In February 2015, Republican Senator John Cornyn introduced the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act 2015 (H.R.181), an expansion in existing federal anti-sex trafficking legislation that specifically addressed child human trafficking. Senate Democrats immediately stymied the bill with a filibuster, reacting to a provision on the limitations put forth in the bill that limited federal funding for abortions in accordance to the Hyde Amendment. In response to the Democratic opposition, Republicans stalled the nomination of Loretta Lynch as the next Attorney General, causing a political showdown between the two parties. By April, Lynch’s confirmation was approved after a compromise was reached on H.R.181 and an alternative bill, S.178, passed through the senate on April 22nd and then in the House on May 19th This compromised bill, if signed into law, would continue to restrict taxpayers’ money to fund abortions but allows Congress to appropriate funds for abortion and other health care services.
The political gridlock created from H.R. 181 was unnecessary and is indicative of the misconceptions of sex trafficking that linger in the US discourse which continuously persist as flaws in our laws. The central demographic of H.R.181 and S.178 are victims of child human trafficking. Under federal law, children or minors under the age of 18 who are trafficked into the commercial sex industry are automatically deemed victims of severe forms of trafficking. Consequently, the critics against H.R. 181 unnecessarily raised issues to the Hyde Amendment provisions of the bill. The provisions do not apply to abortions if the pregnancy is the result of rape. Children affected by trafficking, especially sex trafficking, should not be limited from receiving abortions as a result of their exploitation because all cases of child sex trafficking is legally, rape. We must establish legislative distinctions between women and children to avoid a conflation of issues. Under the law, children, unlike adults, are unable to consent to anything. Yet, the system confuses protection with moral policing, which continues to punish the vulnerable and victimized.
With the federal government lacking concrete understanding of the issue, law enforcement and service providers at the state and local levels are unable to effectively address sex trafficking. Working with CSEC (Commercially Sexually Exploited Children) youth in Oakland, CA—an infamous hub of domestic minor sex trafficking, as highlighted in International Boulevard—I have experienced the detrimental effects of an inadequate state and local system attempting to address sex trafficking. Obstacles I face in addressing sex trafficking of minors start from the persistence of social stigma associated with prostitution and the misconception of “choice.” Local law enforcement, service providers, families of CSEC, and their communities often view that CSEC youth “choose” to be sex workers and fails to see them as victims of trafficking. From New York, highlighted through the experiences of CSEC girls served through GEMS-NY, to Oakland, many CSEC youth do not realize their victimization through the internalization of misconceptions perpetuated by their communities. CSEC youth also continuously return to their exploiters as a result of the bond they form with them, known as trauma bonding, mirroring the cycle of violence seen in domestic violence. All too often, they do not garner sympathy or support because they do not “act” like victims. CSEC youth can also be heavily resistant, even hostile to service providers, particularly law enforcement. Because the majority of CSEC youth are involved with foster care or the juvenile justice system, law enforcement often is the personification of a system that either has contributed to their removal from their home and/or arrest. Their resistance to services also perpetuates the misnomer that these children choose to stay in sex work.
The persistence of social stigma and conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is reflected in our policies. Many counties in California arrest children on charges such as prostitution and/or solicitation, or pimping and pandering charges. Children are charged as adults at the discretion of the District Attorney, especially when the child is deemed to be cognizant of committing “an adult crime.” As a result, CSEC youth are seen as choosing to participate in their own exploitation and then are penalized. Even worse, law enforcement and service providers view jails as safe alternatives. Due to a strong correlation between child runaways and CSEC, jail is seen as a means of securing the environment to which a CSEC youth can be accounted for and receive services. Children are still caught in a judicial tug of war as a result of conflating children as adults and failing to distinguish sex trafficking victims from sex workers. This cruel combination of jail sentences with counseling and case management demonstrates CSEC youths’ confusing dual status as victims and perpetrators of crime.
Fundamentally, laws serve as reflections of our social attitudes. The current legislative discourse on human sex trafficking fails to capture the inadequacies of relying on a punitive system. Internationally, the discourse around sex trafficking differs from the United States largely by distinguishing sex work from sex trafficking. Germany and Canada, in 2002 and 2010 respectively, both took on legislative reform geared towards regulating, decriminalizing, and clarifying legislative language around prostitution. These reforms were an attempt to recognize and de-stigmatize sex workers’ rights to choose their involvement in the commercial sex industry in comparison to the lack of agency trafficking victims possess. Swedish law on the other hand, sought to eliminate prostitution without criminalizing sex workers by criminalizing the purchase of sex but not the selling of sex.
H.R.181 was resuscitated in Congress thanks to the passing of its Senate counterpart S.178, in both houses, but the conflict surrounding its passage reflects the legislative growing pains in regards to anti-sex trafficking legislation in the United States. With the absence of a succinct legislative stance taken on the federal level to guide state and local policies, US laws will continue to fail to protect victims and survivors of human trafficking. By successfully distinguishing between women’s rights versus children’s rights and between the exploitation of sex workers versus the exploitation of sex trafficking victims, the US will begin to strengthen its anti-sex trafficking laws. The US often touts itself as a global leader in combating sex trafficking. However, international precedence shows that we do not need to spearhead the movement to end trafficking, but rather that we should learn from others first.
This photo is public domain.