Sex Trafficking

California Assemblyman: 'We Have to Distinguish Between' Prostitution and Sex Trafficking to Help Victims

Cali legislators heard diverse views on sex work and sex trafficking Tuesday.

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Lucie_Ottobruc/Flickr

On Tuesday, California legislators heard from a diverse range of voices about human trafficking and prostitution in America. The proceedings before the Assembly Public Safety Committee provided a rare chance for people with divergent viewpoints on sex work, sex trafficking, and criminal justice to come together and have their say. And then something even more rare happened: some California politicians even seemed to come away with new perspective. Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-20th District) said committee members learned yesterday that prostitution "can be voluntary" or it "can be trafficking, and we have to distinguish between the two if we are going to help the victims."

Fox News Sacramento reported on the hearing with the headline "Some Suggest Legalizing Prostitution Would Put an End to Sex Trafficking," noting the "odd mix of legislators, policy wonks, (and) sex workers" in the room. "Many of them were there to argue that the first step to getting a handle on human trafficking is to make prostitution legal," it states. 

Actually, sex work and human rights advocates tend to focus on decriminalization, not legalization, of prostitution. "Under legalisation, sex work is controlled by the government and is legal only under certain state-specified conditions," as the New Statesman explains in a good primer on the different tacks. "Decriminalisation involves the removal of all prostitution-specific laws, although sex workers and sex work businesses must still operate within the laws of the land, as must any businesses." 

Nonetheless, the Fox article presents an atypically nuanced perspective on prostitution and sex trafficking in America, suggesting that minors engaging in prostitution tend to be "trapped" in the trade by "fear, or love, or a perceived lack of other options" rather than physically restrained or forced by evildoers. It goes on to note that "many adult sex workers say they won't be able to protect a child, or show her how to stay safe on the streets, for fear of being arrested as a trafficker."

"A lot of the way that people are identified as sex trafficking victims, is they are arrested for prostitution. So in those prostitution sweep operations, you end up arresting a lot of adult, consensual workers," said Maxine Doogan, who advocates for sex workers.

It makes writing good policy as hard as it is important.

"Human trafficking in California has increasingly become a target not just for California Attorney General Kamala Harris but for lawmakers, who since 2013 have run 16 bills on the issue," noted The Sacramento Bee. A representative from Harris' office testified at yesterday's hearing, as did the Alameda District County Attorney, sex worker and "pro-freedom activist" Starchild, and Maxine Doogan of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project (ESPLER), among others. 

Watch Reason TV's segment on an ESPLER lawsuit to overturn anti-prostitution laws in California below, or check out other recent Reason coverage of this issue: "Sex Trafficking and Prostitution Are Not the Same Thing," "The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs," "Human Trafficking in America: Myths and Realities," "Hundreds Arrested in FBI-Sponsored Prostitution Sting."