Prosecuting Sex Work: Just Doesn’t Work

| November 7, 2012 | 0 Comments

Aimed at departing from the oft-used criminalization approach in dealing with the issue of sex trafficking, a presentation at the 2012 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting in San Francisco examined the issue through the lens of public health prevention as a growing strategy to combat human trafficking. The definition of human trafficking includes labor and sex trafficking. Sex trafficking, however, is often conflated to include sex work. Many advocates argue that this results in the sex work being unfairly targeted by law enforcement authorities  as a “problem”, and also demonized by global health policies such as PEPFAR.

During this presentation, Associate Law Professor Jonathan Todres of Georgia State University, gives an interesting perspective on how solving the problem of human trafficking typically uses a three-pronged approach:

  1. Criminalization/prosecution
  2. Protect & Assist
  3. Adopt Prevention Programs

In these three approaches, Todres notes the disparity in how resources are parceled out – specifically saying that  a”vast amount of resources” are spent for criminalization and prosecution. Close to “nothing” is devoted to prevention, a central concept of public health.

But the manner and amount of resources and support are distributed to address the problem may only be the tip the iceberg.  Todres further reasons that the present “criminal-centric” model fails to address the scope of violence and harm predicated upon the sex trafficked, including dangerously conflating sex work with sex trafficking. Conflating the two results in a lack of understanding of how both are truly different – often subjecting sex workers to marginalization and criminalization at the hands of law enforcement.

Todres recalls a legal concept known as the Multiple Goals Theory, as an underlying rationale as to why prosecution and criminalization might be so often used, and ineffective. The theory states that when entities are faced with multiple goals, they often default to their primary mandate. If the goal is to address sex trafficking, then the (usual) default mandate to achieve the goal is to criminalize and prosecute. Since law enforcement department mandates seldom change, there is always incentives to prosecute and criminalize – their default mandate. Very rarely are there mandates that provide incentives for prevention or protection. In effect, prosecution does not get at the root causes. Additionally with such incentives to prosecute, there is less motivation for law enforcement to delineate sex work from sex trafficking when it is viewed as one big ‘problem’ that authorities are paid to take-down.

In adopting a public health approach, the framework relies on these key points:

  • Evidence-based approach to the problem
  • Focusing on prevention
  • Changing unhealthy and high-risk behaviors
  • Identifying and engaging stakeholders
  • *Understanding human trafficking unique attributes*

The last point maybe a key step in really extrapolating the attributes of sex trafficking and sex work. Through distinguishing the two, applying a thorough framework that properly addresses root causes, can properly divert resources in an effective manner without trampling on the rights of sex workers by making them part of the “problem” .  Properly understanding the unique attributes for both as well, would be crucial in reforming law enforcement departmental policies that rely too much on prosecution, rather than prevention, as a strategy to mitigate human trafficking. As Todre aptly put it as a key takeaway from the session: “We simply cannot prosecute ourselves out of this problem”.


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Category: Criminalization & Mass Imprisonment

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