Column: Harm reduction addresses sex trafficking
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. You are likely to hear a lot about sex trafficking.
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January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. You are likely to hear a lot about sex trafficking. However, we should all be aware of the complex and nuanced areas of these issues and try to understand them without allowing our emotions to undermine our judgement.
Trafficking is an abusive process by which one or more persons profit from the labor of another through means of force or fraud. It involves involuntary labor. It occurs in many areas such as farm labor, fishing boats, domestic service and sweat shops. Sex trafficking involves the labor being that of selling sexual services.
Although sex trafficking involves acts or prostitution, prostitution is not in and of itself trafficking. Under Hawaii law prostitution is a voluntary act, with no element of abuse, etc., included in the crime. Underage people are recognized “victims,” although many of them might not be controlled by a trafficker.
People in the harm reduction area have years of experience working with folks involved with sex work. Our approach is to work with people to identify and reduce harms they face. We don’t advocate for coercion aimed at workers, managers and purchasers, unless there is actual trafficking or other abuse involved. We oppose coercion by traffickers to force persons into prostitution and believe it is hypocritical to support coercion to force people out of it.
Persons selling sex are at risk for a number of things that should not be overlooked in a single-minded focus on trafficking. The problem of “bad dates” wherein a client turns to abuser who may rob, assault or rape a worker, is one that many, but not all, sex workers face.
There are the numerous problems caused by illegality such as incarceration, having a prison record, or being afraid to report a crime. There are health issues, such as sexually transmitted diseases or drug use. And most pervasive of all is the stigma attached to doing sex work. Only those who tell an acceptable story of victimization and abuse may be absolved of this shame and the potential legal consequences for having been a seller of sex.
With all this to deal with, you’d have to wonder why anyone would ever engage in acts of prostitution unless forced. The answer is obvious: cash. Now some do say they enjoy their work, and some young transgender women may be attracted to the sex. Some folks who leave the industry indicate they miss the excitement and adrenaline rush they had doing sex work. But basically it is work, like most of us do, for money.
True, a trafficking victim can expect that money to be taken away. Their desire to avoid abuse may be the motivating factor. It is important to understand a victim may get the money expected in more ways than selling sex. They may turn to other crimes to do so when sex work isn’t paying. So anti-sex buyer sting actions by law enforcement might reduce prostitution, but are unlikely to do anything positive for trafficking victims. This is an anti-worker, anti-victim approach.
The FBI reported four cases of sex trafficking in Hawaii for 2018. The Hawaii sex trafficking law has not led to arrests since its passage. And despite lots of raids on massage parlors, evidence of sex trafficking remains fleeting. Clearly these law enforcement approaches aren’t working.
We support better efforts to reduce all of these harms, not just for trafficking victims and minors. This will require a broad-based coalition, better assessments of needs, and a Legislature willing to listen. Ideally media will support this.
Tracy Ryan is executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii.