According to filmmaker Tim Matsui’s 2014 documentary, The Long Night, the sex trafficking industry claims 100-300 thousand underage girls per year in the United States alone.
Fifty thousand of those victims are in King County.
“I think this film was a really up close and personal, really heartbreaking look at what [trafficking] really looks like for victims,” Summer Downs, president of Seattle Pacific’s Set Free club, says. “I think it was a good wakeup call.”
Approximately 160 students, faculty, staff and community members filled Demaray 150 during the club’s Feb. 20 film screening.
The documentary features interviews with sex trade victims, their families and members of law enforcement.The participants’ identities are protected by pseudonyms.
Though society generally views the women participating in these acts negatively, the film says family members often sell the women into the sex trade. Lisa is one of the girls featured in the documentary. Her father sold her at the age of 13.
“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” she says in the film. “I’ve been using heroine for awhile now…It helps me not to feel.”
The film later shows that Lisa tried to quit heroine only to discover she was lacking a support system back home.
“I called my mom and my sister to tell them I was going into detox, and they didn’t even care,” Lisa says in the documentary.
She later ended up back on the streets.
“Lisa’s still on streets struggling to leave the life,” Matsui says. “A lot of people think this is a women’s issue. It’s not; it’s a societal issue.”
The film depicts a common trend among girls in sex trafficking. Many girls run away from home seeking adventure only to be sucked into the lifestyle of doing drugs and earning “easy money.”
Natalie was only 15 years old when she ran away from home.
“I wanted to find myself and see what the world had to offer…I thought I had discovered life,” she says in the film. “I thought it was going to be something really great.”
She soon discovered otherwise.
Natalie went to a shelter and met a girl who started talking to her about going to California, but the two did not have any money.
“She convinced me to prostitute even though I was a virgin,” Natalie says. “It was insane how quickly it happened.”
Natalie eventually went back home, only to run away for a second time.
“I came back, but people called me a slut and whore at school, so I left again,” she says. “I met a guy, and I fell in love with him and he prostituted me.”
After a month, their relationship started to deteriorate. He beat and abused her.
“I was with a customer too long, and he beat me,” she says. “People saw and gathered around our car, but they didn’t do anything…It broke my spirit.”
After Natalie had been away from home for 108 days, her pimp, Baruti Hopson, was arrested and sentenced to 26 and a half years in prison on March 29, 2011.
He was the first person in King County to be convicted under new legislation that declared promoting the commercial sex abuse of a minor a Class A felony.
According to Matsui, Natalie is now safe at home with her family, but something could have been done sooner.
“Natalie frequented UW fraternities at 15,” he says. “If someone would have said something, then things could have ended a lot sooner. Together as a society we need to take that step.”
Downs was moved by the events in the film and Matsui’s comments that the girls could have been helped sooner.
“Definitely some of the hardest parts of this for me are hearing the stories about the girls that are roped into this when they’re 12 or 13,” Downs says. “There’s no way out, and just the injustice of that and how there’s literally nothing that they could have done to stop it breaks my heart.”