Behind landmark sex-trafficking bills, resolve of 20 women senators

The Senate will consider one of several Senate human trafficking bills Tuesday. Attention has focused on a narrow partisan dispute, but the bills represent a dramatic shift toward a more humane view of the victims of sex trafficking.

Steve Ruark/AP
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, seen here at a news conference in Baltimore earlier this month, was one of the women who pushed the Senate to take up sex trafficking bills.

In February, the women of the Senate – Republican and Democrat – got together for one of their monthly dinners at the Capitol. Only the senators attended. No staff. Up for discussion: What issue would the women want to throw their weight behind in this new Congress?

Their decision was auspicious. They decided to take on the “despicable, vile issue of human trafficking,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, who convenes the dinners, said in addressing the Senate March 4. Sex trafficking crosses party lines, it reaches into every state, and it particularly affects women and children. It is the fastest growing business of organized crime and the third largest criminal enterprise in the world, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

On Tuesday, the Senate will take a procedural vote on the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act. Most headlines are focusing on a partisan battle that has emerged over abortion language tucked into the bill. But in many ways, that's not the bigger story.

Whatever happens with the bill, it is simply one manifestation of a significant shift in how Congress views human sexual trafficking. The determination of the women who gathered that February evening played a part in that shift. So, too, did the rise of sex trafficking as a cause célèbre among Christian groups, as Slate has reported. The growth and spread of the problem itself have also made it harder to ignore.

Senator Mikuski describes Tuesday's bill and other Senate anti-trafficking legislation as “fresh thinking” – treating trafficked minors as victims instead of criminals, for instance, and going after those who buy sex as a key part of the problem.

In the last Congress, the House passed a dozen, bipartisan anti-trafficking bills, many focused on the needs of at-risk minors. These bills, though, never made it through the Senate. Likewise, senators worked on related bipartisan bills that also went nowhere. 

In January, the House again passed its 12 bills. Shortly after that, the women senators – all 20 of them – picked up the issue in an attempt to move Senate bills. In a first, all the women signed a letter to the Republican chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging a hearing to shine the spotlight on sex trafficking in the United States.

The hearing was held, and the committee unanimously passed several bills.

The first bill out the gate, the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act, has been waylaid for a week by a partisan argument over a fund set up by the bill for victims. Republicans have inserted language in the bill that applies federal funding restrictions on abortion to the victims' fund. Democrats oppose that idea and claim the language was sneaked into the measure (a charge the Republicans deny).

But there is overwhelming bipartisan support for the reforms in the bill itself. It targets the purchasers of trafficked sex, subjecting them to prosecution and conviction as sex trafficking offenders. It recognizes child pornography production as a form of human trafficking. And it seeks to address the cash crunch in services for victims of trafficking by levying a fine of $5,000 on convicted sex offenders, human smugglers, and human traffickers. The money would generate an estimated $30 million for the fund.

The first comprehensive federal anti-trafficking law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, made human trafficking a federal crime and offered protection for undocumented immigrants who are victims.

But the vast majority of people bought and sold in the sex trafficking network in the United States are American citizens (83 percent). And every year, about 300,000 American children are at risk of being trafficked, many of them homeless youths, though it can happen to anyone. The average age is 11 to 14 years old.

“A lot of people thought of human trafficking as being in other places around the world, yet more and more human and sex trafficking is happening in America,” says Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington in an interview.

Members began to hear about it from law enforcement, and Representative McMorris Rodgers, a member of the Republican leadership, learned that Spokane, Wash., her home town, is a trafficking hub. “Representatives in communities around the country became alarmed at the numbers and started to figure out what action needed to be taken.”

One clear message they’ve heard is that there’s no such thing as a “child prostitute.”

“We must change the paradigm and vocabulary” about human trafficking, said Michael Ferjak, the senior criminal investigator at the Iowa Department of Justice, at the Senate Judiciary hearing last month. “We must talk about prostituted people and not prostitutes. We have to stop thinking that a 14-year-old can actually choose to become a prostitute,” he said.

Mr. Ferjak praised the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, and also one by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. It incentivizes states to consider minors in the commercial sex trade as victims, not criminals. The bill, which unanimously passed the Judiciary Committee, is based on Minnesota’s “safe harbor” law. Fifteen states have such laws and 12 more are exploring them, according to Senator Klobuchar.

When asked how it is that lawmakers embraced such paradigm shifts, Senator Cornyn thought for a minute.

“It’s the compelling stories all of us have been exposed to. It’s just very tragic. And it’s motivated people to try to figure out some way to do something about it,” he says.

On the Senate floor last week, he told the story of Aviva, who was in the foster care system. A trafficker kidnapped her when she was 14 and held her hostage for almost a year. She was sold to at least 10 different men a night. She said that she forgot what it felt like to be human.

At age 15, she was arrested for prostitution. Each year, that same thing happens to 1,000 minors, according to Rights4Girls, a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence in the US.

Every lawmaker has by now heard stories such as these. The question is whether the stories have the collective power to finally push these bills – broadly supported by both parties – over the finish line.

"It needs to be a priority," says McMorris Rodgers. "There are too many children and individuals at risk in America."

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