San Diego launches campaign to expose ‘Ugly Truth’ about sex trafficking and child exploitation


San Diego County officials on Monday launched a campaign intended to educate the public about sex trafficking and child exploitation.

Dubbed “The Ugly Truth,” the effort will use billboards; radio spots; videos to be played in elevators and at health clubs; and posters to be displayed at bus shelters and on trolleys. It’s expected to run about three months.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan said at a news conference that law enforcement authorities see a disconnect between what they know about sex trafficking and the community’s attitudes toward it. Some of that, she said, may be attributed to movies and television shows that glamorize prostitution.


Stephan said the campaign grew out of a belief that people would be more willing to work against human trafficking in their communities if they had a better understanding of the conditions that drive children and adults into the sex trade.

“Until residents of San Diego County see the damage done to women, girls and boys being forced to work in prostitution, there will be a lack of will to take on this threat and end demand” for it, she said.

The FBI has identified San Diego as one of 13 U.S. cities designated as a “high intensity child prostitution area.”

A study released last year by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University reported there were up to 8,100 trafficking victims a year in San Diego County, and the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 16.

Most of the illegal activity is controlled by street gangs, some of which have turned to prostitution as their top source of income.

“The ugly truth is that San Diego has a thriving underground sex economy,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said at the news conference.


She noted that human trafficking was a form of slavery that affects schools, neighborhoods and other areas where children gather. “It’s shocking, and it must not be tolerated,” Jacob said.

This isn’t the first time San Diego County has launched a public awareness campaign focused on human trafficking.

In 2014, Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis announced that billboards had been posted in various locations with messages such as: “Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect” and “Teens sold for sex aren’t prostitutes. They’re rape victims.”

The Ugly Truth campaign is intended to take those messages further by providing input from survivors of human trafficking. It also attempts to expose and stop people who buy and sell human beings for sex, as well as offer resources for the victims, Stephan said.

Littlefield writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.