Experts say sex traffickers are most often people you know and warn youth and women to always be aware of their surroundings

Written by: 
Geena DeMaio


Sex trafficking can result from “boyfriending,” contrary to preconceived notions, experts say, and on Oahu sex trafficking is unique because of its Pacific location between Asia and the U.S. mainland since victims can be quickly transported off island. Annually hundreds of victims, a majority being young girls, expert say, are exploited in Hawaii for human and sex trafficking. Nicholas Sensley, a retired police chief from California, said Hawaii’s location serves as a platform in paradise for the rapid sex tourism industry.

“Often with sex trafficking and gender-based violence, when we think of these scenarios, it’s a stranger in the dark. In reality, instances of domestic violence or relationship violence is drastically more common with people we know,” said Shemaina Maeve, from California, director of peacebuilding at BYU-Hawaii who is working to debunk and change preconceived sex trafficking notions. 

Kathryn Xian, co-founder of Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS), in a Hawaii News Now story, “Sex trafficking in paradise,” says, “There are about 150 brothels on Oahu alone that we know about [not including those in private homes]. For each brothel, there are between three to 15 girls, mostly from Asia and some youth victims. This doesn’t include the street prostitution and online scene.” 

“Clients are usually men with money, some military, some tourists,” Xian says. “Many come from Asia or mainland United States, but there are local clients as well.”

Xian adds after a few months, girls are shipped to the United States and sold in major cities. She said the underground business holds prostitutes at a high monetary cost. 

“It is hard to quantify, but by our estimates, the number of females trafficked for sex in Hawaii each year is most likely in the thousands,” said Xian. 

Hawaii was the last state in the United States to declare modern slavery illegal. On Tuesday, July 5, 2016, in Honolulu, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed the bill to ban sex trafficking. 

“Boyfriending” approach

Clarifying sex trafficking, Maeve said the majority of trafficking is targeted to youth and teens. “Typically how sex trafficking works is someone will go into a high school looking for youth. Someone will come in as the older boyfriend and start to lure and gain trust to build a relationship.”

The beginning stages of being trafficked is when the traffickers request for the individual to do something for them one time and in return the individual will be paid or compensated otherwise, explained Maeve.

“A big part of being aware shouldn’t be only confined to looking behind your back or the physical surroundings, but also being aware of your relationships and being aware of your friend’s relationships and looking for warning signs,” she said.

How to identify survivors

Maeve listed some ways to recognize when someone could be a target for sex trafficking, “All of a sudden your friend has lots of money, is really hard to get a hold of, is gone for multiple days at a time, is emotionally distant or unavailable and other red flags that show the relationship is unhealthy.

“Teachers and professors could be aware of not only signs of physical abuse, but also of a really exhausted student where normally they would be pretty bright, awake, and active in class. If they stop engaging and are exhausted in class and don’t contribute, it can be something that can be good to just be mindful of as well. If your friend is dating someone you don’t know, or they are not from your friend circle, find out as much as you can about them and the relationship. Especially if they are from somewhere else on the island.”

Take precautions

Discussing the crisis overall, Maeve said, “Being aware as a community is a shared responsibility to stay awake and alive to each other. Laie is sacred. It’s really beautiful. But just like anywhere in the world there is still systemic violence that finds its way wherever you are. Having the same level of awareness that you would in another place or city or region in the world is important.”

Maeve noted studies have shown when parents and teachers are aware of sex trafficking and how to identify it, the rates drop. 

She said when women are trained in self-defense with physical and verbal skills, the rate of experiencing violence drops 63 percent. 

The BYUH campus is not immune to trafficking, said Jocelyn Stephenson, a freshman from Illinois majoring in biochemistry. “It could easily happen on campus. If you’re off campus for the weekend, having even a day trip, be careful of your surroundings.”

Maeve shared the insight that sex traffickers search for vulnerability. She emphasized, “Be aware as much as possible. Be aware when you are going to town in Waikiki or even when you are here on the North Shore. 

“If you’re hitchhiking and you don’t know the person, that’s a risk. It’s one of the easiest ways that sex trafficking occurs on this side of the island.” She encouraged people to make safe, educated decisions; but “if you are going to hitchhike, be hyper aware of who you get into a car with. Make sure you are communicating with your friends, so they know where you are, where you are going, or when you are supposed to arrive somewhere. In the context of Waikiki, be as aware as you can of all your surroundings.” Stephenson added to use a geographical security app downloaded on a cell phone while walking alone. Especially at night while walking alone, Stephenson suggested to call someone to have company and additional safety.

While walking if there is the option for multiple paths, Stephenson urged to take the path with more lighting, walk along bigger roads with more people on them and to walk with confidence. A personal alarm system that causes noise, such as a whistle or mini alarm that is loud, is also recommended by Stephenson.

BYUH partnership

A group of 80 BYU-Hawaii students has partnered with Ho’ola Na Pua. They work with victims at a Ho’ōla Nā Pua facility and serve the community, shared Maeve. Although the organization focuses on girls, Maeve explained all genders are susceptible to sex trafficking. “Awareness and education are meant to give us all tools for the realities we face so we each feel comfortable and powerful in every situation,” she said.

Maeve said she has been connected with Ho’ōla Nā Pua for three years and went through its outreach educational training programs. “The whole spectrum of sex trafficking and gender-balanced violence and working to prevent and raise awareness is what I’m really passionate about. I try to engage as much I can.”

Ho’ōla Nā Pua has “an incredible volunteer program, doing numerous things from mentoring survivors of sex trafficking to raising awareness,” shared Maeve. After training, Maeve said she has volunteered in a number of different capacities from fund raising, to outreach, to coordinating community service projects. 

A number of BYUH students who have undergone educational training now travel throughout Oahu to middle schools and high schools – the targeted age for sex trafficking – to share information and increase awareness. 

In workshops, they talk about the signs of sex trafficking specific to the island and how to prevent the cycle, she said.

BYUH students are working with survivors, activists, and other volunteers to build trusting relationships. The purpose is to bring people together for unity, explained Brittany Bridge, a freshman from Maryland studying biochemistry.

Ho’ōla Nā Pua’s vision is “to provide girls who are rescued or escape from the abuse of sex trafficking with a path to restoration and healing from their trauma, an increased sense of self-worth, and the confidence and ability to successfully reintegrate into their family and the community,” as stated on its web page. 

In the Hawaiian language, Hoʻōla Nā Pua means “New Life for our Children.” The organization’s website says, “Hoʻōla means healing and new life; pua means flower and is also a term of endearment when referring to children.”

As part of National Make a Difference Day, Hoʻōla Nā Pua joined with other non-profit organizations, churches, and groups on Oahu to come and take part in a service project.

Maeve said the peacebuilding discipline at BYUH wanted to make a better connection with the students to the community with the opportunity to go and serve. She explained, “This is what the center is all about – engaging with the community and making ties to community members and helping the students to be involved outside the bubble of campus. In so many ways, that’s where the real learning happens: When [students] engage with the community.”

Bridge talked about being able to meet community activists while doing service with Hoʻōla Nā Pua. She said, “We get there, and we are meeting people who are activists in the community for domestic violence and sex crimes, and they were there trying to get more involvement for that.” She added there was an overall feeling of being secure and empowered. 

Pearl Haven is Hawaii’s first long-term licensed residential special treatment campus for underage females (ages 11-17) rescued from sexual exploitation. It’s a sanctuary of healing, according to the Ho’ōla Nā Pua website page.

Maeve added the safehouse is opened twice a year for people to serve there. Although the location is not disclosed for privacy and protection, if interested, screening is offered to those who would like to participate. All are welcome to the volunteer orientation for Ho’ōla Nā Pua from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Feb. 9 in the McKay Classroom 127. 


Date Published: 
Monday, February 4, 2019
Last Edited: 
Monday, February 4, 2019