For the print version of this article, go to $pread‘s website and purchase Issue 4.1.
The Congressional paper war over the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Re-Authorization Act (TVPRA) has reached a high point as organizations like the National Organization for Women to the Sex Workers Project sound off on the addition of the latest federal crime for “sex trafficking.” The change would drop the common legal requirement for proof of “force, fraud, or coercion,” stimulating a debate over the law’s implications for voluntary sex work.
The legislation, christened the William Wilberforce Act after the British anti-slave trade activist, has been approved in the House and is set to drop in the Senate sometime in the near future. In its current form, the TVPRA would re-work the age-old Mann Act and be used to prosecute anyone who “persuades, induces, or entices any individual to engage in prostitution.” If this criteria is met, defendants would be charged with “sex trafficking,” a federal offense punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. The “federalization” of the law is supplied by the requirement that an outlawed act must be “in or affecting interstate commerce.” This is interpreted broadly to allow for federal intervention in most cases, including communications leading to prostitution.
Supporters of the measure have been referred to as the “new abolitionists.” The activists in the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women are working together with academics like Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island, as well as the National Organization for Women, Equality Now, and the Feminist Majority Foundation to uphold the House version. Donna Hughes and others in favor of the House version claim that by “defining prostitute recruitment as sex trafficking, the Wilberforce Act will send a message that all pimping-related activities are illegal.”
In opposition to the House version, Sienna Baskin from the Sex Workers’ Project points out that the anti-pimping provision “is far too broad and promotes the criminalization of commercial sex, which inevitably targets the sex worker most of all” rather than the pimp and panderer. The Wilberforce Act, Baskin adds, prioritizes funding and services to forced labor in the sex industry far above forced labor among migrant workers, factory personnel, domestic workers, and other laborers in the informal sector.
The Sex Workers’ Project is not the only group who takes issue with the “abolitionists” version of the legislation. The Department of Justice, Fraternal Order of Police, and American Civil Liberties Union, as well as sex worker activists at BAYSWAN, SWOP-USA, and US PROS beg to differ with Hughes’ statement that the TVPRA “does not involve the federal government in non-pimping prostitution offenses.” In a letter of protest, sex worker activists respond that “sex workers and our friends and family will be pursued as easy targets and criminalized under this law whilst the real traffickers will go free.” The fear is that the “persuades, induces, or entices” section of the TVPRA could be used to criminalize anyone from support staff at a strip-club or a dungeon to workers sharing their tips. The Wilberforce Act, it is said, could be part and parcel of a “moralistic and dangerous crusade against prostitution” more than it is an assault against forced labor in particular.
There is, however, some common ground between the camps. The Wilberforce Act includes provisions for survivors of sex trafficking that all parties agree to, and, legally at least, highlights the injustice of forced labor generally. The legislation, on the other hand, fails to make a distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution. The legal ambiguity of the Wilberforce Act stands to federalize the misapplication of “pimping and pandering” laws, legislation that has historically worked against prostitutes’ safety and economic interests. If the House version carries in the Senate, rights organizations are encouraging workers to contact their representatives as voters and oppose these provisions in the TVPRA as well as other legislation that makes the difference between forced labor and chosen work unclear.
See sexworkersproject.org for updates. Thanks to Sienna Baskin from the Sex Workers’ Project at the Urban Justice Center for her help in the details of this report.