Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
Prostitution and sex trafficking are not synonymous. And although sex trafficking occurs in the same industry that allows prostitution to take place, the two different activities can’t be conflated or said to necessarily cause each other.
Prostitution is “a sexual act or contact with another person in return for giving or receiving a fee or a thing of value.”
Sex trafficking is “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
In countries where prostitution is criminalized, sex workers and trafficked people are often arrested because they are engaged in a criminal act. However, there’s growing awareness that trafficked people should not be penalized for committing an act they were forced into doing. There are some recommended laws that would protect trafficking victims from being charged with crimes they were forced to commit. The difficult part is getting law enforcement, social services, and trafficked people themselves to expose and understand that a trafficking situation took place. Ultimately, a criminalized approach to prostitution often results in the arrest and punishment of both sex workers and trafficked people.
In the Netherlands, window prostitution is legal. Law enforcement officials consistently make rounds around the red light districts. There are panic buttons in the rooms. If they get a phone call, building owners are legally required to check on the people renting their window and room spaces. You’ll hear a lot of arguments from people that the legalization of prostitution results in regulation which then leads to less sex trafficking. But, if you’re being trafficked and have been groomed by a trafficker, would you press the panic button? Would you talk to law enforcement walking up and down the red light districts? And oftentimes, efforts to regulate prostitution are more related to taxation and to controlling the sex industry rather than ensuring the safety of sex workers or to preventing sex trafficking.
Amnesty International is currently pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution. Decriminalization allows prostitution to take place without codifying into law what models or types of prostitution are permitted. Sex work activists typically advocate for decriminalization, stating that it would give people engaged in commercial sex more rights and protections. On the other hand, some anti-trafficking activists argue that decriminalization would expand the sex industry and make it easier for traffickers to exploit people.
Changing policy related to prostitution alone will not decrease sex trafficking or even begin to address the real issues that cause sex trafficking. If lack of economic opportunity, gender inequality, a culture of passivity, social norms that permit trafficking and normalized violence are left unaddressed, sex trafficking will continue. No prostitution-related policy or model sufficiently eliminates any of these root causes.
Watch the documentary “I Am Jane Doe,” which follows the story of American middle school-aged sex trafficking victims who were exploited on website Backpage.com.
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