Mayor’s Vatican Meeting Brings Minnesota’s Vision for Combatting Human Trafficking to World Stage

Puppet RGBWhen Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges meets with the Vatican, she has the opportunity to highlight a position that Minnesota law reflects and to which our community has committed: the prostitution of another person is human trafficking.

When it comes to defining human trafficking, Minnesota law looks at the behavior of the trafficker: did that person “receive, recruit, entice, harbor, provide, or obtain by any means an individual to aid in the prostitution of an individual”? If yes, it’s trafficking. Minnesota does not define human trafficking by the conduct of the victim. This unique approach helps to hold traffickers accountable regardless of the “consent” of the victim.

Minnesota’s anti-trafficking policy reflects the understanding that targeting buyers and traffickers is good public policy. Because make no mistake, trafficking operates in a marketplace driven by demand, as research published last year by Dr. Lauren Martin and Dr. Alexandra Pierce, put into disturbing focus. The Minnesota approach avoids the trap inherent in attempts to rationalize a distinction between prostitution and trafficking, a position which rests on a tempting but ultimately untrue assumption of equal bargaining power between the woman and the person who buys her for the hour.

NPR reporter Sylvia Poggioli’s report is a somewhat disturbing example of how the issue plays out. In the report, Poggioli talks about a new Rome ordinance that creates permitted zones for prostitution in a previously unregulated city. The report identifies first the paradox that while “aiding and abetting prostitution” is illegal (possibly under anti-trafficking laws), exchange of sex for money is legal and that the city’s response to the growing nuisance of open prostitution is to create tolerance zones and fine sex buyers who purchase outside one of the zones.

Poggioli goes on: “The great majority of prostitutes in Italy are foreigners. Many are undocumented women from Nigeria, victims of human traffickers and women from European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.” It’s no surprise that Poggioli can’t distinguish between prostitution and trafficking, because they are part and parcel of the same exploitation. This inadvertent insight hits the nail on the head: prostitution isn’t about the sex and it’s not about work; it’s about power, degradation, and violence.

The Vatican meeting comes at a moment when the debate over legalization of prostitution is in full swing. Amnesty International is poised to adopt a policy on sex work that recommends legalization of sex buying and selling.

To some extent the recommendation reflects the legitimate concern that criminalization of prostituted persons, especially in LGBTI communities worldwide, is too often used as an excuse to target people on account of sexual orientation, political opinion, ethnicity or other factors. While legalization may take away one avenue for this persecution, it avoids tackling the root causes of why people are on the street in the first place.

Arguments for legalization of sex buying avoid an even bigger elephant in the room: that of men’s responsibility for commercial sexual exploitation. Poggioli falls for the tired attempt to blame men’s sex buying on Italian women’s “liberation.” Amnesty International essentially blames criminalization of sex buying for the human rights violations experienced by people sold for sex. Both leave intact and unexamined demand for ready access to paid sex when, where, and how men want it.

Minnesota, meanwhile, is on a different path, one that is consistent with our understanding of the fundamentally violent and exploitative nature of prostitution that is reflected in our existing laws. Given our roots, perhaps it’s no surprise that Minnesota is considering an approach which has come to be known as the Nordic Model. Led by Minnesota representative John Lesch, a bill to repeal the penalties for selling sex while retaining penalties against sex buyers and traffickers strikes the right balance.

We know that a community commitment to what the U.S. State Department calls the 3Ps of protecting victims, prosecution those responsible for the trafficking, and preventing trafficking in the first place is fundamental to fighting human trafficking.

One of the keys to the success of Minnesota’s approach to sexually exploited youth has been the creation of the No Wrong Door model, which resulted from a multi-disciplinary stakeholder engagement process which reinforced a collective understanding of what trafficking is and evidence-based practices to help victims rebuild their lives. The process was included in the 2011 Safe Harbor legislation to ensure that Minnesota did not simply “decriminalize” trafficked youth but made a good faith effort to actually meet their needs so they did not need to return to selling sex for lack of other options while retaining criminal accountability for those who buy and sex other people for sex.

Minnesota’s anti-trafficking policy is on the right track and with this visit to the Vatican, it’s set to take the world stage.

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, Director of Advocacy, The Advocates for Human Rights

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