Erasing Criminal Convictions for Survivors of Trafficking: One Step in the Right Direction
People get involved in sex work for all kinds of reasons, but most often, out of life circumstance and a need to support themselves and their families. This need to seek safety and security is universal, and it says something about how deeply felt it is, given the level of stigma sex workers endure as they do their work. Unfortunately, because so much of sex work is illegal, sex workers are constantly being arrested. This even applies to people who have engaged in sex work who were trafficked and coerced or threatened in some way.
Trafficking in persons is about people experiencing some level of force, fraud, or coercion in their work. This means they are living and working in a climate of fear. But because most people, including the police, have a very specific idea of who is a "victim" of trafficking, they often get it wrong and arrest people involved in sex work without asking or giving them a chance to say they have been forced or coerced. We have worked with people who are transgender and are survivors of trafficking, but have either been unable to report their experience to the police because they are too afraid from past experiences with police, or have faced ridicule or outright disbelief if they do report. Compare this experience to young cisgender women (the term "cisgender" refers to people whose present gender identity matches the sex/gender they were assigned at birth), who generally fit a more commonly understood idea of who is a victim of human trafficking, and are more likely to be believed if they do speak up.
The ideas that inform people's beliefs about human trafficking, and ultimately determine whether they believe someone is a victim or not, often stem from stereotypes or misconceptions perpetuated by the media. Stereotypes include ideas about the gender of victims or what they look like, what their sexual or other histories are, and the kind of work they do. These misconceptions are compounded by people's beliefs and fears about victimization, gender, and sexuality. But in order to craft workable solutions on trafficking, we need policies that actually prevent this terrible practice, and support victims in finding their own voice and seeking the help they want and need. Keeping people out of the criminal justice system is crucial, both because it cannot play the holistic and preventive role we need, and because it is itself a place where abuse takes place.