MORAGA -- If you think sex trafficking is something that only happens in distant lands, think again.
The average age of girls prostituted in the United States by pimps is 12. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of three locations in California topping the FBI's high-intensity trafficking list. Of the 30 girls recently protected in a Northern California safe house, five of them were previously sold for sex by their peers or boyfriends. One of the largest sex trafficking cases in local history came out of Livermore. Domestic slavery has been reported in Walnut Creek.
Those are the messages two local women, Brenda Hepler, founder of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT-USA)'s "TassaTag," aimed at sex tourism, and Kathy Wilson, spokeswoman for New Day for Children, brought the Orinda-Moraga-Lafayette Branch of the American Association of University Women's monthly meeting this past week. It shed light on the global and local realities of children sold and exploited in the burgeoning sex trade.
"Police departments, even a few years ago, had very little awareness about this issue in America," Wilson says. "When we opened New Day three years ago, people didn't even believe this was happening. Their reaction was, 'If this is real, why isn't it in the media?' "
The answer is complicated, as suggested by the conflict between Wilson's requests to protect the location and specific details of the rescue center and boarding school and her intense desire to spread the word and raise support.
"We rely completely on groups like the Junior League of Moraga, who have made us the beneficiary of this year's home tour, plus business sponsorships and individual donations," she says.
Wilson has seen the age of New Day clients plummet, as the "demand for fresh-faced, sweet, young girls increases.
"It's less risk and more profitable than drugs," she explains. "Crime groups and cartels are moving children along the same channels as drugs. With drugs, once they're gone, you have to procure more. With these girls, you can sell them over and over."
Calling the explosive numbers a "modern day resurgence of slavery," Wilson offers another shocking statistic: the average age of boys starting to watch pornography is 8 years old.
"The Internet is game-changing," she states. "(Boys) are inundated with sexual images -- it's so beyond sneaking a peek at a Playboy magazine."
Hepler, who was swept into one-woman activism after attending a United Nations Human Rights conference in 1993, took her expertise as a travel agent and designed the bright, hand-woven "TassaTag" luggage tags. Made by women at the Regina Center in Thailand, these luggage tags raise awareness, provide employment (and child care) for rural women in a country hard-hit by the sex trade industry and serve as an icon for ECPAT-USA's Code of Conduct.
"We focus on the United States and also, the places where American tourists tend to go," explains Hepler. "Sex tours -- where 25 percent of the people, mostly men, are Americans or Canadians -- go all around the world. Getting hotels to sign the Code of Conduct means they won't turn a blind eye to the situation."
During the first five years after introducing the code, Hepler says ECPAT-USA gained only five signatories. "This year, we're up to 12, so we've had a great increase in participation," she says.
Signing the code commits a hotel or travel establishment to developing a corporate policy against the commercial sexual exploitation of children and training staff to recognize and act against sex tourism.
Each TassaTag bears a number on the back, a direct link for reporting suspicious activity.
"Prevention is key," Hepler insists. "The code and the tag allow people to become a voice. No one person is going to be the silver bullet against child sex trafficking. It takes everyone."
Hepler and Wilson support California's Proposition 35, a recently passed measure approving tougher sentencing for human traffickers. With naysayers warning the increased fines and prison sentences may lull Californian's into thinking the matter is resolved, the two women suggest the skirmish will raise awareness.
Says Hepler, "As long as it's considered a first step toward getting children into safe harbor, I'm in favor of Prop 35."