What's the difference between sex trafficking and pimping?
Illinois's move to decriminalize prostitution pushes the question of whether prostitution really is a choice.
Cops in the Chicago area call it a "track," a stretch of street known for its steady sex trade.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
RECOMMENDED: 3 ways you can combat sex trafficking
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.