What Happens in Vegas… Could Get You 10 Years to Life

Unpacking the proposed Nevada sex trafficking legislation (Part 1)

Why is a 39-page bill that criminalizes a whole lot of normal people being sold as a way to save the child sex slaves?

Well, saving the (white female) child sex slaves has proven to be a powerful narrative. After all, who is actually for sex trafficking of a minor, right? Only the most depraved among us. So, we must support this tough on crimes legislation. It’s a no-brainer to pass, no? NO. And herein lays the problem.

Is history repeating itself?

The historical link to the “white slavery” panic of the early 1900’s is hard to ignore. Prostitution in the U.S. was largely legal until changing women’s sexual norms led to a “white slavery” panic that resulted in the closing of brothels with the White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act in 1910. According to historian Mark Thomas Connelly, “a group of books and pamphlets appeared announcing a startling claim: a pervasive and depraved conspiracy was at large in the land, brutally trapping and seducing American girls into lives of enforced prostitution, or ‘white slavery.’” The reality was numerous young women were drawn into prostitution for “mundane” economic reasons. The ambiguous language of the Mann Act allowed selective prosecutions and was used to criminalize forms of consensual sexual behavior for many years.

Although human trafficking can be defined as being put in a situation of economic exploitation that you can’t get out of; rather than focusing on forced labor, servitude and slavery-like conditions, the trafficking framework has been used in selective ways. The general conception in the U.S. is that all human trafficking is sex trafficking. This conception developed because a crusade against prostitution attempted to conflate sex work with human trafficking, a claim for which there is no evidence, even according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

An executive summary of human trafficking put forth by the non-profit Center for Health and Gender Equity concludes that “conflating human trafficking with prostitution results in ineffective anti-trafficking efforts and human rights violations because domestic policing efforts focus on shutting down brothels and arresting sex workers, rather than targeting the more elusive traffickers.”

Misconceptions about the problem are fueled by sensationalized stories that’s simplicity in the child sex slave narrative makes them potent, haunting, and easy to mobilize around. Enforcement resources and investigations in the U.S. are going into a group of human trafficking task forces focusing almost entirely on commercial sex. It is a structure built on vice squads rather than labor investigators.

Some testimony to the legislature on sex trafficking bill AB67 (& related AB113) from the first hearing on Wednesday, February 20th provides an enlightening perspective.

Issue #1:  Vague and overly broad definitions—is our goal to put more people in prison?

From the Clark County Public Defender’s Office:

“The substantially increased penalties in Section 42 of AB67, including life sentences in some cases, are particularly concerning given the vagueness of the law. While nobody disagrees that a violent child sex trafficker deserves a lengthy prison term, the concern is that individuals will receive substantial prison terms that are not merited by their conduct … making it more serious than an attempt(ed) murder charge.”

“AB67 likely runs afoul of the vagueness doctrine, which holds that ‘[a] conviction fails to comport with due process if the statute under which it is obtained fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited, or is so standardless that it authorizes or encourages serious discriminatory enforcement.’ U.S. v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 304 (2008). For example, the addition of the phrase ‘or other thing of value’ to the definition of prostitution in Section 8 could criminalize innocent conduct between persons in a committed relationship.”

“Furthermore, because there is no carve out for the legal prostitution that exists in Nevada, Nevadans are left to wonder whether they would be prosecuted under this statute for engaging in otherwise legal conduct, such as driving a legal sex worker to her place of employment. In addition, discriminatory enforcement by law enforcement is a strong possibility, especially because the vast majority of the prosecutions in Clark County arise out of law enforcement undercover sting operations that seem to disproportionately target African-American males. Simply stated, it is insufficient to leave it up to prosecutors and/or judges to determine what the law means and how it is to be applied.”

FACT: United Nations member states have recently mandated a study on the use of the “trafficking” framework. The concern is that due to opportunities lent by vagueness of definitions; the issue of trafficking has been sidetracked and used to further particular political agendas that often have little to do with protecting people from exploitation and abuse.

Issue #2: Where is the data and evidence of this huge scary problem?

At the February 2nd “From Prosecution to Empowerment” human trafficking conference at USC, Attorney Martina Vandenberg, founder of the pro bono organization Civil Justice: The Human Trafficking Legal Resource Center expressed: “In the field of human trafficking, I detest data because most of it is made up and bogus. It is really an appalling area.”

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto testified at the hearing and stated in the media that the Polaris Project, a national human trafficking organization out of Washington, DC that sent their policy director here to help write our state legislation, has identified a huge sex trafficking ring between Nevada and California that presumably runs from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Reno to Sacramento. Yet, when asked if there was evidence to back this claim Polaris Project’s Policy Program Director, Mary Ellison submitted this:

“In 2012, the NHTRC (National Human Trafficking Resource Center) Hotline received 174 calls from Nevada. Out of these calls, twenty-one (21) of them were classified as crisis calls, and forty-eight (48) of them were classified as tips from community members reporting suspected trafficking. The NHTRC had fourteen (14) cases from Nevada in 2012 that involved minors and had a total of forty-one (41) cases that had ‘high’ or ‘moderate’ indicia of human trafficking situations.”

Where is the evidence of the mass human trafficking ring? What happened to these cases and how many people were rescued or arrested?

The reality is there is no systematic state or local data on human trafficking. Furthermore, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) community project that began to collect data on youth engaging in the sex trades in Las Vegas a couple years ago has been suspended for the past year. Previous studies completed in NYC and Atlantic City painted a portrait of youth who were rarely forced into the sex trades by a pimp trafficker, but rather homeless due to lack of a social safety net and participating in an informal economy of sex exchange for financial reasons. Street youth commonly report being abused more by the police than by pimps.

Issue #3: Who stands to benefit? Or follow the money (and motives)…

There is a lot of federal money available for anti-trafficking efforts in a time of austerity and sequestration when many budgets are being slashed. A little known fact is that the Violence Against Women’s Act (VAWA) that just passed had the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) added to it as an amendment reauthorizing funding though 2017 after expiring at the end of 2011. The U.S. State Department’s definition of trafficking includes any person under 18 found to perform commercial sex and any commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion.

Law enforcement and non-profit rescue industry service providers work together in a closed loop network of funding. Where is the oversight and accountability for waste, fraud, or abuse to prevent corruption? According to a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General Michon Martin, oversight and accountability for the monetary beneficiaries of this legislation are “beyond the scope of this bill.” Hmmm….

Kids Caught in the Culture Wars: Is This Really about Protecting Youth?

Law Enforcement: Is this about Arrest Numbers?

Judge William Voy of Clark County District Court Family Division testified he would keep youth who were arrested for engaging in sex trades in a “controlled therapeutic setting where the children could not run from” or they would forcibly be returned by staff. It was unclear how long they would remain in the “safe house,” but he did indicate until prosecution and vice work with the child as a witness to develop testimony against their “perpetrators.” Does he realize the newly reauthorized TVPA “provides assurance that a minor victim of sex trafficking shall not be required to collaborate with law enforcement to have access to residential care or services provided with a grant under this section?”

The inclusion of all juvenile prostitutes as trafficked has presented obvious problems. U.S. research points out that only a minority fit the “forced by a third party” trafficking profile. There is a clear difference between juveniles who are forced into the sex industry by the sex slavery black market and juveniles who are homeless or living in abject poverty with no other recourse but to sell sexual services. Tying assistance to the identification of a pimp is often counterproductive and fails to help the victims who need it most.

Evangelical Non-Profits: Is this a Moral Crusade?

Lisa Thompson, liaison for the abolition of sexual trafficking for the Salvation Army, during a recent presentation at The Justice Conference stated: “Sex trafficking is a battle of ideas.” The Church in America too often does not do enough to address the ideology upon which sex trafficking is based – “an ideology that disassociates sex from love, responsibility and children.” Thompson explained: “One of the reasons sex trafficking is flourishing is that we, as a Church, do not do enough to address the ideology that disassociates sex from love.” She continued: “Sex is not work. God did not create any woman for the purpose, excuse me, that she be a cum receptacle.”

In her testimony to the Nevada legislature, Melissa Holland said that her organization in Reno, Awaken INC (“In the Name of Christ”) was in the process of getting both a safe house and transitional housing in place for the victims of sex trafficking. If religious education and activities are a compulsory aspect of the services provided to clients, I hope she realizes that could be a human rights violation. It would also go against separation of church and state, disqualifying them from receipt of federal funds for trafficking services. I have to agree, “I don’t think prayer is among the recognized best practices for fighting human trafficking.”

Where are the Real Solutions? Prevention Over Prison

Three simple steps to ending sex (and other labor) trafficking, exploitation, and abuse:

1) Stable sustainable wage income

2) Affordable long-term housing

3) Equitable education opportunities

The major driver of human rights abuses, including trafficking is vast economic inequality. Only rights can stop the wrongs.

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Cross posted from The Nevada View.

Written by Jennifer J. Reed, MA
PhD Student, Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Las Vegas