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San Diego County Launches Human Trafficking Awareness Campaign

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The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Truth

A poster developed for San Diego County's "The Ugly Truth" campaign. It reads, "The Prostitution Myth, I don't know anyone who pays for sex. The ugly truth, yes, you probably do.

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Following the recent arrests of three suspected sex traffickers in San Marcos and two San Diego men accused of running a prostitution website, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office on Monday announced a public awareness campaign on commercial sex exploitation and human trafficking.

The new public outreach effort is aimed at debunking myths and shining a light on sexual exploitation and human trafficking in the county.

The group behind "The Ugly Truth" campaign developed posters in multiple languages to be placed around the county on buses, in emergency rooms, at truck stops and at sex shops, among other businesses. Public service announcements also will run on the radio.

According to officials, the campaign grew out of a simple belief: That until the public understands the truth about the conditions that drive women and girls into the sex trade, and the violence prostituted persons are likely to encounter while working in it, there won't be a community consensus or public will that can lead to change.

The FBI has classified San Diego as a "High Intensity Child Prostitution Area" on a list of top 13 cities for prostituting children.

"Until our community sees the damage done to women, girls and boys being forced to work in prostitution, they will lack the will to take on this threat to our children and end demand," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, who heads the county's Human Trafficking Advisory Council. "Media can play a critical role in creating this awareness, particularly in an era where TV, print, film and online representations of prostitution are often so glamorizing."

According to a recent study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, the average age for entry into sex trafficking is 16.

Homeless and foster youth are at the greatest risk for recruitment, and about 85 percent of sex trafficking is controlled by gangs, according to the study.

The study also confirmed that sex trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in San Diego County.

The scale of the illicit sex economy is $810 million a year, with each trafficker controlling about four victims and making an average of $670,625 a year, according to the study.

Mester, who was trafficked by her sister and a friend when she was 13, said she didn't understand that she was a victim of human trafficking.

"In my mind, I was a prostitute," said the 27-year-old Mester, now a college graduate. "This campaign is exactly what we need."

The three-month campaign cost less than $120,000 and was funded by a grant through the county's Health and Human Services Agency, officials said.

The decision to launch the effort during the summer before Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and Comic-Con International was strategic, Stephan told KPBS Midday Edition.

"Any time you have a large gathering, where there are a large number of people spending money and men spending money specifically, they’re going to spend money sadly on buying people," Stephan said. "The myth that most of them have in their mind is that these people are willing participants, when the reality is that they are exploited and trafficked and have to do this to survive."

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