What's Next for Sex Trafficking in Washington State? Filmmaker Tim Matsui Shares How You Can Help

In The Long Night, director Tim Matsui follows the stories of seven people between fall 2012 and fall 2013, each story underscoring the real crisis of minors who are coerced into prostitution or drawn in due to desperate circumstances. Each story takes place in King County - a sordid reminder that some of the most harrowing problems continue to exist in our own backyards. The film, made possible largely from support from the Alexia Foundation and their Women Initiative grant, was released earlier this year.

In a moving scene towards the end of the film, we watch Lisa, a young woman who has been trapped in the sex trafficking industry for years, unravel emotionally situation during a phone call from jail with Tim Matsui. At this point, she's struggled with her drug addiction for years and hasn't been able to remove herself from prostitution. The audience is privy to Lisa's vocalization of her own shame - and as the reality of her situation settles in through the rawness of their phone call, she finally remarks, "Seriously...what's next?"

As I watched this scene at the film's screening in Seattle, I couldn't help but feel that Lisa's question reverberated throughout the silent audience somewhat awkwardly. The facts were laid out before us and the stories had been shared. "What's next?" is a question that I hope was on the minds of everyone in the audience that night. These girls are asking us what is next; do we dare assume that this question is a rhetorical one?

"Everybody's child is at risk if we don't address this, including my own," Detective Brian Taylor says in the film. "Not all of our victims come from cycles of abuse or foster care or extreme levels of poverty. We have a lot of victims that come from well-to-do, upper middle class families, two parent homes and a couple of cars in the driveway... There's no other answer to it. We got to protect our kids."

On Wednesday, Tim and his team launched a new Kickstarter project to continue raising awareness and combating sex trafficking. This is just one way that people can support the cause, though, and I wanted to learn more about what individuals can do to get involved in their communities. I spoke with Tim recently about his vision for The Long Night and asked him what we can do in response to this issue. Below is an excerpt from our Q&A:

How did you first decide to focus on sex trafficking as a local issue?

Focusing on sex trafficking locally really started with a report that the City of Seattle released titled "Who Pays the Price." Using 2007 data, Debra Boyer looked at local youth engaged in commercial sex. The report was published in 2008 and I came across it in early 2009. Some of the recommendations looked exactly like the work I'd seen done overseas by both local and international NGO's in Cambodia and Thailand.

During the 2000's I'd done a lot of reporting work on sexual violence, creating a nonprofit, developing an engagement program, winning an Open Society Foundations grant; it taught me a lot about project development and also gave me a number of contacts in the Seattle community. As I began researching local anti-trafficking efforts, I leaned on these contacts. Having reported abroad on trafficking for labor and sex, and its root causes, gave me additional credibility (and experience).

I wrote a number of grants until winning the inaugural Women's Initiative Grant from the Alexia Foundation. Core to the proposal was a police department that had made a victim-centric shift to commercially exploited sex workers, with a focus on minors. All those years of work seemed to come together and I found myself with seed capital for what's become a much larger project than a photo essay.

What are some takeaways from your experience following the stories of these women for the past few years?

I think one of the biggest takeaways for me is the incredible resilience of these young women. Natalie's interview is powerful in how self aware she is, how she thinks of the experience, and how she's owning her story. Likewise with Lisa. Though she's still struggling with what it looks like to leave "the life" she's got this smart, polite, and witty side to her and she's managed to survive all these years.

But it's more than that. What's happened to the young women in this project is because of us. Because of what we do or don't do as a society. Seeing the level of demand for sex is one thing, but bigger is our societal failures that are creating vulnerable populations.

How do you feel about funding public education or after school programs? Mass transit so people can get to jobs? What about universal health care? Minimum wage? Do you know what Harm Reduction means? Is gender equity a priority for you?

It's easy to see these stories and think, "poor them." I gave a presentation to a well-heeled, educated, and affluent group only to hear a man say "I'm glad I don't have daughters." It wasn't the place to challenge him, but there's a line from a spoken word poet that goes something like "it's not what we're going to tell our daughters, but what are we going to teach our sons."

It was huge to see law enforcement spend the time to work with these young women, to become 'victim centric.' Many cops are jaded; they're targets and the people they're in contact with often hate them. But these guys were trying something different. I know social services will still have problems with what these cops do, and I know that not every cop has the training, time, or empathy to work like this, but having a few is a start.

Another takeaway comes from spending time with the hustlers, dealers, and sex workers at the Boulevard Motel. Lisa spent a lot of time there. She crashed with one of her friends who essentially ran a crack den. Their story, of how they became friends, is pure survival. Human spirit. Generosity.

The people there all have their issues and problems. A lot of bad stuff happens there, but if you look beyond it, these are people who are struggling to survive in spite of their difficulties, be it addiction, mental health, poverty, cycles of incarceration, what have you. They are people and I think we forget that.

What is your goal for the film both now and in the long-term?

Something about journalism that's always drawn me in is the intimacy you can achieve with a subject. The access and insight. It's connection and purpose, responsibility and trust. I see my role as helping people tell their stories. This really clarified when I started the sexual violence work 15 years ago.

I saw that I had powerful stories that I could use to make a name for myself. And it gave me pause; these stories were of people struggling to heal. To pursue a gallery show, awards, whatever, it wasn't enough. And it felt exploitive. I stepped back and realized my role was to help my subjects tell their own story, to give them voice, and to do my best to help their stories create change.

Leaving the Life has always had this purpose. The plan and shape may have changed, but the core of the project is to create a shift in cultural and institutional norms.

The film, The Long Night, is a part of the Leaving the Life. It's meant as a broad audience outreach tool. In 2014, while the studio was pursuing a more traditional festival-awards-theatrical effort, I took a crash course on grassroots, independent distribution by reading and asking anyone who'd give me tips. I'm less concerned about awards, recognition, or some sweet licensing deal, unless it supports my goal of shifting norms. I believe in taking the film to the audience, wherever they may be; online, in theaters, through subscription services, etc. and making a difference. As such, the film becomes a tool for this change.

During my reporting, I made deeper connections into law enforcement, prosecution, and social services communities. It not only informed my reporting, but now as I move forward with an engagement program, this community is actively participating in the shaping of the program.

A second grant that I co-authored with A Fourth Act, a Portland based team creating participatory media experiences and facilitated co-design of solutions, is supporting the design of the engagement program. The Fledgling Fund, who awarded the grant, believes in using film to make a better world.

I'm in the midst of developing that engagement program, documenting its process, and essentially taking a movie and turning it into a movement.

What are three things that people can do to combat the issue of sex trafficking in our communities?

1) Learning about the issue is the first step. What are its root causes? What is sex work and what is commercial sexual exploitation? What are some of the cultural norms creating vulnerability?

2) Teach our daughters to be strong and independent women capable of achieving their own success and teach our sons to respect and value women and girls. Learn the language of this cultural shift.

3) Vote for and provide funding to vulnerability-reducing initiatives--like after school program, smaller class sizes, health care, etc; law enforcement training on trafficking and community policing; and victim services like harm reduction programs, drop-in centers, and long term residential programs.

If those things feel overwhelming, then readers can do this:

  • Donate to our Kickstarter, "Seattle Streets to Main Street: End Child Trafficking."
  • Host a home screening. Stream the theatrical cut of the film from the Vimeo embed. It's a one-year retnal for4.99. Watch it on the website here.
  • Like 'The Long Night' on Facebook and follow the film's Twitter account: @TLNmovie.
  • Like our engagement program, "Leaving The Life," on Facebook and find us on Twitter and Instagram: @leavingthelife
  • Contribute to the #leavingthelife campaign on Instagram with your own image and a story of hope and overcoming.
  • Check with your local shelter to see if they need socks, meals, or anything else.
  • Don't be a bystander.