One bill hopes to repeal the crime of selling sex and expand social services; the other would legalize the entire sex trade.
Although incorrectly labeled the world's oldest profession, prostitution has been on the minds of lawmakers for as long as extant laws allow us to track. The Code of Hammurabi, the most complete of ancient Babylonian laws, doesn't deal with the sex trade directly but does distinguish between the inheritance rights enjoyed by "devoted women" versus prostituted women.
A few centuries later and across the Mediterranean, the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations regulated a legal sex trade depicted on frescos and black-and-red-figure vases in exotic and highly idealized terms. However, the courtesan's life was hardly a high-minded exercise in sexual liberation. Freeborn wives and daughters did not participate in the sex trade. Instead, these societies filled their brothels with slaves and infames and allowed them to suffer in abhorrent living conditions. The ashen evidence from Pompeii reveals that prostituted women and young men were immured within dark, stifling cells barely large enough to house their stone beds.
In the United States today prostitution is entirely illegal, save for a few counties in the state of Nevada. Yet, trafficking persists across the country. One study from the Field Center for Children's Policy, University of Pennsylvania, interviewed vulnerable youths across 13 cities and found that roughly a fifth were victims of sex trafficking. Many said they were approached for paid sexual acts during their first night of homelessness.
Opponents of the full-criminalization model argue that these regulations only aggravate such problems, driving prostituted people further underground, where harm and violence may be inflicted upon them without recourse. In recent decades, European countries have introduced new prostitution laws, leading U.S. advocates to raise their voices for decriminalization. And two new bills introduced in the New York State Senate hope to make that change.
The Equality Model asks, criminal or victim?
Advocates stand outside a courthouse to protest Ghislaine Maxwell, former girlfriend to Jeffrey Epstein, for her role in his sex-trafficking ring.
Credit: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images
The most recent of the two is the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act. Set to be introduced by Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, the law would repeal the crime of prostitution in the state but would maintain punitive measures against buyers and pimps. The penalty for buying sex, for example, would be a sliding-scale fine based on income. The bill also aims to strengthen laws against trafficking and eliminate the so-called ignorance defense, which affords buyers legal cover if they did not have "reasonable grounds" to assume their victim was underage.
The Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act is based on the Equality Model, first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Under the Swedish Sex Purchase Act, the country decriminalized prostitution and began targeting buyers and suppliers with the goal of lowering demand. As demand decreased, the thinking went, Sweden would witness a subsequent reduction in violence, trafficking, and the trauma associated so strongly with the illicit sex trade. And a 2008 report did find that the strategy manifested some of those goals.
After the law's introduction, costs increased, fewer men sought to purchase sex, and the number of women in street prostitution halved—though the burgeoning internet scene likely influenced that metric as much as the law.
As for Sweden's prostituted population, the report was mixed. Fears of the law driving prostitution further underground weren't realized, nor did the risks of physical abuse or dangerous living conditions increase. However, while people who sought to leave the life favored the law, those who wished to stay in the trade denigrated it for hyping the social stigma.
After the report's release, countries such as Norway, Iceland, Canada, and Israel adopted the Equality Model, and today, many U.S. advocacy groups champion for states to institute similar laws.
"We who have been in the human-trafficking policy movement for a long time have been advocating for years that people in prostitution should not be criminalized for their exploitation," Alexi Meyers, director of anti-trafficking policy at Sanctuary for Families, told Big Think in an interview discussing the New York bill. "It's the only law where the victim is arrested. Instead of handcuffs, [people in prostitution] need services, need housing, need support."
Critically, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act does more than decriminalize prostitution. It also bolsters social services such as housing, job training, and mental health care. To help finance these services, money collected by the aforementioned buyer fine will go into a victim-compensation fund. The bill also expands protections for minors arrested under safe harbor and would vacate victims' prior convictions so they could more easily find jobs.
"When someone has had no family support, have been abused their entire lives, and they haven't gotten the services they need, at the age of 18, they haven't magically transformed from a victim of trafficking into a consenting adult," Jayne Bigelsen, vice president of advocacy for Covenant House, New York, said in our interview.
Bigelsen grants that not everyone engaged in the commercial sex trade may view themselves as a victim, but she notes that a large portion of the population remains vulnerable nonetheless. To treat such people as criminals, as so many contemporary laws do, does no one any favors. The fear of arrest actively discourages victims from seeking an "off-ramp" to the life and strengthens the coercive hold their pimps and traffickers maintain on them.
"[The law helps] reframe the understanding that this is not a crime. It is a form of gender-based violence and exploitation. I think, over time, people will have a greater understanding of that," Bigelsen adds.
Prostitution, an occupation like any other?
Sex workers in Amsterdam's famous red-light district, where window prostitution is permitted.
Credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
But critics of the Equality Model believe it's disguised paternalism that robs women of the right to choose. Worse, they argue, it further stigmatizes sex workers within society and drives the sex trade further underground, where exploitation and violence can continue to fester from prying eyes.
A second New York Senate bill, currently in committee, would decriminalize the entire sex trade within the state. Called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, the bill would keep penal laws related to minors and sex trafficking but would make sex work between consenting adults a legal, regulated trade.
"Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state," Senator Julia Salazar, who introduced the bill, stated in a press release. "Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows. New York State needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces."
Like the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act, Salazar's bill draws inspiration from European laws, namely those from the Netherlands and Germany. Both countries legalized the sex trade a few years after Sweden introduced its Equality Model—though laws and regulations vary between the countries and even districts within them. For example, Germany has passed a law that requires any business offering sex services to apply for a permit "that will only be granted if health, hygiene and room requirements are met," while Amsterdam limits window prostitution to specific city zones.
Full-decriminalization advocates hope such laws will facilitate freedom of choice, access to social services, improved health and working conditions, and the decoupling of the occupation from criminal enterprises. They also argue that full decriminalization closes the unintended consequences created by the Equality Model.
An Amnesty International report notes that in Norway, sex workers are routinely evicted from their homes because landlords fear rental agreements will expose them to prosecution for promoting sex. Similar liability concerns deter third parties, such as security, from working with sex workers, too. As a result, sex workers themselves may not be prosecuted but their lives are no less secure nor more firmly established within society.
"What we have isn't working. The current model of criminalizing sex work traps sex workers and trafficking survivors in cycles of violence. The new proposed legislation referred to as the 'Equality Model' conflates sex work with sex trafficking, using the logic of broken windows policing to address trafficking by targeting sex workers," writes the advocacy group Decrim NY.
New York State to lead decriminalization
Of course, Equality Model advocates have their arguments against full decriminalization. Even in countries that have legalized prostitution, the sex trade retains strong ties to criminal activities. Prostituted women continue to be viewed as pariah—or, in the case of Amsterdam, tourist attractions. And like the legal sex trades of the ancient world, contemporary examples have witnessed a surge in human trafficking to meet the demand. More often than not, poor women from poor countries.
"If you decriminalize people who buy sex, you're removing any legal barriers or social barriers, and the number of people who buy sex will exponentially increase, and you'll have to fill that new, legal demand with supply. And that supply is human bodies, and there aren't enough willing participants to fulfill that need. That's when trafficking occurs," Alexi Myers said.
A report commissioned by Germany's Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth looked into the effects of the country's 2001 law. It found the intended impacts to be lacking. According to the report, the Prostitution Act did not create measurable improvements on social protection, working conditions, reduced crime, or the means for leaving the business. The report did assuage some fears, however, by finding that legalization did not make it more difficult to prosecute sex traffickers or related violence when they occurred.
All told, data will never point to a perfect solution to this or any social concern. In the case of prostitution, emotions and moral instinct run at the redline. Often, the solution one proposes comes down to one's answer of this question: What is prostitution? Is it a violation of another human's rights and dignity? An occupation like any other? Or a moral offense old as the law itself?
Whatever your answer, you'll likely find current U.S. law lacking. It's for this reason that many states are reanalyzing and revamping their prostitution laws to protect victims, usually with more robust safe harbor laws. Whichever law New York State chooses, its successes and failures will likely serve as a bellwether for the United States moving forward.
What good is a conspiracy theory you can't profit from?
- With over 2,000 items on Amazon and 6,600 items on Etsy, QAnon-related swag is now a big industry.
- Many top QAnon devotees are using this conspiracy theory to promote supplements, t-shirts, and pendants.
- This baseless theory is doing more harm than good to the child victims it purports to help.
As the three-year-old "movement," QAnon, makes inroads into the American mainstream, the far-right conspiracy theory—Donald Trump is taking down the "Deep State," which is in large part comprised of an elite, Satanic cabal of pedophiles—is having real-world impact. Besides damaging abused and traumatized children (the victims it purports to help), there are further troubling theories, such as the LGBT movement being a palate cleanser designed to prepare America to accept pedophilia.
QAnon is also gaining political momentum. To date, 75 congressional candidates have supported QAnon in some capacity; 70 are Republicans. There's also a GOP super PAC, Disarm the Deep State, run by 8chan founder Jim Watkins. 8chan was a major gathering place for Q devotees. After being shut down, it reemerged as 8kun on a Russian hosting service.
Watkins realized he could monetize QAnon. He's not the only one. There are over 2,000 QAnon-related tchotchkes for sale on Amazon, including books, posters, mugs, t-shirts, and minted coins. That Q catalog is tame compared to Etsy, where over 6,600 items are for sale, including a number of face masks (for the rebel who isn't quite rebellious enough to eschew basic science) and a selection of bumper stickers that effectively warn other drivers to stay as far away as possible.
How many of these memento peddlers are really QAnon devotees? Hard to tell. Some people will monetize anything. If you want to trace Q activists turning their platforms into cash cows, you have to root them out one by one.
The Cult of QAnon - Travis View | The Open Mind
Perhaps the most Alex Jonesy of the QAnon cult is Jordan Sather, who monetizes his Twitter account with links to his supplement company, which, par for the course with this industry, makes hefty claims without the necessity of pesky clinical trials. Increase your brain function! Improve exercise performance! Detoxify! Enjoy with a hint of stevia!
If Sather's colloidal silver reminds you too much of huckster-in-chief, David Wolfe, there's an array of shungite (98 percent carbon) pendants that "provide powerful protection against EMFs" (electromagnetic fields). If you're already energetically protected, check out Sather's t-shirt shop, which features a selection of Q-themed swag. If you'd rather throw money at him for pro-Trump propaganda, there's a Patreon link and a tip jar as well.
Kim Cohen doesn't record meandering videos about UFOs. Instead, she uses her Instagram platform to showcase the fashion brands that sponsor her as she "jetsets" around the world. Scroll through her stories, however, and you'll find her Q Shop, where she hawks mugs, iPhone covers, and hoodies—an ironic optic, given her views on Black Lives Matter: "It's almost been two weeks, I believe. Yeah. And people are still f***ing doing s**t in the streets. Are you kidding me?"
Transformational life coach Bernhard Guenther writes exceptionally long social media posts and essays littered with GOP talking points on QAnon. These posts feed back to his website, where he offers private coaching sessions, webinars, and courses on occult forces. This makes sense, given QAnon "followers speculate that Q is a time-traveling shape shifter, an ethereal non-corporeal being who obtains human form only to trick witless NSA officials into divulging sensitive secrets."
Two young Californians recently launched Child Abuse Resistance Education in the heart of anti-mask fervor, Orange County. While not specifically QAnon-related, they're asking for donations on PayPal despite listing no actual projects on their website. The Q crossover happens in posts like this, where they accuse the Clintons, Chrissy Teigen, and Ellen DeGeneres of being pedophiles.
Bucharest, Romania, August 10, 2020: People display Qanon messages on cardboards during a political rally.
Photo: M. Moira / Shutterstock
Q-adjacent "wellness influencers" like David Wolfe has been peddling trafficking conspiracies using QAnon rhetoric as well. He's called Donald Trump our only hope for breaking up the global pedophile ring—a direct QAnon talking points—while alternately promoting his line of supplements and "superfoods."
The Save Our Children Initiative was founded by a "traveling beauty slayer" and an apparel marketer. Their website falsely claims that 800,000 children go missing in the United States every year. As foster youth expert Regan Williams told me last week, the number is closer to 25,000-29,000, and 94 percent are recovered within four to six weeks.
Their site also claims 8,000 children go missing each year, on the same exact page. This group is selling t-shirts and hats, as well as accepting donations, although how those donations are used is unknown. The site claims your money will go "to a charitable organization recipient and towards outreach programs for this cause."
As I wrote about previously, ad revenue from targeting anti-vaxxers (and ads directly purchased by anti-vaxx organizations) generate upwards of $1 billion for social media platforms. Similar motives are driving ad revenue for QAnon-related merchandise, while QAnon video producers are monetizing YouTube by running ads by Nike and Apple during their shows.
One uncomfortable truth about QAnon is obvious: companies and influencers are using a conspiracy theory that purports to save children for ad money, coaching sessions, and merchandise sales. What good is a conspiracy theory that you can't monetize?
"Sea of Shadows" is a documentary you can't afford to miss.
- "Sea of Shadows" tells the story of an illegal fish trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese mafia.
- The fish bladders, bought for $5,000 from local fisherman, are sold in China for over $100,000 to make an unproven medicine.
- Director Richard Ladkani talks about the intensity and danger of making this film, as well as the hopeful ending.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the totoaba bladder is believed to cure arthritis. As with much of TCM, the claim is unproven and inevitably creates more harm than good. An entire ecosystem is on the verge of collapse thanks to the illegal bladder trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese businessmen.
While the totoaba are rapidly declining in numbers—their only home is in the Sea of Cortez, the body of water that separates Baja California with mainland Mexico—the illegal fishing nets local fishermen use are killing everything else: turtles, sharks, and the focus of "Sea of Shadows," the vaquita. There are only believed to be 15 or so of these small porpoises left in existence.
As director and cinematographer, Richard Ladkani, told me earlier this week, there is hope as six vaquitas (including babies) were recently spotted. Since he filmed "Jane's Journey," an intimate portrait of English primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, Ladkani has focused on environmentally relevant works. His last film, "The Ivory Game," helped make the ivory trade between Africa and China illegal. As you'll see while watching his incredible new National Geographic documentary, his film might help save an ecosystem "just five hours drive from Los Angeles."
But nothing is a given. At the end of our talk, Ladkani asked me to mention Earth League International and Sea Shepherd, the two organizations driving the activism in the Sea of Cortez. "Sea of Shadows" is heartbreaking and inspiring, frightening and ambitious. Most importantly, it's a reminder that people care about the fate of this planet and all the animals that reside here. In a time when most environmental news informs us that we're another step closer to a precipice, this film reminds us of the necessity of banding together and fighting for what's best for all of us.
Sea of Shadows Official Trailer | National Geographic
Derek: Congratulations on "Sea of Shadows." And thank you for keeping me up all night.
Richard: I tell people to buckle up before the movie starts.
Derek: I would love to know how you became interested in this topic.
Richard: In general, I'm interested in films with impact and a mission behind them. That started with Jane Goodall, who I was lucky enough to follow around the world about 10 years ago while shooting a film called "Jane's Journey." She inspired me to look at the natural world in a different way and understand that our world is in peril and is really falling apart.
"The Ivory Game" was the first result of her inspiration. Then came "Sea of Shadows," which was brought to us by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was our executive producer on my previous film. He thought "The Ivory Game" was super successful on how we collaborated and how a movie can have such a huge impact, because it changed the law in China and made dealing with ivory illegal.
Two months after the movie came out, they invited us to China to screen the film at the Beijing Film Festival. That was such a big impact, that you can change the government's way of thinking about the world, even a Chinese government on top of that. We were thinking about the next story and Leonardo suggested something on the vaquita because he deeply cared about a small whale that nobody has ever heard about, including myself. He had just met with a Mexican president and was deeply involved in this rescue effort of scientists to save the vaquita.
Derek: While the film is focused on the totoaba and vaquita, you also mention that fishing them can collapse an entire ecosystem. Is that whole area going to be infertile if they continue this trade?
Richard: Absolutely. If the vaquita goes extinct, which we are trying everything in our power to impact, we'll feel we had a little part for not allowing that to happen. But if it happens, it will mean that the cartel is going to completely take over the area. The attention, the focus, the spotlight that it has right now is because of the vaquita; it is such a symbolic animal and it's been highly exposed. If the vaquita goes extinct, the NGOs will be removed from the area. They will move onto a new war somewhere, maybe in Peru or South Africa.
Then what will happen is the cartel is going to 100% take over the Sea of Cortez. All the fishermen are going to be pressured to go out for the totoaba. You've seen how they do it. They dropped thousands of gill nets, walls of death that kill everything just to get to that final totoaba. They will kill everything and it's all tossed away. All the sharks, the turtles, everything will disappear just because they're going for that totoaba.
Director Richard Ladkani attends the New York premiere of National Geographic Documentary Films, "Sea of Shadows," at the Metrograph on July 9, 2019.
Photo by Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Derek: An ecosystem might collapse half a world away because of a fish bladder that supposedly cures arthritis, with no scientific proof whatsoever. Did you do any research on TCM for the film?
Richard: Yes, of course. We even filmed in China for a month. The reason we didn't include that in the film was because we realized that there was no demand; it is already illegal to trade totoaba there. Every scientist we talked to said it's not proven Western science. They couldn't find any proof that it has any power at all. But then we realized that it would take a whole generation or a campaign to change the minds of the Chinese. The vaquita maybe has 12 months to live.
It will never be solved in China. There is nothing we can do in China that will stop this trade in time. In other cases, like with the elephants, it was 10 years to extinction. We had the time to go there. But in this case, it just didn't make any sense. There was a whole half-hour worth of dramatic events in China, but we took it all out because we wanted people to focus on where the solution is, which is in Mexico.
Derek: Speaking of dramatic events, I love how you focus both on the media aspect of the trade and the race against the cartel. There were some failures too; I'm glad you highlighted them. How did your crew emotionally deal with making this film?
Richard: It was like a roller coaster ride. The dramatic scenes that happened with the vaquita were unthinkable. I was very close with the scientists, with Cynthia Smith; we became friends and she really trusted us. By the end they gave us full access. Living through that traumatic scenes as the moments unfold was just beyond belief. It was really tough for us to be there. I tried to be as invisible as possible and stay out of their way.
At the same time, this film became more and more dangerous every week that we were on location. It was a big responsibility to keep the team safe and to keep going and pushing. Our production company provided a full security budget for us. We had very professional bodyguards that know what they're doing, people that we can trust who are not bought by the cartel or corrupt police. It was like a big military operation to get this film made without anybody getting shot or kidnapped.
Derek: There was the scene when you were at the beach and the fisherman had taken over the Navy vessel. It reminded me a little bit of "Restrepo," from the camera crew perspective: You're in the middle of a war, you're getting rocks thrown at you, and you're getting shot at. Even though you had bodyguards, there was a lot of personal danger.
Richard: It was the most dangerous moment of the entire production. It was also the worst case scenario. In all the planning that went into the film, we always said this is what we need to avoid—a flash mob of people trying to come at us from all sides. We were just trying to get out of it alive and keep everyone safe, but at the same time it was also the challenge of actually capturing that moment and everything that came with it and not stop shooting. Even though I was running for my life, I kept the camera rolling on my shoulder and made sure that that red light was on. If you stop shooting, then you may also lose that one opportunity to really get the audience to understand what these people are going through.
Riots break out in San Felipe as fishermen protest the arrests of totoaba poachers.
Derek: You might not have been worried about framing, but when you see a rock fly by three feet from your feet, you know exactly what's happening.
Richard: Of course. We were hiding behind cars and everything, so I knew what was happening. There was fear, but there was also control in the way of staying focused. What scared me the most was when shots started to appear. We were hearing gunfire, and I didn't know who was shooting at who because we weren't able to see. Did the cartel open fire on us? Is it the Navy shooting at them or in the air? I heard bullets ricocheting off walls around us; that meant that they are firing not in the air but actually at us.
There's stuff that is not in the film, when we got threatened by the cartel right after because they had exposed our identities. They had photographed us, then they followed us home. Then we got direct threats from Oscar Parra. Actually, he requested a meeting with me the following night and said I had to come alone. And I was like, "No, I don't think so."
Derek: I wouldn't have taken that meeting either. There's also a moment where the drone gets shot down. I've known about Sea Shepherd for a long time; they do amazing work. When you see the crew members, they look like a bunch of young kids, but they have to be pretty tough to do that job.
Richard: They are amazing. The average age on ship was 22 and that was just insane, but they're all fired up. They're all activists and wanted to sign up for this battle of the Sea of Cortez. They're very inspiring people. It was always great to be on the ship. I really admire them.
Derek: One of the stories in the film involves the Mexican Navy and how they go from giving you platitudes, then later you're riding along with the Navy. Was it the media pressure that made them change?
Richard: It was actually Carlos Loret de Mola who kept pressuring them: "Show me how you're fighting this war, how you want to win." We were lucky because we were following Carlos; we were sort of his team so they didn't question who we are. We had access to all the operations. But as you see, you think there's something off here: There's all this presence but somehow they're always in the wrong place at the wrong time. They even release the prisoners in the end.
It was after the riots that I confronted the Vice Admiral and asked him, "What the hell is going on? How can you not get on top of that situation?" That's when he told me to stop filming. Then he told me, "Richard, they know where my daughter goes to school, they know where we live, they know the name of my wife, and they will first come for my daughter and kidnap her. Then they will kill her, my wife, and then they will come from me. That's why I'm not getting in their way."
Derek: Do you have any updates since the film has been completed?
Richard: Yes, we're constantly in touch with everybody. Earth League International has put together a new mission to go back in and monitor the situation. Because the totoaba season is just beginning, the cartel is moving in. They have sent out Mexican and Chinese investigators to monitor the trafficking. The good news is that they're dispatching an additional 600 troops to the area and they have committed 14 warships to protect the vaquita refuge.
The president visited the region and started talking about the vaquitas, that they need to save them and offer solutions for all the fishermen. So we are upbeat. Also, six vaquitas have been spotted in early October; some of them are babies, which is fantastic news. It shows us that they're still there and it's not too late.
Regan Williams, co-founder of Seen and Heard, wants adults to listen to children.
- Regan Williams, CEO of Seen and Heard, is on a mission to help foster youth develop necessary social and career skills through the performing arts.
- Williams says 300,000 American children are commercially trafficked every year.
- Children in our society are ignored except when they're famous or sexualized, which is part of the reason sexual abuse is not covered.
Between Jeffrey Epstein and George Nader, there's been a lot of talk about child sex trafficking and child pornography in the news lately. If the media properly covered these topics, we would always be talking about how children are abused. Sadly, the reason we're discussing it now is due to these men's links to the current administration. Better that than nothing, however.
Some people do talk about these topics often; they just aren't heard all that much. Regan Williams, the CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit, Seen and Heard, has made taking care of and raising awareness of foster youth a focus of her life. Having known Regan for a number of years, it is refreshing to watch someone so fully try to create a better world for the underserved, especially as those in need are children.
They need our help. As you'll read in our conversation below (listen to our talk here), 300,000 children in America are trafficked for sex every year; the global number is in the millions. Sadly, foster youth are a prime target for traffickers.
Organizations like Seen and Heard are essential for helping to raise children to be empowered adults. The nonprofit teaches social and career skills through performing arts. As Williams mentions below, most foster youth have experienced trauma, often physical abuse or sexual trauma. Acting and role playing offer them opportunities to cooperate and collaborate while thinking critically and creatively. No child deserves abuse from the worst of us.
Pictured: The Goodsky children, who have spent more than 1,000 days in foster care.
Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Derek: You've worked with foster youth for a long time and you've also cared for three foster daughters. What are the biggest challenges you've had?
Regan: The things that pose the largest challenges I've experienced really have to do with behavior. Usually when a child is removed from their home, there's been a significant amount of trauma or neglect. You're almost always going to be getting a kid that has some pretty significant behavioral challenges, like reactive attachment disorder or fetal alcohol syndrome or drug exposure in utero.
It affects how they can learn and it also affects how to correct or discipline them. Traditional disciplinary measures just don't work with kids that have experienced trauma or have learning delays or disabilities or mental health issues. So you have to have proper training.
Derek: You started a nonprofit, Seen and Heard, which develops character through performance art training. Why did you choose that direction to work with foster youth?
Regan: Both my husband and I have backgrounds in performing arts. We noticed that our training really is a transferable skill set. There are a lot of services being provided for foster youth as far as jobs training. There are a lot of life skills-style training, yet there seems to be [a lack of] professional skills for a lot of transitional-age youth.
This is basically for kids between the ages of 16 and 21. You could provide employment or a college education scholarship for these young people, but the likelihood of them retaining their job or completing their education is more unlikely. That's because when kids are bounced around from home to home or living in a group home environment, they really have created a lot of maladaptive behavior over the years to protect themselves or get their needs met. Receiving constructive criticism or collaborating with others are skills that haven't had a chance to take root.
We found that a performing arts education — for example, improvisation or scene study, creating a character, working with a scene partner — are directly applicable to a workplace environment. Even a skill like mindfulness is something that actors really have to build before they can take on a role or enter into the life of the character. You have to empty out and focus on your breathing. You have to be present in your physical body. That skill is tremendously hard for young people who have experienced trauma because their default is to escape, lash out, fight, flight, or freeze. We're building on EQ or soft skills through the performing arts.
The Epstein case is not an outlier. Child sex trafficking is 'pervasive' in the U.S.
Derek: On your site, you write that there are 61,000 youths in foster care in California, which is almost the same number as homeless people in Los Angeles County. I know these are two disparate populations, but at the same time, you can argue that both of these populations don't have anywhere they can call home. I wonder why, with all of the focus on homelessness, do you think that foster care is not something as a culture we talk about nearly as much?
Regan: Oh man, that's such a good question. I've asked myself that over and over. By and large children are invisible unless they're put on a stage or they're commodified or sexualized. In addition, no kid is going to want to put on a t-shirt that says "I'm a foster kid." They're hard to identify because they're not identifying themselves. When you have a population of homeless people in Los Angeles, it's visible. You see it everywhere. Foster youth technically have a place to live, but there's a difference between home and shelter.
Derek: Speaking of sexualization, you initially reached out to me about having this talk with the Jeffrey Epstein case in the news. Do you think now that we're going to start hearing more about sex trafficking and take it more seriously?
Regan: There are 300,000 American children every year that are involved and being commercially trafficked...
Derek: Sorry to interrupt, but this is beyond sexual abuse. You're talking commercially trafficked?
Regan: Yeah, I's a lot. It's a $150 billion a year industry globally, just under drug trafficking. It's a very, very lucrative industry. It's such a common thing to have a child be sexually molested. Of the three girls that we brought in when we were fostering, two had experienced some form of sexual abuse or molestation. I'm not sure what the statistics are as far as how many youth that are in foster care have been sexually abused or assaulted. I'm sure that number is very high. Nobody talks about that.
What's so fascinating about Epstein is that, "Oh, so now we're going to start the conversation about trafficking," when people don't understand that there's been thousands and thousands of young people — for the most part, women with a median age of 11-15 — and this has been going on for quite some time.
Fortunately, there's been legal changes. Senate Bill 1322 prohibits law enforcement officers from arresting minors for prostitution. Still, people aren't talking it very much. I wonder if it's because these are poor communities; these are black and brown girls, sometimes boys as well, but for the most part girls, and because Epstein is a high-powered, wealthy individual.
Derek: When the Epstein case first reopened, there were members of Congress that were trying to place the blame on the victims. This isn't uncommon, but I think it was especially unsettling because it was children. For a while you heard the media reference them as "young women." How does that make you feel?
Regan: It's hard to put into words because so often young women aren't believed. It's just heartbreaking when I hear things like that. It's even tougher for young women that do not have a support system. Hopefully, the women that have been assaulted and abused by Epstein have that kind of support system.
There are a lot of foster parents where, if an allegation is made against them by a youth, the Department of Children and Family Services absolutely takes that seriously. We'll make an unannounced visit to make sure that everything is in order. But it's so sad that when you have a situation where abuse is happening and a social worker comes out and removes a child (and has evidence that there has been abuse and neglect), if that young woman does not want to go home because she's being abused by an uncle or a father or older brother, she has to testify. In many cases, a family member or relative is in that same courtroom when she is expected to testify.
Derek: We've talked over the years extensively about religion and hold different views in terms of the metaphysics of religion. But I really appreciate the moral and ethical aspects, how they're instilled in cultures and societies. When you're seeing what's happening, say with Epstein or the border crisis, where people espouse religiosity in their personal lives but then don't follow up with their moral obligations, what do you think about that?
Regan: The first thing that comes to mind is something that Jesus said. He had a bunch of little children gathered around him and his disciples were saying, "Let's get these kids out of here, they're wasting our time." Jesus really valued children. He said we as adults need to come to God with a sense of wonder, desire, belief, all those things. What he said is just profound to me: "Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around their neck and dropped into the ocean." I know it sounds vengeful, but it gives me so much comfort to know that Jesus took that so seriously.
Unfortunately, it happens more often these days in this administration. People talk one moment about a Christian principle or an idea and then the very next statement might be just shocking because oftentimes we do not see justice.
Derek: I want to ask an extremely difficult question, but it's one that I've thought about because there are organizations that exist for adults who are attracted to children but don't want to be. If you look at the advances we've had in our understanding of genes, we might find that there's a certain genetic composition or brain chemistry of people who are attracted to children. These organizations are saying, we're trying not to be stigmatized here, we're looking for therapeutic resources.
Regan: I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would say the vast majority of people that perpetrate sexual crimes against children were themselves abused as a child. I almost see that as a generational epidemic. If your uncle or father molested you, you have a higher likelihood of molesting when you become an adult. That's not universal, but I do believe that that's one of the factors to consider.
Another factor is pornography. There are women that are 18 that play far, far younger. We sexualize children in role play or fantasy. Unfortunately, there's plenty of child pornography out there. There is a certain aspect of building an appetite for viewing pornography with younger and younger subjects.
I feel like it's nature and nurture that we're dealing with, but as far as rehabilitation, I am all for that because I'm on the other side of it. I'm mostly concerned with advocating and caring for young people that are coming out of the system. Most of those young people have had a history of sexual abuse or physical abuse. I haven't really paid a whole lot of attention to the other side, but to take a first pass at it, I would say we should be providing services for people that are wanting out of the trap.
With the ivory trade on the decline, poachers have been capitalizing on a new, disturbing trend.
- At the start of 2018, China banned all ivory products within its borders. As one of the largest markets for ivory, this represented a significant win for conservationists.
- However, just as the ivory trade declined, a new demand for elephant skin emerged.
- The skin is used in medicine and to make jewelry. What options are there for combating this dangerous new trend?
For hundreds of years, the biggest threat to the largest land mammals on Earth, elephants, was the ivory trade. As demand for their tusks increased in modern times, the industry became a major — not to mention unsustainable — threat to their wild populations. Between 1979 and 1989, for instance, demand for ivory cut the African elephant population down from 1.3 million to 600,000.
The ivory trade took a serious blow in 1989, though, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international trade in African elephant ivory, a move that followed up the 1975 ban on trading Asian elephant ivory. Poaching continued to be an issue, particularly since there was still considerable demand in the Chinese market, where ivory was used in medicine and ornaments. But, in 2018, there was another bit of good news: China banned the trade of all ivory and ivory products.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
This was certainly a victory for conservationists, but it seems that elephants can't catch a break. Starting around 2014, Asian elephants have been poached for their skin.
A 2018 report from Elephant Family, a U.K.-based non-profit, found that the main market for elephant skin was located in China, where it is primarily used for two purposes: It's ground down into a powder for use in traditional medicinal products, and it's shaped in polished beads for bracelets and necklaces. Belinda Stewart-Cox, the director of conservation at the non-profit Elephant Conservation Network, explains:
"If you look at [the beads], you think they look like garnets, rubies or some kind of red stone. But those subcutaneous layers [in the skin] include a lot of blood vessels, so there's a lot of blood in that. Those beads look ruby red because they contain blood."
A young Sumatran elephant in Aceh. Photo credit: Khalis Surry / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
In many ways, this trade is even more destructive than the ivory trade. First, it primarily targets Asian elephants, which were already more at risk than African elephants. Today, there are only about 50,000 wild Asian elephants left. In addition, ivory poaching could only target elephants who could grow tusks — among Asian elephants, adult males only grow tusks roughly 25 percent of the time — but skin poaching is indiscriminate.
Aside from the innate tragedy of losing one of Earth's largest land mammals, it would be an ecological disaster if the Asian elephant were to go extinct. Asian elephants are sometimes referred to as the "gardeners of the forest," as they eat plants that would otherwise grow wild, they create paths through the forest for other animals to move through and for new plant life to grow in, and they distribute seeds through their dung, which also has the added benefit of fertilizing the soil and providing homes and nutrients for a variety of insect species.
Unfortunately, it is not easy for elephants to recover from a major blow to their population. As a large species, elephants do not have many offspring, and the gestational period for one elephant is around 22 months. And while ivory poaching mainly targeted the males, now female elephants are also viable targets for poachers, further hampering these animals' ability to bounce back.
Asian elephants are listed in Appendix I of CITES, meaning that all products derived from these elephants is prohibited except for non-commercial purposes, like scientific research. Despite this, however, China's State Forestry Administration is issuing licenses for the manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products containing elephant skin.
However, China's ban on the ivory trade indicates that similar regulation can be implemented and work in the future. After significant public support, notably including Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, China implemented its ban on the ivory trade at the start of 2018. A survey of Chinese individuals indicated that after the ban came into effect, 72 percent of Chinese respondents would not buy ivory, compared to 50 percent when the poll was conducted the year prior, before the ban was applied.
A number of non-profits are working to raise awareness of this issue and to bring it to the attention of international bodies, such as CITES. Elephant Family, for example, presented its 2018 report to CITES, gaining approval from the European Union and the U.S. for amendments, such as requiring investigations into illegal trade and implementation reporting. The World Wildlife Fund, too, is equipping and training rangers to stop poaching in Myanmar, where this crisis is particularly dire. With any luck and with greater public awareness and engagement, we can drive poaching, rather than elephants, to extinction.