MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Wiretapping Sex Workers, Punishing Pre-Crime, and National Strategy to Stop Sex-Buyers Approved by Senate

Congress moves to grant Trump administration vast new policing powers, because "sex trafficking."

Operation Cross Country footage/FBIOperation Cross Country footage/FBIIn the midst of national 9/11 remembrances Monday, U.S. senators quietly passed two significant expansions of federal power.

Both bills were introduced by Republicans but attracted bipartisan co-sponsors. Both passed the Senate unanimously. Both are dressed up as attempts to fight sex trafficking, forced labor, and "modern slavery" (there's even a nod to Frederick Douglass in one bill). But look closely and they are simply pretext to give vast new authority to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Trump, and police across the country. There's even some funding set aside for any border-control initiatives of the president's choosing.

Under these new measures, the FBI and immigration agents as well as state and local police can secretly wiretap suspected sex workers, or those who associate with them. The wiretapping authority extends well beyond sex traffickers, including consenting adults on any side of a commercial sexual exchange.

The bills call for a new national strategy to reduce "demand" for prostitution, order all U.S. attorneys offices be trained on treating the sex trade as "a form of gender-based violence," and make anti-trafficking training for police include tips on "arresting and prosecuting buyers of commercial sex." A large focus throughout both bills is on prostitution customers.

But there's also plenty in the package to harm sex workers, too, including a rule that no federal funds can go to any nonprofit that helps people who profit off sex and a broadening of the term "criminal street gang" that could capture any five or more sex workers traveling together. Criminal street gang members face 10 years more prison time than they otherwise would for the same crime.

And while creating an Office of Victim Assistance within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might sound nice, it reflects the growing role of immigration agents in trafficking investigations. Or as we might say, a pretext for ICE and Homeland Security Investigations to join in small-town prostitution stings and massage-parlor raids across America.

Here's are some of the other changes contained in the Senate's new trafficking legislation.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2017

This is the latest heir to a bill passed in 2000 and reauthorized, with significant expansions, every few years. Despite no credible data demonstrating an increase in human trafficking over this time, nor evidence the feds' approach has been working, each reauthorization has expanded on the same strategies—defining a broader and broader range of activity as sex trafficking, committing federal anti-trafficking resources to wage a war on prostitution, and throwing ever more money at the effort.

Introduced by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the bill (S.1312) gives the attorney general power to file a civil suit against anyone suspected of committing or planning to commit "any action that constitutes or will constitute" a violation of various federal statutes. If a court agrees, the person or entity would have to stop whatever activity allegedly contributed to a current or future crime.

This is power above that of normal police and criminal law proceedings. It could allow the feds to preemptively shut down websites, search engines, social apps, browsers, encryption services, or brick-and-mortar businesses because criminals (broadly defined) might communicate there.

The power applies to suspected violations of the Mann Act (which prohibits driving adult sex workers across state lines, among other things), federal conspiracy statutes, and U.S. criminal-code sections 77 and 110. This is a massive category of offenses including everything from forced labor and sex trafficking to using misleading words, images or domain names to get someone to view obscenity, sexting with a minor (even if one is a minor), enticing someone to cross state lines for illicit-sex purposes, harboring an undocumented immigrant in a place of prostitution, publishing any details about a minor that are used in furtherance of a sex offense, unlawful conduct with immigration documents for work or sex purposes, or attempting or conspiring to commit any of the above.

The new TVPA will also make fighting "sexting and sextortion" and cyberbullying part of the mandate of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a quasi-governmental group that runs on federal money and works closely with federal law enforcement. Fighting sextortion—someone spreading or threatening to spread sexual photos of someone else without their consent— is an invitation for the federal government to get involved in teen sexting cases.

All this while setting aside a lot of money for programs of dubious value in stopping sexual exploitation. Like $7.5 million per year for presidential initiatives related to "economic alternatives to deter trafficking," border screening programs, and propaganda videos for showing abroad. That's on top of the $7.5 million allotted for unspecified presidential "projects aimed at preventing trafficking" and "promoting respect for human rights."

Abolish Human Trafficking Act

This Act (S. 1311), would allow judges to hand down to repeat sex offenders of any sort (including first-time federal offenders with any state or local sex-offenses on their record) prison sentences three times the length of what would otherwise be allowed.

The measure bans federal agencies and anyone using any federal funds or resources from partnering with any program that provides resources to anyone who "derives profits from the commercial sex trade." In other words, no one who gets federal grant money—to help human trafficking victims or anything else—can knowingly work with any sex workers or any nonprofits that offer support to sex workers.

Meanwhile, federal anti-trafficking curricula would have to include information on "arresting and prosecuting buyers of commercial sex"—part of the growing federal consensus that "any comprehensive approach to eliminating human trafficking shall include a demand reduction component."

Homeland Security staff, U.S. prosecutors, and police participating in anti-trafficking task forces would be trained on prosecuting sex buyers for human trafficking. And grants under the Violence Against Women Act and various child abuse statutes could be used to fight against prostitution broadly.

Together, these bills are not entirely horrible. They require the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other agencies to collect data about arrests and their grounds in anti-trafficking initiatives. For the first time, the Justice Department must track how many people are picked up by Operation Cross Country, for example, and with what they are charged. Officials will also have to keep track not only of the number of National Human Trafficking Hotline tips, but how many actually lead to federal cases.

But the bills' upsides are few, squeezed as they are between the grotesque bureaucracy building and impositions on civil liberties.

Photo Credit: FBI/Operation Cross Country footage

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 Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Sports Reporter Charles Manson||

    TL;DR, but I am skeptical they're going to put a dent in sex trafficking with this bill, or distinguish between actual trafficking and garden-variety prostitution.

  • Crusty Juggler - Lawbertarian||

    Of course not, but they will spend a lot of money, make themselves - and their supporters - feel better, as well as ruin far too many lives, so there's that.

  • CE||

    I'm skeptical why most of these are even federal offenses, or under the purview of Congress according to the Constitution at all.

    I guess they see the handwriting on the wall in the reduction of the drug war booty as more states legalize the more common drugs, and they need a new scourge to make worse and profit from.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    Interstate commerce. Human trafficking in, say, Maryland could affect the demand for legal prostitution services in Nevada.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    It won't put a dent in sex trafficking, but it will probably add a lot of bullet holes.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So is this a Trump Deal with Kamala Harris?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Sounds more like the Title IX Dear Colleague letter on steroids. Its main use will be for politicians to troll for votes and for vengeful people to lay unsubstantiated claims on people they don't like.

  • Crusty Juggler - Lawbertarian||

    Under these new measures, the FBI and immigration agents as well as state and local police can secretly wiretap suspected sex workers, or those who associate with them. The wiretapping authority extends well beyond sex traffickers, including consenting adults on any side of a commercial sexual exchange.

    Don't wanna be a thug, don't associate with a sex worker and/or person who wants to pay for sex like a thug?


    The bills call for a new national strategy to reduce "demand" for prostitution, order all U.S. attorneys offices be trained on treating the sex trade as "a form of gender-based violence," and make anti-trafficking training for police include tips on "arresting and prosecuting buyers of commercial sex." A large focus throughout both bills is on prostitution customers

    Stop feeling the urge to get off, society. STOP IT!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    But wait -- I thought whites were in danger of becoming a minority due to low birth rates. And Trump is a neo-Nazi white supremacist (or should that be White Supremecist, cinsidering Gorsuch's new job?).

    I am really confoozalbobbied.

  • DajjaI||

    Uh oh. I think I just had a naughty thought. What should I do?

  • MSimon||

    Hold it in your hand until release.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Go to a "sex volunteer" and leave a nice tip.

  • MSimon||

    This is just an attempt to raise the price of sex workers.

    Just the way any other Prohibition works.

    Better paying jobs by government edict.

  • CE||

    And when they say "federal offenders" could get sentences 3 times as long, they don't mean federal office holders. They just get probation.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Or their convictions reversed. Or they get pardoned.

  • Memory Hole||

    Legalizing prostitution would end sex trafficking for the most part. It's so fucked up how these idiots use the failures of their past efforts to justify more of the same. It's fucking crazy actually.

  • MiloMinderbinder||

    But there's also plenty in the package to harm sex workers, too, including a rule that no federal funds can go to any nonprofit that helps people who profit off sex

    What is the Cosmotarian argument against this?

  • Jerryskids||

    They can't do shit about Obamacare but tart up some bill like a 2-dollar hooker and slap some sort of apple-pie values shit on and that they fall all over themselves to pass. Fuck you, cut spending.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Now that the War on Marijuana is sun setting, the government must switch resources to fight the scourge of the World- Sex. Gotta keep those police thugs employed.

  • Fuzzyedia||

    "The point [of vice laws] is keeping cops busy, giving them a chance to play hero, and letting them seize all the assets they can. " ENB

    I think that just about covers it.

    What amazes me is the willingness of regular citizens within groups like Demand Abolition to collaborate with law enforcement to destroy the lives of consenting adults by helping the police track and report them to law enforcement, all without the need to request one of those pesky search warrants that would be required by the police.

    The ugly boot of the is often your neighbor. When will be hold the collaborators accountable for the lives they assist in destroying?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

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