Sex Trafficking Laws Aren’t Doing What You Think They Are

Criminalization and content bans, from Backpage to Tumblr, aren't keeping people in the sex trade safe.

Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Cyntoia Brown — a survivor of violence and a former teen in the sex trade — must serve 51 years before she is eligible for release after she was convicted for murder for taking the steps she needed to defend her life against a violent client.

In the mainstream media, Cyntoia has been portrayed as a “child sex slave” and a “sex trafficking victim,” although she has never personally identified as either. As Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte wrote last year in The Appeal, “Such language is reductionist and obscures the complexities inherent in the experiences of young people in the sex trade and street economies.” It is important to remember that Cyntoia’s experience is not unique; it is shared by the majority of Black and brown youth in the sex trade who have been criminalized for the strategies they’ve used to survive.

Recently, there have been numerous high profile examples of the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work, from the way Cyntoia is treated in the media and in the legal system, to the shut down of adult content on Tumblr. Ultimately, when false narratives about sex trafficking are spread, everyone in the sex trade is harmed.

What is sex trafficking? Why are anti-trafficking advocates calling for laws to shutdown websites? How do these laws impact youth in the sex trade?

In early 2018, federal legislation aimed at holding websites liable for sex trafficking was signed into law. Websites that sex workers have used to safely screen clients are steadily disappearing, most recently demonstrated through Tumblr’s ban on adult content going into effect on December 17, which is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

This follows a steady trend of websites shutting down partially or completely in response to this legislation. Craigslist’s personals section, which was popular among sex workers looking to advertise their services and screen clients, shut down in March. A month later,  the US Department of Justice seized Backpage, a website popular for sex work, and the founders were indicted on charges that include facilitation of prostitution and money laundering.

Sex workers and their allies have been rapidly organizing in response to these federal policies that impact their livelihood and their safety, while many large anti-trafficking organizations and their supporters have applauded the shutdowns of websites as a “major victory and milestone in the fight against sex trafficking.” The disparate responses would lead outsiders to believe that the safety of sex trafficking victims is diametrically opposed to the safety of sex workers.

But the real policies that are needed to keep sex trafficking victims safe will build safety for everyone in the sex trade.

A little history on the anti-trafficking movement.

The anti-trafficking movement is fairly young. In 2000, the term “sex trafficking” was first defined in federal law under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to criminalize the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to engage in a commercial sex act; the definition also includes all youth under 18 engaging in commercial sex, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is used.

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While TVPA establishes sex trafficking as a federal offense, it did not protect youth from sex work-related arrests or charges. TVPA has therefore been followed up in many states with Safe Harbor laws, which primarily seek to protect youth defined as “child sex trafficking victims” from entering the legal system.

Safe Harbor laws, like the one established in DC in 2014, have worked to close the gap and ensure that “child sex trafficking victims” aren’t punished for what they do to survive—at least until they turn 18. 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws that protect youth in the sex trade from arrest, and 25 states have laws that redirect youth to services.

What are the root causes of child sex trafficking?

The vast majority of youth in the sex trade don’t have a trafficker. One federally funded study showed that 15 percent of youth in the sex trade had been exploited by a third party, while 85 percent were working on their own.

Homeless youth are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. National data shows that at least 500,000 youth — and as many as 2.8 million — between the ages of 12 to 17 are experiencing homelessness in the US. More than 50 percent were asked to leave by a caregiver, and thousands more ran away because they were experiencing neglect, physical or sexual abuse at home, family rejection because of their queer or trans identity, or in many cases, a combination of these factors.

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“Survival sex and involvement in the sex trade are often the only means for young people to provide for themselves when they leave home. This is especially true for youth of color, queer and trans youth, who have less access to resources and opportunities,” says Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte. ”The realities faced by most teenagers engaged in survival sex are shaped by unsafe homes and housing, lack of access to employment, affordable housing, health care, including gender affirming health care, mental health resources, poverty, racism, queerphobia and misogyny.”

How does this relate to Backpage, Craigslist, Tumblr, and more?

While the larger anti-trafficking narrative may lead us to believe that youth are being held captive by traffickers and sold online against their will, the data paints a more complicated picture.

People in the sex trade used websites like Backpage and Craigslist to screen clients, allowing them to work more safely. The shutdown of these websites has immediately impacted the lives and livelihood of marginalized sex workers, including those who are trafficked. For youth, there are limited alternatives: there are only 4,000 shelter beds available for more than 500,000 homeless youth. Among adult sex workers, trans people in the sex trade similarly have few options. The 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that 26 percent of trans people lost a job due to bias. Anti-trans employment discrimination disproportionately impacts trans people of color who experience an unemployment rate up to four times the national unemployment rate and therefore frequently rely on the underground economy to survive.

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With limited alternatives, the closures of Backpage, Craigslist personals, Tumblr adult content, and more leave sex workers and sex trafficking victims out on the street.

So what can we do to support people in the sex trade?

There are two main things that adult and youth in the sex trade need most: the ability to work safely without being arrested for what they do to survive, and safe housing.

Decriminalizing sex work for everyone eliminates the need for Safe Harbor laws in the remaining 36 states where youth in the sex trade, or child sex trafficking victims, can still be arrested on sex work-related charges. It allows us to move away from the narrative that pits the safety of sex trafficking victims against the safety of sex workers, and it ensures that youth in the sex trade don’t immediately become labeled as criminals once they turn 18.

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Further, people in the sex trade need housing. Homelessness is the primary problem that leads youth to trade sex, and this problem is also rampant among marginalized adult sex workers, with 48 percent of trans sex workers in the US having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Shutting down websites and criminalizing sex work doesn’t address the reasons that youth and adults enter the sex trade; these strategies simply push sex trafficking victims and sex workers further underground.

If we’re all coming to this problem with the goal of keeping kids safe, then we need to pay attention to the reasons that youth are engaging in survival sex. We must listen, and we must work to address the root causes.

—by Jessica Raven
Former Youth Survival Sex Worker
Organizer for Sex Work Decriminalization in DC & NYC
Former Executive Director at Collective Action for Safe Spaces