United States / Human trafficking laws

Reforming Maine’s Human Trafficking Laws

Although many are familiar with the devastating affects of the sex trafficking industry, it is easy to disassociate ourselves from the issue, and see it as an international problem on which we can have little impact. Sex trafficking is the international, national, and local trade in humans for the purpose of sexual slavery. The victims are coerced into selling sex, whereas prostitutes sell sex by choice. Most assume lawmakers and enforcers carry the burden of solving the problem; however, it seems Maine’s sex trade appears to be on the rise. As Portland Police Chief Mike Saschuck said, “I think the scary part is that it’s an unknown. It seems like once you start scratching at the surface, it gets deeper and deeper and deeper.” Calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline from Maine have increased 50 percent in the last few years and it is becoming increasingly evident that human trafficking occurs right under everyone’s noses and is extremely underreported.

Many are well versed in the frightening global statistics of human trafficking—it is a 32 billion dollar industry and the fastest growing illegal trade in the world; second only to drug trafficking. These modern day slaves are not sold publicly as they were in 19th century slavery; they are illegal immigrants forced to work without pay under threat of violence and helpless citizens coerced to sell sex to benefit to third parties. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 50 percent of victims of human trafficking are forced into prostitution, and the most common age to enter the commercial sex industry is 13-14.  The industry taps into all groups, spanning socioeconomic levels and geographic areas. Although there are 30 million people enduring modern day slavery, it flies under the radar because of its covert operations, the widespread ignorance about the issue, and the lack of empathy for its victims.

Despite the fact that many victims of sex trafficking industry are young, usually have a history of emotional or physical abuse, and are often drugged and threatened into prostitution, law enforcement, media, and the public seem to do little for these victims. Many women become dependent on their pimps, as they use their addiction to drugs to keep them hostage. Furthermore, pimps often use violence as a way to keep the women working for them. If they are “rescued” by law enforcement, they face criminal charges in addition to the extreme emotional trauma they’ve endured. As Maine House of Representative Amy Volk says, “Criminal records inhibit the ability of some victims to move forward with their lives because they can no longer obtain certain jobs or loans, or go to school as a result of the stigma that is attached to having to report a conviction for prostitution,” Volk said. “I have also heard of women unable to secure housing because landlords perform background checks.”

Meanwhile, criminal repercussions for johns is much more infrequent and less severe. Polling by ABC news suggests that about 15 percent of American men have bought sex and that there is about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being arrested while doing so. Additionally, johns looking for a prostitute can find one instantly online, through websites such as backpage.com, a particularly scathing classified advertising Web site that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats—and girls. Donna M. Hughes, an expert on human trafficking at the University of Rhode Island, notes that police are often tougher on men who download child pornography than johns who buy sex.

Maine Representative Amy Volk is sponsoring a statewide bill, An Act to Assist Victims of Human Trafficking, which would aid victims in restarting their lives.  The bill was taken up by lawmakers this past March during a public hearing of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Several groups, including law enforcement, women’s groups, advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, social workers and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, spoke in support of the measure. No one opposed it.

In it’s current state, the bill takes four actions. It creates a solid defense for victims facing prostitution charges in allowing victims of human trafficking who are forced into prostitution and convicted to appeal to the state to vacate their conviction. It makes victims of human trafficking eligible for the state’s victim compensation fund, which can be used to cover living expenses while the victims get back on their feet. Lastly, it makes dealing drugs to prostitutes a felony. These three measures aim to support and help arrested victims of sex trafficking, support them financially while they are looking for a better job, and defend victims and prostitutes against further coercion. While the bill is a major step in the right direction for Maine, much is left to accomplish for victims of human trafficking in other states and around the world.