Cover Story

Trafficking Cops

"Trafficking Cops" Continued...

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

What bearing does legalization have on the trafficking of women? Those who favor legalized prostitution insist that "voluntary sex workers" are in a completely different category from those women forced by brutal owners to service men against their will. They say they can improve working conditions for the former while simultaneously rescuing the latter.

Nonsense, says Donna Hughes, a professor of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island and a leading expert on trafficking. "Where prostitution is illegal, if you find an act of prostitution, you know the law's been broken. With legalized prostitution, the pimp simply says, 'But she consented.' Then it becomes like the current debate in this country over date rape. The woman has to try to prove that she didn't consent. If the prostitution had not been legal, the pimp couldn't make that defense in the first place. So it makes the job of law enforcement that much harder."

The administration's stance on legalized prostitution should be clear-cut. Laura J. Lederer, President Bush's appointee as senior deputy adviser in the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says flatly that prostitution as a career choice is unacceptable.

"This is not a legitimate form of labor. We've been fighting this trend that says if we could just get rid of the AIDS, STDs, and other diseases, the rape and violence, the organized crime, drug trafficking and drug addiction associated with prostitution, it could be a legitimate career option for women," said Dr. Lederer.

"This administration is saying you cannot clean this up," she said. "It can never be a legitimate way to make a living because it's inherently harmful for men, women, and children. It goes in the opposite direction of President Bush's pro-woman, pro-family, human-rights agenda."

Dr. Lederer sees parallels between those who would legalize prostitution today and those who tried to improve the lot of 19th-century African slaves. "Some people argued that if we could just make the chains a little less tight and clean up the slave quarters, then slavery would be fine. They wanted to just regulate it, basically. Others said no, this is inherently evil and we need to abolish it. That's the approach that we want to take-that this whole commercial sex industry is a human-rights abuse."

Yet, incredibly enough, not everyone in the Bush State Department agrees. Anti-prostitution groups like Miramed, a pioneering nongovernmental organization working to stop the trafficking of Russian women, have seen their funding suddenly cut off. Meanwhile, groups like the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) continue to receive government grants for anti-trafficking efforts that hold open the possibility of legalized prostitution.

"In terms of the State Department, trying to find where the buck stops is next to impossible," says Lisa Thompson of the Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking. "A lot of groups that do really good work are trying to get funding, and they're totally getting the runaround. It makes you wonder how groups like IREX get to the trough."

So entrenched are the pro-legalization forces after eight years of Bill Clinton that the State Department has yet even to formulate a clear stance on the subject. One draft policy statement unequivocally "rejects the view that the legalization of prostitution and related activities ... should be treated as a legitimate or empowering form of work for women."

Yet after weeks of debate within a Republican-dominated agency, the policy has yet to be adopted. Meanwhile, as the State Department fiddles with policy statements, much of the world burns. Millions more women and girls will end up as sexual slaves in the next 12 months, victims of greed, corruption, lust-and, perhaps, the Washington bureaucracy.

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