Commentary: Column made too many assumptions about sex workers

I wonder if Chris Epting's Thursday column, "Rescuing tortured phantoms of the night," might not just as aptly have been titled, "Religious zealots annoy women trying to make a living."

There are perspectives that the story doesn't address. Where does Epting find the statistic that "thousands" of teens in Orange County have been forced into human trafficking? So, essentially the combined student bodies of Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar high schools are out working the streets?

Might the number not instead be in the hundreds, or the dozens? The national figures that anti-trafficking advocates cite have been found to be highly inflated, so what source is the writer citing for O.C.? According to the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, over a four-year span, they have helped just over 100 "potential victims" of trafficking.

Any amount of human trafficking is odious, which is all the more reason why it should be addressed using facts and reason. Self-appointed experts trolling the streets on hunches doesn't sound like an answer. In my OC Weekly days, I interviewed exotic dancers, private massage workers and others in similarly dodgy professions.

It wasn't anyone's dream job, and it certainly didn't enhance their esteem of the male species, but the ones I spoke with had entered into their livelihoods of their own volition, and a couple said they felt more in control of their lives than they had out in the workaday world. A great many of these folks, by the way, do not engage in sex with their clients — for the obvious legal, health and emotional reasons — but skirt as close to it as the law allows.

So imagine showing up at a hotel room — it's an icky job but you've got tuition or a kid to feed — and instead of a paying customer you're confronted by some self-appointed superhero trying to "save" you. That sounds like the situation the "Maya" in Epting's story might have encountered, and no wonder she became incensed and told the guy to leave. And maybe the second woman, "Angel," blew off her meeting with her would-be savior because he gave her the creeps on the phone.

When she sat by the Jacuzzi later and Epting tried to paint this image of an underage prostitute locked into a despairing life, maybe she was just an of-age come-on dancer morose over the money she wasn't making because of deceptive phone calls.

We'll never know, because Epting was crouching unseen rather than — I've heard of reporters doing this — asking her what she was thinking. Before labeling her driver as a "trafficker," he also might have asked around and found that most such guys aren't slave drivers or pimps but are simply hired by the dancers or their agencies to drive them around and provide a lifeline in case a customer gets out of hand.

It's not my ambition to be an apologist for the sex and pseudo-sex industries, but with an issue as serious as human trafficking, more perspective and accuracy in the reporting could only be helpful.

Costa Mesa resident JIM WASHBURN is the former executive editor of OC Weekly.

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