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U.S. law enforcement: when “rescue” becomes exploitation

  • Published on
    April 9, 2021
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  • Category:
    Law & Policy, Prevention
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The criminalization of sex work in the U.S., barring the state of Nevada, further complicates and undermines efforts to tackle sex trafficking, the Washington Post reports.

Like many countries, in the U.S., there is a dangerous conflation of sex work and sex trafficking due to the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work.

U.S. law enforcement tends to treat all sex work as potential instances of trafficking. Police often go undercover to visit suspected sex work spots. All too often, the result of this approach is the victimization, or revictimization, of women who work there. Many of whom have chosen to enter sex work but, due to their “rescue”, they end up losing their work and sometimes being incarcerated or deported.

The Washington Post details several examples across multiple states of police raiding massage and spa businesses supposedly with the intent to root out trafficking.

Disturbingly, police officers have reportedly had sex with suspected “victims” – in the name of undercover investigation – despite only requiring a verbal contract or exchange of money for sex. This means that many women, both trafficking victims and sex workers, end up having to have sex with the people who then arrest them – an exploitative and dehumanizing experience.

While trafficking advocates are split between those who support sex work decriminalization and those who don’t, some U.S. jurisdictions are finally beginning to realize that the current approach to sex work crackdown is doing more harm than good.

The Washington Post reports,

Law enforcement officials say they’ve shifted course to place more emphasis on helping — rather than apprehending — victims of trafficking. “The culture is changing,” said John Eisert, an assistant director for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. “We are starting to recognize that these women are victims.”

Eisert said HSI identified and assisted 418 survivors of sex trafficking last year, including some who worked for massage businesses. The agency gives the women shelter when necessary and assigns them “continued presence” immigration status, which allows them to stay in the country to work, he said.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, recently announced that her office would no longer prosecute prostitution. This year, New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio, publicly urged lawmakers to decriminalize sex work.

Freedom United is wary of the criminalization of sex work as method of tackling sex trafficking. We hosted a webinar earlier this year to explore the links between trafficking and sex workers’ rights.

Learn more about this topic on our dedicated resource hub.


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3 years ago

Who is paying for their food while they are in prison, shelter and warm while they are in? Maybe their labor will pay for that. Why should taxpayers pay because THEY did something wrong????!!!

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