Around the country, the tide is turning on criminal justice issues, and Americans are demanding that we take a smarter approach to
criminal justice. Eighty-five percent of voters agree that the main goal of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation.
Ninety-one percent of voters state that prosecutors should prioritize reducing unequal treatment within the criminal justice system. Locking people up, asking for more penalties and
prosecuting behind a closed curtain is simply not going to work anymore.
That’s why the race for San Diego County district attorney is so important, and why the traditional approach to prosecution
deserves closer scrutiny. Interim DA Summer Stephan, who’s running for election in June, doesn’t see any meaningful difference between
sex work, or prostitution, and sex trafficking. In doing so, she and other prosecutors in California conflate
sex trafficking with sex work and are confusing the public in what seems an attempt to inspire moral outrage.
Sex trafficking involves the involuntary or coerced involvement in the sex trade, and failing to acknowledge the
differences between the two can lead to dire consequences for trafficking victims and sex workers alike. Anti-trafficking laws that conflate sex work with sex trafficking have forced sex workers into “safe houses” and rehabilitation programs
against their will. These initiatives have prevented sex workers from seeking safe working conditions because they are forced underground to avoid the trafficking label. That, in turn, forces
already desperate sex workers into even more desperate economic conditions when they are prevented from working.
During a two-year study with sex workers, I observed that sex workers felt comfortable working cooperatively with police
officers when the police opted not to arrest sex workers and to treat sex work as if it were decriminalized. Similar
findings have been observed in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized.
While treating all sex work like sex trafficking is well-intended, it diverts resources from human trafficking prevention
efforts and funnels resources into securing low-level prostitution prosecutions. It increases the stigmatization of actual sex workers and makes them less
likely to go to law enforcement when they have encountered a violent client. It is a signal that there is always
something wrong with sex work, and sex workers will be less likely to work with the district attorney’s office if
they fear prosecution because they do not fit into the trafficking victim narrative.
The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking also reduces individuals, often women, into a victim status in order to
comply with a notion of womanhood tied to sexual purity that is compliant with dominant morality. A woman who
chooses to take an alternative, often difficult path, for her family by becoming a sex worker is dismissed as
a victim incapable of the choice. Many sex workers enter the industry because they face limited economic options
and difficult life circumstances. Yet many of them are able to provide for their families and live a lifestyle that
would otherwise be unavailable to them. Like many women who enter the workplace, they face difficult choices and
risky situations. But they do the best that they can, and to paternalistically label them as victims with no regard
for their own voices about whether they chose to enter their line of work or not is damaging. It creates a psychic
harm that disempowers women.
The distinction between sex work and sex trafficking is important because confusing the two has led to the misinterpretation
of data. An often-cited study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University indicates that the average
age of entry into “sex trafficking” in San Diego is 16. This study is often misinterpreted to mean the average of entry into the sex trade in San Diego is 16. The difference is importance
because sex trafficking is going to skew younger because underage prostitution is by definition considered “sex trafficking.”
So the average age of entry into prostitution in general may be 22, while the average age of entry into sex trafficking
Moreover, the results of conflating sex trafficking with sex work can be perverse. I’ve seen instances in which a woman
recommends that a newly homeless friend join her on a prostitution transaction. When caught, that woman can be charged
as a sex trafficker. If they live together, she can be charged as a sex trafficker who operates a brothel. This can
create a revolving door of arresting sex workers for minor prostitution transactions when law enforcement should
instead be focused on eliminating sex trafficking syndicates.
Stephan has said she would “ very rarely” prosecute a sex worker, but the point remains: Women, in the law enforcement worldview she shares,
are being held at the mercy of a prosecutor’s label. Neither sex workers nor sex trafficking victims should have
to fear the threat of prosecution and multiple arrests.
We need a district attorney who would build partnerships with sex workers so they feel comfortable coming forward to
the district attorney’s office when they observe genuine human trafficking without fearing more prosecutions, not
one who judges their choices. Getting “tough” on prostitution means more jail, more prison time and more of the same.
It’s time to start doing what works. It’s time for change.
This article by Prof. India Thusi was first published on voiceofsandiego.com, at: https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/opinion/what-prosecutors-get-wrong-about-sex-trafficking/