Foggy Sex Trafficking Stats Pop Up in the Bay Area

Did San Francisco really see a 170 percent "spike in human trafficking" last year?


Many people warned that the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) would endanger the lives of adults who consensually exchange sex for money. Ten months after its passage, CBS San Francisco reported that the city saw a whopping 170 percent "spike in human trafficking" last year. But there are reasons to be wary of the CBS story and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) data it relied on.

While ample signs point to negative effects from FOSTA, which made it a federal crime for websites and other online platforms to facilitate prostitution, this probably isn't one of them. What it does illustrate is that increased police attention to the "problem" doesn't equate to more people helped or justice served.

According to a year-end report, SFPD opened 40 sex-trafficking investigations in 2017 and around 108 in 2018—there's the 170 percent spike. But pull back, and it's unclear whether FOSTA, which became law on April 11 last year, is really to blame. In 2014, for instance, SFPD opened 80 sex-trafficking investigations—double the number from 2017. In 2015, the department either worked on 67 or 169 investigations, depending on which of its sources you consult.

That brings us to another important distinction: An investigation means simply that police looked into something and filed a report. It doesn't mean that they found forced or underage prostitution, that arrests were made, or that charges were filed. In 2017, just nine investigations were taken to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office for prosecution, and just one of those cases led to an indictment. In 2016, 10 cases were presented to prosecutors and six led to charges.

Last year, city police and prosecutors ramped up efforts to target human trafficking. Additionally, an increase in street-based prostitution in certain neighborhoods—the inevitable result of FOSTA's targeting of online advertising platforms—meant increased sex-worker visibility. In other words, the level of sex trafficking reported "doesn't necessarily map to prevalence," as Notre Dame law instructor Alex Frell Levy pointed out on Twitter. Indeed, an SFPD spokesperson attributes the spike to an "an increase in awareness and reporting," not an increase in underlying rates.

Nonetheless, a wealth of anecdotal evidence from sex workers, police, health care providers, and others—in the Bay Area and beyond—suggests bad outcomes from government efforts to close online sex-work markets.

At an October 2018 meeting of the city's Task Force on Human Trafficking, "some members shared their perspective on the impact of FOSTA," according to the minutes. "An increase in street-based sex work in the Mission District has been observed. Members from the Police Department shared that they have seen a ripple effect after the [April 6] closure of Backpage and that more sites have popped up on the internet. They said that the demand for sex work has not changed with the law."

In August, SFPD formed a Sex Worker Abatement Unit. Although police have couched recent stings as attempts to stop "pimps" and "traffickers," much of their efforts end up targeting sex workers or their clients. "Arrests have increased dramatically and noticeably, and as a result sex workers who are victims of violence are intimidated and running from police," Rachel West of the U.S. PROStitutes Collective told reporters last December.

The city passed a law in 2017 clarifying that officers shouldn't arrest sex workers reporting crimes, and a bill stating the same has been introduced at the state level. But with police intent on "abating" sex work altogether, these measures likely won't cut it.

NEXT: Elizabeth Warren Demands Trump's Impeachment in Wake of Mueller Report

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Happy 4/20, Reasonians*. Remember this?


    1. 4/20 was just a means to an ends for (r)eason staffers.

  2. It looks right to Facebook moms and brings in the easy overtime pay. What’s the incentive for law enforcement and legislators not to pad the stats?

    1. Activists doing civil disobedience can create a disincentive. A kissing both in a park where clients can kiss a cheek for $2 is not that difficult to set up.

      *Sigh* I guess now I have another reason to visit my friend in NYC if he’s up for the task.

      1. An ass cheek, right? Zeb’s ass cheek. $3.50 for both. Let’s get trafficking.

  3. I’ve been married twice , believe me , I’ve been ‘ trafficked’.

  4. With the rise of socialism and its denunciation of the capitalist system of the exploitation of labor, a 170% rise in sex trafficking could just mean that McDonalds is hiring and fucking over a lot more employees. And to think you people make fun of AOC when she single-handedly prevented 25,000 cases of sex trafficking from taking place in NYC when Amazon decided not to move into town.

    1. There is a fine line between super quick delivery of desired goods and taking a Welch Beto Boner for Team Blue.

      1. Many jobs involve more than the average level of health risk. Garbage collects are more likely to die at work than police officers are. Yes, sex-workers have an above average risk of catching a disease at work. So do many biologists and nurses.

        Yes, sex-workers must handle the emotional effect of doing something at work that is normally done within the home. It’s normal to hire teachers to act like mothers. It’s legal to hire a laundromat to clean laundry. It’s normal to hire a restaurant to cook food. Some households outsource domestic activities, and some workers choose those careers.

    2. Note that I speak as somebody who’s been selling my body and my knowledge and skills for many years, just as everybody I know does. Whether you’re a banker or a nurse or a truck driver or a plumber, we’re all prostituting ourselves for a paycheck. Why it is that if your knowledge and skills and talent lie in the realm of sexual pleasure you’re somehow not a legitimate worker is beyond me.

  5. The tech companies don’t want competition when they hire imported labor.

  6. So instead of sex workers making assignations over the internet, where they have some control over where they are meeting, and at least the ability to notify someone where they’re going, they now have to work the streets where there is little or no security.

    Thanks, FOSTA.

    1. Remember that the archetype sex worker is a woman, who needs to be protected (including from her own bad choices). Because women are better than men.

  7. Hey cops, it’s her body, HER choice! Oh wait, that only applies to pregnancy. With sex, the government gets to decide.

    As the Reverend would say, these legislators are just slack-jawed, superstitious throwbacks who want to practice womb-control. Wait, sorry. It’s San Francisco: they wouldn’t dream of that. They are slack-jawed, enlightened progressive knuckle-draggers who practice vagina-control. My bad. Can’t confuse authoritarians.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.