Originally Published in Pittsburgh City Paper.
Earlier this month, TribLIVE reported that state Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) is proposing a state law that would require everyone convicted of sex trafficking and of purchasing sexual services to be added to Megan’s Law, Pennsylvania’s sex offender registry, for 15 years.
Those convicted of trafficking minors are already in the sex offender registry. Ward is proposing to extend this to those who have been convicted of trafficking adults, and those who purchase their services.
On its face, this proposal sounds relatively uncontroversial. No one supports turning a blind eye to abusers that violently coerce victims into having sex for money. This is no doubt why HOPE Center executive director Michelle Gibb, quoted in the TribLIVE article, assumes that Ward’s proposal “should be a slam-dunk.” Yet, the justification for such a law is far from clear. There’s little evidence to suggest it will have a deterrent effect. And, in any case, the statistics used to support claims of a sex trafficking crisis have been thoroughly debunked.
And yet, sex workers—those who engage in the work consensually and independently—are paying the price for this current panic around sex trafficking. Sold as an anti-trafficking bill, FOSTA-SESTA moved swiftly through the house and senate last year, despite immense pushback from sex workers and harm reduction activists. If FOSTA-SESTA has taught us nothing else, it is that the government is notoriously bad at distinguishing sex work from trafficking, and this has very real, negative consequences on the lives of everyone who trades sex, including trafficking victims.
The broad way in which trafficking is defined has several important consequences. Harm reduction organizations, who distribute safety information to sex workers, have been accused of trafficking (indeed, the Desiree Alliance, a social justice coalition comprised of current and former sex workers canceled its annual conference for fears of trafficking charges). Sex workers who work in pairs in order to ensure each other’s safety have been accused of trafficking each other; and spouses, roommates, and other folks close to sex workers can be accused of trafficking if any of their rent and/or bills are paid with money earned in sexual transactions. In fact, in some cases, law enforcement has accused women of trafficking themselves in order to inflate charges and pressure plea bargains.
This witch hunt around sex trafficking puts folks who run harm reduction organizations, and both sex workers and their loved ones, at risk of trafficking charges and getting put on sex offender registries, significantly affecting their lives, all while doing nothing to combat real cases of trafficking.
Ward herself is quoted as saying that she hasn’t “received any negative feedback.” All this tells us is that she is not talking to the people whose lives would be impacted by this legislation. Further criminalization does nothing to aid trafficking victims, and only makes the lives of everyone in the sex trades, including victims, less safe. This dangerous piece of legislation, if passed, will cost sex workers their lives, just as FOSTA-SESTA has. Sex workers are saying this loud and clear, Ward and her colleagues ought to listen.