To Fight Sex Trafficking, We Need to Change the Culture (And Legislation)

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Art Credit: Tina Sosna

Remember Eliot Spitzer? Back in 2008, the then-Governor of New York, resigned after word got out that he had bought sex from prostituted women. Ashley Dupré, the woman Spitzer paid for sex, was moved between states a number of times by her escort agency, as were many of the other women working for The Emperor’s Club. This was framed by her pimps as “travel dates.” But the reality is that Spitzer and the Emperor's Club had broken the law by transporting a woman across state lines for the purposes of prostitution, which constitutes trafficking.

And yet, Spitzer wasn’t charged. Seems the Department of Justice bought it, failing to find any reason to charge him.

While some states are developing more aggressive legislation when it comes to the issue of sex trafficking, it’s clear that these crimes have not been taken seriously enough, by the government, or by society at large. In the case of Spitzer, as well as in the case of most men whose use of prostitutes is made public, buying sex is seen as a kind of seedy joke—titillating more than anything else. “Boys will be boys,” is a common attitude.

Where Culture Meets Law

Part of the problem: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is generally only enforced when it comes to prostituted children. Suddenly, when a woman turns 18, she's on her own, viewed as an adult making fully empowered choices, says Melissa Farley, a psychologist and founder of Prostitution Research and Education.

Our desire to separate trafficking from prostitution, and girls from women, is part of what supports society’s acceptance of the sex industry. Many believe women become prostitutes simply because they made bad choices and erase (or are ignorant of) all the factors leading up to this supposed choice—sexual abuse, neglect, addiction, incest, poverty, racism, and, of course, gender inequality and a culture that turns women and girls into sexualized objects. Dupré herself had a history of drug abuse, mental illness, and sexual assault that led her to enter the sex industry.

That the law is not upheld when it comes to women who are over 18 "reflects the fact that sexism is alive and well in the U.S. justice system, and there is not a desire to stop or abolish prostitution," Farley says.

Where to Look for a Model

Other countries around the world have begun to actively work towards abolishing the sex trade entirely. Sweden adopted a model in 1999 that criminalized pimps and johns, decriminalizing those who sell sex. This has resulted in a notable drop in the number of buyers—while one in eight men used to pay for sex in Sweden, it’s now been reduced to one in 13. Since then, Norway and Iceland have also implemented what's referred to as "the Nordic model" and France, Northern Ireland, and Canada have recently passed bills supporting similar legislation.

Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women's Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families in New York City, says education and training should be a priority as much as changes to the law. "It's really about culture change as much as it is about legislation change," she says.

Part of that cultural change requires seeing people in prostitution as victims, not criminals, but also understanding that trafficking isn’t something that always looks outwardly obvious.

Reading Between the Lines

Farshad Talebi is Deputy Prosecuting Attorney at the Kitsap County Prosecutor's Office in Washington. He says that Washington has some of the most effective trafficking laws in the country and has sentenced men to up to 50 years in prison on trafficking charges. In September, Allixzander Harris, 24, was sentenced in Kitsap County Superior Court to 486 months in prison for eight counts related to the sex trafficking. Harris had started a "relationship" with a 17-year-old girl and soon after began selling her and another 16-year-old as prostitutes online. He later "trained" a 27-year-old woman for prostitution by raping her repeatedly in a motel room, then selling her on sites like Backpage.com.

Last January a 33-year-old man named Anthony Parker was sentenced in Kitsap County to 601 months in prison for 11 counts related to sex trafficking. He had recruited a 23-year-old-woman, advertised her online, and prostituted her seven days a week—and up to 10 times a day.

The situations are complex and often the relationships between the victims and their pimps can complicate the situation when it comes to law enforcement.

Prosecuting traffickers can be challenging because it's difficult to get women and girls to testify against their pimps, Talebi says. These are situations wherein the victims have suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, have been threatened or had their families threatened, have been isolated and manipulated, and often will even feel that they "love" their pimps—seeing them as boyfriends. Part of what makes Washington state law enforcement so effective is its thorough understanding of these complexities.

States like New York are making progress, too, Leidholdt says. They didn't even have laws against trafficking until 2007 and now, she says, there are laws that make sex-trafficking felony offenses and that protect minors who are being prostituted from being treated as criminals. Recognizing that trafficking and prostitution are intricately connected is also necessary in order to address the problem effectively.

"Our chief judge recognized the significant overlap between prostitution and trafficking by taking courts that were previously called 'prostitution diversion courts' and turning them into 'trafficking courts,'" Leidholdt says. "This means saying every single person arrested for prostitution is either a trafficking victim or at risk for trafficking and they need protection and assistance and support—not criminalization."

Turning the Focus

The only real way to address the problem of trafficking is to address demand, by passing legislation that considers buyers as traffickers in many instances. “That would represent a very important step forward," Leidholdt says. "This is a $32-billion industry and that money comes from buyers."

It is for this reason that Leidholdt supports the Nordic Model and is encouraged by the recent passage of Bill C-36 in Canada, which will result in the criminalization of johns. The bill emphasizes that prostitutes are victims, not criminals, and targets those perpetrating abuse and exploitation–pimps and johns. This represents a huge step in terms of changing the way law enforcement addresses the issue of prostitution, but also in terms of working towards a society that no longer accepts men's right to buy women and girls.

"We're really looking to Canada with a great amount of hope," Leidholdt says. "The fact that our Northern neighbors are on the verge of embracing the Nordic model is inspiring to all of us working on the issue of trafficking, and we really want the U.S. to move in that direction."

"We're in the process of trying to affect a paradigm shift, but we have our work cut out for us."