concern International. She is also one of Demand Abolition’s CEASE Network (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) coordinators for San Diego. She has over 10 years of experience working in international and community development programs.
We asked Bianca about sex trafficking in San Diego, and how she raises awareness about reducing demand for paid sex.
Q. Are people in San Diego aware that sex trafficking and prostitution is a problem?
I think awareness of the problem of sex trafficking and prostitution is increasing in San Diego. In the five years I’ve been involved in combatting this industry, I’ve seen many more sectors becoming involved.
Within the law enforcement community, there’s greater awareness. School districts are educating their students and staff and local communities about this issue. Faith-based groups are uniting to support anti-trafficking efforts. The business sector is becoming more engaged and aware, so I think awareness is definitely growing. There’s still work to be done, and I think this is particularly true of demand-reduction campaigns.
There is also research that just came out showing the huge size and scope of the problem, estimating that there are between 3,000-8,000 sexually commercially exploited people in the area.
Since we joined the CEASE Network in 2015 we estimate that over 5,000 people have been reached through presentations or street outreach about how demand is driving the problem of sexual exploitation, and how addressing demand will help solve the problem. It doesn’t take long for people to connect the dots and realize that by addressing the demand, we can reduce victimization and end sexual exploitation in the long term.
Q. Tell me about the demand reduction work that you are doing in San Diego.
In reflecting, you always want to do more, but we’ve had some good successes in the past two years. We’ve attempted to deploy tactics that end demand from the short-term, medium-term, and long-term perspective.
From the short-term, we focus on disrupting online sex buying at the point of purchase. Our largest, flagship initiative is the “bunch of guys” cyber patrols, which have contacted over 3,000 unique buyers in San Diego over the past year and a half. The cyber patrols have also strengthened our partnership with law enforcement which is an essential relationship in the fight against demand.
Besides the citizen cyber patrols, we’ve also conducted hundreds of presentations and street outreach efforts to educate the general public on what demand reduction means. My partner, Marisa Ugarte, released the famous “don’t get caught with your pants down” meme to get people’s attention and engage them in conversation at the street level, which is always really informative, since one-on-one conversation makes a difference in ending demand. We’ve also activated some college students to start “ending demand” groups and sign pledges stating, “I pledge to not buy sex, and to encourage my peers to help eradicate human trafficking in San Diego.” Some volunteers also went to the beach areas to pass out information about the issue of trafficking and how demand fuels it.
Right now we’re forming a local business employer alliance in partnership with the BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking) Alliance in Seattle. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Human Trafficking Advisory Council fully endorsed this idea and so far we have one big corporation that’s interested in taking a leadership role here in San Diego in employing policies and strategies against trafficking. We’re really excited about getting the private sector engaged to spread the word even more and help on the demand-reduction side.
In the medium-term, we want to improve our IT approaches. We hosted a Google design sprint in March, where we brought together local and national experts, including a few of our fellow CEASE Coordinators, to explore ways to enhance existing technology that has been created under the CEASE Network over the past couple of years. We knew we weren’t starting from scratch as far as IT innovations, but wanted to see how to enhance what we had. After four days we came out with two promising new ideas, as well as a renewed energy to continue innovating. One idea is to build an algorithm using data collected through the cyber patrols to identify high-frequency buyers, medium-level buyers, and first-time buyers. If we can categorize buyers and provide valuable information to law enforcement, that would be a great win. Also this year, we’re focusing on the I-5 corridor project, where we’ll unite with our sister west coast CEASE cities to replicate our tested demand-reduction tactics. That could really broaden and deepen the movement.
For long-term efforts, we’re creating a curriculum for upper elementary and middle school boys, thinking that if we start earlier we can look at root causes and how to address sexual exploitation in the long-term. We’re partnering with the District Attorney’s office and other local organizations to address the three “E’s” with the young male population: Empathy, Equality, and Empowerment.
Q. How are you engaging citizens in local efforts to reduce demand?
We’ve tried to focus on sustainability—how do you make sure whatever you’re doing is sustainable after your initial project ends? We’ve focused on building relationships and creating an enabling environment to do demand-reduction work, because just coming and saying, “buyers are bad” isn’t going to work. You have to talk to law enforcement in a certain way, you have to talk to faith-based groups in a certain way, you have to talk to schools in a certain way, so what we’ve done in the past two years is tried to create that enabling, trusting environment to talk about this issue. A big part of our CEASE Coordinator job is figuring out how to engage all these different sectors—businesses, service providers, survivors, etc.
As far as survivor citizens, we’ve been really fortunate to have survivor thrivers as regular members of the San Diego core team and leaders of the demand reduction movement. We have two survivors—a male and a female—who are directly engaged in demand reduction tactics. Kathi Hardy helps coordinate the Prostitution Impact Panel (aka “johns school”) and is directly involved with Demand Abolition and the CEASE Network. Our male survivor, Tom Jones, is also directly involved in demand reduction tactics. He’s a thought leader in how to encourage healthy masculinity in our community. Having them engaged in everything we do has been a blessing, and natural for us, and I feel fortunate to have them on our team. Their input is crucial to knowing that we’re doing the right thing.
At a citizen level, the cyber patrols—talking to potential or actual sex buyers—has not only disrupted transactions but also built comradery between male allies. That’s been important in creating a cadre of male leaders who are donating their hearts, minds, and souls to the issue.
Q. How have your awareness efforts been received? What is the usual response?
Overall it’s positive. Sometimes when you’re having one-on-one conversations, you get the response that, “It’s the oldest profession in time. How do you think you’re going to end it?” So you have to step back and say, “Well let’s talk about that a little bit. Why do you think that is? Do you really think it’s beneficial to those who are selling?” I’ve never had someone shame me or get angry and storm off. All in all people have been receptive to at least listening to what we’re saying.
We did “The Ugly Truth” campaign in San Diego last year with billboards, trolley stop signs, and radio spots. During those three months, we saw our rates of online purchase intent go down, and the number of calls to the human trafficking hotline number go up. So as far as mass media campaigns, I think we can call that a success, but we need to continue the momentum.
Q. What is the value of being a member of the CEASE Network?
Honestly, being a part of the CEASE Network has been essential in creating this demand-reduction movement in San Diego. It has allowed us to be ahead of the game. As I mentioned before, it doesn’t take long for people to connect the dots and see that, if we really want to end this problem of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, we need to talk about demand. Having the CEASE Network, our San Diego core team, and a multisector approach has been really valuable in getting this movement going. I personally am very appreciative of the open learning and the sharing from the different CEASE cities. I can’t think of one time where I’ve called any of my fellow coordinators and they haven’t responded right away and been extremely helpful and open to sharing what they’ve learned and any information they had.
After the Google sprint, someone from Portland told me it felt like a family, and I agree. Being part of this movement together has created friendships among the different coordinators. I think it’s important to be part of a Network that’s willing to take risks and sometimes fail, because I don’t think that’s common. A lot of networks focus on best practices and why we’re the best, but this one is unique in that they’re willing to test different things, and willing to fail, which I think is an essential part of learning and advancing. It’s amazing what the CEASE Network has been able to accomplish in only two to three years.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.
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.
Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »
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