Decriminalizing prostitution is the only way to secure justice for survivors of trafficking.

By Laura LeMoon

The word “trafficking” elicits a lot of strong feelings. Many people also have strong feelings about the causes of trafficking and the ways in which this issue needs to be addressed. Maybe you’ve heard of the closing of Backpage’s escort section back in January amid pressures to “address” the issue of global sex trafficking through the close observation of internet sites where advertisement of sexual services occurs. This approach presupposes that prostitution in and of itself is the problem here, and thusly the answer to the problem of sex trafficking is simply to eradicate all potential for profitable sexual exchanges to occur on the internet.

This approach is ineffective, inhumane and actually facilitates further harm for victims of trafficking. Recently in March, an amendment to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was purposed as draft bill “No immunity for Sex traffickers Online Act, or what it is now known asAllow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (H.R. 1865). The bill was introduced by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-MO, who had pushed other recent anti-trafficking legislation such as the SAVE Act of 2015 (Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act; H.R. 285).

Related: Using Art To End Sex Trafficking and #KillTheSilence

In May of 2015, the SAVE ACT was passed into law as an amendment to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015. Essentially the SAVE act was the lynchpin in the beginning of a battle against online ads for sex and made a felony crime out of running ads that support sex trafficking.

The bill being currently proposed is essentially a small extension under the larger umbrella of the SAVE act, intending to hold websites responsible for what a third party individual may publish (for example an ad posted on Backpage that turns out to be a minor child). This is essentially in response to current commotion by anti-trafficking allies that Backpage, and other sites like it, are hotbeds for child exploitation. The thinking, then, is that by eliminating the venue for sex trade to occur, you will eliminate any potential for child exploitation.

The reality that I would like to make clear, as someone who is both a survivor of trafficking and a sex worker, is that the whack-a-mole approach to a social justice problem does not workWe can see this with the way law enforcement and the penal system have handled drug addiction and illicit drug sales since Regan’s war on drugs began in the 1980’s.

The harm of this bill to sex workers, or consenting adults who choose to engage in erotic services, can be seen in exactly what happened with the shutdown of Backpage. With increased government intervention into sites where sex workers advertise their services, many sex workers may feel it is of greater risk to post an ad and also more uncertain that there will be income derived from that post. Additionally, the sex workers who are most disproportionately effected by these website shutdowns are sex workers of color, Queer and Trans identifying sex workers, and low income, homeless or unstably housed sex workers. For the general (non-sex working/survivor) community, this bill is an obvious push to further control free speech in the Trump era. Everyone wants safety and security, but it should not be at the cost of individual freedom and autonomy.

As Americans, especially since the age of George W. Bush and the Patriot act, it is important to always question our political representatives when they ask us to sacrifice personal and collective freedoms in the name of some nebulous “safety.”

For survivors of trafficking, the abolition of prostitution (which is essentially what all the aforementioned laws indirectly advocate for) is not an effective means of getting rid of trafficking. The reason that anti-trafficking allies and politicians lean towards this model is that what is actually effective is also highly controversial. That is, the decriminalization of prostitution.

Decriminalization differs from legalization in that within the legalization model, there is high government involvement and even interference with ones job as a sex worker. Whereas in the decriminalization model, the penalty for the act (prostitution) has been removed, however the autonomy of the worker is maintained in the ways by which they choose to do their work.

To truly tackle trafficking is to advocate for this model because stigma and violence are much less likely to effect people in the sex industry when the law has officially recognized and validated the profession. After this point, public opinion and societal beliefs can begin to follow suit and real change can begin to unfold. However, the removal of these laws that actually reinforce human trafficking requires that government acknowledge that stigma and oppression do occur in sex working communities due to government systems.

When asked what she would recommend as an alternative to this bill, Maxine Doogan, President of the Erotic Service Provider legal, educational and research project said, “Decriminalize prostitution and defund the police and reallocate those funds to real social services instead of the ambulance chasing rescue industry.” Maxine is correct in that Sex trafficking survivors can feel shame by an approach that is largely based on the supposition that the sex trade and the people in it are inherently bad. When politicians and so-called allies disparage the sex industry and the people within that industry, they are also disparaging sex trafficking survivors.

When similarly asked how voters can work to challenge the passing of this bill, Maxine replied, “They need to hold elected officials accountable of which no one has done yet regarding all the politicians who have used these bad laws as means to further their political career.” This becomes especially true for trafficking survivors ourselves and the fact that it is really incumbent upon us to call out politicians, allies, etc. who are using our space to leverage their own privilege.

Everyone has the right to make their opinions known to their elected officials and to oppose those bills that harm marginalized communities. We don’t need to settle for this bill and others like it as an answer to human trafficking because it isn’t. And that’s what American freedom is really all about.

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