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Satisfied Sex Worker or Domestic Trafficking Victim?

New legislation could expand the definition of trafficking to treat many sex workers as crime victims instead of criminals.
 
 
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A teenage girl from Chicago is being sexually abused by her mother's string of boyfriends. So she flees home with a boyfriend of her own. They hit the road but run out of money, so the boyfriend shows her how to work the truck stops, and she becomes a prostitute. Several years later, she is working for a pimp who forces her to serve 10 or more customers a night, driving her to different locations in the city and suburbs, and keeps almost all the money himself. She wants to leave prostitution, but is emotionally and financially dependent on the pimp and afraid he will physically harm her if she tries to leave.

This story is a composite of very common situations, according to a groundbreaking study of 100 young prostitutes and their relationships with pimps released by DePaul University's College of Law and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority on May 7.

Public and governmental attention has been increasingly focused on victims of international sex trafficking over the past few years, with immigration visas and social services offered to victims. By current legal and social definitions, the girl described above has not been trafficked. But advocates argue the DePaul study shows U.S.-born prostitutes working in the United States should, in many cases, be defined as trafficking victims, exploited and trapped in situations beyond their control. The House version of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA, also HR 3887), passed overwhelming in December 2007, redefines trafficking to include many domestic prostitutes. If a similar bill is passed in the Senate and becomes law, it will mean that women -- and some men -- in this situation would be treated as crime victims deserving of resources and institutional support, rather than as criminals. And their pimps and traffickers would face increased criminal penalties.

Among other things, the legislation widens the U.S. Department of Justice's definition of trafficking, which currently hinges on the presence of "force, fraud or coercion." The House bill designates trafficking involving force, fraud or coercion as "aggravated trafficking" and expands simple trafficking to include other forms of deceit, manipulation and control including threats, verbal abuse and withholding of support. It also makes sexual tourism to foreign countries a crime akin to importing people to the U.S. for sexual servitude.

Major women’s groups including the National Organization of Women and Feminist Majority support the HR 3887 language (also known as the Wilberforce Act).

In coming weeks, Sen. Joe Biden is expected to introduce the Senate version of the TVPRA, which also includes provisions on slavery and child soldiers. Some advocates of HR 3887 are afraid the Senate version will be introduced without the expanded definition of trafficking, based on internal conversations with politicians. (Policy staff for Biden's office were not available to comment for this story.)

Samir Goswami, outreach and policy director of the legal advocacy firm Justice Partners Against Sexual Harm, said the DOJ is likely loathe to expand the trafficking definition because it would give them the responsibility to investigate and prosecute many more trafficking situations in the U.S. And it would bring more attention to the extent of commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. even as the country is gaining accolades for its fight against global sex trafficking. Goswami said HR 3887 mirrors the treatment of trafficking in the United Nations' Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, which was ratified by the United States.

"This federal bill just catches us up with the rest of the world," he said.

The federal Mann Act of 1910, which received attention during the Eliot Spitzer scandal, does criminalize interstate trafficking. But it is rarely used; it was left out of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA); and it is associated with politically and racially motivated prosecutions such as that of boxer Jack Johnson for "transporting" his white girlfriend across state lines.

In Illinois, state legislation addressing domestic trafficking passed in 2005 but has not resulted in any prosecutions. If the language in HR 3887 becomes law, prostitutes arrested on city streets or in Internet sting operations would be questioned by law enforcement to determine whether they are trafficked or being forced to work against their will. "That's what they do for cases of international trafficking now," said Goswami. "Say someone goes to a Greyhound station, sees a 14-year old girl who has been abused and run away, he offers her a ride, shelter, affection and attention and she falls for him. He then sometimes uses force and the threat of rape to prostitute her, and even transports her to clients -- that's trafficking."

The DePaul study found that, in general, the vast majority of young women in prostitution are controlled by pimps and suffer worse conditions in terms of violence, number of clients and lack of autonomy the longer they stay in the trade. Sixty-four percent of women reported wanting to leave sex work, but 43 percent reported they could not leave without physical harm. Sixty-four percent of women also have a romantic relationship (usually an abusive one) with their pimp, adding extra layers of emotional vulnerability and manipulation to the situation.

The study found that 58 percent of women were transported to different locations for prostitution (26 percent out of state), 53 percent could not keep any of the money they made, and many were watched or guarded when not working -- hallmarks of trafficking situations.

"This is a highly organized sex trade," said Jody Raphael, co-author of the DePaul study. "They take these women to where they know there is demand" -- including Las Vegas or the state capitol when the legislature is in session. "To me, transportation and control equals trafficking."

The study also confirmed that a majority (57 percent) of women were deceived as to the conditions or terms of their work when they were recruited into prostitution.

For example: "He told me I would never get hurt. I get hurt on a regular basis." And, "He promised we would get rich, and we didn't. He promised no violence; there is violence."

Some sex workers rights groups think current laws are adequate to prosecute victims of abuse and exploitation, and they are afraid the revised bill would increase criminalization of sex work.

"We agree there need to be more resources for prostitutes, but this would say every prostitute is a crime victim, and resources should come out of crime victim money," said Juhu Thukral, president of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center. "We don't believe every person involved in the sex work sector is the victim of a crime. You're changing federal law to say every act of prostitution or persuading someone into prostitution now constitutes this crime that can be prosecuted as sex trafficking."

Thukral said many advocates are worried the law could be used to launch serious trafficking charges against sex workers just trying to make a living.

"Say I am working tonight and I ask a friend, 'Do you want to work with me?' for safety reasons," said Thukral. "Now I could be prosecuted for encouraging prostitution."

The Young Women's Empowerment Project, a Chicago group of youth in sex work, said their experiences with police -- who often demand sexual favors -- and the court system give them no faith that abuses can be addressed through the justice system.

"Making more laws and hoops to jump through will not change this situation," the group said in a collective statement. "If adults really want to support young women who trade sex for money, they will keep us away from the criminal legal system -- away from cops and courts and social workers. They will ensure that we have the documentation and the skills that we need to achieve our goals, and they will offer us concrete assistance (jobs, housing, transportation -- where we set the terms of the assistance) rather than roping us in to a larger system that hurts us."

Raphael said that while she supports the expanded legislation, she doesn't think law enforcement is the key to ending domestic trafficking.

"Communities themselves have to say this is not acceptable," she said. "This has been normalized in many communities; that needs to change. Change has to come from the bottom up."

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, In These Times and ColorLines, and is the author of two books. www.karilydersen.com.