Washington- “We believe that ending sex trafficking begins with decriminalization of sex workers.”
It’s a bold prescription being put forward by one of the largest NGOs in the United States.
Earlier this week, while addressing a group of international journalists at the Foreign Press Centre, Jean Bruggeman of the Freedom Network stated, “We believe that ending sex trafficking starts with decriminalizing sex work.
People engaged in sex work must feel safe to come forward to report attacks of rape and abuse. Sex workers must feel safe.”
The Freedom Network is largest alliance of experienced advocates in the US, it prides itself on advancing a human rights-based approach to human trafficking.
Bruggeman and her team are committed to advancing the conversation on sex workers and have chosen to reopen the topic during Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
Last year in his message to his people, The US President Donald Trump recommitted the government’s efforts in eradicating the evil of modern day enslavement.
He stated, “It has no place in our world.”
The US President described trafficking as” a modern form of the oldest and most barbaric type of exploitation. This month we do not simply reflect on this appalling reality. We also pledge to do all in our power to end the horrific practice of human trafficking that plagues innocent victims around the world.”
But even with this commitment, it seems as though lawmakers, the US Supreme Court, law enforcement and NGOs in Washington differ on who is to be identified as the victim and who will be labelled a perpetrator in the billion-dollar human trafficking industry.
Bruggeman believes that the law places the victim and perpetrator in the same category.
She noted the emotive responses that have emerged since the debate reopened but stated “there is a difference between decriminalizing and legalizing.”
One essentially removes the penalties while the other involves massive structural change and even cultural change. She is advocating the former.
“We feel when workers continue to be arrested for engaging in sex work it puts them in all forms of harm and will perpetuate sex trafficking other forms of exploitation.
She believes the laws of a country must protect and empower not disenfranchise and discriminate
“Once they have a criminal record we shut them out the system, the chances of education, housing and employment are all gone. We are essentially condemning them to working off the books and not empowering them.”
The human rights activist is of the belief that by expanding the options of workers and not inhibiting them the county will be safer and begin meaningful change to end modern-day slavery.
But she is realistic and understands the complexity of the matters “I’m not a pie in the sky kind of gal and I know we cannot illuminate it anytime soon, what we can do, is make conditions safer for people.”
In the meantime, she is hoping the little protection that is offered by the system will actually materialize to benefit the workers and hostages of the sex industry.
She lamented “too often reports of abuse of sex workers are discarded and they are labelled as occupational risks of prostitutes
She called on law enforcement to “Take those reports of sex worker abuse seriously and invest these reports with the same vigour as they would with other crime”
But not everyone is supportive of this NGO cry, in fact, according to Burrgerman there is “immense and great resistance” to the proposal.
Why would such a simple solution receive opposition?
She boldly asserts “Most of our lawmakers are men and I don’t think they have a diversity of experience to understand the problem.”
While that maybe her assessment of the resistance, there is a strong opposing view on proposals to decriminalize and legalizing sex workers in the United States.
Steven Wagner has served in the US Department of Family Services for over 20 years believes that prostitution has it genesis grounded in slavery and abuse.”
He stated “In my line of work I have noted that many of these women were abused as children and that is how and why they ended in the trade. They may be 18 now but the decision to enter the industry was made before that and most times not by them.”
He boldly states “no one will choose sex as a means of survival.”
But with the debate over the rights of sex workers now reignited in the US, is it time Trinidad and Tobago reviews its laws governing prostitution?
The Former Justice Minister Christlyn Moore says the conversation locally should be around regulation and not decriminalization.
The law in Trinidad relative to prostitution is governed by the Sexual Offences Act. The act does not criminalise prostitutes per se but does criminalise the act of living off the earnings of prostitution, aiding protection, procuring prostitution, being in control of premises used for prostitution. The ambiguity is somewhat glaring.
Prostitutes arrested in Trinidad are usually arrested for lewd and suggestive dancing, immigration violations, loitering, or other tangential offences. There appears to be no offence of ‘prostitution” Even the offence of living off the earnings of prostitution seems to target third parties that is to say pimps.
Moore says “ The law does not target prostitutes, or make their activity illegal, though it does criminalise the supporting or enabling environment such as brothels and pimps. Any change in the law to decriminalise Brothels may make a safer space for sex workers and provide an opportunity for regulation of the sex industry.”
In relation to the views of a possible link between trafficking and the sex industry, Moore states “There is legislation in the area of human trafficking. This legislation makes it clear that trafficked
person are victims not criminals. Again Prostitutes are not criminals in Trinidad though the social stigma remains and the language of the Sexual offences Act does not suggest that prostitutes agents of their own destiny. They are implied victims in this legislation.”
She believes the conversation should be set on a different tone to that in the US “Rather than decriminalise prostitution Trinidad may need instead to talk about regulating the sex work industry as a method of combatting human trafficking.”
She says the county position in the battling the sex trade “will depend on how Trinidad and Tobago views itself in the sex trafficking matrix- are they providers of trafficked persons or a transshipment point for trafficked persons. If Trinidad does not view its citizens are being vulnerable to trafficking then there will be less incentive to regulate sex work.”
Article written by Hema Ramkissoon. Hema Ramkisssoon is part of a team of international journalists participating in a reporting tour on Human Trafficking in the United States. The tour is organized by the Foreign Press Center and the US Department of State.