Teenagers regularly get manipulated into sex work — ‘even in beautiful places like Santa Cruz’

The 2022 Pedal the Pacific team spent three days in Santa Cruz in July to raise awareness for sex trafficking.
The 2022 Pedal the Pacific team spent three days in Santa Cruz in July to raise awareness for sex trafficking.
(Via Savannah Lovelace)

A team of 11 young women is spreading awareness about sex trafficking by pedaling 1,700 miles down the West Coast — from Seattle to San Diego — and has a special fondness for Santa Cruz, where the team recently spent three days. Pedal the Pacific co-founder Savannah Lovelace and her teammates want communities to know that trafficking is not a “developing nation” problem. It’s happening across California and the Pacific Coast, Lovelace writes, even right here in Santa Cruz.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

We were four weeks into our seven-week, 1,7000-mile, all-girl bike tour from Seattle to San Diego to raise awareness about sex trafficking when we made our way into Santa Cruz.

It was 2017, and the three of us — we called ourselves “the hilariously unathletic girls” — had decided to ride because we wanted people to know how regularly teenagers get manipulated into sex work.

Even in beautiful places like Santa Cruz.

We had each just finished college — two of us at the University of Texas, one at the University of Arkansas — and we each had experiences — including in Thailand’s red-light district and talking to parents of school children in the Dominican Republic — that focused on trafficking.

Our studies taught us that our perception that trafficking “happens in only developing nations” was naive.

To give you an idea, in 2021, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received more than 17,200 reports of child sex trafficking in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It’s happening in every type of community: cities, small towns and tribal land.

Learning this shocked us.

We started discussing it within our circles. We quickly learned that the people around us, too, didn’t know the realities of sex trafficking and even became uncomfortable when we tried to discuss it with them.

We decided we wanted to do something to raise awareness, something that would make our friends and family ask, “Why?” Then we could tell them about the statistics.

None of us were cyclists.

But we had heard stories of people cycling down the Pacific Coast and thought it would be just wild enough to get people to ask questions. I didn’t grow up playing any sports, so I knew that the people around me would be curious.

We quickly saw that the challenge of the ride — which we called Pedal the Pacific — made the subject of sex trafficking more approachable, as people started asking us questions about the trip, inching closer and closer to the heart of it.

We were a few days from Santa Cruz on that first ride, when my mother called to say her cousin’s college friends were willing to host us once we arrived in Santa Cruz. This was a luxury, since we had spent most nights in hiker-biker campsites.

We pulled up to Brent and Sheila Dunton’s house in downtown Santa Cruz and they took us to a small ADU in the backyard that would be ours for the night. We spent the evening around a fire, sharing stories of our time down the coast, hearing about their youthful adventures, and also talking seriously about the reality of sex trafficking.

Santa Cruz residents Brent and Sheila Dunton
Santa Cruz residents Sheila and Brent Dunton (front) helped the Pedal to the Pacific team and co-founder Savannah Lovelace feel welcome in Santa Cruz in July.
(Via Savannah Lovelace)

We explained that sex trafficking rarely occurs like in the movie “Taken,” where young girls are whisked off the streets by a stranger and flown abroad to be sold in another country.

Sex trafficking is often quieter, less abrupt and usually involves manipulation, psychological pressure and intimidation.

And it happens under our noses.

The usual targets are the most vulnerable: kids who lack support systems, have experienced violence, are experiencing homelessness and/or are marginalized by society.

Like most of those we encounter, Brent and Sheila didn’t know sex trafficking looked like this. They didn’t know it could be happening in their own Santa Cruz neighborhood. They listened to us, wide-eyed.

I remember thinking, “This is why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

These genuine conversations can be slow-moving, but they are what makes a difference in the long run.

In 2021, California reported 1,025 cases of sex trafficking. It leads all other states.

I’ve tried to get data for Santa Cruz, but because sex trafficking is so clandestine, it’s hard to get accurate numbers. Many people being trafficked don’t know it’s happening.

Our 2017 trek exceeded our initial goal of $10,000 raised. Our ride miraculously caught the attention of the media and we ended up raising more than $60,000.

We’ve repeated the ride every year since and have raised $850,000 total.

This year, we have 11 riders, ages 19-23, from seven states. They are hoping to raise $150,000 for a prevention education and survivor program at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Our riders keep a blog.

We always pass through Santa Cruz County, and Brent and Sheila have hosted or coordinated every year since that first meeting. Their involvement has grown exponentially.

The Pedal the Pacific team enjoyed a free dinner at Taqueria Los Pericos
Pedal the Pacific team members enjoyed a free dinner at Taqueria Los Pericos in Santa Cruz as they rode 1,700 miles to raise awareness of sex trafficking.
(Via Savannah Lovelace)

Just a few weeks ago, from July 11-13, they helped coordinate a group of cyclists from the Santa Cruz Sunrise Rotary who met our team for lunch at Togo’s in Santa Cruz and rode them into the city. They also organized a fundraising dinner with Monarch Services and survivor speaker Cari Herthel from the Esselen Tribe (Indigenous people are at a higher risk of experiencing sex trafficking).

The Sunrise Rotary has invested time and funding to educate Santa Cruz kids and community members about what sex trafficking looks like both online and in the real world.

We also met with the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s office, where we learned about the huge rise it is seeing in sexual predators reaching out to teens online and the challenges it faces when trying to gather admissible evidence to prosecute sex trafficking crimes.

Savannah Lovelace co-founded Pedal to the Pacific
Savannah Lovelace co-founded Pedal to the Pacific after graduating from college and realizing the extent of sex trafficking occurring in the U.S.
(Via Savannah Lovelace)

Our stop in Santa Cruz beautifully encapsulates the heart of Pedal the Pacific.

Our goal is to educate communities and inspire them to make change. To recognize that no voice is too small to make a difference, and when you come together as a collective, the change is monumental.

Santa Cruz has become a stop our teams eagerly look forward to every year, because they know they’ll be able to see the change and conversations that can be sparked by a bicycle, and they can see how their actions can inspire people like Brent and Sheila, who, after that first night, became local advocates.

So thank you, Santa Cruz, for not only embracing the Pedal the Pacific team, but also for deciding to work together to help break the cycle in your community.

Savannah Lovelace is the co-founder and director of partnerships for Pedal the Pacific. She graduated from the University of Texas and began her career at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children as a development coordinator. She lives in Austin, Texas, but loves visiting Santa Cruz to catch up with Brent and Sheila Dunton and explore the Boardwalk. Applications for next year’s team are open until Aug. 17.

More from Community Voices