Pro-Prostitution Bills Might Worsen Human Trafficking, Advocates Say, But One Argues It May Be Part Of The Solution


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Kate Anderson Contributor
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  • California’s recent pro-prostitution bills from state Sen. Scott Wiener have raised concerns among some anti-human trafficking groups that growing tolerance of prostitution will worsen sexual slavery, while others argue it is the solution to the rampant sexual abuse. 
  • California ranked seventh in the nation for human trafficking in 2021 with 1,507 reported cases, averaging around 3.8 victims for every 100,000 California citizens, while the national average is 2.8 per 100,000, according to Etactics. 
  • “Our goal is to end modern-day slavery, laws like this help to perpetuate activities like this, so it actually leaves children in a worse position … 89% of women in prostitution do not want to be in prostitution and typically they were recruited as minors,” Stephanie Brown, vice president at Saved In America, told the DCNF.

The California legislature has made headlines for passing several pro-prostitution bills over the last couple of years, many from Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener and some anti-human trafficking advocates have raised concerns that the state’s growing tolerance of prostitution will worsen sexual slavery, but one says it might be the solution.

In 2019, California Senator Scott Wiener introduced a bill, that eventually passed, prohibiting police from using condoms as evidence when investigating crimes involving prostitution, in 2020, Wiener got another bill passed that allowed minors to consent to sodomy with other minors, and in 2022 California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Wiener’s Senate Bill 357, that decriminalized loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Several anti-human trafficking and sex worker advocates that spoke with the Daily Caller News Foundation had strong feelings about the bills and some worried that the consistent push by legislators like Wiener to legalize prostitution would actually result in a dangerous increase in human trafficking.

Anti-human trafficking groups have witnessed prostitution — and subsequently, human trafficking – skyrocket in California, after Wiener’s latest bill, according to City Journal. Los Angeles police officer Stephanie Powell explained that since Senate Bill 357 the number of prostitutes in some areas of the city has doubled from 30 girls on a street to 60-65.

“The minute the governor signed it, you started seeing an uptick on the streets,” Powell told City Journal. “And on social media, the pimps were saying: ‘You better get out there and work because the streets are ours.'”

California ranked seventh in the nation for human trafficking in 2021 with 1,507 reported cases, averaging approximately 3.8 victims for every 100,000 California citizens, while the national average is 2.8 per 100,000, according to Etactics. In 2020, 4,970 people in California contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline with 1,884 of those contacts identifying as the actual victims.

Wiener has stated on numerous occasions that his bills are designed to protect the LGBTQ community and minorities, and he’s also said that his bills that pro-prostitution legislation would not encourage human trafficking, according to CNN.

“Most criminal penalties for sex workers, loitering laws included, do nothing to stop sex crimes against sex workers and human trafficking,” the bill’s memo read. “People engaged in sex work deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Vanessa Russell, founder and executive director of Love Never Fails, an anti-human trafficking group that works with survivors, told the DCNF that contrary to the senator’s claims, decriminalizing prostitution does affect human trafficking.

“We know wherever there is permissible sex work there is always going to be human trafficking,” Russell explained.

Russell noted that both Wiener and groups like the ACLU have argued that if sex workers are not worried about police arresting them then they would be more willing to talk to law enforcement if they are being trafficked, but she said that would depend on a lot of variables.

“That all sounds great, but it’s reliant on the person being in their right mind and unfortunately most of the people that are engaging in this industry are not well,” Russell said. “They’ve been highly traumatized, their prefrontal cortex is often not even developed because they are 18, 17, 16 … so are they fully aware of what they are engaging in, I don’t think so, and is it really a decision when they have no other alternative?”

Stephanie Brown, vice president, and Joseph Travers, executive director and founder of Saved In America, a nonprofit of former police officers and Navy SEALS that assist in rescue operations of missing and exploited children, said to the DCNF that Wiener’s bills were “disgusting.”

“Bills like this directly harm and affect our children,” Brown said. “Our goal is to end modern-day slavery, laws like this help to perpetuate activities like this, so it actually leaves children in a worse position … 89% of women in prostitution do not want to be in prostitution and typically they were recruited as minors.”

Travers told the DCNF that California was one of the top states for human trafficking and explained that was because of the massive influx of drugs into the state from the border, which gangs then hook both adults and children on and use their addictions to force them to be prostitutes.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, the senior editor at Reason, who has covered sex work and human trafficking extensively, had different thoughts about Senate bill 357 and told the DCNF that she was in favor of seeing more pro-prostitution legislation in California.

“I think this bill is undeniably a good thing because the way that the loitering for prostitution statutes are used, cops don’t need proof that any prostitution is taking place,” “Because it’s so vague, it was often used as a way to harass people who cops thought looked suspicious or had done sex work in the past, but they weren’t doing it that moment but cops would still use it as a pretext to go up and talk to them, investigate them [and] search them.”

Brown further explained that transgender and minority individuals were targeted by anti-prostitution laws and pointed out that legislators like Wiener pushed for these laws specifically to protect those communities. She also said that concerns raised by some human trafficking advocate groups should be taken with a grain of salt because they have a “very motivated interest in saying that the problem is growing.”

Additionally, Brown argued that decriminalizing prostitution would aid those fighting human trafficking.

“But in general, the argument that a lot of sex workers and people in the criminal justice realm that I agree with is that if we were to decriminalize prostitution entirely it would actually be good at stopping human trafficking because right now you have all the resources just going to stopping prostitution … and that’s where all of the budgets at the local or federal level for fighting human trafficking goes,” Brown said.

Travers disputed this claim, saying that most of the prostitutes are on drugs and sex work is how they pay for their drugs and bills, so legalizing prostitution would only embolden the gangs that sell the drugs. Stephanie Brown echoed Travers and said that prostitution is “inherently harmful” in of itself, in addition to making human trafficking worse.

All four had different ideas and thoughts on how legislators in California should go about laws surrounding prostitution and human trafficking. Russell said that she would like to see more legislation helping fund on the ground with advocacy groups to offer them counseling, housing and other services daily.

Elizabeth Brown said the best next step to prevent human trafficking was to legalize sex work, because, as she explained, currently resources are divided among law enforcement between human trafficking and arresting prostitutes and if prostitution was legalized then police departments would be able to focus solely on trafficking.

“Honestly, I think what we need to do is have less conflation of prostitution and sex trafficking,” she said. “We need to stop conflating the two, spend time actually going after and prosecuting people who perpetuate violence, abuse, exploitation and leave people alone if they are just trying to engage in commercial sex with another adult.”

Travers and Stephanie Brown said they wanted to “protect children at the end of the day” and find better leaders that are interested in protecting families and their kids. Travers also expressed a wish to see a return to “morality” when it comes to making decisions about legislation, saying that it seemed to be a “forgotten term” at the state’s capitol.

Wiener did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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