Free Minds & Free Markets

The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs

And the results will be just as disastrous, for "perpetrators" and "victims" alike.

(Page 3 of 4)


SpeakerBoehner/FlickrSpeakerBoehner/FlickrOf all the myths and misinformation about sex trafficking in America, the most pernicious may be that our current laws are insufficient. Pushing his new Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which passed last May, Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas) declared that it would "provide law enforcement with the tools" to hold human traffickers accountable. Another co-sponsor, Sen. Mark Kirk (R–Ill.), said the bill "gives police and prosecutors the tools they need to go after sex traffickers." Such statements—and there are plenty more—imply that we currently lack tough anti-trafficking laws. Yet for at least 15 years, federal policy makers and agencies have been continually strengthening these laws and increasing funding for their enforcement.

Things really got going with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, though before this federal agents could bring human trafficking charges under various statutes, including the Mann Act (passed in 1910 to prohibit transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of engaging in prostitution), the Tariff Act (passed in 1930 to ban importing goods made with forced or indentured labor), and various laws related to peonage, indentured servitude, and slavery. But the TVPA, signed by President Bill Clinton in the waning days of his presidency, specifically established as federal crimes "forced labor," "sex trafficking," and "unlawful conduct with respect to documents in furtherance of trafficking." It also created a national Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and gave the feds authority to seize traffickers' assets.

The TVPA's 2003 reauthorization gave law enforcement the ability to use wiretapping to investigate sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation, increased the minimum and maximum sentencing requirements for a variety of sex offenses, and instituted a "two strikes, you're out" rule requiring mandatory life imprisonment upon a second sex offense involving a minor, "unless the sentence of death is imposed." The 2005 reauthorization added human trafficking to crimes that can trigger the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law, expanded asset forfeiture possibilities, and directed the CIA to study "the interrelationship between trafficking in persons and terrorism." It also increased funding for the prosecution of "persons who engage in the purchase of commercial sex acts."

In 2008, legislators enhanced criminal penalties for human trafficking and expanded what qualifies to include several new areas, including anyone who "obstructs, attempts to obstruct, or in any way interferes with or prevents the enforcement of" anti-trafficking laws. It specified that in minor sex trafficking cases, "The Government need not prove that the defendant knew that the person had not attained the age of 18 years." And it significantly increased federal funding—doubling some appropriations and more than tripling others—for anti-trafficking efforts at home and abroad. The 2013 reauthorization increased federal involvement with state and local anti-trafficking efforts.

This year's Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act made soliciting paid sex from a minor a form of federal sex trafficking; established a Domestic Trafficking Victims' Fund into which anyone convicted of trafficking must pay $5,000; and lowered the evidentiary standard for proving trafficking charges. The act also established that websites and publishers—from classified ad sites such as Craigslist to social media services such as Twitter and Reddit—may be charged with sex trafficking if any victim is found to have advertised there. And it created a "HERO corps" of military veterans who will work with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents to fight cybercrime, including "digital intellectual property theft" and "hidden marketplaces."

Jason KeislingJason Keisling

Sen. Cornyn called it a "first step."

The State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons report states explicitly that our current penalties for human trafficking "are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious offenses." Penalties for forced labor, involuntary servitude, or peonage range from five to 20 years without aggravating factors; possible life imprisonment with them. Sex traffickers can receive up to life imprisonment, and are required to serve at least 10 years in prison if the victim is under 17 and 15 years if the victim is under 14. Victims may also independently file a civil cause of action; something 117 have done since 2003, with a 75 percent success rate.

In addition to federal anti-trafficking laws, states have been adopting a flurry of their own measures. In 2014 alone, 31 states passed new laws concerning human trafficking. Since the start of 2015, at least 22 states have done so.

Echoing the policy choices of the drug war, one common trend in these laws has been harsher sentences for trafficking offenses, including new mandatory minimums. In Florida, helping a minor engage in prostitution in any way now comes with mandatory life imprisonment. In Louisiana, labor trafficking of a minor comes with a five-year mandatory minimum, and sex trafficking of a minor 15 years. In New Jersey, soliciting a minor for paid sex comes with a minimum $15,000 fine. Some states have also started adding "aggravating" factors that trigger higher penalties, such as the offense taking place within a certain distance of a school or group home.

Jason KeislingJason KeislingAnother trend is adding trafficking-related offenses to those that get perps on sex-offender registries. Last January, Arkansas passed a bill requiring anyone convicted of trafficking in persons or "patronizing a victim of human trafficking" to register as a sex offender. Increasing criminal penalties on patrons, or "johns," has been hot in state legislatures, too.

In 21 states, "sex trafficking laws have been amended or originally enacted with the intent to decisively reach the action of buyers of sex," according to the anti-trafficking nonprofit Shared Hope International. In 2014, Michigan changed soliciting someone under 18 for sex from a misdemeanor to a felony sex offense. Florida recently stipulated that people found guilty of soliciting prostitution (from someone of any age) must do 100 hours of community service and attend "john school," where they will be educated on "the negative effects of prostitution and human trafficking."

Jason KeislingJason KeislingExpanding police/prosecutorial power to fight and profit from trafficking is also common. At least 21 states now allow police to use wiretapping in trafficking investigations. And many states allow asset forfeiture for those convicted of sex trafficking or prostitution. For instance, in Colorado, "every building or part of a building including the ground upon which it is situated and all fixtures and contents thereof, every vehicle, and any real property" are up for grabs if they've been used in conjunction with prostitution of any kind.

The final category of popular new state laws seems predominantly concerned with "raising awareness," be it via classes for hotel employees, programs in school curricula, or signs posted in strip clubs. Dozens of states now require certain entities—from adult-entertainment businesses and job-placement firms to hospitals, rest stops, and airports—to post the National Human Trafficking Hotline number, or face penalties. In Georgia, failure to do so can result in fines of between $500 and $5,000.

Federal agencies are also in the trafficking publicity game. In July 2015, the DHS announced the expansion of "awareness efforts to major airports, truck stops, and motorist gas stations across the country," where it will fund messages describing "the signs of human trafficking" on signs, video monitors, and shopping bags. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission conducted more than 250 human trafficking "outreach events" in 2013 alone.


If there's no empirical evidence that domestic human trafficking is increasing, and the State Department says we already have adequate laws to go after traffickers, then what's driving this current legislative frenzy?

One factor is opposition to prostitution, even between consenting adults. Since the 1990s, a coalition of Christian and radical feminist activists has been working to redefine all prostitution as sex trafficking. While the Clinton administration was unsympathetic to their efforts, they found a friend in President George W. Bush. In a 2002 National Security Presidential Directive, the White House stated that prostitution was "inherently harmful and dehumanizing." Hence the administration's new rule: Non-governmental organizations receiving federal funds to fight human trafficking (or AIDS) must explicitly oppose prostitution.

"Prostitution is not the oldest profession, but the oldest form of oppression," a State Department publication from 2004 reads. The agency stated that "the vast majority of women in prostitution don't want to be there," that "few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution," and that "prostitution leaves women and children physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually devastated," with damage that "can never be undone."

"Since the early 2000s, anti-prostitution policies at the federal level have translated into increasingly aggressive state and local-level policing of sex workers and their customers," wrote Kari Lerum, Kiesha McCurtis, Penelope Saunders, and Stephanie Wahab in a 2012 article for Anti-Trafficking Review. This conflation of trafficking and prostitution "has allowed for federal dollars to be used locally for anti-prostitution purposes," the authors noted. "Anti-trafficking raids, such as Operation Cross Country held annually since 2006, have resulted in the arrest of many sex workers nationwide using federal anti-trafficking dollars."

The goal of Operation Cross Country, according to the FBI's website, is "to recover victims of child sex trafficking." In 2014, more than a dozen cities took part. Knoxville, Tennessee, to cite one participant, uncovered zero underage victims of sex trafficking, but it did arrest eight women for prostitution, four women for promoting prostitution, two women for human trafficking, and four men for solicitation. In Newark, New Jersey, one 14-year-old victim was identified and 45 people were arrested for prostitution or pimping. Richmond, Virginia, found no child victims but charged 26 people with prostitution and two with pimping. In Atlanta, dozens were arrested for prostitution, loitering, soliciting, and drug possession.

Phoenix officials announced the most victims recovered: five minors and 42 adults. But dig beyond the press release and you'll see the adult "victims" included women willingly working in prostitution. Officers posing as clients answered these women's online ads and then apprehended them. One 20-year-old "victim" had her arm broken by the cops when she tried to flee. A 16-year-old victim was booked on prostitution charges when she refused to let officers contact her parents. After failing to secure emergency shelter for two adult victims who had no money and no identification, police returned them to the motel where they'd been apprehended "so they could try and arrange funds to get back" home.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Sex trafficking is human trafficking is the old, long discredited White Slavery panic that came and went from the late Victorian era into the 1920's. It is grant-pimps, political parasites, and buttinskis who are paniced by the idea that sex-work might become legitimate. At least one of its Bright Lights, Somaly Mam, has proven to be a Con Artist. If somebody approaches you looking for support, either monetary or political, connected to this scare you should pit one hand on your wallet and the other on your groin, and head for the hills.

  • jrom||

    This is just another power grab by the federal and state governments. It is now a life felony at the federal level and a capital crime in the state of Florida, for any adult to solicit sex from another adult. It also eliminates the First Amendment, by banning websites from advertising any form of adult entertainment. It evens bans strip clubs from advertising at the state and federal level. It is true, that the only things politicians from both parties can agree on is expanding government police powers. These new laws; however, do exempt all government workers from facing any charges at both the state and federal level on sex crime offenses. And it is now a felony under both federal and state law to use dating sites like Match, to meet anyone, if they eventually have sex with their new date. Again, the government assholes want to curtail the First Amendment. Expect all forms of dating to be labeled human sex trafficking in the near future. With only government scum bags being allowed to do what ever they want.

  • jrom||

    In Florida, two adults having sex is a capital crime. However, it is legal in Florida, for a government employee, to have sex with even a child. All government people including police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians are exempt from facing any criminal or civil charges under Florida law for any type of crime. That's how fucked up the Florida asshole state legislature is. Florida, has the largest prison population of any state. And its Republican controlled state legislature passed a law requiring a 10 year minimum prison sentence for fleeing the scene of a car wreck resulting in more than 100 dollars worth of damage. The state also requires any one arrested for a joint, to spend at least 15 years in prison. Jeb Bush, as governor supported these policies.

  • jrom||

    I should also point out that Florida's AG, is a pro police state nut job. This fools name is Pam Bondi. I urge the residents of Florida, to question her on her out of control agenda and demand that she be held accountable for her actions.

  • EndTheGOP||

    The only way we're going to get this shit under control is to have a MASSIVE World War with all countries participating. Eliminate half the world's population, okay let's go for three quarters of the population, and the world will be right with itself. Too damn many fuckin' people and everybody wants to be boss.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Did you know that 99% of all children who go online are raped?

    Also, did you know that 99.99% of all men are pedophiles?

    That's the facts!

  • ||

    Shit, that channel is gold. Thanks for sharing.

  • jrom||

    Heroic Mulatto,

    You are full of shit!

  • DenverJ||


  • jrom||

    Woosh? Where have I seen this stupid comment posted on this site by you before? I think you supported those two people that post under the names John Tittor and Mike Hihn.

  • DenverJ||

    LOL. Dude you missed Heroic M's sarcasm by a mile.
    And yes, anyone here will tell you of my deep respect for Hihn, the uber libertarian.
    And since you appear to be... special... I guess I need to add the sarcasm tag:


  • jrom||

    Hihn, is a jackass. And apparently, so are you! For example, Hihn implies, all Americans should give up English and learn Spanish, just to make Latinos' happy.

  • jrom||

    I guess I have not read enough of Heroic M's posts to have realized that he was just being sarcastic. You know these days, most people agree with governments propaganda. However, you don't have to be a jerk about it!

  • MSimon||

    you don't have to be a jerk about it!

    I believe you are on the wrong message board.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    As far as I can tell "sex trafficking" is just the new feminist face of prostitution laws. Rather then deride the prostitutes as hussies or "ladies of the night", the authorities assign them much-desired victim status and prosecute the customers.

  • gaijin||

    Is sex a supply or demand driven economic activity I wonder?

  • MoreProgressiveThanYou||

    .... yes

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    It's a market, therefore yes.

  • biljay||

    Yes, and women don't want prostitution to be legal because it would increase the supply, thus lowering the cost.

  • jrom||

    Exactly, the feminists and religious nuts want everyone in jail. No wonder why those two assholes Bush and Obama support the criminalization of all sex acts. Obama supports the feminist nuts and Bush supported the religious cooks! And police and prosecutors just love to fuck with people anyway. They could care less, what the reason. We have been living in a police state for decades.

  • DenverJ||

    I support religious cooks, too, and bakers.

  • jrom||

    Thanks for catching my spelling error! It should have been crooks.

  • jrom||

    It should read: Bush supported the religious crooks.

  • MSimon||

    It reads itself? The wonders of modern technology.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    As far as I can tell "sex trafficking" is just the new feminist face of prostitution laws. Rather then deride the prostitutes as hussies or "ladies of the night", the authorities assign them much-desired victim status and prosecute the customers.

  • gordo53||

    The really sad thing about this is that it's almost always the poor street walkers that get pinched. The big dollar uptown girls get a pass. Maybe it has something to do with their clientele. It helps when you're servicing the rich, the famous and the influential. As for law enforcement, it isn't about justice or the safety of the public, it's all about the money and justifying their existence. Not as much money as the illicit drug rackets, but relatively easy pickings.

  • Bradley Strider||

    Maybe it has something to do with their clientele. It helps when you're servicing the rich, the famous and the influential.

    It's also easier to bust prostitutes in the street than it is to set up a sting to catch call girls.

  • jrom||

    Law enforcement only cares about money and having the power to fuck with other people. They would love to be able to lock up jay walkers for decades at a time. And prosecutors and judges just love seeing people fucked over on trumped up charges. That is what they all live for! Now even the personal injury asshole lawyers will be suing johns for soliciting sex with undercover police officers, and winning multi million dollar verdicts, to enrich themselves. Our legal system is fucked up!

  • Chrxtoph3r||

    The problem isn't sex. The problem is the 'ownership' of sex-workers by others...who are certainly involved in other enterprises other than sex. Legalizing sex-work might create a free enterprise type system for women, however, it will require something that none of them, including their clients, will want to participate in...taxes.

    Imagine having to provide a receipt and a 1099 for sex-work...

    WHO in GOD"S GREEN HELL is going to go along with that???

  • MoreProgressiveThanYou||

    Hello. It is my Human ass and it is my Human right to do with it as I wish. I can sell it, rent it, and share any proceeds with whom-so-ever I choose. Otherwise ... bite me.

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    "Otherwise... bite me."

    Your ass? Do we have to pay extra for that?

    Asking for a friend....

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Especially if it's that ass in the photo....)

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Especially if it's that ass in the photo....)

  • ApocalypseNOW||

    (Reason's comment section needs an edit/delete button.... *sigh*)

  • ||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹

  • Enough About Woodchippers||


  • Brian||

    Hyper-Christians and feminists agree: you're a dick!

    The true spirit of bipartisanship.

  • ace_m82||

    Not sure they are "hyper-Christian", if indeed such a thing exists.

    Christ hung out with "sinners" such as these. Again, he told them things like "go and sin no more" but didn't call in the authorities to persecute them.

    If anyone is doing this to be "Christian", they are doing it out of ignorance... which is sadly typical.

  • jrom||

    The religious nuts are almost as bad as the feminists.

  • MSimon||


  • WillMG||

    And of course those pushing this junk never think that legalizing prostitution would fix all of this far more than any of their ideas.

  • Christophe||

    Fixing these things would end the "crisis" and thus the source of their power. Fixing anything is the furthest thing from their minds.

  • B. Woodrow Chippenhaus||


  • Enough About Woodchippers||

    I save them in the freezer.

  • DenverJ||

    I like to salt ' em

  • Animal||

  • Animal||

    I'm trying not to make a salted fish joke here.

  • biljay||

    The more laws on the books the more power the enforcers have. The more laws on the books the more enforcers required, and funding for their careers and promotions, and for the prison guard unions, and more jobs for the American Bar Association members.

  • jrom||

    Exactly. It is about more government jobs and more lawsuits for the personal injury lawyers.

  • Tucci78||

    Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy: "in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    "First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    "Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    "The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization."

    So be it with this latest grant-money-grabbing frenzy over "sex trafficking."

  • mockmock||

    This is the first salvo in the banning of porn.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    "This is the first salvo in the banning of porn."

    So, you say you want a revolution.

  • jrom||

    Just looking at porn will soon be a capital crime under both state and federal law. With government employees exempt from any criminal or civil liability, of course.

  • DenverJ||

    Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

  • jrom||

    What do you know about change?

  • DenverJ||

    I know that 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and a nickle can be exchanged for one crisp fiat dollar. I also know it's considered rude to ask your "date" for change.

  • jrom||

    Can't we have a serious conversation about this issue that threatens to lock up millions of people over the coming years on bullshit charges?

  • DenverJ||

    Sure. We both agree it's a problem. We agree that DA's only care about convictions for their career advancement rather than about justice. We both agree that the police in this country are out of control.
    So, what do you want to discus? Do you have any solutions?
    No? Me neither, so I'm going back to making lame jokes, cause otherwise I'll go insane.

  • jrom||

    Denver J

    I guess we agree on all of this. I just get so angry when I hear about all of this bullshit that our government idiots are doing to our society. I thought about moving to Florida for the warm weather. However, after reading about all of their draconian laws, I may have to think twice. It is depressing indeed, that it is not easier for us to effect positive change.

  • DenverJ||

    Which is why most here resort to humor and sarcasm. Otherwise, the sense of helplessness can bring you down.
    Fight the good fight, but don't let it consume you.

  • DenverJ||

    Also, friend, what is your source for all this stuff about Florida law? I'm sure some of it might be true, but alot of what you posted about Florida law is simply not possible in American Jurisprudence.
    I suspect you are reading... sensationalized... sites.
    Just because it's on the internet, and just because it validates your preconceived biases, doesn't mean it's true.

  • DenverJ||

    But the childrunz! Why don't you want people to love the childrunz?

  • jrom||

    I know what you mean. The politicians could care less about the children. They just want more power to micromanage people.

  • DenverJ||

    While that might be true, i doubt you know what I mean. It's a play on a running joke around here.
    The appropriate response would have been something about roadz.

    Also, you know who else wanted more power?

  • jrom||

    I guess you have been around this site much longer than I.

  • MSimon||

    No kidding.

  • jrom||

    Who wants more power besides all of the aforementioned people?

  • ||

    I know that Penn and Teller have done stories related to this issue, and John Stossel, but does anyone know of any other sources that have covered this issue?

  • Jay Dubya||

    i dont know but I like the Pogues.

  • hookstrapped||

    [Prohibitionists] typically portray sex workers as powerless victims and, of course, every story of victimization must have villains. Men who patronize sex workers are invariably portrayed as abusive and demeaning in order to fit that narrative. And I have no doubt that many are. But caricatures only get you so far in developing sound public policy.

    Diary of a Sex Tourist

  • Aardvark||

    Not just evangelical abolitionists and feminists. Don't forget self righteous progressives and other Liberty hating busy bodies.

  • carlpolizzi||

    This does not address the foster families who move from State to State to avoid tracking: they then feed the children into the black market as exposed by DynCorp and the Franklin cover up. Speaker Hastert was deeply involved in molesting boys for decades but his case will go nowhere because there are another dozen high ranking reps who would be outed.
    There are thousands of Satanic ritual sacrifices in the US yearly, some involving infants, so whores don't get me excited.

  • HenryC||

    The war on sex trafficing is much much older than the war on drugs.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    That gal is pretty cute from the front too.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Would just like to mention that, 2.5 years in, this article's premise is amazingly prescient. FOSTA-SESTA is quite possibly the most toxic piece of legislation to be passed with near-unanimity in 2018, and the year isn't even over!


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online