Ep. 27 Ann Johnson - Houston's Human Trafficking Problem
Ann Johnson 0:05
***radio effect on voice*** The average age of entry into prostitution is 12. So that shows me the total disconnect and lack of understanding of the women that are walking around there, many of them just like B.W., that got arrested and thought was an adult, put the adult system, she was only 13. There are children walking around out there, and then there are women that are walking around out there because they've been in the game since they were 12. And when you say "push them out, so the neighborhood can look nicer," where do you want them to go? All you're going to do is push them to another street, if you're not addressing the problem of why are these women out here.
Rob Icsezen 0:51
What's up Houston! Welcome to H-Town Progressive, Houston's impenetrable fortress of progressive thought! I'm your host, Rob Icsezen!
Legal institutional slavery was abolished in this country over 150 years ago by the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution (https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-xiii). What was once the foundation of the Southern way of life, is now and has been for a very long time, considered an historic atrocity, a stain on our history, a crime against humanity itself, America's Original Sin. We had to fight a civil war to get that done, because it's incredibly difficult to break any institution, like slavery, where the privileged and the powerful, exploit and commodify the underprivileged, the powerless. So much so that slavery's remnants still permeate our culture to this day. And the human fault that allowed it to happen in the first place, still finds its way. It operates under different names now, but just like roaches, slavers and those who abuse the enslaved and perpetuate the now underground institution, still walk among us, and not always just in the shadows. Although long illegal, although far outside the mainstream of political discourse, slavery absolutely still exists! It exists in our country, it exists in our beloved Houston, it exists probably a short drive, if not a walk, from your home, from your work, from your child's school. It's an unbelievable shame that human trafficking not only exists, but thrives in Houston. Right under our noses, children are being bought and sold for sex. Manipulation, abuse, violence are all being employed to provide people as product, to be used and discarded at the whim of those who might otherwise come off as, quote, "regular" members of society. It's an unfortunate facet of humanity, that the powerful will exploit the powerless. The oldest profession in the world is not so much a profession, but a power dynamic born of toxic masculinity. We often hear that "boys will be boys" Well FUCK THAT!!! To say that "boys will be boys" is to at once concede and proclaim that boys will be rapists. We must first call it what it is, and see it where it is, and only then can we begin to destroy it. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And so today we're going to be talking in detail about this horrible problem of human trafficking in our great city. Warning to our listeners, a lot of what we'll discuss in this episode is graphic and hard to hear. But we've got to listen, we've got to face the reality, that crimes against humanity are occurring right now, in our backyard, and nothing will change until we first shine a spotlight on it. And our guest today has spent much of her career doing just that.
Ann Johnson is the former Harris County District Attorney's chief prosecutor for human trafficking. She's now an attorney in private practice representing victims of human trafficking and a member of the Children's Justice Act Task Force (https://www.yourhonor.com/web/CJA/About_Us/Task_Force/CJA/About_Us/Task_Force.aspx?hkey=bf0f7979-08b6-4290-807b-e1e107e896c2). In 2010, she successfully challenged the state's prosecution of children for prostitution in the landmark case, In Re: B.W., before the Texas Supreme Court (http://www.search.txcourts.gov/historical/2010/jun/081044.htm). It's my honor to welcome to the show today, Ann Johnson!
Ann, welcome to H-Town Progressive.
Ann Johnson 4:51
Rob Icsezen 4:52
Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Ann Johnson 4:53
Of course. I'm glad to be here.
Rob Icsezen 4:55
Yeah, so let's let's get right into it. You've been working in the realm of human trafficking for some time. How did you get into it? And tell us a little bit about that, before we get into the details of the problem itself.
Ann Johnson 5:07
I never envisioned that I would be working in human trafficking. And if you had told me more than a decade ago, hey, you'll be a leading expert on human trafficking, I would have said, like many people, I have no idea what you're talking about, in the scope of this problem.
Rob Icsezen 5:19
Ann Johnson 5:20
The way that I got involved in it is, I had been a prosecutor in Harris County, and I had been a felony court prosecutor, and I left that job when I got diagnosed with cancer. And so I left because I needed to take care of my health and being a public servant in the District Attorney's office is very much come 24/7.
Rob Icsezen 5:40
Ann Johnson 5:40
I just couldn't do both. I couldn't take care of my health and do the job. And so I started doing juvenile defense work. And so I started representing children many ini mental health court. And then a friend got appointed to represent a 13 year old little girl who was charged with prostitution. And she asked me to work with her on the case. And we started looking at it, and both of us had been prosecutors, and so when we saw it, our first reaction was, well, surely this kid's a witness, right? And so they've just got her here as a witness, where's the perpetrator? Where's the pimp? Where's the bigger case?
Rob Icsezen 6:13
Ann Johnson 6:14
And when we started asking that question, it was like, well, there is no bigger case, this, this is just the case. And...
Rob Icsezen 6:20
The case was against a 13 year old girl, criminally charged for prostitution?
Ann Johnson 6:25
Correct. And so that was our same response, which was, wait, no, no! This can't be right. There's got to be something more to it. And there wasn't. The circumstance was very typical. It was back in 2007, one of our local tracks, police vice officers were out doing a regular prostitution sting, there was nothing in the record that indicated this was part of the FBI's child innocence laws task force or anything like that. They weren't looking for a child. But they got one, that had agreed to sex for a fee. And the child did what many do, which is she lied about her age. She said that she was older, claimed to be an adult. And she was actually booked into the adult system, into the adult court into the adult jail, before ultimately, somebody figured out that it was really a child.
Rob Icsezen 7:13
So she was booked into the system as an adult, even though she was a minor...
Ann Johnson 7:16
Rob Icsezen 7:17
A 13 year old kid...
Ann Johnson 7:18
Rob Icsezen 7:19
Because they couldn't figure out that she was a 13 year old? Wow.
Ann Johnson 7:22
Correct. And so that leads into a whole other series of problems that can happen and I have seen happen often. Because when people lie about who they are, if law enforcement misidentifies them from the beginning, and they take your prints, right, later on, if you get stopped, when law enforcement will check those prints it may come up as a false identity. And that's why it's so vitally critical that on the front end, people get this right and understand it.
Rob Icsezen 7:49
So you get put in the system mistakenly. And that, that false identity then follows you around in the future. And that can have serious repercussions.
Ann Johnson 7:57
Correct. Until it gets corrected. And that's why within the criminal justice system, we refer to things as "a.k.a." "also known as" so when somebody gives a false name or identity, many times you may see multiple identities attached to a person. In this circumstance, fortunately, somebody figured out hey, this cannot be right. And so the kid got transferred to juvenile. When that happens, unlike the adult system where we talked about bond or bail, the child is evaluated and screened to see who would be appropriate contact and the person to take custody of the child. The child disclosed that she was 13 years old, that she'd been a CPS runaway, that she had been out on the streets for 14 months, and she was quote, "living with and having sex with her 32 year old boyfriend." And so that's where we began to seriously disagree on, okay, as a policy, what are we supposed to do here? Because nobody disagreed about the facts. The facts were a 13 year old child was on one of our local tracks agreeing to oral sex for a fee. But how are we as the state of Texas supposed to handle it? And so the state's argument was, well, this is just the way we've done it for 25 years. The law's been on the books since the 70s, and the law says we can prosecute, so we're prosecuting. And so our argument was what's called a case of first impression, as you know, as a lawyer, meaning nobody had ever challenged it, nobody ever thought of concept. And so the argument that took to the Texas Supreme Court was, look, this child can't consent, and this is a consent based crime. And then that's where your your prosecutor hat jumps in, which is okay, let's think about this logically. If we had a case where a 13 year old girl had agreed to oral sex for a fee, with an adult, regardless of vice officer or not, if that individual performs and goes through with the act, legally they are now unequivocably a victim of aggravated sexual assault of a child. And so for me, my argument was, is this really our policy in Texas? Are we really going to say do the child, "well if you perform we'll protect you as a victim and bring you into testify against the perpetrator, but if you just say you're going to perform, and you don't actually perform, well now we're going to lock you up in juvenile justice." And that makes no sense, right? And so that...
Rob Icsezen 10:15
Not at all.
Ann Johnson 10:16
No, not at all. And so it was just kind of this common sense argument, when you think about it and go, "Oh, yeah, kids can't consent. This is a purely consent based crime. This can't be right." But it took getting all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. And the entire way I was met with people said, "Ann you have no chance, how are you going to change this? This is, this is 25 years of just the way we've always done it" which nothing drives me crazier than to say this is just the way we've always done it.
Rob Icsezen 10:40
Ann Johnson 10:41
So it took getting a legal argument, public policy before the Supreme Court and, the gift and blessing of an entirely different movement happening at the same time. So the case of B.W. starts in 2007, the legislature starts looking at the issue of human trafficking in 2009, and by the time we get to the Texas Supreme Court, in 2010, you have in re B.W., which is the case where the court came down and said, "Yeah, kids are the victims. They're not the offenders of child prostitution." And so we were able to combine the legal argument, which made sense to everybody in the in the criminal world, and the public policy argument that we were starting to pay attention to, which was, wow, Texas has a huge problem, and Houston has a huge problem, of human trafficking.
Rob Icsezen 11:27
So this is, so this is, you're arguing in front of the Texas Supreme Court.
Ann Johnson 11:30
Yeah. Texas Supreme Court.
Rob Icsezen 11:31
All Republicans, for the last 25 or so years, roughly. And you absolutely won the case.
Ann Johnson 11:38
Rob Icsezen 11:39
That's, that that all progressive should find that inspiring, by the way, so okay, go on.
Ann Johnson 11:44
I love it. And I'll tell you, I I teach at South Texas College of Law, and I always tell my students, my favorite class is the last and I show them, you know, we talked about the bar card, and the fact that, once you get out, wherever your passion is, wherever you find the wrong, any lawyer can take any case to the highest court you need to fix it. And that's a great thing about our judicial system, right, a great thing about our jury system. I'm grateful that we had Justice Harriet O'Neill on the court at the time. And she told the Texas Lawyer, that was the last opinion she issued. And it embodied the importance of children's justice issues, pro bono type issues. And I'm grateful that she was there because she absolutely led the majority in ruling in our favor. And then it's created the case of first impression nationwide, that then people started saying, oh, yeah, I remember the moment the opinion came out, it was a Friday morning, I was ecstatic and relieved. You know, I knew in our heart, I thought we would win, because it was the right thing to do, right. And fortunately, you got to that last court, and they said, okay, let's fix this. And that, that that was the beginning of trying to turn a very large ship. And we've been met with significant resistance ever since.
Rob Icsezen 12:56
Right, so the problem's not solved...
Ann Johnson 12:59
Not even close.
Rob Icsezen 13:00
Not even close. I mean, we've just seen in the Chronicle recently, they've done a whole exposé on what's called the Bissonnet Track (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/investigations/thetrack/), this area between, or encompassed by Bissonnet, 610, or no Beltway 8, and 59. Sex trafficking is huge problem, Human trafficking is a huge problem in Houston still today. And the issue you raise of consent for a child, I think that that, obviously, extends to generally non-children, people who are otherwise victimized in many different ways. And that that finds its way in gender dynamics, it finds its way in lots of different structural scenarios. But the issue of consent is always followed by the issue of the power dynamic of the, of the folks involved.
Ann Johnson 13:57
You're absolutely right. And that brings up what is the legal definition of human trafficking, right.
Rob Icsezen 14:01
Yeah, exactly. Well how do you define it? What is human trafficking.
Ann Johnson 14:03
So, two issues, one, first off, let me say a lot of people confuse the concept of human smuggling with human trafficking. They are not the same. Human smuggling is when we're talking about people being coyoted in from international other locations where they're not getting legal access to the country. So for example, when you see in the news, somebody has been brought in, or a big group of people in the back of an 18 wheeler tractor trailer, that is probably human smuggling and not trafficking. It could involve some element of trafficking, but you'd have to be able to show that the people are being brought in with the intent that they engage in either forced labor or sex. And so that's human trafficking, human trafficking...
Rob Icsezen 14:03
Forced labor or sex, that's what it is.
Ann Johnson 14:44
And I'm going to modify that definition of force. So trafficking is the exploitation of another human being by either labor or sex.
Rob Icsezen 14:52
Ann Johnson 14:53
And then we have different protected individuals. So just like you said, about consent, and you're absolutely right on the concept of how we think about it. But legally, we define it in two, in two different ways. If you are under the age of 18, and you are caused by any means to engage in that conduct, you are the victim of human trafficking. So for example, if somebody is 16, and somebody posts their ad on the internet, takes them to get their nails done, buys them condoms, sets up a date with a john, which is the buyer, then drives them to that date, that individual is a victim of human trafficking. And the person that's bought them, these stuff, driven them to the date, knowing that they're going on a date, is the perpetrator and offender of human trafficking.
Rob Icsezen 15:37
Ann Johnson 15:38
Absolutely. So legally, when we say strict liability, it's not only strict to say under the age of 18, caused by any means, it is so strict, it is even if you reasonably believe the child is a different age. So let's say the 16 year old says, Hey, I'm 21. And you think, oh I think she's 21. If you're wrong, and she's under the age of 18, you are guilty of the offense of compelling prostitution of a minor or trafficking of a minor. It is a first degree felony, 5 to 99 years or life, and you're gonna have to register as a sex offender for the rest of time. So you can't even say, well I didn't know her age. This is the individuals that Texas has protected the most, which I think is right, and the right thing to do. When we're talking about above 18.
Rob Icsezen 16:22
Ann Johnson 16:22
So those that are 18, and over, we're looking for force, threat, fraud, or coercion. And so that's where you muddle up that concept of consent, and whether or not there's a level of exploitation. And so that can be getting the person drugs, right, having them addicted to drugs and providing drugs, having them, taking their children, right, branding them, tattoos, where you might see individuals that have a lot of tattoos around their chest. Some of those may be brands, right. Some of them may be chosen tattoos, but a lot of times we see pimps, who are the individuals selling the women, they'll have stables, where they'll have multiple girls in their group, and they brand them.
Rob Icsezen 17:02
They're called stables?
Ann Johnson 17:03
They're called stables.
Rob Icsezen 17:04
Ann Johnson 17:05
Like horses, and they brand them, like horses, or like cattle. These women are seen as property. And so there are lots of different ways in which that influence or that dynamic of what you talk about, is this person really willing or consenting?
Rob Icsezen 17:20
Well, and that, so it makes sense in the 18 and under category, the policy is that we as a people, as a community have said, consent is impossible, it is it is not possible for anyone of that age to ever consent to these things. Over 18, we say, well, it's certainly possible, but there are all these ways that a power dynamic can make it so that it's coerced in some way. And and that's where the devil's really in the details. Because I imagine there's, there's a lot of, a lot of argument against that. There's a lot of pushback. When I read these articles in the Chronicle the this Track article, it sounds like - and we can talk a little bit about now what's going on in the the County Attorney's office - it sounds like there's a lot of push to say that the prostitutes, these women who are victimized are not actually just victims, that they themselves are guilty and should be treated as such. And there's a, there's a real kind of tension there within the community of folks involved in the prosecution and defense of individuals in this whole dynamic. Is that right?
Ann Johnson 18:27
Absolutely. There is and so, and you bring up the idea of people that are there, and and I would say, even these kids, when they're under the age of 18, to law enforcement, they are frustratingly appearing to be willing, right. The girls are, will cuss you out, you know, they'll want to resist, they'll want to lie about who they are. And part of it is recognizing that the child's been groomed to do that. Right? The pimps have groom them how to behave. We as community have groomed them, in a way, because most of these kids 90% of the kids that are involved in human trafficking, are victims of prior child abuse. And so these are girls that somebody started walking into their room when they were five and having sex with them. These are girls that when they outcry to their mothers and say, "Mom, your boyfriend's having sex with me," mom will say "you little ho, why would you take my boyfriend." You have these really challenging problematic dynamics, so when you start talking about as a prosecutor trying to deal with the offense, you're looking at basically the combination of child abuse cases and domestic violence cases, which are purely manipulation type based cases. And these individuals, these victims are undergoing so much other stress and pressures, and oftentimes have already been beaten down emotionally and physically, and we as the authorities have not always been there for them, that it's hard for them to outcry. And so this is part of my frustration with this injunction, is we have been working for years to try to get these women to say, hey, law enforcement's on your side. When a john rapes you, tell us, right. And trying to go through these concepts. And now all of a sudden, you have the same exact people, you know I say that wearing blue and the badge, right, because that's what HPD used to wear, now we were different uniforms, or they were different uniforms, but, we've been trying to get people to say when you see law enforcement, you run to them for help, right? They've been groomed by the perpetrators not to do it. And now my concern is the County through this injunction is again saying those same officers that we've been telling you to help, they might really be making a case on you that later on I might file a civil lawsuit against you. And if you come back around here, I'm going to see you for financial damages.
Rob Icsezen 20:38
Ann Johnson 20:38
That's that's a level of coercion I don't think is going to accomplish what we want, which is to tell the victim that we are here for them as a system. It's also talking about civil cases. And so that means you're expecting these women to run out and go get a lawyer? I mean that doesn't make sense. And so we're again, asking the weakest members of our community to not only protect themselves, but now to defend themselves from the County, which doesn't work.
Rob Icsezen 21:02
Two things struck me about this - about - strike me about that. And there's a quote that I want to read from one of the Chronicle exposé articles from the Southwest Management District Deputy Executive Director, Brian Burks (http://southwestmanagementdistrict.org/board-of-directors), who's one of the advocates for this policy out there. And I'll just read it, it says about this Bissonnet Track, it's and so which sits within the Southwest Management District, which is one of our unique little pseudo governmental entities here in the Houston area, but he says "it's plagued 24/7 with prostitutes walk up- walking up and down the street, with their body parts hanging out. Our number one interest is getting those people out of there, and just making it nicer." And so when I read that, quote, I stopped when I read that in the article, "getting those people out of here," "those people," they're not our people, they're "those people." It's otherizing this, as you said, extremely vulnerable, perhaps some of the most vulnerable people in our entire community, otherizing them in such a way, that that just sweeps them aside as if they're not even humans. And it it just expresses an interest in pushing the problem away, "not in my backyard. I don't care where they go, there are these horrible people out in the world, I don't want them in my, in my area." That's really what that quote is to me.
Ann Johnson 22:32
Right. I agree. And the frustrating thing about that is the average age of entry into prostitution is 12. So that shows me the total disconnect and lack of understanding the women that are walking around there, many of them just like B.W., that got arrested and thought was an adult put the adult system, she was only 13. Right? There are children walking around out there. And then there are women that walking around out there because they've been in the game, since they were 12. And when you say push them out, so the neighborhood can look nicer...
Rob Icsezen 23:07
Ann Johnson 23:08
Where do you want them to go? All you're going to do is push them to another street, if you're not addressing the problem of why are these women out here. The other thing is they assume that these women want to do it. And I have yet to meet an individual that has been in the game, that when you get down to the root of it, really wants to do it. And so that's why, you know, one of the tough things I'll say when people say something like that, and I do not like the use of the words, the negative words around women, and prostituting that sometimes gets glamorized in media or movies, they're derogatory terms, and they'll say, hey, she's just a "whore," right? And then my response is, well, how many men have you pleasured today? And I'll say this to women, men, anybody else, and they just looked at me, floored, and I say, wait you mean, you're not interested in orally performing on the next five guys that walk by no matter how dirty, no matter how, whatever else?
Rob Icsezen 24:05
Ann Johnson 24:06
And they'll look at me like I'm nuts, and I'll say guess what, she doesn't either. But do you know why she's doing that? She's doing that because she has a quota to make for the day. She has a pimp that's told her you make $500 before you get your next meal, or when you go out there, and it's so infuriating, to see these women walking in the rain, they're walking in the rain, because they can't come in yet, because they haven't made their quota. And this also pushes, why aren't you infuriated with the hotels that are doing hourly rentals? Why don't you infuriated with the guys driving around the Track, just letting girls jump in?
Rob Icsezen 24:35
And that's the other side of this otherizing, this this sweeping these folks away as if they're, they're not part of our community, and that... those people don't exist unless there are folks out there who are willing to purchase them. And the johns are everywhere. The johns are not just folks who live in these places. They never, I don't think they ever live in the place, like they come from all over the town.
Ann Johnson 24:57
Rob Icsezen 24:58
They come from everywhere. The pimps are certainly a problem. But this is simple market economics, there's demand, therefore supply gets created. And so we never focus on that though. We always focus on these, these these people who are the most vulnerable in the community.
Ann Johnson 25:17
So you're exactly right. Demand is a significant issue. And I do believe when people say, hey, if you had a magic wand, what could we do to get the most bang for your buck, I'd tell people to stop buying sex. I will say that I was also the chief human trafficking prosecutor for the DA's office for some period of time. And we tried our best to shift the focus from arresting the women to balancing out - and and the way that I would describe it is arrest as recovery rather than conviction. I recognize that a lot of times you need law enforcement to go in and help remove those individuals from their pimps. A lot of times they are intoxicated, they're addicted to drugs, they're addicted to the emotions of the pimp, and you almost physically have to break them, right. And then at the same time, just removing that individual and giving them time served to go back on the street does nothing if we don't address the pimp. And so you need vigorous prosecution of the pimp, the individual that's making the money, making the profit. And then you absolutely need it on the demand side and the demand reduction. So you're talking about a big commitment. Because if you want to go after johns, guess who you need? You need female officers, right? There's some practical dynamics to shifting our policy and our commitment, as a society as law enforcement. It's harder to go after the demand. It's harder to go after the johns it takes a bigger operation, right, which means it takes a budget. And so part of it is if the community starts complaining and says, Hey, you know what? Why are you not out there picking up those johns that are driving by? Yeah, that takes more manpower and more effort, but where's, why is that not our commitment? Because if these guys don't buy, nobody would be sold.
Rob Icsezen 26:59
Yeah, Yeah. It seems to me that that another part of this is - and this is something you can't really solve through a different or greater police force or enforcement - but that is the culture of, I mean, I think this is an aspect of toxic masculinity, because it sexualizes people. I mean, it is mostly women, it also includes trans women, it also includes some men, but in every case, it includes the sexualization of a human being against their will, or in, in a situation of forced non consent. And that is an expression of masculinity in its most toxic sense. You know, people might object to me using that word "masculinity" in that sense, but I think that that's what it is. It's, it's a sexualized, sort of commodification of people. And that's part of our culture. I mean, you see it, you turn on the TV, and you see body parts everywhere. I mean, this is something that needs to change as a culture. And I'm not, and when I say that, I'm not saying that sex is bad, no sex is, it is a fundamentally different thing. Sex itself is fine, I think we should be, we should be open and honest about sex itself. But it's the power dynamic of sexualizing people against their will, which is the evil here that we're talking about. Do you agree with that characterization?
Ann Johnson 28:27
I agree. And I would also recognize when you talk about this, people say, Oh, why bother? It's the world's oldest profession. And...
Rob Icsezen 28:35
You do hear that a lot don't you?
Ann Johnson 28:35
You hear that a lot, and people need to change it. It's not the world's oldest profession, these women are the world's oldest product. The buyers are most often men, and they get what they want. And so again, going back to that analogy of what do you want? Or how many women are out here, and how long will they stay out here? The buyer gets what he wants. And so, you know, I have spent years prosecuting the pimps looking at these cases looking at the johns, which also means I have seen so many cell phones, and so many communications between johns, these guys that buy, they really, they send more pictures of their body parts, right? Because they think that the individual on the other side wants it. I have a little caution for those guys, by the way, when you're texting those racy photographs of yourself and the things that you want done or are going to do, you're not texting her, you're texting the pimp. Because she's probably in the room with another guy at the moment, and then you're going to be next. And so breaking down this whole thought of these guys are engaging in some willing process of sex with a woman that wants to have sex with them. Or the other thing that I hear, which is if this girl wants to prostitute to get herself through college, you know let me help her out. False! I've not seen that either. These individuals are not wanting to be there. And some of these johns know they don't want to be there. Some of these johns will talk about the fact, I've seen in text messages of, "hey, clean yourself out before I show up. I don't like having the guy there that was there before me." And so they know exactly what they're doing. I've had some of these guys that will text a woman and say, "do your job!" Like it's a job, perform, scream a little more, do something a little more, act like you like it a little bit more. And they feel entitled, because they're buying a person to do something regular people in their life won't consent to do. So when they say Hey, will you do this weird sex act, because my wife won't, that's your clue that nobody wants to do it. And the reason that she's allowing you to do this thing to you that nobody else will consensually let you do to yo- or by you, is because she has a quota. And at some point, she may say I'm just $100 short of not getting beaten in tonight. So fine, you can do whatever you want to do, right.
Rob Icsezen 30:44
She's got a quota with a hammer over her head waiting to come down.
Ann Johnson 30:48
Yes. And that hammer can be lots of things, right. So I don't want people to misperceive physical violence. It can be physical violence, but it can also be circumstances where I've seen where the pimp will get the girl a puppy, and get her attached to the puppy and then when she doesn't do what they want, they beat the puppy, right. Or abuse the dog, or they abuse what's called the "bottom bitch." And so a lot of these pimps will have a stable of girls where it's multiple women, one is called the bottom - ironically, it's the one who's been with them the longest, may have a child with them. And oftentimes, you'll see these circumstances where the pimp will have their individuals in their stable, including young girls, and then their young kids that are there. And it's part of this power dynamics that, oh, I need you to go out and do this, because you have to feed that kid over there. And so they shift this responsibility of manipulation to these girls and individuals to go out and perform sex, again with these buyers, who it is not okay to buy sex. It's just not. And the moment we can get around to telling these guys, it is not okay to buy sex, this is not an okay deal, this is not somebody that really wants to do this with you, I think you start to see the problem, clear up and get better.
Rob Icsezen 31:54
Do you think- So, here's a question, sort of maybe a more 30,000 foot question: Do you think all prostitution should be illegal? Do you think that there's any form of prostitution that could be, could shed itself of the pernicious power dynamic that you've seen and that you're describing?
Ann Johnson 32:13
So I have been working on this issue now for almost 15 years. No, more than 10, it's been a while. And I, when I started this case on B.W. I found every article that I could find to start working through and looking through it. And I will say, with each thing that I do, I find more challenging issues. And so I'm going to come back to on the answer to this question, from where I got it and I was surprised. So one of the things that we did when I was at the District Attorney's office was a program called SAFE Court (https://www.chron.com/neighborhood/tomball/news/article/Harris-County-DA-announces-SAFE-Court-9797303.php), for people between the ages of 17 and 25, to try to help them get out of the game. And we would ask questions of them, and they would be able to respond. And one of the questions that we asked was, do you think you should legalize prostitution? And I really kind of thought they might say yes. But they said no. And so then I had to really struggle because they, you know, this is all blind, right. I really kind of struggled with, alright, think about this. And the way that I came down on this was most, and a lot of these women had obligations, children and things they had to do, and I understand now, why they were probably saying no, which is if you tell me that the only way I can provide for my children is to go out and perform oral sex on a bunch of men that walked by, what mother might not do that? And I think that these women deserve our protection, and society to say, we are not okay with men buying you, you are not a product. So I know a lot of people will say, Well, if they're willing, or they want to do it or different acts, but I have to say in the hundreds of women that I've come in contact with, I have yet to again meet one that really wants to do it. And so when we say well, let's go ahead and legalize it and say it's okay to sell yourself, I've never met a woman that really wanted to sell herself. I have seen her be sold. So there are lots of ways in which you can figure out how to do it. Ways to for sure make buying illegal make sure that we focus our attention on demand reduction. And I think we absolutely need vigorous demand reduction, we need campaigns that talk about the fact that it's not okay to buy sex and start shifting, as you say, men's perceptions of what it means to have sex or buy a person. That's not the same thing, right! We need vigorous prosecution of the pimps who are exploiting the individual. And then I think we need significant support for the women. Because they oftentimes have been manipulated, as I've said, since you know, 5, child abuse, right. And so the development there, the strength there, their ability to walk away, or say, hey, I need help is really, really hard. And so we need to start figuring out how to take care of this victim population in such a way, that they're not at risk. Because these individuals are at risk of abuse from many individuals and many sides.
Rob Icsezen 35:01
That's a, I find that to be a very compelling argument. I don't know where I stand on on the whole prostitution legalization thing, but I, of all the arguments against, that, that is one of the most compelling I've ever heard, which is that just in practice, I don't care what you say, there's always going to be a power dynamic. And for every perhaps handful of folks who are doing it willingly, and maybe even enjoy the work, there's going to be a few if not more, who are there against their will, and that's never right. One question that comes up to me is that this stuff is so well, not one question. But this stuff seems to be so ubiquitous. I mean, it's not just the Bissonnet Track, it's everywhere. It's, there're strip clubs, there're spas, there's all kinds of places where some kind of sex trade happens. Some of it's legal like, like strip clubs and stuff. And it is an incredibly uncomfortable thing, I think, among men to talk about this, because most men probably have been to places like that, in this town. And so the question is, how do you start solving this problem? It's all over the place. It's all over the world. It's been around, you know, they say it's the oldest profession. But so so what do you think is the solution in Houston?
Ann Johnson 36:17
And just to clarify, because I, when you said strip clubs, you said it's legal. It's not legal in strip clubs. We can't have sex in strip clubs...
Rob Icsezen 36:23
No, no, yeah. What I meant...
Ann Johnson 36:24
Watching somebody, right?
Rob Icsezen 36:25
Ann Johnson 36:26
The dancing or performing.
Rob Icsezen 36:27
Yeah, you're absolutely, I didn't mean that sex was legal, I meant that sex related professions are- we have some some things that are overtly sexual that are legal. But there there's a blurred line between that and prostitution.
Ann Johnson 36:40
Correct. And, and even within that strip club community, you see levels of exploitation, right. And, and it's kind of, it's known, but you know it's hard to recognize and so it again, creates a confusing place where people could say, oh, she's okay with it, when maybe she's not.
Rob Icsezen 36:56
Ann Johnson 36:57
I, again, wholeheartedly believe that this can comes down to us as a community in recognizing and respecting women, and boys recognizing and understanding where their place is to stop. When people are- they- women are not something that they can buy, control. We're not a product. And so again, changing this perception of "boys will be boys," right? You saw when Robert Kraft got busted, in Florida (https://newrepublic.com/article/153905/american-case-robert-kraft-florida-prostitution-sting), people started paying attention. I think the more law enforcement can pay attention to these areas, because our city is riddled with them. This
Rob Icsezen 37:30
This is the really rich guy in southern Florida.
Ann Johnson 37:32
Rob Icsezen 37:32
The owner of the...
Ann Johnson 37:33
Rob Icsezen 37:33
Ann Johnson 37:34
So when he got busted, you know, people like looked up like, Whoa, what's going on there? And it's like, yeah, that's what your buyers look like, they can look like any age, any background, any financial status. But what you saw there was him going into a massage parlor where there is a probability that that individual that is there that is performing sex on him is not really there, willingly, right. And again, that's another level of exploitation from a culturally difference circumstance of somebody being probably international Asian background, right. And so our city, those massage parlors are all over the place. And obviously, the problem is there are people willing to go in those doors, and pay for it. And so again, we as a society, we as a community have to start saying, because I've heard on radio casts and things like that, more men, like sports channels or things where people say, oh you know, go to Bissonnet. And it's like, it's okay. It's like, it's to be talked about, rather than guys saying, Whoa, dude, no, no, no, that's not the cool thing to do in Houston, you don't go buy a human being. And that's the way that we need to start thinking about it. When, when guys as buyers have told me when I say hey, do you talk, will you talk about this? And they'll say, yeah, I was sittin around with my buddies at lunch at Hooters, and they just said well it's easier to go buy somebody off the internet then gettin yourself a mistress. No, it's not. Because you, your wife's really not gonna like it when you get arrested for prostitution, or you get arrested for sexual assault of a child. That's really going to cause your marriage a huge problem, which it always does. And so guys have to change that table conversation of, you're not entitled to have sex when you want with who you want, right? Or where you want. It's a relationship. And and the moment you take that dynamic out by saying, Well, if I just throw down a few dollars, she'll do what I want, that ought to tell you that there's something wrong with it. And that's a real big difference between dating somebody or meeting somebody at a bar or whatever else. We're talking about, you are purposely going in and saying I want 15 minutes, and know that the person that you bought is going to perform for 15 minutes, because that's what you paid for. That's a product, it's not a convenience. It's not something different. You are buying a human. And we've got to change the dynamics. I'm thinking that's okay.
Rob Icsezen 39:43
Yeah. Yeah, that's... and it really is everywhere. And I think that that's, that can't be stressed enough. It is, it is, it's a problem that, that people kind of like to talk about as if it's elsewhere. It's the other, just like this quote that we talked about earlier. But it's, it's, there are all kinds of establishments all over this city, that cater to that, that that foster the dynamic. The, the discourse that you're talking about, this sort of "locker room talk," I think, is how they they reference it generally in the media that, you know, the President has even participated in this in the most horrible despicable kind of way (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html?utm_term=.c6394dbcc332) and it and it perpetuates, I mean, it is of the same category, in my opinion, the kind of talk that we've heard him and others around him partake in, that, that perpetuates this dynamic. And I think a cultural shift is what needs to happen. That's what's in order to change this
Ann Johnson 40:43
not just a cultural shift, but you know, my call is a shift in where we are as a policy. Because I've been fighting this battle since 2010, and I still don't have a place to put my victims. And so when we talk about having a place for them to go, or a shelter, which is the basic need of food, medication, and just a dry place, how do you expect these women to not get thrown back into the game. And so we keep saying, and having the same discussion about where are we going to put these people at different ages and limitations. And so that's why my call is, I want us to see us have a public private partnership. We have a lot of private groups that are going in, they're, you know, relatively disjointed, I want to see groups like these hotels that are doing hourly rentals, these corporations that are above them that, you know, know that what's happening in their locations. I want to see this corporate community come together and say, you know what, we want to be a part of the solution. We need, what I would say is a "victim recovery village." We need corporations to come together, medical, social work, community to say we are all in this together, we'll pitch in together under the umbrella of a public partnership, to actually create the place in Houston to start the solution, as opposed to just being frustrated and trying to push them out of, out of one street or one neighborhood. [for more from Ann Johnson on a proposed solution, see: https://m.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/To-fight-prostitution-don-t-make-life-harder-13836905.php]
Rob Icsezen 41:58
Yeah, and I mean, I think that that, that really is the, policy and culture go together. And so a policy that creates a safe space for the most vulnerable members of our community, these particular, particularly vulnerable members of our community, is the manifestation of a culture that says, "We hear you, we see we, we understand that you've had a rough go at it early on, and you're not starting at the same starting line, the rest of us are, or that many of us are, let's say." When it comes to privilege, and those without privilege, these are the folks without any privilege, at all, and we acknowledge that and create a place to help folks come along and get back into, instead of that game, the real game, which, or, the game that we should all be partaking in, which is a society that has dignity, and integrity, and respect for all. So, well, Ann thank you so much for walking us through this. This is really an important topic and really a tough one to talk about, and, the work you've done has been tremendous, and the the stuff you've shared with us today is, I think, anyone who's listening to this will go away with a lot of thoughts in their head, that they need to, you know, put to work.
Ann Johnson 43:14
Thank you for shining a light on this issue, and letting me come visit with you. I'm always happy to be here. And I'm grateful that you're paying attention to the victims of human trafficking.
Rob Icsezen 43:22
Thank you and we're going to share all the articles that we've mentioned in this, in this, in this show. So thanks so much.
Ann Johnson 43:29
Rob Icsezen 43:30
Next week is the beginning of Pride Month and we're going to be showing our support by dedicating every show in June to LGBTQIA+ issues. And our first show next week will be on Advocacy through Art, with Houston's very own Eric Edward Schell, the founder of Pride Portraits (https://www.prideportraits.org/), you won't want to miss it!
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