Trafficking Laws: Abetting Violence Against Sex Workers

by Tara Burns on December 17, 2013 · 13 comments

in Activism, Politics

nobadwomenTerra Burns runs the informative Sex Trafficking In Alaska site, which provides information on how Alaska’s sex trafficking laws harm the people they are supposed to protect and those who are in the sex industry by choice. This is a speech she will be giving today, December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

In Alaska, independent prostitutes and actual trafficking victims have been prosecuted under state and federal trafficking laws. Keyana Marshall, one of the featured cases on Terra’s site, is a victim of violent sex trafficking who was convicted under federal law of conspiring (with her trafficker) to traffick. You can listen to Keyana tell her story here.

A few years ago I was visiting a friend in Canada, where prostitution is basically legal. She was working with a collective of escorts—they worked together and shared the expenses of a workplace, advertising, and security. In the United States, they call this a sex trafficking ring and the women involved would be called felons, but in Canada they just call it common sense, more fun, and more safe.

So, we’re sitting around and the phone rings. It’s a woman who had been part of the collective but she’d gotten back together with a boyfriend and no one had heard from her in a while. She said she only had a minute to talk, that her boyfriend had just stepped out and he would hurt her if he knew she called. He had been keeping her in a hotel room, feeding her drugs, pimping her out and taking all the money.

This is the sort of sex trafficking that people need protection from.

I was shocked when my friend immediately called the police. In Alaska, sex workers don’t call the police, because when they do they go to jail. In Canada, we met the police at the hotel where my friend’s coworker was and they arrested her boyfriend. They took a statement from her and they told her she should take care to work with good people.

In Alaska, law enforcement gives violent criminals free rein to target people who work in the sex industry—not just prostitutes. Robert Hansen was allowed to kill dancers, waitresses, and prostitutes in Alaska for twelve years because most of the women who escaped and tried to make reports to the police were turned away or threatened with arrest.

More recently, Anchorage has had a few violent pimps who assaulted, drugged, raped, and tortured women. These men were and are able to continue doing this for years. At least one of these men was under surveillance by law enforcement for years, but his victims were more afraid of the police than he was. When these men are arrested, their victims are often arrested along with them.

Professionals in Alaska have a certain way of talking about prostitutes. They say that all prostitution is victimization, that prostitutes are suffering from false consciousness, or they must all be on drugs. They say that if we don’t value sexuality so much that we only ever give it away for free there must be something wrong with us, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to save us from ourselves. By arresting us.

This paternalistic idea that a group of people are like children who need the government to decide what is in their best interest is not new. The same idea was used to justify hundreds of years of slavery when slaves were viewed as incapable of taking care of themselves or making their own decisions. The same idea was used to justify cultural genocide and send thousands of Indigenous people to boarding schools where they were forcefully stripped of their language and culture because it was believed that they were savages who needed the government to force them into domestication.

I was worried when this view of sex workers came to Alaska, and particularly worried when I read the new sex trafficking laws. While attorneys seemed to be concerned that House Bill 359 violated both the state and federal constitutions, I was worried that it confused sex trafficking with prostitution. When prostitutes are being charged with sex trafficking of themselves, it becomes almost impossible for them to get police to protect them from actual violent sex traffickers.

I wanted to learn how the new law was actually being applied, so I requested information on all cases involving sex trafficking or prostitution under Alaska state law in 2012 and 2013. The Department of Law responded with only six case numbers, two of which seem completely unrelated. Here is what I learned:

  • So far, every person who has been charged with sex trafficking under the new law has also been charged with prostitution of themselves.
  • In one case where three people seemed to be working together, one was charged with sex trafficking of the other two along with prostitution of herself. The alleged victims were arrested and charged with prostitution.
  • In 2012 and 2013, every person who has been charged with prostitution under state law has also either been charged with sex trafficking or allegedly been a victim of sex trafficking.

Some might say that this is not enough data to judge the law by. After all, it could someday be used to prosecute someone who preys on prostitutes, rather than prostitutes themselves. I think that would be much more likely if the law protected, instead of re-victimizing, prostitutes who were victims.

What is clear is than in the year and a half since they were passed, the new sex trafficking laws have only been used against sex workers and not to protect them. This criminalization makes sex workers more, not less, vulnerable to sex trafficking. This phenomena of sex trafficking laws having the opposite of their intended effect has been documented throughout the world. The United Nations spoke out against this in 2010 and again in 2013, saying that the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work is necessary to protect human rights.

The people who lobby for these types of laws say that they want to abolish prostitution, but when people attempt to get real jobs with felony sex trafficking convictions they most often fail. At a sex trafficking conference this summer, an FBI agent spoke of a sex trafficking victim who was fired from a fast food job because of the prostitution charge that was still on her record years after being a victim of sex trafficking. I don’t know this woman, but I imagine that she needs money to survive, and she might find herself with few options other than prostitution. It is almost as if the state, by their own definition, is trafficking women like her by inducing them into prostitution when they take away most or all of their other options.

This law needs to be repealed, and if the state truly wants to protect people from sex trafficking, they need to work with us, instead of against us, to create laws that do that.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lilly Muse December 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Nice, thanks. Once again, Canada=cool, US=not so much.

These ridiculous laws are a cruel joke. I can’t help but wonder if the continued creation and reinforcement of such damaging legislation partially comes from the selfish interests of lawmakers who are, in the face of a more open society, afraid of somehow being outed as johns themselves. With the highest concentration of American sex workers residing in D.C. (I think?), everyone knows the boys on the Hill love to get spanked. Hypocrisy to the max.


Maxine Doogan December 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Thanks so much Terra for all your good work. Not only does the criminalization of our occupation take away other options, it specifically bars us from gaining access to equal protection under the law when we’re victims of rape, robbery, theft, coercion, extortion, battery….
The criminalization of our occupation by other names like ‘sex trafficking’ is also the excuse that legislators use to ignore us when we demand implementation of anti discrimination laws specifically in the areas of child custody rights, employment, education, housing and financial institutions. Certainly legislators could extend these protections NOW for legal sector workers like adult film performers, exotic dancers, strippers, burly Qs, phone sex operators, pro doms, subs….
And legislators can extend these same legal protections in the public sector for us as per the Obama administration’s statement that, “We agree that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution” in the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights in 2010, (

We have to stand up to these politicians to stop them from passing further criminalization of prostitution by other names like ‘sex trafficking’ and instead demand that they do the right thing and bring us equal protection NOW. We have to learn to act as the squeaky wheels on our own behalf. We have to be strategically squeaky. We have to get on the same page strategically and start acting in solidarity with each others activism if we really are serious ending violence against sex workers regardless of how or why we work.
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susan December 17, 2013 at 8:01 pm

You had me until you kind of equated laws that oppress sex workers (which they do, and that’s awful) in the US to slavery and the genocide of indigenous people (even though you don’t even mention genocide of people, just their “culture”). Not cool.


Bubbles December 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Respectfully allow me to point out that Terra didn’t equate trafficking laws to slavery and genocide. She said the same logic was used to promote them: “The same idea was used to justify hundreds of years of slavery…” Saying that government actions have the same oppressive philosophies behind them does not mean one is equating them.


Carol Leigh December 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for this clear, concise essay! I was especially struck by this: “In 2012 and 2013, every person who has been charged with prostitution under state law has also either been charged with sex trafficking or allegedly been a victim of sex trafficking.” Although I have been examining the impact of these policies for quite some time I hadn’t heard of that result before. One aspect of anti-trafficking laws people might not understand is that in US law (the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act -and Reauthorization Acts ), “sex trafficking” is equated with ALL commercial sex trades, and DOES NOT ONLY COVER contexts of force. “Sex trafficking” is (supposedly) only explicitly penalized through this law in the cases of minors or when force is involved, BUT hefty funds are allocated to combat ALL SEX TRAFFICKING (aka prostitution) in this law, the US is committed to oppose prostitution through this law. A huge cottage industry has developed around this and other funding, which is unresponsive and harmful to people who engage in sex work. I would invite people to peruse for more information.


Robin D December 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm

“In 2012 and 2013, every person who has been charged with prostitution under state law has also either been charged with sex trafficking or allegedly been a victim of sex trafficking.” Although I have been examining the impact of these policies for quite some time I hadn’t heard of that result before.

The rest were most likely penalized through municipal statutes. That is much more frequent here too.


Terra December 20, 2013 at 1:57 am

Robin, as far as I’m aware that’s only true of Anchorage in Alaska. So while this isn’t 100% sure yet, it seems that about 80 women were charged with prostitution in Alaska in 2012-3, and 4 in the rest of the state. Of the 4, two were also charged with trafficking and two were alleged victims of trafficking.


Robin D December 20, 2013 at 7:51 pm

So 76 (obviously majority) were penalized under municipal statutes then. Like I said that is more common here too.


Terra December 21, 2013 at 1:56 am

No, the municipal statutes only exist in anchorage. None of the sex trafficking cases were in anchorage.

So, (something like) 80 in anchorage and 4 in the rest of the state.


Matthias Lehmann December 22, 2014 at 9:09 pm

I’d like to add a few notes on the term ‘sex trafficking’, which appears a whopping 21 times in this otherwise very good article.

I am aware that in the US, the term ‘sex trafficking’ is commonly used to describe human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. One could argue that my objection to the term is mere nitpicking, but I think it’s important to discontinue using it. Firstly, shortening the admittedly long-winded description to ‘sex trafficking’ removes the human element. Just compare it to drug trafficking: it describes the illegal trade of drugs. ‘Sex trafficking’, however, is the illegal trade and commercial sexual exploitation of human beings, not of sex, and I don’t consider that unimportant. Secondly, the term adds to the common misconception that the majority of cases of human trafficking involve commercial sexual exploitation, which, according to the best available guesstimates is not the case. (One should note, however, that other forms of human trafficking might very well involve sexual harassment or rape, too.) Thirdly, the term is a slippery slope: more and more media outlets and organisations – and as you described above, law makers – use the terms ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘prostitution’ like synonyms, which obviously, they aren’t. In my view, the term ‘sex trafficking’ adds to the conflation of sex work and human trafficking and, considering how complex these subjects are, one shouldn’t shorten it for mere convenience. Here are two quotes by other people about the term:

“Some GAATW members and allies have also made a deliberate choice not to use the term “sex trafficking” based on concerns that all human rights violations against trafficked persons across all occupational sectors should be addressed, not just the sexual aspects of trafficked persons’ experiences. There is also a worry that the term “sex trafficking” encourages voyeurism by directing public attention to the sensationalistic aspects of what women were forced to do rather than the full range of human rights violations women experienced and the human rights protections they are entitled to. A sole focus on trafficking for the purposes of prostitution can also divert attention and urgently needed resources from human rights violations in other sectors, e.g. labourexploitation or the “trafficking-like” effects of particular government overseas labour programs.”

From GAATW Working Paper “Exploring Links between Trafficking and Gender” by Julie Ham

“From a linguistic/semantic point of view, people are trafficked, NOT SEX, and the purpose of trafficking is exploitation, NOT SEX! Some people may not see it, but there is a clear difference between sex and sexual exploitation. And although the meaning of “sex trafficking” is clear to everyone, the people and the exploitation are missing from it, as if they are somehow unimportant. But words matter and guide policies, and the fight against human trafficking becomes a war on sex, in which the buyers of commercial sex are portrayed as just as bad as the traffickers, while the actual trafficked people and their human rights come secondary. “Trafficking in persons/trafficking in human beings/human trafficking for sexual exploitation” may be a bit of a mouthful but is much more correct from a conceptual and semantic point of view. And then there’s even the derivative verb “sex trafficked”, which I find even more annoying. As a linguist by education I both welcome and dread the development of language – you just never know which madness will catch on next. While browsing for this part, I came across a similar complaint, albeit on more everyday issues:

“When my aircraft pulls up to the gate at airports these days I am deplaned. At restaurants, my food gets plated (I wonder why my drinks aren’t also cupped or my soup bowled). People used to engage in dialogue. Now they just dialogue. Friends no longer enjoy fellowship, they simply fellowship…”

“Trafficked for sexual exploitation”, although not quite as “sexy”, is clear and precise enough and doesn’t abuse the language (and is not even such a mouthful)!

From Bobby Gerasimov “Hey! Mind your language!”


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