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Hypocritical Legal Crusade Against Craigslist Will Not Solve Violence Against Sex Trafficking Victims

AG Richard Blumenthal's obsession with Craigslist does nothing to end the exploitation of people trafficked for sex.

For years, Connecticut state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (and his dozen or so allied AGs across the United States) have aggressively attacked Craigslist's Adult Services section. This weekend, Craigslist opted to self-censor that part of the site. Perhaps now, Blumenthal and his allies in law enforcement might abandon their counterproductive crusade against Craigslist and take steps to confront the issues that actually contribute to violence against people involved in the sex trade.

If these lead prosecutors are truly concerned about ending violence and exploitation, then their focus on one intermediary advertising Web site, among dozens of other sex ad venues, could be considered criminally shortsighted. There’s a tremendous amount the attorneys general could do to actually curb the suffering of people within the criminal and legal systems in which they have power. This is what some of us have elected them to do.

People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice, coercion or circumstance, all still face criminal records after a prostitution conviction – even people who have been trafficked. These convictions can prevent a former sex worker or trafficking survivor from obtaining future employment, housing or retaining custody of their children. The collateral consequences of conviction vary from state to state, and can be severe. In Louisiana, Women With a Vision advocates for women who are charged under a 200-year-old “crimes against nature” law when suspected of being involved in the sex trade. Such a conviction requires them to register as sex offenders. They group asks how a young woman of color is supposed to make a living outside the sex trade when her driver’s license is stamped “SEX OFFENDER” in large block letters -- as is the case with hundreds of women convicted of prostitution in Louisiana.

But these collateral consequences of conviction can be changed, even without removing laws against prostitution. In 2010, through the advocacy of the Sex Workers Project (based at the Urban Justice Center), New York became the first state in the nation to adopt legislation allowing trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution-related sentences, removing these convictions from their criminal records. This is a human rights victory that even those who consider prostitution to be intrinsically harmful can and ought to support.

Can we count on Blumenthal and his allied AGs, as they strive to protect human trafficking survivors, to support such critical law reform in their home states?

People involved in the sex trade still face still discrimination, harassment and violence from the people charged with helping them. A 2009 study of Chicago girls in the sex trade, conducted by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, paints a stark picture of what keeps girls isolated and vulnerable. Even when girls sought out the support they needed – from drug treatment and foster care programs to hospitals and the police – they were denied help because of their involvement in the sex trade. Girls describe hospitals discriminating against them and not providing full care, being physically and sexually assaulted by foster parents, and being accused of lying by the police when they seek help after being raped. In fact, girls’ reports of abuse by police outnumbered the stories of other forms of institutional violence that girls encountered by far.

Chicago is not alone. In a University of California at San Francisco study published in 2009, 22 percent of San Francisco adult female sex workers surveyed reported having police as paying customers. Fourteen percent were threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with a police officer. Washington cops fare no better: in a report published on people involved in or perceived to be involved in the sex trade, Different Avenues reveals that one in five people were solicited for sex by the police. They also report that police confiscated safer sex supplies, and strip-searched and assaulted people suspected of prostitution. These actions constitute human rights violations and are especially unconscionable coming from the law enforcement professionals who have a duty to protect people in the sex trade from violent pimps and others who might exploit them.

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