The federal anti-trafficking law already defines anyone under 18 who is involved in commercial sex acts, and anyone in prostitution who experiences force, fraud or coercion—regardless of immigration status—as a victim of human trafficking. The law does not prevent anyone from being arrested for prostitution, since most trafficked persons are not identified immediately. Changing the definition of trafficking so that law enforcement does not need to look at a person’s age or experience of coercion (the heart of the trafficking crime) is not going to help victims be identified—in fact, it is just going to create more problems.
The proposed change is based on the notion that all sex workers are victims, and that work in prostitution is inherently victimizing, even when no actual incident of violence or psychological abuse occurs. Sex workers actually do want help from the police when they are victims of violence—46% of the sex workers we interviewed in a 2005 study had been victims of violence during the course of their work —but often find the police ignoring their needs when they try to file a complaint. Broadly categorizing all prostitutes as trafficking victims means that police will go looking for victims who look and act like “victims,” allowing for even less focus on prostitutes who really have been abused in some way, but who have made the decision to enter into sex work for reasons far more complicated than a local police department might understand.
As law enforcement look for more victims, they will inevitably arrest more sex workers—because arresting people is the way that police reach them. Arrests can have a devastating effect—a recent arrest of sex workers affected a woman trying to get professional credential. Arrests drive people away from mainstream work and toward sex work. Our clients express incredible fears of being arrested and having their neighbors or family find out about their other life.
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I know this has been talked about before, but it's still going on.