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Trafficking and the new civil liberties debate

danps's picture

UPDATE: A summary of the ballot language to Proposition 35 has been added as a footnote.

Civil liberties are more often than not difficult to stand up for in practice. In theory everyone is in favor of them, but the only times they make it into national debate is when they are under attack. When times are good policy makers and the public don't seem to give much thought to re-visiting prior restrictions. If everything in fine why bother, right?

But in times of uncertainty, when fear and anger are driving the discourse, the temptation is to go for the farthest reaching solutions. Laws with vague provisions get rushed through, comforting assurances are announced to the public, and anyone who objects is immediately deemed suspicious.

We went through all this after 9/11. The PATRIOT Act was (and is) truly awful legislation, and led the way to all sorts of abuse. A nation traumatized by the terrorist attacks wasn't very worried about unintended consequences, and politicians were happy to legislate accordingly. That kind of post-attack dread is very slow to dissipate, too. More than a decade on, there is still some political hay to be made in denouncing the awful practice of giving suspected terrorists a Miranda warning. Letting the lizard brain go to the background takes a long time.

In the years after 9/11 civil libertarians fought the worst infringements being pushed for and basically lost. The predicted abuses began pretty quickly, infringements expanded without any real push back, and by the time the FISA Amendments Act passed in 2008 it was obvious civil liberties were an afterthought to the federal government. (It's a wryly amusing footnote that David Petraeus has had his career destroyed by exactly the kind of wide ranging data collection civil libertarians objected to at the time.)

Barring some extraordinary change in public opinion or political sentiment, that is where we stand. The issue has been settled, badly, and there is not much use in covering it any more - which is one of the reasons I haven't written about it for the past few years. Maybe if a few more Petraeus scandals happen lawmakers will be inspired to have another look, but as of right now it seems like a dead issue.

A new civil liberties fight has started, though, and the outcome of this one is still to be decided. Like with terrorism, it starts grounded in truth. No one argued terrorism was not a threat after 9/11, just that we needed a less expansive fight against it. We could fight terrorism and still be true to our best traditions. Those who said that were mocked even though they were right (it didn't do John Kerry much good, did it?) Making the case for a rational approach meant being soft on terror.

The issue of human trafficking has similar contours. Described by the government (via) as "the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude," it is a very real and urgent problem. (It's also worth pointing out that the Marczak/New Yorker pieces describe America's involvement in trafficking as part of the subcontracting process for supporting our wars.)

This seems to be a case where an Inspector General report is called for, maybe also a hard look at how the military has outsourced so many of its functions. And this is probably too much to ask, but perhaps we could also look at the degree to which our wars create the environment for these kinds of human rights abuses.

But the term "trafficking" is also being used in other ways, most recently in California's Proposition 35. It was billed1 as an anti-trafficking law, passed overwhelmingly, and was immediately challenged the the ACLU and the EFF. Because it, like terrorism, is an incredibly emotionally charged issue, anyone opposing it is almost immediately put on the defensive. In the same way that opposing wholesale infringements on our privacy meant that you didn't want to help protect us from terrorism, opposing prop 35 now means taking a "stand against the safety and sanctity of children."

Those who have written against it, like Melissa Gira Grant, have taken on a hard and unpopular task. One of the first responses will be to show wrenching pictures like the one that heads Marczak's article and demand "so are you in favor of this?" The fact that no one with an ounce of empathy is, and that all decent people find trafficking abhorrent, quickly gets lost. When debates enter that kind of territory there isn't much room for nuance. Those who have taken positions like Grant's have probably learned that pretty quickly. And if recent history is any guide, the odds against them persuading the larger public are pretty long. It's a debate worth having though.


1. From the summary provided in the linked voting guide:

Increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. Requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders. Requires registered sex offenders to disclose Internet activities and identities. Fiscal Impact: Costs of a few million dollars annually to state and local governments for addressing human trafficking offenses. Potential increased annual fine revenue of a similar amount, dedicated primarily for human trafficking victims.


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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

danps, you're right that reflexive, ZOMG-think-of-the-terror! is not good. But you have to be equally careful of the pimp-apologists who surface like slime molds whenever anyone tries to do anything about forced prostitution.

Melissa Gira Grant is one apologist I've heard of before. I haven't checked out some of the other refs. The money and power in these situations is all of the side of the slavery industry. (Calling it the sex industry is an insult to sex.) And it's amazing how fast money and power can attract voices making what looks like a good case for their position. (If they're female voices, then, even better!)

The statistics are that there is some tiny percentage of truly voluntary prostitution. (That kind raises issues about whether anyone should ever buy other human beings, even as time-shares, but that's a different issue.) Then there's a significant minority coerced by circumstance but not physically forced. And then there's the majority that suffers physical brutality all the time.

I'd say that both kinds of coercion are slavery, but even if you limit it to women who get beaten if they don't sell sex, that's still hundreds of thousands of women and children in California alone. Getting all concerned about the business model of a few hundred voluntary prostitutes is the consistent response of the slavery industry to any attempt to free the slaves.

There are better ways to do it than Prop. 35, no doubt. I guess what I'm saying is tell us what those are. while still stopping the slave trade. Slavery is a pretty important violation of civil rights, too.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

Saying that a problem demands action - even bad action - doesn't persuade me. Prop 35 is bad law and shouldn't have been enacted. Do you agree, or does your "there are better ways" formulation leave room for bad laws like prop 35?

In answer to your question, legalization would be a really efficient way to stop it. Right now there is no legal way to separate those engaged in sex work voluntarily from those who are coerced (or worse). Legalizing it would let those who really want to do it to do so openly, and those who choose to remain in the shadows could be targeted. There would still probably be some subset of illegal sex workers who were voluntary (avoiding stigma, for one), but it would be better focused than it is now.

Legalization would also allow for regulation and the extension of worker's rights to those who went the legal route, and that's no small thing. Right now there are no workplace protections or environmental requirements for sex workers. Or unions. Extending those rights to that field would improve quite a few lives.

BTW, it's interesting to look at how we are approaching sex work vs. how we approach drugs. I think sex work is about 40 years behind the social curve. We are just now starting to re-think the war on drugs and states are finally looking at legalizing (not just decriminalizing). I think we are going down the same dumb road with sex work that we did with drugs. We'll throw a lot of nonviolent offenders in jail, stigmatize a lot of people unnecessarily with overly broad "sex offender registry" type stuff, and only after a few decades of that nonsense will we realize it's more humane (and cost effective) to legalize it and regulate it.

It's funny, but understandable: People hear "sex work" and seize on the sex part, but the work part is what matters from a policy perspective. Anyone who works for a living deserves basic worker protections. I understand it's hard to discuss political answers to that because our tendency is to have our neurons fry whenever the subject turns to ZOMGSEX!!!! but that's no excuse to just kick the issue to the curb. You shouldn't have to be on your feet for eight straight hours, whether it's flipping burgers or performing lap dances.