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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