President Obama signed the 2015 Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act (JVTA) into law last Friday, May 30th. The JVTA combines a number of bills that stalled in senate and changes federal laws on trafficking. Key features of the JVTA include:

 

 

While the JVTA got bipartisan political support, it drew bipartisan criticism from organizations that work closely with communities that will be effected by the JVTA–organizations that often disagree. The following statement by GEMS, an organization that works with girls impacted by the sex trade in New York is an excellent synopsis of why the JVTA is not what young people who are victims of exploitation in the sex trade need.

 

1) Funding is prioritized for law enforcement and prosecutors, not victims’ services

Looking to criminalize our way out of something hasn’t worked in any other issue and won’t work here. While good relationships with law enforcement can be critical in this work, they are a very small piece that contribute to only some survivors’ recovery.

2) Cooperation with law enforcement is strongly encouraged

For some victims this may be the answer, for others it may be damaging to their healing. Services shouldn’t have to push victims to cooperate with law enforcement in order to receive funding.

 3) Courts can exercise extended supervision over youth considered ‘at risk’ for trafficking

We need to be removing children from the judicial system, not increasing their involvement. Extending probation for at risk youth, as determined by an officer of the court, is a move backwards in juvenile rights.

 4) Buyers (‘johns’) would be charged as traffickers

While johns absolutely need to face penalties and consequences, being a trafficker is a specific crime and not just a catch-all for everyone who did something wrong to a child. Trafficking and buying have two very different motivations and should be addressed differently.

This bill buys into a sensationalized presentation of a complex issue, to which the criminal justice system is somehow the solution. It’s not. We need to focus on prevention and vulnerability, increasing and strengthening services for runaway and homeless youth and significantly reforming our child welfare systems. We need to ensure that young people over the age of 18 have access to affordable housing options,  living wage employment and career opportunities, continuing education, affordable child care, and long term supports for their stability, leadership and growth. We need to support community-based, grassroots, survivor-led and survivor-informed programs that work with victims and survivors and that actually work. And most of all, we need recognize that adding more money to systems that already fail our youth isn’t the answer. We need real revolutionary radical change that takes into account the realities of our young people’s lives. The JVTA does not.

 

Further criticism of the JVTA by Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Sex Workers Project, and Sex Workers Outreach Project is linked.

 

There isn’t much we can do about the JVTA right now. But as advocates, we can work to support legislation, like the RHYA, that would actually help youth at risk of exploitation and trafficking.

 

We can also work to change the political climate that encourages politicians to sponsor and support legislation like the JVTA. Carcereal anti-trafficking legislation continues to surface (and pass) because it is politically beneficial: anything advertised as combating sex trafficking rallies votes, and decision-makers face very little criticism or resistance not only from their constituency but also from mainstream non-profits. The tide of carcereal anti-trafficking legislation will continue as long as it’s politically beneficial to decision-makers, and it will continue to be politically beneficial in the absence of mainstream opposition.

Activists, grassroots organizations, and service organizations that work closely with communities effected by carcereal anti-trafficking policies can work to stop this tide of harmful legislation by:

 

  • Building relationships with other social and economic justice organizations and movements. Sex Worker organizers and organizations can’t do it alone — we need to build stronger relationships with movements and groups working on issues that impact sex workers. We need to support economic justice, prison abolition, reproductive justice and social justice movements and we need the support of these movements. We need to show up at events, present at conferences or teach-ins, volunteer with, support, and engage in coalition work.
  • Reaching out to and building relationships with mainstream organizations and holding these accountable. Activists and grassroots organizations can ask to meet with board members and upper-level management to discuss how policies they support impact your community.  Individuals can ask organizations whether they supported local or federal bills that have harmed their community. They can ask organizations questions about their position on carcereal approaches to trafficking before donating.  They can stop contributing to organizations that support carcereal approaches and explain the reason.
  • Educating the public about helpful and harmful approaches to addressing trafficking. Activists and organizations can give trainings or talks, write op-eds, or meet with or send a story idea to local journalists who cover similar issues. Service organizations can educate their staff, volunteers, donors and clients. Individuals can talk to their friends, family and colleagues, write letters to the editor, and post on facebook or twitter.
  • Reaching out to local, state, and national representatives. Schedule a meeting with a staffer. Show up at ward nights or city council meetings. Write a letter.

 

More than anything, sex worker advocates and organizations need to be persistent, and we need to keep working to ensure that decision-makers don’t politically benefit from making decisions that harm the communities we work with.

-K. Koster