Sex Trafficking Victims, Not ‘Prostitutes,’ Finally Getting Help (and a New Name) in Court

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

Andreas Rentz/Getty

Lillin was 14 years old when she was kidnapped from her Mount Vernon home. She was tied and handcuffed, and taken to Queens, where she was kept for a year and forced to have sex with her abductor. When she managed to escape and return to her conservative family, the cultural shame associated with what happened to her kept her father from going to the police.

A few years later, Lillin was lured from her home by a friend with whom she used to do homework. The friend introduced Lillin to a man who turned out to be the friend’s pimp, who already had pictures of Lillin and her family. He threatened to kill them if Lillin didn’t turn tricks for him, and so she did, for over two years. In the ensuing years, Lillin has been arrested over 50 times for prostitution and has accumulated 12 convictions. She is now 22 years old.

Lillin is exactly the kind of woman New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative is designed to help. Sex workers are identified as victims of trafficking rather than criminals, and the initiative is designed to connect those arrested for prostitution-related charges with counseling and social services in lieu of jail-time. Piloted in Queens and New York, the program was launched by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in September of 2013, and it’s working.

New York will be a trail-blazer, Lippman believes—the first state in the nation to create a statewide system of courts designed to intervene in the lives of trafficked human beings and to help them to “break the cycle of exploitation and arrest.” The Human Trafficking Courts (HTIC) will assist sex workers in pursuing “productive lives rather than sending them right back into the grip of their abusers.” Lippman promised that the new initiative will stop the pattern of “shuffling trafficking victims through our criminal courtrooms without addressing the underlying reasons why they are there in the first place.”

Eleven Human Trafficking Intervention Courts have since been established, each with a judge who presides one day a week over all individuals arraigned in that borough for prostitution. And while law enforcement still arrests people for prostitution, they are now sent to counseling sessions rather than jail. Upon completion of the mandated counseling sessions, defendants are eligible to have their records sealed, provided they are not re-arrested for six months. Defendants also have the option of rejecting the mandated services and proceeding to a trial by jury, but the judges greatly encourage them to go the route of services.

Judge Lippman clearly had in mind women like Lillin, who had been trafficked heinously and against her will. But what about those who choose to work in sex industries?

“There’s a tension between whether they are technically being trafficked in a totally involuntary way, and other women who see this as another way to survive,” said Judge Shari Michels, who presides over the HTIC in the Bronx. But because those who choose sex work were at one point trafficked, Judge Michels says, these individuals are already immune to the trauma, or what would be trauma for another person.

Or, as an HTIC judge who requested to remain anonymous said, “I don’t believe anyone’s open to prostitution unless you’ve been traumatized or abused. You’d beg, you’d go on welfare, you’d shoplift, for goodness' sake. These people need to be treated as victims. They have already lost their dignity.”

I asked Lillin how she feels about being called a victim. “It’s OK by me,” she told me outside a Brooklyn courtroom.

But other sex workers balked at even the nomenclature—let alone the turn toward rehabilitation the courts have taken. One woman in Michels’ courtroom couldn’t help but roll her eyes when Michels asked her how the counseling sessions were going. Michels gave the woman a lecture in response, exhorting her to arrive on time to her next court appearance as part of her “transformation” and telling her that there wasn’t a person in the courtroom who would be without benefit from some form of counseling.

And while many see any alternative to jail time as a net gain, the court has not challenged the law against prostitution. “As judges, we have to follow the law,” Judge Michels said. “It’s a transition. It’s up to society to decide how to treat these people.”

The women at the courts were often reticent to speak about their experiences and why they were there, but most seemed relieved not to be facing jail time.

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And yet, the major difference between the new courts and the old ones is more a shift in attitude than anything else, says Audacia Ray. Audacia is a former sex worker and the founder and director of the Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led sex-worker organization. She says law enforcement is still treating sex workers as criminals, despite redefining prostitution as victimization.

“People who are in the sex trade are the only folks who are being identified as victims [and] are getting arrested for that fact,” says Ray. “The event of an arrest is really traumatic, and perceived as punitive. It just doesn’t matter how much the court is saying, ‘You’re not going to jail.’ People are still getting handcuffed, and that’s something that seems like it’s a punishment. And they’re still in court.”

There’s a misconception about where the violence in the sex industry comes from, Ray says. “In reality, most sex workers we know fear police and fear the different systems they have to interact with much more than they fear individual clients.”

Without significantly altering the way sex workers are treated by law enforcement, the courts are defining them as victims and taking away their agency, Ray says.

“A real tenet of providing support to victims of violence is to give them choices,” Ray says. “The court system is stripping that from people. It’s saying, 'These people are so traumatized that they don’t get to have any choice in what happens next.' And that is exactly wrong. Part of giving people support should be restoring their ability to have decision-making power in their lives. Services should be voluntary, not coerced.”

And the messaging—that people engaging in sex work are too traumatized to be making decisions—infuriates Ray as a former sex worker.

“Trauma doesn’t negate autonomy,” she said.

Leigh Alana has been a sex worker since she came out to her parents as bi-sexual in college and they “didn’t take it well.” She needed to find a way to get herself through college.

“It certainly started out a necessity in the sense that I didn’t have access to another job that would both meet my needs and allow me the time to go to classes,” Alana says.

But now, seven years later, she says the work suits her. Alana is a dominatrix. She says there are aspects of the work that she enjoys and is good at, and that it allows her time to do other things.

“And the pay is better than any other work I can realistically access,” she said.

She has no plans to quit.

She doesn’t see herself as a victimized by sex work. For her, sex work was a route out of victimization, a stabilizing force. But she admits that she is not the typical sex worker likely to pass through the courts. Her work is indoors—niche work that isn’t being stringently policed.

Alana says that the courts are failing to address the major reason people go into sex work: It pays.

“A five or six week counseling course that talks to you about why what you’re doing is bad for you doesn’t actually solve any of the problems,” she said.

Or, as Audacia Ray put it, “Therapy is not a way to get a job.”

The courts have a number of more practical problems too. According to a report by Ray's Red Umbrella Project, they have done nothing to ameliorate racial profiling. Black defendants in the Brooklyn HTIC faced 69 percent of all charges and were 88 percent of the defendants who faced three or more charges. Ninety-four percent of charges for loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution were brought against black defendants. The report found that there have been problems procuring translators for defendants, too.

Maybe most disturbingly, the study found that there are no publicly established standards for the social services that are mandated for defendants. There's no telling that the state-mandated help is helping at all.

The Center for Court Innovation did not respond to requests for comment. But Crystal Deboise, the managing director of the Sex Workers Project, a non-profit that provides legal and social services to sex workers, had a more equivocal take on the new courts. From her work with sex workers Deboise said that the new court system is a clear win for most clients. But she says that the implications of using the criminal justice system as a method for social intervention are huge.

“I think it has pretty serious implications for who we are as a society,” she said. “Do we say the way to assist those abused in the sex industry is by arresting them?”

There are serious consequences to arrests. It makes it difficult for women to find employment, which leads ironically to more sex work.

“We would love to see that attention given to the community as a place where solutions can be found,” Deboise said. “But counseling is better than jail time.”