Honolulu, Hawaii – “It doesn’t seem like there’s any action today,” Tammy Bitanga says, pointing out all the possible prostitutes in Honolulu’s Chinatown.
For the uninitiated, she breaks the city down into two zones. The area around Waikiki beach, lined with posh hotels and boutiques, is, she says, for “high-class street walkers”.
“This area – drug addicts, low-class streetwalkers,” she adds.
This is not your typical Hawaiian holiday tour. Those tend to involve snorkelling adventures or biking down sooty volcanoes. But hidden behind the pristine image of this Pacific paradise is a thriving sex tourism industry.
The streets are mostly empty in the mornings, but today there is some activity in a park – a fair or festival of sorts has drawn a meagre crowd. Then she points. “This girl might be. Right here.”
A female, possibly in her teens, is standing on a corner. She had been doing the same thing a few blocks earlier. She is standing alone, checking her phone. Bitanga says she appears too “dirty” to be a trafficked child prostitute.
Bitanga knows this, because she used to be one.
Bitanga is one of an unknown, and some say very difficult to measure, number of children and women who have been forced into sex work in Hawaii.
“It is hard to quantify but, by our estimates, the number of females trafficked for sex in Hawaii each year is most likely in the thousands,” says Kathryn Xian, the founder and head of Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, an anti-trafficking pressure group.
“There are about 150 brothels on Oahu alone that we know about [not including those in private homes]. For each brothel, there are between three to 15 girls, mostly from Asia and some youth victims. This doesn’t include the street prostitution and online scene.”
Most of the girls are from China, Japan, Korea and Thailand, Xian says. There are also girls from Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. A large number of the women are taken to or through Honolulu, Oahu, a centre for tourism and conventions and home to a large transient military population.
Clients are usually men with money, some military, some tourists, Xian says. Many come from Asia or mainland United States, but there are local clients as well.
After a few months of work in the city, she says, the girls are shipped to their next destination, often to major US cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Dallas, New York or Washington DC.
Hawaii’s central placement in the Pacific sex trade circuit has cast a shadow over the islands, Xian says.
But it has been this way for almost two centuries, she adds, telling the story of the first case she knows of from 1825, when American whalers trafficked a young girl.
“Ever since then, it’s gotten worse,” she says.
Xian believes that the state’s location and its popularity with tourists makes it the ideal trafficking corridor.
“In the vernacular of human trafficking, Hawaii is a source, destination and transit location,” says Nicholas Sensley, a retired California police chief and a global expert on sex trafficking.
In Hawaii, Sensley says, networks import victims from abroad, but the trade does not exclude locals.
“This is a melting pot of very beautiful people from the Pacific, [from] Asia, and mainland United States, and unfortunately part of the reality is that it creates a draw,” he adds.
A failure to help victims
One of the most frustrating things for Xian is what happens to the victims who manage to escape.
Instead of being treated like survivors of rape and psychological abuse, they are put in the difficult position of having to give evidence against their abusers and face grave consequences, or face criminal charges themselves, Xian explains.
“They don’t fear law enforcement. They fear their traffickers, who have sometimes controlled them for years,” she says. As a result, victims typically drop their cases.
Hawaii’s record in dealing with the issue is erratic, activists say. In recent years, the state’s response to human trafficking has improved according to two independent anti-trafficking organisations. Shared Hope International improved the state’s rating in an annual report from the lowest possible grade of an F in 2013 to a D last year.
Meanwhile, the Polaris Project, an organisation that works on human trafficking, said in a 2014 report that Hawaii’s human trafficking laws were good, though its law enforcement rating, safe-harbour and task-force development needed improvement.
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Last July, Hawaii’s state governor vetoed an anti-sex trafficking law, which supporters said would have helped victims more effectively than the state’s current legislation.
“We need to combat sex trafficking in Hawaii, and we are,” Governor David Ige’s press representative wrote in an email. The law was “well intentioned”, he said, but could “actually impair law enforcement’s ability to prosecute crimes related to prostitution and sex trafficking, including sex trafficking of juveniles.”
Xian, whose organisation had drafted the new law, said she had hoped it would bring Hawaii up to speed with the rest of the US. Hawaii remains the only state in the US with no comprehensive law specifically criminalising sex trafficking while protecting victims from prosecution, she said.
A home-grown victim
Jessica Munoz, a nurse practitioner and anti-trafficking activist, founded Ho’ola Na Pua, a non-profit organisation that works with girls trafficked from Hawaii. She shares the story of one who was lured into prostitution four years ago, when she was 14.
At the time, the young girl, who was from a “good family”, was in her first year in high school, Munoz explains. At a mall in Waikiki, she met two men in their late 20s who promised her fame and fortune. They took her to an apartment, where she spent several days “hanging out” with them. They gave her drugs and then her instructions: She had to go to Chinatown, wait on a street corner and meet a client. Munoz says the girl was afraid so did as they told her.
That was her foray into prostitution.
“Her pimp … had her live with him with six other girls, and she was being prostituted every day.” She returned to her family several times, but kept running away because she was unhappy at home, Munoz explains.
Even when she gave birth to a baby fathered by her pimp and served a short prison sentence for prostitution, she felt unable to leave the sex trade. Now, aged 18, she is still working as a prostitute, Munoz says.
$100 for 15 minutes
There is no particular victim profile, Munoz explains. The girls can be as young as 11 or 12, she says. Some are runaways who have ended up homeless, others come from stable, supportive families but continue to be prostituted even as they live under their parents’ roofs.
Once they are in the trade, the girls are often afraid of what their pimp might do to their families, she says.
But the typical way they are brought into the sex trade is different from what the public might think. These are not “snatch and grab” abductions, like in the movies, Munoz says. Instead, girls are lured through “boyfriending”, as she calls it, or, as Xian says, the “lover boy” approach.
Like the young woman who was coaxed from a mall with promises of stardom, victims are often vulnerable teenagers who respond to an older man’s attention and flattery. Eventually, a few days or weeks later, they are ordered to have sex with a client.
The victims are pushed into the first encounter in several ways, Xian says. Sometimes they are gang-raped and beaten into submission. Other times they are drugged into compliance.
“Less abusive” pimps, she says, will entice them by appealing to their desire to please him and earn or cement his love.
Girls are forced or asked to perform certain acts and from there, “it gets worse and worse, until a John forces himself upon her. Boom. It’s done. She’s broken in,” Xian says. “If she tries to leave, the pimp beats her up.”
They often also threaten to tell their families.
They must meet a quota of $1,000 to $1,500 per day, Munoz says, explaining that the rate for 15 minutes with a child prostitute in Honolulu is $100. At that rate, they must serve between 10 to 15, but sometimes even 20, men a day.
The fees for children are much higher, Xian says. “At minimum, $250 for a half an hour, if not more.” She remembers a victim she met two years ago, whose pimp was paid $10,000 for one night. She was 16 then.
Over a traditional Hawaiian breakfast of pancakes with coconut syrup, Bitanga describes the gruesome reality of underage sexual exploitation. Escape is near impossible, she says. The girls can end up in prison or with criminal records, the public is largely in denial about the problem, and the victims do not get the therapy they need to move on and heal, she adds.
“It’s like people don’t know that it happens in Hawaii to underage girls. I mean, I was 15 when it happened to me, and it’s still happening.”
Through Munoz’s organisation, Bitanga been mentoring two former child prostitutes. One, who she simply refers to as “my young, young girl” was pulled into prostitution after meeting a pimp at a party. Now she is fighting the impulse to return to sex work.
It is not very different from what happened to Bitanga. She met a man when she was 14 years old, during an evening of “partying, drinking, smoking”. After “boyfriending” her, he proposed she trade sex for money and said she should work in Alaska, which was enjoying a boom in oil infrastructure work at the time.
She paid for her own ticket from two nights of prostitution and ended up in an Anchorage massage parlour, where she handed her earnings to a pimp. She returned to Hawaii two months later and stayed in the sex trade.
“How can a 15-year-old choose that? The argument is she cannot choose that,” Bitanga says. Her pimp was not violent or coercive, she adds. “He just boyfriended me. It’s a boyfriend type of thing. He showed me affection, he gave me nice things, he boyfriended me into wanting to do it.”
That was in the 1970s, and she has spent her whole life since trying to leave the world she was pulled into. Even when she had a professional job, at one time as a paralegal for a prominent lawyer, she still went out at night. It was impossible to stop, she explains, because she did not value her body and it was the only world she knew.
Now that she is about 50, she no longer works as a prostitute. Instead, she volunteers to help trafficked teens who have managed to escape to stay out of sex work, and she is a vocal advocate for treating them as victims, not criminals.
“I want to be a voice for the girls who can’t talk about it yet,” she says.