Falsely inflated statistics about sex trafficking in the U.S. make bad policy and laws

Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes? I thought of his famous quote when my husband passed along a link he had received (from a social work listserv he subscribes to) to a trailer for a slick documentary about sex trafficking. The press kit for the film cited the US State Department as the source for this statement: “80 percent of all trafficking victims are women and children who are forced into the commercial sex trade.”

The only problem with this statement is that it’s not true, especially in the United States. According to several presenters at a conference I attended in D.C. this weekend, sex trafficking here (which the U.S. defines as “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion” — see here) is often erroneously conflated with sex work by adults who choose to work in the sex trade. As Ejim Dike, who is executive director of the US Human Rights Network, a nonprofit organization working for domestic human rights, notes, true trafficking is a serious human rights violation. But the sex trafficking numbers currently bandied about, she said, are highly inflated by conservative groups and anti-prostitution advocates who view all prostitution as a form of oppression against women and fail to recognize that there are people in the sex trade by choice.

“They add the numbers of people who are engaged in the sex trade by choice with those who are trafficked,” Dike said. “That’s why the numbers are so high.”

While there are no accurate statistics about sex trafficking in the U.S. and the Government Accountability Office admits as such — see here — a recent survey by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking found that the highest number of trafficked people in the U.S. were in the domestic service industry (maids), followed by agriculture and lastly by the sex trade, according to Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer for the Sex Workers Outreach Project in New York City, who also spoke at the conference.

The result of such misperceptions, D’Adamo and Dike note, is bad policy and bad laws that actually make it harder for human rights organizations to aid those women and children who are truly being trafficked. Currently, U.S. laws mostly end up penalizing sex workers who are in the trade by choice rather than the traffickers (usually men) who force women and children into prostitution.

For example, as part of the push to eradicate sex trafficking in the U.S., some states have passed laws that increased penalties for men who buy sex (known as johns). In 2005, New York state passed such a law and what happened? According to Melissa Sontag Broudo,  an attorney for the Urban Justice Project in New York City, arrests for sex workers went up and arrests for johns went down. New York police began using condoms as evidence against sex workers and made it more difficult for them to ply their trade in safe environments.

“This law ended up pushing the sex industry further underground,” Broudo said at the conference. “And it made it more difficult for sex workers to negotiate condom use.” (Studies show that an overwhelming majority of sex workers prefer to use condoms to protect themselves and their customers from sexually transmitted diseases, like AIDS)

As Broudo and other conference speakers noted, when prostitution is criminalized, workers on the street who are typically low-income and people of color are the ones most likely to get arrested. And once someone has been convicted of prostitution, it’s far more difficult to find other employment or obtain a Pell grant to go back to school and get an education.

“So getting out of sex work is that much harder,” D’Adamo says,  It’s a catch-22 and exactly the opposite of what anti-trafficking advocates had in mind when they pushed for such harsh penalties in the first place.

As I’ve blogged about here, if we truly wanted to end the sex trafficking of women and children, we would legalize or decriminalize adult consensual prostitution and take all the millions of dollars spent every year in entrapping and arresting people who are selling sex by choice and spend that money on rescuing minors and immigrants who are actually being coerced into sex against their will. We would also put more resources into helping teenage runaways (who comprise the vast majority of under-age prostitutes) get off the streets and into programs that keeps them safe and out of the hands of predators.

We would, as Ejim Dike says, tackle the “root causes” of what propels many people into the sex trade into the first place — economic necessity.

“There are people who choose to engage in sex work, many of them because they have limited economic means,” she says. “We need to tackle those root causes first.”



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2 Responses to Falsely inflated statistics about sex trafficking in the U.S. make bad policy and laws

  1. Jeff Lewis says:

    Sex trafficking is illegal and the penalties are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well.
    They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police.
    This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    A key point is that on the sidelines the adult prostitutes themselves are not being listened to. They oppose laws against prostitution. But no one wants to listen to the prostitutes themselves. Only to the self appointed experts that make up numbers and stories many of which have never met a real forced sex slave or if they did it was only a few. The media and government never ask the prostitutes themselves what would help them in terms of laws.

    Many women in the sex business are independent workers. They don’t have a pimp.
    They work for themselves, advertise themselves, and keep all the money for themselves. No one forces them, because there isn’t anyone to force them. They go out and find their own customers, set their own prices, and arrange everything by themselves. Sometimes they may employ others to help them, but these are not pimps. If for example, she hires an internet web design company to make a website for her, does that make the web design company a pimp? If she pays a phone company for a phone to do business, does this make the phone company a pimp? If she puts an ad in the paper, does this make the editor a pimp? If she puts the money she makes into a bank account does this make the bank a pimp?
    A lot of anti prostitution groups would say yes. Everyone and everybody is a pimp.
    These groups make up lies, and false statistics that no one bothers to check. A big reason they do this is because it provides high paying jobs for them. They get big donations, and grants from the government, charity, churches, etc. to have these groups, and pay these high salaries of the anti prostitution workers.

  2. Pingback: What Price a Human Being..? ← Men's Human Rights Ontario

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