ST. GEORGE – Many people are still stuck in the belief that sex-trafficking is something that happens in other countries. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of juveniles are being exploited for sex every year in the United States. But one Dixie High School graduate is working to change that and she is being praised for her efforts in the nation’s capital.
A St. George native and class of 1980 Dixie High School graduate, Michelle Guymon said, in a way, she sort of stumbled into her position as director of the child-trafficking unit under Los Angeles County Probation Department.
“I really didn’t pay much attention to it because, in my eyes, sex-trafficking happened in other countries and it really didn’t have anything to do with me,” said Guymon, now a 26-year veteran with the Los Angeles County Probation Department.
Guymon was working as a director for a girl’s camp in LA and was part of Los Angeles County’s Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, or ICAN, a county agency that looks at all different types of child abuse issues, when an LA judge asked her to be a part of a newly-formed domestic minor sex-trafficking subcommittee. She agreed and attended her first meeting Nov. 16, 2010.
“It was there that I learned that sex-trafficking was the same thing that I had identified as teenage prostitution,” Guymon said. “Working in juvenile justice, I worked with a lot of young women who were arrested for prostitution and I just thought they were engaging in delinquent behavior and this was a choice they were making – and probably was somewhat judgmental about, you know, there’s just better ways to make money than selling your body.”
It was at that time Guymon said she realized the kids she had considered teenage prostitutes, were actually sex-trafficking victims – just like those kids from other countries – and that they were being controlled by a pimp or an exploiter selling them on the streets, out of hotels or different places for money, and that it wasn’t a choice the juveniles were making.
“Since we know that most girls are first exploited between the ages of 11 and 14,” Guymon said, “and that we are arresting them later in their teens, they have endured years of violence and exploitation at the hands of their exploiters before we even identify them as victims.”
Falling victim to pimps and sex traffickers
Upwards of 80 percent of commercial sexual exploitation victims had been involved in the child welfare system at some point, Guymon said, adding that kids who go into the welfare system, go in with a level of vulnerability because of being taken away from their families through no fault of their own.
Oftentimes, the juveniles in the welfare system will run away after placement, Guymon said, which is typically when they will wind up in a horrible situation. One in three teens will be recruited by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home and becoming homeless.
“These traffickers would prey on them because they knew that they were an easy target and offer them love and consistency and ‘I’ll take care of you’ and ‘you’re beautiful’ and all those things that they were desperately wanting to have and hear,” Guymon said. “Then, later on, as he was grooming them, he would then tell them ‘this is what I need you to do for me because I’ve been taking care of you for the last two months’ and then, when kids tried to get away or say ‘no, I’m not doing that,’ then he would threaten them with violence – somewhat like domestic violence.”
Guymon said child sex-trafficking parallels domestic violence in the sense that women who’ve gotten involved in bad relationships “went in out of love, and they didn’t leave out of fear”; but the difference is, these are children, not adult women, she said.
“We have a lot of kids that have been arrested for prostitution, and they’re not prostitutes,” Guymon said. “How can you be a prostitute at the age of 12?”
The youngest child that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services encountered, Guymon said, was a 6-year-old boy that was being sold for sex for profit by his mother.
Many of the victims, however, were recruited while living in group home settings, and data paints a clear picture that human trafficking and child welfare are inextricably linked.
“One of the biggest things that we’re doing in Los Angeles is we’re really doing a lot of work with our child welfare system,” Guymon said, “because, again, when kids are in child welfare, they’re really at a high-risk of vulnerability just because they don’t have that strong family foundation and they’re constantly looking for – this place where they belong and feel loved and this level of family – so we’re doing a lot of work and a lot of efforts around that.”
The “Johns” and a culture of tolerance
Additionally, a new focus for stricter penalties is being placed on those who are purchasing sex from children.
“We’re really trying to work hard on the demands side, which is the men who are buying sex from children,” Guymon said, “because, again, without that you don’t have child sex-trafficking – it will cease to exist, so it’s really about stiffer penalties, stiffer laws.”
We are now moving in a direction, Guymon said, where the price and the consequences for those who are perpetrating the abuse will soon be too high to engage.
“Right now, most men who get caught up in this, it’s a slap on the wrist, its pay a citation, nobody has to know about it,” Guymon said. “I think what’s happening right now across the country is they’re doing a lot of exposure. They’re going to make sure it’s going to be stiffer penalties. They’re going to be impounding vehicles. There’s going to be jail time and there’s going to be, you know, exposure like billboards or in the paper or different things just to say this is not OK.”
While men who solicit sex from kids can be from any walk of life, Guymon said, a lot of the kids have talked about the men who solicited them – in the $32 billion per year industry – as usually being men of affluence who have money.
“It’s men who have money. It’s men who go to Vegas for work. It’s men who fly into LA for sporting events. It’s all different kinds of things,” Guymon said. “A lot of times it’s when a lot of men go to different places to congregate for sporting events, work out of town where nobody has to know. I think, like I say, it’s a lot of men with affluence, again, that have money, but it doesn’t mean that men who don’t make a lot of money don’t buy sex either, they do.”
According to a 2007 report titled “DEMAND. A Comparative Examination of Sex Tourism and Trafficking in Jamaica, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States,” compiled by Shared Hope International, an organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery and human trafficking, a unique culture of tolerance exists in the United States as the backdrop for the operation of commercial sex markets.
The “Demand” report states that commercial sex has been normalized to such a degree that buyers no longer feel compelled to travel abroad to satisfy sexual urges. As the culture continues to normalize sexual images and activities, the report states, the markets grow.
A specific example of normalization occurring within this culture of tolerance in the U.S., according to the report, includes:
The sexualized popular culture glamorizes pimping and prostitution and reduces the moral barriers to accessing commercial sex without regard to the origin or conditions of the trafficked women and children. Las Vegas’ now famous slogan, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’ provides visitors with an excuse to act in ways outside the norm of their own community.
Perception of sex trafficking is often of foreign women and girls being moved from their impoverished homes into a wealthier country for commercial sexual exploitation, according to the report, but evidence shows something different.
“This view is overly simplistic and even outdated,” the report states, “as there are many variations to the face of sex trafficking and sex tourism. Increasingly, that face is one of a local victim caught in a sex trafficking market generated by local demand.”
Making a difference
Because of the work with juveniles Guymon is helping to facilitate in LA, she was invited to Vice President Joe Biden’s house on Sept. 28 for the 21st anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.
California Congresswoman Karen Bass also nominated Guymon to receive the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Angels in Adoption award which honors those who have made extraordinary contributions and people who are making a different in the lives of kids in foster care.
Guymon traveled to Washington to participate in three days of events that are designed to train Angels in Adoption recipients in using their personal experience to affect change on behalf of children in need of homes and to celebrate their hard work and dedication to the issue.
She received her award in Washington Tuesday evening.
Working in LA County and working with the probation department has been a life-changer, Guymon said, adding:
I grew up in St. George, Utah, where it was, when I was growing up, there wasn’t violence. I didn’t have friends who smoked cigarettes, you know what I mean, so it was a very sheltered happy home with a two-parent family and brothers and sisters. And then I moved to California and started working with kids who were gang members and taken away from their family because of abuse and, you know, scary things. But there was something about it that just kind of drew me to it. Because I’ve just had so much and been given so much, it’s something I feel compelled to do.
ED. NOTE: Substitute featured image provided by Michelle Guymon.
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