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INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF A MORAL CRUSADE
In a 2012 paper published in Politics & Society, Ronald Weitzer suggested that the 1990s anti-prostitution crusade has become fully "institutionalized" in the 21st century. "Institutionalization by the state may be limited or extensive—ranging from consultation with activists, inclusion of leaders in the policy process, material support for crusade organizations, official endorsement of crusade ideology, resource mobilization, and the creation of legislation and new agencies to address the problem," Weitzer wrote. Sound familiar?
"Some moral crusades are so successful that they see their ideology fully incorporated in government policy and vigorous efforts by state agencies to combat the problem on their own," he noted. In other words, "the movement's central goals become a project of the government."
It's hard to think of a better representative of this institutionalization than the Polaris Project, one of America's biggest anti-trafficking groups. Founded by a man who now runs the website Everyday Feminism and a woman who now works for the federal government, Polaris has drafted multi-pronged model legislation for the taking. Compare Polaris' recommendations with state trafficking laws, and you'll find near verbatim language in some, and shared assumptions and goals in almost all.
How did Polaris gain such influence? One way is through state "report cards." Advertised as a measure of states' commitment to fighting human trafficking, it's basically a measure of how closely their laws hew to the Polaris policy wishlist. Among the must-haves: a law requiring the display of the national human trafficking hotline number, which Polaris runs with funding from Health and Human Services. States that fail to enact all of the Polaris-endorsed policies wind up with bad grades, which the organization then publicizes extensively.
Another driver of state trafficking policies is the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), a nonpartisan organization that drafts model state legislation in a variety of areas. In 2010, ULC was asked by the American Bar Association to prepare a plan for tackling human trafficking. The result was drafted in collaboration with Polaris, Shared Hope International, the National Association of Attorneys General, and the U.S. State Department, then approved by the bar association in 2013.
In the first half of 2015, two states enacted laws based on ULC's model legislation and four others introduced them. Four states enacted ULC-based trafficking laws in 2014 with 10 more attempting to. Among the model legislation's main tenets are court-ordered forfeiture of real and personal property for traffickers, providing "immunity to minors who are human trafficking victims and commit prostitution or nonviolent offenses," and imposing "felony-level punishment when the defendant offers anything of value to engage in commercial sexual activity."
That last bit is part of what's known as the "end-demand" strategy, or the "Nordic model," which focuses heavier penalties on sex buyers than sex sellers. Popularized by Nordic feminists, it's since become the law of the land in Canada and is rapidly influencing American policy, with many religious-based anti-trafficking groups also adopting its rallying cry. As a result, cities and states around the country have begun increasing penalties for prostitution clients and rebranding them as sexual predators. In Seattle, for instance, the crime of "patronizing a prostitute" was recently rechristened "sexual exploitation."
The theory behind "end demand" is that if only we arrest enough patrons or make the punishments for them severe enough, people will stop trying to purchase sex. Voila! No more prostitution, no more sex trafficking. If that sounds familiar, perhaps you're old enough to remember the '80s, when a similar approach was supposed to bring down the drug trade.
"Ending the demand for drugs is how, in the end, we will win," President Ronald Reagan declared in 1988. Indeed, it was how we were already winning: "The tide of the battle has turned, and we're beginning to win the crusade for a drug-free America," Reagan claimed.
In reality, the number of illicit drug users in America has only risen since then, despite the billions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of people locked away. In 1990, for instance, 7.1 percent of Americans had used some sort of illegal drug in the past month, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. By 2002 it had risen to 8.3 percent, and by 2013 to 9.4 percent.
The utter failure to "end demand" for drugs hasn't dented optimism that we can accomplish the trick with prostitution. During the "National Day of John Arrests" each year, police pose as sex workers online and then arrest would-be clients. Each year, hundreds of men are booked in these stings and charged with offenses ranging from public indecency and solicitation to pimping and sex trafficking. If these anti-trafficking efforts sound a lot like old vice policing, that's because the tactics, and results, are nearly identical.
In a study released last year by Shared Hope International and Arizona State University, researchers examined end-demand efforts in four metro areas over a four-month period. Between 50 and 60 percent of these efforts involved police decoys pretending to be teens, and no actual victims. A typical tactic is for police to post an ad pretending to be a young adult sex worker, and once a man agrees to meet, the "girl" indicates that she's actually only 16 or 17.
Shared Hope is candid about the fact that most of the men soliciting sex here are not pedophiles and not necessarily seeking out someone underage. But "distinguishing between demand for commercial sex acts with an adult and demand for commercial sex acts with a minor is often an artificial construct," its report asserted. So to save the children, we need to prosecute men who have no demonstrated interest in children, because in the future they may seek sex with adults who could actually turn out to be old-looking teens—got that?
"One shortcoming of the reverse sting approach is that no live victims are rescued from trafficking," Shared Hope admitted. "But it does take intended perpetrators of child sex trafficking off the Internet and off the streets."
A federal war on prostitution doesn't play well with large segments of Americans. Fighting human trafficking, on the other hand, is a feel-good cause. At a 2012 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) speech, President Barack Obama insisted that we must call human trafficking "by its true name—modern slavery." And what kind of monster would be against ending slavery? Which brings us to another factor driving all this trafficking action: It makes politicians look good.
At a time when Republicans and Democrats can barely agree on anything, human trafficking bills have attracted huge bipartisan support. Here is an area where enterprising legislators can attach their names to something likely to pass. And if it doesn't pass, for whatever reason, it's ripe for demagoguery: "My opponent voted against a bill to fight modern slavery!" Tough-on-crime policies, particularly tough-on-drugs policies, used this tactic for decades, until mass incarceration finally lost its luster.
Undoubtedly, many lawmakers do legitimately want to help trafficking victims and hold bad guys accountable; political point-scoring is just a happy side effect. But a less happy side effect is a slew of bad laws, violated rights, and squandered money. The federal government has given away scores of millions in grant dollars for this quixotic crusade.
The resources spent on prostitution stings and public awareness campaigns are resources diverted from mundane but more effective strategies for helping at-risk youth, such as adding more beds at emergency shelters. The State Department's latest Trafficking in Persons report notes that "shelter and housing for all trafficking victims, especially male and labor trafficking victims, continue to be insufficient." Advocates routinely say the biggest barrier to escape for many trafficking victims is simply a lack of places to go.
"Studies focused on New York City consistently report that homeless youth often trade sex for a place to stay each night because of the absence of available shelter beds," noted the Urban Institute in a report last year. "These figures are even more striking for LGBTQ youth...According to a survey of nearly 1,000 homeless youth in New York City, young men were three times more likely than young women to have traded sex for a place to stay, and LGBTQ youth were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to have done so. Transgender youth in New York City have been found eight times more likely than non-transgender youth to trade sex for a safe place to stay."
What's more, many of the policies in place to fight trafficking actively work against their own stated mission. The criminalization of prostitution keeps sex workers from reporting abuse and keeps clients from coming forward if they suspect someone is being trafficked. Victims themselves are afraid to go to police for fear they'll be arrested for prostitution—and indeed, they often are.
In 2012, 579 minors were reported to the federal government as having been arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice. Prosecutors say they need this as a "bargaining chip" to make the victims testify against their perpetrators. We're just using state violence and the threat of incarceration against children in order to save them!
Another misguided government target is the classified advertising website Backpage, home to many an "escort" ad. Lawmakers accuse the site of "profiting off of child exploitation," even though only a miniscule percentage of Backpage ads—which anyone can put up—are posted by traffickers rather than adult sex workers. Both legislators and anti-trafficking groups have long been intent on shutting the site down. Yet "street-based sex workers, across studies, face much higher rates of violence than indoor sex workers," says Serpent Libertine, a Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP)-Chicago board member. "It's hard to understand how eliminating a low-barrier way to work indoors would promote safety."
Vera Lamarr, also with SWOP-Chicago, pointed out that Backpage cooperates with law enforcement in the U.S. more than many other sites do. "It's hard to understand the desire to take down a website that voluntarily supports efforts against trafficking and willingly cooperates with law enforcement," Lamarr says. "If Backpage closes, their user base could easily migrate to a less cooperative site" or be forced back out on the streets, where traffickers don't leave digital records.
But at least we're getting the really bad guys, right? That's also up for debate. Peruse trafficking arrest records and you'll find many folks like Amber Batt, an Alaska woman who faces 10 to 25 years in federal prison (plus a lifetime on the sex-offender registry) for running an escort service featuring adult women who freely elected to work there. Or Julie Haner, a 19-year-old Oregon sex worker who was charged with trafficking after taking her 17-year-old friend with her to meet clients. Or Aimee Hart, 42, who served seven months in prison and faces 15 years on the sex-offender registry for driving her adult friend to a prostitution job. Or Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, a 71-year-old Houston bar owner arrested as the leader of a "sex trafficking conspiracy" because she allowed prostitution upstairs.
There's Trenton McLemore, 29, who faces federal sex trafficking charges for "facilitating" the sex work of his 16-year-old girlfriend by purchasing the girl a cellphone and sometimes texting clients for her. He faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years and possible life in prison, thanks to a joint effort of Irving, Texas, police; Homeland Security; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And Alfonso Kee Peterson, 28, arrested in July for telling a 17-year-old on Facebook that he could help her earn a lot of money from prostitution. The "teen" turned out to be a police decoy. Despite the absence of any real victim or any activity beyond speech, Peterson was charged with one felony count of human trafficking of a minor, one felony count of pandering, and one felony count of attempted pimping; he faces up to 12 years in prison. This important sting apparently warranted the work of several local police departments, the California Highway Patrol, and the FBI.
Even if we grant that some of this activity is unsavory, is it really the sort of behavior that warrants lengthy prison sentences and attention from federal agents? Since when is what adults—or even teenagers—willingly do with their genitalia a matter of homeland security? Is this really what President Obama had in mind at the CGI conference when he compared anti-trafficking laws to the Emancipation Proclamation?
"To be sure, linking trafficking and slavery could, in theory, surface important similarities between political economies of chattel slavery (largely) of the past, and modern-day trafficking," the American University law professor Janie Chuang wrote in a paper published in the American Journal of International Law last year. "Drawing out such nuanced comparisons is not, however, the current trajectory of slavery creep. Instead, this version promotes an understanding of trafficking as a problem created and sustained by individual deviant actors, and thus best addressed through aggressive crime control measures."
For a fraction of the money spent on these measures, state governments or private foundations could fund more beds at emergency shelters. The resources that churches, charities, and radical feminists use trying to convince people that all sex workers are victims (and their clients predators) could go toward helping that minority of sex workers who do feel trapped in prostitution with job placement or getting an education. For the vast majority of vulnerable sex workers, the greatest barriers to exit aren't ankle-cuffs, isolation, and shadowy kidnappers with guns, but a lack of money, transportation, identification, or other practical things. Is helping with this stuff not sexy enough? As it stands, many of those "rescued" by police or abolitionist groups find that their self-appointed saviors can't actually offer them housing, food, a job, or anything else of urgent value in starting a life outside the sex trade. Awareness doesn't pay the bills.
Kamylla's story typifies this rescue paradox. A Texas mother who had fallen on hard times after an injury ended her construction career, she started working in prostitution last year. One day, producers from the A&E television series 8 Minutes contacted her, having seen her ad on Backpage. Though 8 Minutes was marketed as a reality show where a rogue pastor found and "saved" sex trafficking victims in real time, Kamylla and others (who were selling sexual services willingly, even if their situation wasn't optimal) actually talked with producers several times beforehand. The show promised to help with her overdue rent and finding a job, she says. After filming, they gave her $150 and told her they'd be in touch soon about further assistance.
They never called. When Kamylla followed up, the producers referred her to the same unhelpful social services she'd already tried on her own. Eventually Kamylla returned to Backpage, posting an ad using the same phone number that the producers had used to contact her. The first call she received was from an undercover cop, who arranged to meet her and another sex worker at a motel. Once the women agreed to oral sex for money, "he opened the door and nine police officers came inside the room," she says. Both women were taken to jail and booked on prostitution charges.
In a world with no gray areas—one where traffickers are always evil predators and victims always utterly helpless, where sex workers are never ambivalently engaged with their work, and the bright line between teendom and adulthood is always apparent and meaningful—in this world, the raid-and-rescue model of addressing sex trafficking may make some sense. You don't give a girl chained to a bed a condom and call it a day.
But in the world as it exists, sometimes a 17-year-old runaway chooses prostitution because it's better than living in an abusive foster home. Sometimes a sex worker gives all her money to a man because she loves him or thinks she needs him, or that he needs her. Sometimes a struggling mother doesn't love the sex trade, but finds it the best option to feed her kids. Sometimes an immigrant would rather give hand jobs to strangers than face whatever drove her to leave her own country. Harm reduction strategies like handing out condoms in popular prostitution areas, offering STD tests, or even just facilitating online advertising (rather than street work) could prove lifesaving to these women.
Yet when it comes to the way we talk about commercial sex, you have to be a victim or a predator. We've created a narrative with no room for nuance. We traffic not in facts but in melodrama. In TV broadcasts, campus panels, and congressional hearings, the most lurid and sensational stories are held up as representative. Legislators assure us that their intent is noble and pure.
But remember: Tough-on-drugs legislation was never crafted or advertised as a means to send poor people to prison for life over a few grams of weed. It was a way to crack down on drug kingpins, violent gang leaders, evil crack fiends, and all those who would lure innocent children into addiction, doom, and death. Yet in mandating more police attention for drug crimes, giving law enforcement new technological tools and military gear with which to fight it, and adding ever-stricter prison sentences and punishments for drug offenders, we unleashed a corrupt, authoritarian, biased, and fiscally untenable mess on American cities without any success in decreasing drug rates or the violence and danger surrounding an activity that human beings stubbornly refuse to give up.
Unless we can learn the lessons of our past failed crusades, the war on sex trafficking could result in every bit as much misery as its panicky predecessors. Here's hoping it won't take us another four decades to realize that this prohibition doesn't work either.