Phoenix, ASU partner to fight sex trafficking

Almost 20 years ago, Julie* underwent a radical transformation away from the life she had known since she was 17. That was when she followed her mother down a path of drug addiction and prostitution.

Her mother left the family when Julie was young. As a result, Julie rarely got to see her. Upon reconnecting as a teenager, Julie was determined not to lose contact again. She resolved to follow her mother anywhere.

“Anywhere” turned out to be a crack house, where she met the men and women who introduced her to prostitution as a way to support her newfound habit – and to the physical and mental abuse that accompanies it. Julie’s youth, emotional vulnerability and eventual drug addiction are common targets for human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery.

“I was 17 and I wanted my mom and I didn’t have her,” recalls Julie. “I blamed her for my decisions because that’s who I learned it from.”

Trafficking is defined as the trade of humans for labor, sexual services and organ extraction through the threat or use of force, or other means of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or a position of vulnerability, or the giving or receiving of benefits to a person having control over another person.

While precise numbers are difficult to gauge, recent estimates by the U.S. Agency for International Development put the number of people enslaved in sex or labor exploitation anywhere from 12 to 27 million worldwide. Many people think of trafficking as a problem that only happens in developing countries. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that 293,000 American children are at risk for being trafficked each year.

The City of Phoenix is attempting to crack down on the genesis of the problem instead of simply throwing sex traffickers and prostitutes in jail. The Phoenix Police Department has partnered with Arizona State University to battle recent trends in sex trafficking and to help survivors like Julie.

Through its Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR), ASU has made a commitment to share existing knowledge with the community in an effort to fight trafficking. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an ASU associate professor of social work and director of STIR, pioneered the office to act as a central source of research on domestic sex trafficking.

STIR seeks to contribute to the knowledge base about sex trafficking through innovative research methodologies and unique partnerships. The office has partnered with several university faculty and students to analyze the various factors that lead to sex trafficking and how to stifle them. They study the recruiting techniques of pimps who target minors, evaluate community drive arrest-alternatives in the Phoenix area and assess housing for sex trafficked/prostituted adults.

“In my past experiences, I started noticing that the women with the most complex trauma histories were the women who had said yes to being prostituted in their lifetime,” says Roe-Sepowitz.

This holds true with Julie’s experiences. Although she made attempts to stop, she relapsed into prostitution after going through a divorce and struggling both emotionally and financially.

After being sober and working for a number of years, Julie’s mother was ordered by the court to go through a diversion program offered to people arrested for prostitution. Offenders receive education to help prevent them from re-offending. According to a City of Phoenix Prosecutor’s Office study, 89 percent of those who completed the Catholic Charities DIGNITY Diversion program did not re-offend.

Julie attended on a voluntary basis after her mother recommended it. She also worked with organizations such as Project Rose, which works to get prostitutes off the streets and in touch with social-service providers. She credits Project Rose with helping her situation, as well as her relationship with her mother.

“Project Rose really opened up a door for conversation,” Julie says. “We don’t talk about specifics, but we started to talk about what can we share about our experience with these other women. It was okay to share with them that we did this together.”

Now, Julie works with STIR and similar organizations to educate the community on how to lead a successful life after addiction, prostitution and run-ins with the law. Although her relationship with her mother carries scars from the past, Julie describes it as always being strong and continuing to be so in the wake of their ordeal. Julie is now re-married with her own children, all of whom have a fulfilling relationship with their grandmother.

The Phoenix Police Department is taking additional approaches to reducing sex trafficking in the city. While some areas, such as Van Buren St., have historically been considered “red-light districts,” the city is working to clean up their image and reduce demand for prostitution.

Chris Bray, a sergeant with Phoenix’s vice unit, became involved with the project after observing the ineffective methods that the city had been employing to handle the problem. The vice squad is a police division focused on stopping moral crimes, like gambling, narcotics, pornography and illegal sales of alcohol.

“We were only attacking the visible part of the issue and arresting our way out of the problem,” says Bray. “We were taking care of symptoms and not taking care of the cause.”

After realizing their model was only mitigating the problem on a day-to-day basis, law enforcement began examining the issue from the standpoint of supply-and-demand economics. When attacking the supply side of the equation – the pimps – didn’t work, they turned their attention to the demand, or the "Johns."

“Seeing as it’s the demand side that drives the sex industry, going after the Johns has shown the most effective, long-term strategy to the problem,” says Bray.

Part of stifling demand involves educating the men who buy from pimps and solicit women for sex. Offenders have the opportunity to take a class to prevent them from re-offending. Similar to the program Project Rose uses for sex workers, this process has yielded positive results. Bray teaches some of these classes, in which he educates recently charged Johns on the realities of sex trafficking.

“I always ask these guys how they would feel if someone was going up to their daughter and asking her for sex,” says Bray. “That usually makes them stop and think about it in a different light.”

Meanwhile, ASU’s push to raise awareness for and combat this problem can be seen in campus-wide initiatives. In January, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) challenged ASU students to harness technology to combat the spread of trafficking and provide assistance to its victims.

Students are also regularly involved with STIR and its efforts to combat trafficking in the local Phoenix area.

Melissa West, an undergraduate senior majoring in social work, embraced the opportunity to become involved with sex trafficking victims. West was originally a criminal justice major before deciding that she really wanted to help the community by helping women on the streets.  

“Some of us think we have it hard or think we’re having a bad day, but we have family or support to fall back on at home,” says West. “These women don’t have that.”

West is involved with organizations such as Project Rose, and she performs outreach on the streets to raise awareness. She also regularly monitors websites such as, reaching out to women with posted ads for escort service and massages. In a study published last August, Roe-Sepowitz and Lieutenant James Gallagher of the Phoenix Police Department found that 80 percent of ads posted on the adult-services section of are actually for prostitutes.

“There’s still a huge stigma toward prostitution today,” says West. “We’re trying to combat that. We’re not arresting them. We’re saying, ‘Hey, these are your options. What would you like to do?’”

The study also illustrated that the exit needs of individuals who are sex trafficked/prostituted online are still relatively unknown. However, the researchers believe that the partnership between ASU and the Phoenix Police Department to conduct research on the issue will foster even more innovative solutions.

“This partnership is indicative of a broader effort that we at the university have,” said Jonathan Koppell, director of ASU’s School of Public Affairs, speaking at the first annual Sex Trafficking Summit earlier this summer. “We like to see ourselves as part of the solution-finding process.”

Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton also spoke at the summit on the importance of engaging diverse members of the local community to become involved with the issue.

“The issue that we’re talking about is not just a law enforcement issue,” said Mayor Stanton. “It is a social issue. It’s so important that the community rally and get behind it and make sure we have the right laws in place to support our law enforcement.”

Both city officials and educators at ASU recognize the importance of collaboration in adapting solutions to the issue of trafficking.

“It is our responsibility as academics and clinicians to try to figure out what to do to help,” says Roe-Sepowitz. “Not to feed, not to hand out, but to do something that’s innovative and that can be passed around the world.”

*Last name withheld to protect privacy.

Written by Lorraine Longhi, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development