Last Friday, President Obama signed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a package of federal grant authorizations, criminal penalty enhancements and other items aimed at fighting human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. As well-meaning as the legislation may be, the “War on Sex Trafficking” that the federal government is waging will fail, just as the “War on Drugs” has failed, writes Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason magazine in Politico. With almost unanimous, bipartisan support in Congress and fans ranging from evangelical Christians to Planned Parenthood, it’s easy to see the law as a rare win-win in Washington.
Brown believes that just as giving local police and prosecutors a mandate to fight drugs led to the prosecution of low-level drug users and dealers rather than big-time drug traffickers, the fight against sex trafficking—plus federal funding to do so, contingent on arrests and convictions—sets up perverse incentives to treat everyday prostitution as sex trafficking. We’re now seeing what formerly was called “vice” work reframed as human trafficking stings. Adult sex workers, their would-be patrons, and petty pimps get swept up. Last year, the FBI ran Operation Cross Country “to recover victims of child sex trafficking,” Newark, N.J., cops identified just one 14-year-old sex trafficking victim but it arrested another 45 people for normal prostitution or pimping. In Portland one minor was recovered while 20 adult women were arrested on prostitution charges and three adults were arrested for promoting prostitution. Under the JVTA, anyone soliciting paid-sex from a minor can be arrested on federal human trafficking charges.