The Fight Against Sex Trafficking: Still An Uphill Struggle

At first glance, it would seem that the horrors of sex-trafficking have finally been clearly recognized in 2009; that change for the better is happening.   Public opinion seems strongly against sex trafficking.  The U.S. “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” (TVPA) has been extended for two more years.  And New York State recently passed the strongest and most comprehensive anti-trafficking measure in American history. A closer look at the realities gives a rather different picture. TVPA:  A Law That Does Not Work, For An Obvious Reason The TVPA, had a fatal flaw when it was passed in 2000, a flaw which has made it highly ineffective.  While the law had some fine general language, it provided actual legal penalties for sex traffickers if, and only if, the victim could somehow “PROVE,” in court, under hostile cross-examination, that “force, fraud, or coercion” had been used to pull her into prostitution.  Force, fraud, and coercion are all very commonly and routinely used by traffickers (though these are not their only methods by any means).  But as a practical matter, such tactics are almost impossible for anyone to legally “prove,” and such a legal process may take years.  For a terrified, penniless, uneducated, traumatized young woman, far from home, who may speak little English, this “proof” was a ludicrous requirement.  The predictable result has been that very, very few prosecutions under the TVPA have taken place.   (Articles have now appeared saying the low number of cases must mean that the whole sex trafficking issue was imagined or exaggerated.) This year, when the TVPA was due for renewal, feminists lobbied for a strong and effective revision.  Hopes were raised when the House of Representatives passed a version with major improvements.  But the Senate version, officially sponsored (interestingly) by then-Senator Joseph Biden, retained the crippling requirement of “proof” of “force, fraud, or coercion,” and eliminated all the other positive features the House had added.   The net result was essentially no change, for at least until 2011, in a “nice-sounding, feel-good” anti-trafficking law, which actually, is not working at all. New York’s Historic New Anti-Trafficking Law:  Still Missing In Action Quick History.  New York state now has, on paper, the most thoughtful and comprehensive state law against sex trafficking in the United States.  It views the victims as deserving help and assistance, not jail or deportation.  Its definition of sex trafficking  -  a serious Class B felony  -  is based on profiting from prostitution while using any of..  a list of the deceitful, fear-inducing, illegal and manipulative tactics that are actually used by pimps and traffickers to drag women and girls into prostitution, including but definitely not limited to, force, fraud, or coercion.  Profiting from prostitution - or “pimping”  -  is actually not made a felony per se by the new law .  (It is still a widely-ignored, low-level misdemeanor under existing law.)   But pimping as it is actually practiced does fit the new crime definition, so this ancient symbol of predatory male dominance, the pimp, is now being seriously challenged, for the first time in modern U.S. history. Another important feature of the new law was that it increased the penalty for sex “customers,” the johns who secretly create the massive and lucrative demand for trafficked, prostituted women.  In Sweden, a focus on the male “demand” side has been actually enforced by police, and has now reduced sex trafficking there to the lowest level of any nation in Europe.  The N.Y. law raised the maximum penalty for being a john from “up to 3 months” to “up to one year” in jail.   The new law was a victory for the NYS Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a broad and effective alliance of feminist lawyers, Equality Now staff, NOW leaders, grass-roots activists, and media allies that came together to win its passage. Actual Impact of The N.Y. Anti-Trafficking Law,    The state now has a “Director of Human Trafficking Training”, and efforts are being made to educate police, D.A.s, and other state officials about the details of the law.  No actual convictions for sex trafficking have yet been obtained.   Two D.A.s have obtained indictments, and those cases are proceeding.  But generally in N.Y. state, there is little visible evidence that the old “wink, wink” attitudes toward prostitution and trafficking have changed.  Ads for ‘sex-to-be-paid-for’ still appear in the yellow pages, many magazines, local newspapers, and of course, the internet.   CRAIGSLIST is said to obtain more than half of its profits from ads for paid sex. The sense of business-as-usual was spot-lighted when Governor Elliot Spitzer, who had signed the new law, admitted in 2008 to buying women in prostitution on multiple occasions.  Spitzer resigned, but was never charged as a john under the N.Y. law, and did not serve for one minute in jail, much less one year.  (The instance in which he had been apprehended was outside of N.Y. State, but his public confession and press details that followed made clear that a prosecution in N.Y. was feasible and justified.) The lawyers in the U.S. Justice Department also chose not to charge Spitzer under the federal Mann Act, although he had patently crossed state lines.  The explanation was in essence that “the poor guy had suffered enough”.  (Department of Justice “policy” is reportedly never to bother with johns, unless a child is involved.)  A major (and feminist-inspired) feature of the new law was that the women and girls (primarily) who are being trafficked and used in prostitution would now be seen as victims, rather than as criminals, and offered badly needed help and social services, including safe shelters, health care, job and language training, etc.   But no actual funding for these services was provided in the bill.  (The law’s wording had been...  “As funds are available”.)   With the state now in a fiscal crisis, any prospect of funding these services for victims now seems remote. This slightly gloomy early report on lack of enforcement does not diminish the historic importance of the new anti-trafficking law, or the positive long-terms effects that it may yet have.  But it reminds us that feminists must watch carefully to see if the law is enforced, and  whether it in fact makes a difference for victims. Words about Sex Trafficking vs. What Is Being Done We were heartened by a fine statement made by candidate Barrack Obama, in August, 2008, which showed some clear understanding of the equivalence between international and domestic trafficking (prostitution), and seemed to advocate giving prosecutors powerful “new tools,” exactly as New York had just done.  Barrack Obama declared:  “What we have to do is to create better, more effective tools for prosecuting those who are engaging in human trafficking, and we have to do that within our country.  Sadly, there are thousands who are trapped in various forms of enslavement, here in our country, oftentimes young women who are caught up in prostitution.  So we’ve got to give prosecutors the tools to crack down on these human trafficking networks.  It is a debasement of our common humanity...” So there is reason to hope that the anti-trafficking struggle will get some new support from the Obama administration.  Lest we forget however....  George Bush also made fine-sounding statements against sex trafficking, on many, many occasions.  And he chose the inspirational John Miller as his official State Department voice against sex trafficking, perhaps the one universally-praised appointment Bush ever made. But for George Bush, it was just talk.  In his final year in office, Bush was seemingly unable or un-motivated to get his own Justice Department to act against trafficking.  In fact, the D.O.J. acted as an impediment.  Lawyers in the D.O.J. put forth a supposedly “model” anti-trafficking law, with the same defects which made the TVPA totally ineffective:  requiring proof of force, fraud, or coercion, or there can be no penalties at all.   This un-workable version, which leaves sex trafficking almost untouched, is today being copied by many states. Recently John Miller himself revealed Bush’s disinterest (N.Y.Times, 6/11/2008) when he described how the U.S. Justice Department was actually working to make it harder to prosecute pimps.  He described an evident alliance of:  “the department’s lawyers, most of them male,  the Erotic Service Providers Union,  and the ACLU.”  Thus, a network of mid-level male government lawyers, in apparent sympathy with the sex industry and its defenders, seems to remain in actual charge of real “policy,” no matter which party holds the White House, or what the current President is saying.   So the fight over the crucial details of laws must continue; Feminists will have plenty of work on this issue in 2010. How to Get Facts on Sex Trafficking & PimpingInformation” on these subjects is widely available on the web, but is often totally biased and untrue.  The sex industry and its allies are frequently the invisible sources behind web sites, groups, and publications.  One reliable source is the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women, at www.catwinternational.com.  Links found there will lead one quickly to other feminist groups worldwide, who are working with the victims of sex trafficking. Hard facts about the U.S. sex industry have been difficult to find, so a new book by Social Psychologist Dr.  Melissa Farley, Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada:  Making the Connections (2007), makes a needed contribution.  It has a wealth of material on the Nevada reality, and a fine chapter on “Barriers... For Women Escaping Nevada Prostitution.”   The seventy pages of scholarly Endnotes are the best single resource now in print on the entire subject of prostitution.   It’s available from Amazon, or directly from www.prostitutionresearch.com. Ready For Action? We strongly recommend a resource, a short pamphlet called the “Toolkit on Ending Sexual Exploitation,” available from www.caase.org, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.  It looks at sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and several other aspects of the commercial sex industry, and suggests positive and creative things that a small group, or even a single person, can do to combat them.   It will lift your spirits and give you some new energy just to read it. Dr. Robert Brannon, Chairperson, NOMAS National Task Group on Pornography & Prostitution