Even anti-trafficking activists want to kill this anti-trafficking bill

On Wednesday, the New York-based organization GEMS, which serves young female survivors of sex trafficking, tweeted a stance firmly against the 2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA).

The JVTA reforms several existing laws in order to increase funding for child victims of human trafficking, with a primary focus on sex trafficking. But GEMS complained that the bill would also force victims to cooperate with law enforcement, ensnare them into court and criminal justice systems, and inaccurately define anyone who buys sex (“johns”) as a sex trafficker under the law.

The opposition to the bill on behalf of a leading anti-trafficking organization surprised many other advocates. But it also highlighted similar groups that don’t support the JVTA either—for reasons that have nothing to do with the hidden anti-abortion provisions that stalled the bill in Congress this week.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of GEMS, told the Daily Dot that the current bill blindsided many in the anti-trafficking and sex worker advocate communities.

“There were 11 trafficking bills in the beginning of January,” said Lloyd. “I didn’t think this one was going to get any traction. Then suddenly it went through. Everyone was surprised that this moved as quickly as it did. People hadn’t even read it yet.”

Senate Democrats had the same complaint. Senators Dianne Feinstein, Harry Reid, and Dick Durbin all insisted last week that a provision relating to the Hyde Amendment—which bans the use of federal funding for abortions—was buried, almost unrecognizably, in the trafficking bill.

“It was an obscure reference,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) at a March 12 vote. “Clearly if it had been front and center, we would have caught it.” 

Media coverage has spun the bill as universally popular outside of the sneaky abortion reference; if only those pesky Dems would get out of the way of victims, we could help them.

But GEMS doesn’t see it that way. Neither does the Sex Workers Project, a legal advocacy and social services firm that represents sex workers and trafficking victims. Colorado’s SWAN, which does harm reduction services for victims of sex trafficking, also opposes the bill.

The JVTA itself is lengthy and piecemeal. It reads as if numerous interest groups piled on in order to gain funding, and the abortion provision is hardly the most disturbing element of the bill’s reach.

Neither the words “abortion” nor “Hyde” appear anywhere in the JVTA. What does take up quite a bit of space, however, is a title called the Hero Act. The Hero Act segment of the bill defines the sexual exploitation of children as a national security threat, and creates a program for returning military vets to join the “Hero Corps” and rescue victims.

“Maybe we need to deal with sexual assault in the military or things like the Fort Hood prostitution ring before we send veterans out into the streets to fight child sex trafficking,” said Lloyd. She said the Hero Act portion of the JVTA was particularly disturbing to her given that U.S. military personnel are internationally known as customers of the sex trade.

Lloyd’s primary concern, she said, was for the well-being of the girls that GEMS serves. She said the JVTA strengthens an existing system based around stings and incarceration that already fails to serve trafficking survivors.

“We’re already seeing around the country girls being charged as traffickers and facing sex offense charges if they don’t cooperate with law enforcement,” Lloyd said. “Having that leverage to wield over a victim isn’t helping. We’re not going to push girls to cooperate if they don’t want to.”

The difference between legal language and what happens on the ground is clear to service providers. Billie McIntire, executive director of SWAN in Colorado, told the Daily Dot that while the JVTA doesn’t necessarily spell out a mandate that victims cooperate with law enforcement, she can read between the lines.

“With respect to privacy of our clients, I can only say that I have had district attorneys go around me, using probation or other tactics to try and coerce victims into testifying,” McIntire said.

Both SWAN and GEMS were concerned with the funding language in the bill as well. When funding goes to law enforcement efforts first, they said, the needs of victims and survivors are often left behind. And, McIntire pointed out, increasing prostitution stings can inappropriately target sex workers who are in the industry by choice.

Kate D’Adamo of the Sex Workers Project told the Daily Dot that the JVTA was first introduced in 2006, nearly a decade ago. Since then, it’s become layered with problems—one of which is the conflation of “johns” with traffickers.

“Lumping johns in with traffickers is really doing a disservice to anti-trafficking work,” D’Adamo said. “John stings are not effective anti-trafficking work. There are literally no victims in those cases. These are fake ads, set up stings. The people who suffer the consequences get swept under the rug.”

D’Adamo said that oftentimes, victims already choose not to cooperate with law enforcement. For example, many international trafficking victims brought to the U.S. decline to cooperate with Homeland Security and ICE investigators even though it could help them acquire a special visa.

Language in the JVTA makes it clear that  the bill’s priority is strengthening the criminal justice system. One section calls for “regular and mandatory court appearances by the victim during the duration of the treatment program for purposes of ensuring compliance and effectiveness.”

Another confuses the issue by stating that underage trafficking victims might be charged with prostitution if they don’t finish a court program: “the ultimate dismissal of relevant non-violent criminal charges against the victim, where such victim successfully complies with the terms of the court-ordered treatment program.”

It raises the question: Why are we increasing funding for “trafficking victims” if we are charging them as criminals? It’s no surprise that many trafficking survivors don’t trust the system.

“A lot of people have a genuine fear of law enforcement or of the trafficker, and cooperation shouldn’t be a carrot and stick,” said D’Adamo. Many trafficking survivors, she said, are well aware that traffickers know their family and friends and that “snitching” is considered a punishable offense in the criminal underworld.

“I can’t imagine coming from a situation where you’re told, ‘I’ll give a place to live only if you have sex with 15 clients a day,’ to, ‘I’ll help you but only if you cooperate with law enforcement on our terms,'” D’Adamo said. 

Photo via Ira Gelb/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.