Decriminalize sex work to bring trafficking victims out of shadows

Decriminalize sex work to bring trafficking victims out of shadows
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A new bill to decriminalize sex work was recently introduced by D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).

While proponents of the bill assert that decriminalizing prostitution would make sex workers — many of whom are victims of violent crimes — more comfortable reporting those crimes to police; anti-trafficking advocates contend that it would just embolden sex traffickers through impunity.

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Tina Frundt, for example, is a local sex trafficking survivor who is vocally against the legislation. She is the founder and executive director of Courtney's House — a day drop-in center for human trafficking victims. According to Frundt, decriminalizing sex work would make it easier for pimps to open brothels without fearing intervention from police.

Her opinion is shared by many influential anti-trafficking advocates.  

For instance, when Amnesty International voted for a similar policy that called for the decriminalization of prostitution, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof also claimed that decriminalization would only fuel sex trafficking.

However, the research doesn’t support these criticisms.

My book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be released later this month. Through extensive interviews with convicted human traffickers, commercial sex consumers, consenting sex workers, and survivors of sex trafficking, I conclude, in part, that decriminalization of sex work is an evidenced based approach to combating sex trafficking.

While there is research to suggest that legalization does create a protective veneer that would facilitate the impunity of sex traffickers, decriminalization is a different approach entirely.

Decriminalizing sex workers does not make prostitution legal; it just empowers victims to come forward without fear of erroneous criminalization. Legalization would involve making sex work permissible by law. Decriminalization, on the other hand, means that penalties would be lessoned for the offense and law enforcement may be more inclined to use their discretion with enforcement.

I have personally gone to "the track" in Washington D.C., where consenting sex workers are advertised alongside sex trafficked women on the street. In speaking with these women, I've learned that some of them are pimped and have experienced various forms of abuse, including being drowned, hit, shot, and/or stabbed. Many of these women never alerted the authorities to the abuse, for fear of criminalization.

Far too often, victims of sex trafficking who do muster the courage to call the police are erroneously arrested themselves, instead of their abusers. In fact, it happens so often that an increasing number of states have begun to pass vacatur statutes, to expunge convictions after the criminalized victims are correctly identified.

To this effect, it is clear that any anti-trafficking advocate who opposes this legislation is misguided, as decriminalizing sex workers will undoubtedly bring sex trafficking victimizations out of the shadows. Washington D.C. politicians and their constituents need to look beyond their prima facie opinion of this legislation, and offer their bi-partisan support.

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco.