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Who's a victim of human sex trafficking?

Tuesday - 9/3/2013, 9:16pm  ET

A "john" who attempted to pick up an officer posing as a prostitute is escorted in handcuffs to an area where he will be ticketed during a prostitution sting in Cicero, Ill., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Increasingly, experts in the field are applying the label human trafficking to domestic prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers ("pimps" and "johns") and on getting help for prostitutes. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer

CICERO, Ill. (AP) -- Cops in the Chicago area call it a "track," a stretch of street known for its steady sex trade.

Women in tight, scant clothing stand in high heels on street corners along an industrial strip in suburban Cicero. Customers, usually men, slow their cars and roll down a window.

"How much?" they ask.

Some might see these interludes as exchanges between consenting adults, or at the very least, consenting criminals, if the prostitute is, indeed, an adult and seemingly free to come and go as she pleases. They may call it a victimless crime, seeing domestic prostitution as something very different from human sex trafficking - with its cross-border abductions and brutal coercion - a scourge that's come to the forefront of news in recent years.

But are they so different, after all? Increasingly, experts in the field are saying no, and applying the label human trafficking to homegrown prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers (pimps and johns, as it were) and on getting help for prostitutes.

"It's almost similar to a domestic violence issue," says Michael Anton, commander of the Cook County Sheriff's vice unit, based in the Chicago. "A lot of (people) say, 'Well, they can just get out.'

"Well, it's not that easy."

As of this year, Illinois became one of several states where prostitution is no longer a felony. It's also one of a growing number where a minor cannot be charged with prostitution, even as a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Cook County, which includes Chicago, have set up a human trafficking unit and, in recent years, have been using new state laws to put more traffickers in jail.

Cook County Sheriff's police also run regular sting operations to ticket customers who proposition undercover female police officers, or who use popular escort websites. The johns must pay a fine. Police also impound their cars.

"Dear John," read billboards the department has posted near various tracks: "If You're Here To Solicit Sex, It Could Cost You $2,150. We're Teaming Up To Bust You."

The money funds a rehabilitation program for prostitutes, and Anton says his vice unit officers have never arrested the same customer twice.

"I'm not saying we've stopped it," he says. "They might be going to other areas. But we haven't seen them again."

Elsewhere, a law passed in New York state in 2010 allows women who can prove they were coerced to have prostitution convictions wiped from their records - a move that advocates say allows them more options for housing and employment.

And in California, voters recently passed Proposition 35, which increases prison terms for human traffickers, as well as fines, which also are to be used to pay for services for victims.

It's progress, experts say. Yet a question often persists: Who is really a victim?

"We've got this idea of an ideal victim - someone who is physically locked in a room, chained up . and who makes no money," says Catherine Longkumer, a Chicago attorney who works with victims of trafficking to help them get their lives back together.

Certainly that classic example of the locked-up trafficking victim exists on our shores, too.

But others, she says, are forced into prostitution with more subtle, yet equally paralyzing coercion. While it's not always obvious to the outside world, intimidation and drug addiction become tools for control.

"The reality is that traffickers are very smart," Longkumer says. "You can use a lot of psychological coercion to keep a person bonded, things like threats, or 'If you try to leave, you'll be deported, or your family will be harmed.'"

But the matter of victimhood can get even murkier than that.

Bridgette Carr, a trafficking expert and clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan, sees it all the time. She is director of the law school's human trafficking clinic, where students get credit for representing clients, many of them teens and young women who are trying to break free from traffickers and start new lives.

But can people be "victims" if they sell their bodies for sex - and keep some of that money or trade it for drugs? Are they victims if a pimp provides cellphones, buys them clothes, or even cars, or places to stay? In some instances, a prostitute might even have children with her pimp.

"Do we believe that people who make bad choices are victims?" Carr asks.

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