LIHUE — Hawaii is a hotspot for sex trafficking, according to a new study from the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.
In fact, the study shows one of every 11 adult male residents of Hawaii has attempted to buy sex from an online advertisement.
“Within the past five years, KPD has initiated promoting prostitution cases from sexual advertisements on Kauai that led to arrests of both male and female offenders,” the county said in a written statement.
“The Kauai Police Department does monitor any type of prostitution or illegal sex advertisements,” the county said. “However, it is challenging as there is a high demand to conduct illicit narcotics investigations as well as investigating child exploitation cases on island.”
And while the study pinpoints the entire state as having almost twice the online responses in 24 hours for prostitution ads as places like Denver and Chicago, Kauai’s prosecuting attorney says it generally goes unreported on the island.
“Although it is primarily an Oahu-based issue, I am certain that it does happen on the neighbor islands, including on Kauai,” Kollar said.
Researchers from Arizona State University School of Social Work partnered with the State Commission on the Status of Women on the study and placed advertisements on the website Backpage.com over a two-week period in March.
The ads were placed in the Women Seeking Men personals section of the classifieds website, which specializes in sex and prostitution-related advertisements. Ads were similar to other sex ads placed on the website, but researchers used photos of professional models with consent to complete the ads.
Researchers recorded responses to the ads and monitored other sex ads over a one-week period.
The ad was placed March 23, 2018. It was one of 58 sex ads that could be found on Backpage.com that day.
Within 24 hours, researchers received 756 contacts: 396 phone calls and 364 text messages. A total of 409 unique phone numbers were used to place the calls and texts representing 87 different area codes. Seventy percent of contacts came from the 808 Hawaii area code.
A second advertisement was placed a week later on the Big Island generating 95 contacts — 45 calls and 50 texts — from 65 unique phone numbers in a 24-hour period.
For comparison, researchers recorded 45 unique respondents in the first 24 hours of sex ads placed in Phoenix, 25 in Chicago, 22 in Boston and 20 in Denver, according to the State Commission on the Status of Women.
“We’ve placed these types of ads in major cities throughout America in previous studies, but we weren’t expecting what we found in Hawaii,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of ASU’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. “The number of calls and texts generated in 24 hours by one advertisement we placed for Oahu was simply astronomical.”
Police said Kauai does fit the characterization — that the demand for prostitution online is higher than the supply — as Kauai lacks strip clubs, massage parlors or street prostitutes that are available elsewhere.
“If KPD knows of or hears of prostitution/pimps conducting business on Kauai, a plan of action/strategy is always done to deter, identity, and arrest those involved with illegal activity,” the county said.
The fact that it goes unreported fuels the issue, according to Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, who points out the neither the demand for prostitution nor sex trafficking have been studied in Hawaii before this time.
“More people are penalized for jaywalking and homelessness in Hawaii than for illegally buying sex,” said Jabola-Carolus. “And that demand by buyers is what ultimately drives sex trafficking, a crime that often involves the victimization of minors.”
The goal is to draw attention to the issue and to foster conversation about strategies to address prostitution demand.
“It is clear that we will not be able to arrest our way out of this problem and traffickers know to bring their victims here because we do little to stop them,” Jabola-Carolus said.
Kollar said he applauds Jabola-Carolus and the HCSW “for doing this important work and I fully support their efforts to eliminate sex trafficking in Hawaii.”
“I was the first prosecuting attorney to testify in support of the sex trafficking law that the Legislature passed in 2016,” he said. “I believe Hawaii has a major problem with sex trafficking.”
Jessica Else, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org