Shifting perceptions of prostitution

Victims of sex trafficking in Maine might call themselves prostitutes. Their pimps and those buying their sex might call them prostitutes. But if they are not prostituting themselves by choice, they are victims. Their pimps, who control their behavior, often with violence, threats and drugs, are the criminals.

On Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage held a ceremonial signing of a bill, LD 1159, sponsored by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, that gives Maine its first sex trafficking law. By replacing “aggravated promotion of prostitution” with “sex trafficking” in Maine law, the legislation shows a shift in cultural understanding of the crime. By adding sex trafficking as a human trafficking offense, it makes resources available to survivors. The law also increases penalties for traffickers and allows for more flexibility in the sentencing of “johns.”

Now that Maine has the law, it will need the tools to enforce it. That means police, health care providers and district attorneys will have to think differently about what they are encountering in their distinct but connected professions.

Too often, for example, pimps are arrested or prosecuted for side matters – such as money laundering, drug deals or assault – that don’t cut to the heart of their most egregious offense. Or doctors might see patients with rapid repeat pregnancies or abortions, a high number of reported sex partners, general ill health and a high incidence of sexually transmitted infections. Instead of treating individual problems, they must put the pieces together, know how to ask the right questions and connect their patients to the best resources.

For a long time, police performed their duty to uphold the law and arrested those acting as prostitutes: Undercover officers pretended to be customers, solicited sex and then arrested the man or woman. But police have gradually shifted their perception and approach, and trafficking convictions have followed suit.

An analysis by the police department in Anaheim, Calif., for example, found that prostitution activity always returned no matter how many women were arrested. The women often came from similar backgrounds of neglect and abuse, and a majority told police selling themselves was their only way to survive. The police came to realize many of the women were being trafficked.

Anaheim police changed their strategy and began an effort to help women escape their dangerous situations and identify pimps as possible suspects. Instead of arresting the women, they began to take them off the street and bring them to a comfortable room at the police department where they could discuss the manipulation that led to their prostitution. They connected them with resources and pursued the traffickers with victims’ help.

From the project’s inception in August 2011, through Oct. 31, 2012, 38 pimps were arrested and charged; 20 were convicted. At that time, 18 awaited trial, and Anaheim police had rescued 52 human trafficking victims.

A change in awareness is also happening in Maine. In May, Sgt. Tim Farris of the Portland Police Department testified in support of LD 1159 and described what he had learned over the previous two years through interviews with hotel staff and girls involved in the sex trade. These were stories of people “being severely beaten, raped and choked unconscious, at times hoping for death,” he said. At the same time, he said police did not have the resources to adequately assist victims. They needed to coordinate with other agencies and build public awareness.

So they did. More than 500 police officers and providers have been trained on human trafficking prevention in the last couple years and specific groups are building response strategies. The Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation formed in 2011 and similar groups are coalescing in Lewiston and Bangor. LD 1159 follows the work of many to bring the problem to the fore.

Maine communities may not have the population of Anaheim, but sex trafficking exists here and will only get worse if the state does nothing. With a statute referring specifically to sex trafficking, police agencies will be better able to record and track cases that otherwise might be listed as prostitution or drug possession. It will help with enforcement to have a legal definition that’s broader than other applicable, but narrower, offenses, such as criminal restraint or kidnapping.

Perhaps most importantly the law reflects a shifting perception that people selling sex are not necessarily prostitutes but possible victims. Not all the time, but very often, someone else is profiting from the sex acts performed by those who feel they have no choice.