Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More fodder for the sex work / exploitation debates

New commentary over RHRealityCheck.org points out Congress being stupid again.

Law enforcement is having tremendous difficulty finding and prosecuting human trafficking, which, in the US, mostly revolves around sex work. While it is generally believed that tens of thousands of women are trafficked in the sex trade in the US (hard numbers are obviously difficult to come by), few victims have been identified and saved, and few traffickers have been prosecuted. This is a serious problem, and requires a serious response.

The House has a bill that is supposed to do just that, but it looks seriously flawed.

Specifically, the House version of the TVPRA would expand U.S. laws against prostitution by re-defining most prostitution-related activities, regardless of consent, as trafficking. Human trafficking is a complex issue, but there is widespread agreement about its key distinguishing features, namely the use of force, fraud or coercion. HR 3887 throws out these cornerstones and threatens to re-define all prostitution, arguably even all sex work, as trafficking. And it would require the involvement of federal law enforcement through a broad new provision that covers actions "affecting" interstate commerce (rather than actual activities that involve the crossing of state lines, the standard trigger for bringing in the feds). Therefore, most prostitution-related activities defined as sex trafficking would fall under federal law even if no interstate commerce was involved.

The immediate consequences of this definitional sleight-of-hand are bad enough: the use of federal resources to prosecute state-level offenses involving consenting adults who may not see themselves as victims of a crime. But turning the DOJ into the prostitution police is not the worst of it. By shifting the focus of the law from genuine cases of trafficking to prostitution as a whole, the bill threatens to divert resources from those most in need: the real victims of trafficking.

I think that the last thing we need to do is to start prosecuting sex workers at the federal level. But more importantly, we do need to strongly consider whether taking sex work out of the legal shadows would make it any easier to find and prosecute traffickers, and help their victims.

Hat Tip: Kerry Howley at H&R

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