January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, meaning there’s often a flurry of legislation that is introduced across the country on the topic. This year was no different. For a community who is deeply impacted by a topic that wins good press, this can mean every bill introduction can cause panic. More and more, though, people are recognizing that sex workers need to be brought to the table, and have an important voice in shaping policy. Below is a round up of some of the anti-trafficking bills which have been introduced in Congress this year, with some highs and lows for what that means for people who trade sex.
Every few years, funding for anti-trafficking efforts needs to be re-authorized before the government can spend it. That means that every few years, there’s another opportunity to change the direction of anti-trafficking work done by the United States federal government. Last year, that latest authorization bill was introduced in the House as HR 5150, or the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2021. The bill has a range of different sections which range from promising to terrible to “ok, I see what you were thinking but no”. Just a few of the high and low lights below.
A Promising Provision: One of the most progressive parts of the bill is Sec 111, which tackles youth sentencing for charges which carry mandatory minimums. If this passes, it will give the opportunity for judges to hear take into account a young person’s experiences of trafficking and other forms of victimization, and apply for a 35% reduction in the mandatory minimum sentencing. It also would allow some currently incarcerated young people a chance to reduce their sentences. The provision was introduced as a stand-alone by Rep. Karen Bass before, and takes a small step towards pulling young people out of punitive systems.
Steps Backwards: While the bill does not have any provisions expressly about criminalization of clients within the US, Sec. 205 would pressure countries to criminalize clients and enact John schools. Countries which do not enact these policies could have their “ranking” lowered by the State Department, an action which could cause problems in trade, investment or even sanctions. The impact of this kind of anti-sex work pressure could be devastating for sex workers in the Global South, and global groups such as the Asian-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) have long noted that the US’s pressure to criminalize the sex trade has led to crack downs, and harmed their health and safety. This provision also exists in a stand-alone form (HR 4326 in the last Congressional session), which Rep. Wagner (R-MO) is looking to introduce in the coming weeks.
Another provision which could harm sex workers in the United States is Sec. 122, which incentivizes hotel chains to develop a policy requiring their employees identify and report suspected trafficking to law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and for front-line staff to be trained on spotting trafficking. We already know that the Department of Homeland Security’s trainings for hotel staff include “red flags” that target the sex industry — looking for things like people who come in with condoms, multiple cell phones, or are hustling in hotel bars. Training hotel and motel staff to profile sex workers simply means removing one vital indoor location where sex workers can work.
I see what you were thinking, but this isn’t it. One of the most striking provisions in the bill is Sec. 110, which looks at the issue of law enforcement engaging in sex acts with sex workers in the course of their investigations. This is not the first bill to tackle this issue overall, but the solution proposed is both too narrow and ultimately ineffective. The bill tries to address this practice by turning sexual contact during trafficking investigations into trafficking itself, which poses two major problems. First, if an investigation is into prostitution or money laundering, it wouldn’t be a criminal offense. Second, it would rely on federal prosecutors to bring those charges against law enforcement — and no one has faith that would happen. It is hopefully an attempt that will improve as the bill moves forward, but as written would offer little recourse or solutions to this serious, long-standing issue.
Where is the bill now? HR 5150 has been introduced in the House and will have to be reviewed by numerous committees, and there is currently no Senate companion. Hopefully Rep. Smith and Rep. Bass will take seriously listening to sex workers as it moves along.
Introduced in June of last year, this bill offers some insight into why it’s so hard to both turn the tide on policing of anti-trafficking efforts, and to track anti-trafficking funding. The bill is meant to amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 by allowing those funds to be used for anti-trafficking efforts, and specifically “including programs to reduce the demand for trafficked persons.” So it specifically authorizes the use of these grants to cops for John stings.
Under the original Act, and the funding which has been distributed through it, billions have gone into local law enforcement. Researchers have been reporting on how federal funding such as this has fueled an era of mass incarceration, and enabled the policing which has decimated communities and families.
What makes this bill truly awful is that it entrenches one of the biggest problems in anti-trafficking efforts — that the law enforcement partners funded to do anti-trafficking work are often vice squads and local police departments who target low-level offenses, especially the sex trade. The tactic of “sweep everyone up on a charge and screen for trafficking while they’re in holding” is not only traumatic and inherently abusive to victims of violence, it’s ineffective at identifying victims and completely ignores any other form of labor. Trafficking efforts would look differently if our “law enforcement partners” were wage and hour investigators, but that’s not who gets funding — especially under this bill. HR 3996 would double down on one of the biggest failures in anti-trafficking work, and put money towards maintaining the problem.
Efforts like this also obscure how much money goes into anti-trafficking efforts by simply re-navigating existing police funds instead of creating specific budget lines. One of the reasons we don’t know how much is spent on these operations is because the budget lines are lumped into other efforts and not reported separately — meaning we get even less information on how much we’re pouring into john stings versus how much we’re offering shelter services or cash assistance.
Where is HR 3996 now? It has been introduced and referred to a committee, but staff are actively looking for support from organizations and Congress members.
But the Congressional session goes through the end of this year, so there are more things to watch for in the coming weeks:
Introduced last session by Rep. Khanna and Sen. Warren, this bill has only become more needed in the last few years and is coming back for the 21–22 session. In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA passing and the closure of Backpage, people who trade sex lost many of the digital platforms where they found clients, harm reduction options, and community. Community knowledge and research told us everything we had predicted all along — that losing platforms meant economic instability, more risk, and isolation. The SAFE SEX Workers Study Act (SSWSA) asks the government to do extensive and in-depth research that the impact of FOSTA/SESTA has had on the community. The study, which will be rooted in public health, asks law makers to do their due diligence — that before we make more legislative decisions that regulate sex workers off digital platforms, we have to understand the impact first.
Introduced in 2020, EARN IT looks to take the tactics of FOSTA/SESTA and apply them even more broadly, posing grave threat to people who trade sex. FOSTA/SESTA took the approach of expanding liability for digital platforms which might host information related to commercial sex. The language was opaque and mostly undefined, and platforms immediately took action to shut down their sites in order to avoid civil suits which could bankrupt them. EARN IT looks to create a mostly-law enforcement centered commission to create rules for the internet related to child sexual exploitation — a broad and also undefined mandate. These rules would be fast tracked through congress and websites would have to certify that they observe them or lose all liability protection for what happens on their site. The commission lacks voices from public health or impacted communities, and there are no requirements about the efficacy or accountability of their decisions. There may have been re-writes between last session and now, but we’re watching closely to see what’s coming. Sex workers spoke to the Daily Dot in 2020 about its potential impact and the growing concerns about the bill.
As the month closes out, we’ve got our eyes peeled on what’s coming next. The needs of people who trade sex is still a new topic on the Hill, but as things move, we can hope that legislators and beginning to do their due diligence to understand that very often, sex workers already know the impact and are willing to share.
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