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Waking people to injustice

Myrra Lee, 85, is working to show sex trade's hidden victims.

August 20, 2011|Sandy Banks

It was the paradox that drew me in: The notion of a comfortably retired 85-year-old teacher trying to make the tawdry topic of sex trafficking a priority for her suburban San Diego chapter of the American Assn. of University Women.

Myrra Lee was upset about a column I wrote last month on a campaign by residents in Los Angeles' West Adams district to rid their block of prostitutes and pimps.

I'd painted prostitutes as the villains, Lee said, and missed a chance to educate readers about how complicated and dangerous their situation is.

Then she proceeded to educate me: "This is not their choice to be doing this. These could be the girls next door who have been co-opted by this system."

The system she's railing against is what some call "sexual slavery": Teenage girls sweet-talked at malls, picked up at bus stops, lured online by professional pimps into what they think is a life of modeling and video shoots, then threatened or beaten or coerced into selling sex to strangers.

There's debate over how many girls are involved; it's a phenomenon hidden from public view. But law enforcement officials say they've found girls as young as 12 being peddled by sophisticated traveling sex-for-sale rings.

"When you mention 'human trafficking,' the first thing people think is international — Eastern European, Third World countries," said LAPD Vice Det. Lt. Andre Dawson.

But these are not young women rounded up in some remote Thai village or trucked north from Mexico and forced into sexual servitude.

"This is occurring on Main Street, U.S.A.," Dawson said.

In our own society's dark margins.

::

Myrra Lee first felt the urge to help after attending a seminar on human trafficking six years ago at the AAUW's national convention. The focus then was on foreign victims; women kidnapped, smuggled in and forced to work as household servants or prostitutes.

"I wanted to make a video for the AAUW branches," she said. "But no one would fund me for anything."

So she volunteered to speak on the subject at local meetings of the AAUW, a 130-year-old organization of college-educated women, whose advocacy causes tend toward workplace equity and educational opportunity.

Of the 11 chapters in San Diego County, Lee said, "only one branch took me up on it."

She got hooked again this spring when she met an actual trafficking victim at a conference of a coalition fighting sexual exploitation of women and children.

"There was a young woman there, in her 20s," Lee said. "She told us about how she'd thought she was going to be trained to do workshops in makeup, and go all around the country at 19. Her parents thought it was a good opportunity."

But instead of teaching about lipstick techniques, she wound up the captive of a traveling pimp, having sex day and night with paying strangers.

That young, U.S.-born woman became a stand-in for all those teenage girls who'd passed through Lee's classes over the years. "A nice girl. From a good home." Victimized by ignorance.

::

Putting a face on an issue can make it real. One tearful girl, with chipped nail polish and a horror story, can rally more public support for a cause than 100,000 faceless victims.

For me, reality arrived in the cranky voice of octogenarian Myrra Lee, griping because she can't join the walkathons until she gets a hip replacement. And wagging her finger at a columnist "who doesn't seem to be aware of something happening not in some foreign country, but right here, in our own backyard," she said.

I took my scolding silently, in awe of Lee's ferocity.

I found myself admiring this feisty woman on a lonely quest to get highbrow colleagues all worked up about an ugly underground, where throwaway girls are sold for sex.

But I couldn't help but wonder why now, why this? Isn't she a little old to make pimping her signature issue?

Lee laughed when I asked her that. "My daughters say 'Why are you doing this, mother?' But I've never had to answer that."

She didn't answer the question this time, either. But she did tell a story that answered it for me.

"I taught high school in La Mesa in the 1970s," she said, "when black studies and Chicano studies classes were proliferating around the country.… I didn't have any kind of background in that. This was not the training that I got at Columbia," where she'd earned her master's degree.

She wound up teaching courses in black history, Chicano history, women's studies, sex education, family studies, death and dying — and learned as much as her students, she said.

She was named National Teacher of the Year in 1977. But the honor mattered less than the eye-opening experience of having "to find out all that I hadn't known."

It changed her, and she went with it. "I got awakened to injustice," she said, "when I had to teach those classes." She liked pulling back the curtain, turning over new stones.

She became a crusader. And she's still at it 40 years later, determined to pull the rest of us along.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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