The GOP’s Sex Trafficking Shell Game: How Laws Against ‘Sex Trafficking’ End Up Hurting Women

Republicans are insisting on tacking anti-abortion language onto an anti-sex-trafficking bill—and it’s just their latest effort to exploit the issue to fight “sexual immorality.”

03.19.15 11:38 PM ET

Who doesn’t hate sex trafficking?

No one, of course. Sex trafficking is horrifying. Which is why it’s being exploited by social conservatives to push an anti-sex agenda under an anti-trafficking banner.

Just recently, this longstanding tactic became front-page news. A pending Senate bill on sex trafficking was all set to pass—until Democrats discovered that it expands a longstanding policy known as the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer money from being used to fund abortions. Under the proposed law, that policy would now also cover a dedicated fund for victims of sex trafficking.

Sneakily, the bill does so only by cross-referencing another law without even mentioning what it is. Democrats say they had no idea the provision was even in there. But now, their objections to it have stalled the law and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is stalling Loretta Lynch’s nomination to be attorney general until the stalemate is resolved.

Although this is its first time in the headlines, the sex trafficking shell game is not new; it’s been going on for some time now, away from the limelight, in at least five distinct ways.

1. Money with Religious Strings Attached

The first is when money designed to fight sex trafficking is used to advance a conservative ideological agenda. In 2006, for example, the Bush administration granted $19 million to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (the same conservative Catholic network that would later fight for religious exemptions to ObamaCare) to oversee the government’s services to women under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

As revealed in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the USCCB gave the money disproportionately to religious groups, and demanded that not a penny provide counseling for either abortion or birth control. This was even true for victims of rape.

In other words, precisely the provision at issue in the Senate bill was already the policy under the USCCB sub-grant, which was discontinued by the Obama administration.

2. Crack Down on Prostitution Instead

A second tactic is to obtain federal grants to combat human trafficking, but actually crack down on prostitution instead. For example, Las Vegas—Sin City itself—received a two-year, $500,000 federal grant in 2009 to combat trafficking, and the majority of the money went to overtime for vice cops arresting prostitutes. At the end of the grant period, Las Vegas could only report 10 cases of trafficking that they had busted as a result.

This is not an accident. Last year, Maggie McNeill, writing in The Washington Post, revealed internal documents of the anti-prostitution group Demand Abolition that said, “Framing the Campaign’s key target as sexual slavery might garner more support and less resistance, while framing the Campaign as combating prostitution may be less likely to mobilize similar levels of support.”

So sexual slavery is just a rhetorical frame for eradicating prostitution.

Yet, as McNeill also pointed out, the two are often at cross purposes. If you really want to eliminate sex trafficking and sex slavery, the best policy choice would be to legalize and regulate prostitution. When this was tried in Australia and New Zealand, sex trafficking virtually disappeared. But of course, that’s the last thing that sex trafficking activists from far-right institutions like Regent University want. Which is why it is never on the agenda. 

Given the choice between fighting trafficking and fighting prostitution, social conservatives pretend to do the former, but actually do the latter.

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3. Recast Prostitutes as ‘Victims’

Part of the “reframing” of prostitution is to cast all pimps as traffickers, and all sex work as coercive.

“I don’t believe anyone’s open to prostitution unless you’ve been traumatized or abused,” one New York judge recently told The Daily Beast. “You’d beg, you’d go on welfare, you’d shoplift, for goodness’ sake. These people need to be treated as victims.”

Amazingly, that judge works in New York’s Human Trafficking Courts, set up to protect actual victims of trafficking—but which now “protect” all “victims,” even adults who say they chose sex work voluntarily. As far as the system is concerned, those people are a null set.

Not only is this an affront to sex workers’ autonomy and humanity, it also leads to bad policy. In New York, sex workers are shipped off to “counseling” with the foregone conclusion that their choices are wrong. That takes them away from their work, wastes money and time, and doesn’t help make them safer.

Indeed, as the Beast article showed, the revamped system perpetuates racial profiling (blacks make up 69 percent of defendants in New York’s human trafficking courts), stigma, and the risk of police violence.

And what “counseling” do sex workers receive? Like that annoying pop song, often it’s just…

4. Take them to Church

Phoenix, Arizona’s Project ROSE (“Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation”) purports to protect sex workers, but as Vice reported in a long- form expose of the program, Project ROSE is actually a front for conservative religious “re-education.”

Since 2011, the project has made over 350 arrests. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The law is deliberately vague, allowing police to “contact” anyone who appears to be “manifesting prostitution.” Surprise, surprise—that has led to a disproportionate “contacting” of transgender women of color, who have been routinely harassed by police and civilians alike.

Once “contacted,” suspects are brought to a church, and threatened with arrest unless they enroll in a religiously-affiliated “diversion” program. Since they haven’t technically been arrested yet, they don’t have the right to have lawyers present. Not surprisingly, many opt toward the “diversion” program, which includes moral education courtesy of Catholic Charities. That means, of course, no condoms, no child-care, and no counseling on contraception or abortion. Just heavy doses of shaming, threats, and conservative moralism.

This is legal because it’s “secular” counseling for victims of “trauma.” Even if it just happens to comport with conservative Catholic dogma.

5. Co-Opt the Narrative

Finally, the whole narrative of anti-trafficking work has been co-opted by evangelicals and other social conservatives.

Previously, anti-trafficking was a feminist issue. It was about women kidnapped, brutalized, and subjugated by men.

But now, it’s a religious issue. Two years ago, 60,000 conservative Christians gathered in the Georgia Dome “for worship and inspiration at the Passion 2013 conference” designed “to shine a light on modern-day slavery.”

Denuding “slavery” of its racial meaning (and thus its relevance for race issues today), conservative Christians cast themselves as the new abolitionists, “rescuing” prostitutes from truck stops and rallying to end all forms of human trafficking—even those which sex workers themselves say are non-exploitative.

To evangelicals, this is about victims and evildoers, not women and men. And the conceptual slippage is apparent.

One leading anti-trafficking activist told Slate that “all prostitution is inherently harmful. Whether or not it’s consensual, whether or not they want to do it, if it’s high-end or streetwalking, it’s harmful, and it’s not good.”

That is an anti-feminist message; it’s telling women that there is only one right way to use their bodies—and just coincidentally, it’s the way centuries of patriarchal religion have taught.

Likewise, one evangelical pastor said recently that pornography contributes to sex trafficking. “The more people who watch pornography, the more they’ll want sexual fulfillment through prostitution and so that desire drives men and women to engage in physical prostitution, even virtual prostitution. And so you’ve got this relationship between pornography feeding prostitution and that increasing the demand for sex trafficking.”

And, he added, “The same Gospel that compels us to war against sex trafficking compels us to address sexual immorality in all its forms.”

That, of course, is the main point. Religious crusaders against sex trafficking say they’re against trafficking—but really, they’re against sex.

Trafficking is the “tip of the wedge,” where evangelicals might make common cause with liberals and feminists. But ultimately, the wedge includes pornography, sex work, homosexuality, sex for pleasure, abortion, contraception—anything that might be construed as “sexual immorality.” That broader agenda is evident in the way that sex trafficking laws have been written and enforced, and in the way the religious anti-trafficking movement has cast the struggle.

Ironically, the Senate Republicans who have dug in their heels on the Lynch nomination may have dug the grave of the sex trafficking shell game. At the very least, they’ve shined a harsh light on what had long been a quietly effective way to fight the culture war, by pretending to fight something else.