Giving back choice: why New York's sex trafficking law needs to change

It's time to listen to the real experts, says Lauren Hersh.

Three months ago, Ruth came into my life. Sixteen years and two weeks old, Ruth is spunky and smart. She loves Hello Kitty and iced coffee, listens to Alicia Keys and spent days planning her Sweet 16 outfit. Ruth wants to build schools in Africa. Her contagious smile lights up a room. But, for years, the smile I have come to love was hidden.

Ruth is a sexually exploited child. At 12, after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, she met an older man who promised to love and care for her. Instead, he brutally beat her, repeatedly raped her and sold her for sex more times than she could count.

There is a common misconception that girls like Ruth choose to enter prostitution. This could not be further from the truth. Sex traffickers like Ruth’s “ex-boyfriend” prey on the vulnerable for financial gain. They provide girls and women with the “love” they are yearning for and through coercion and manipulation force them to make them money through prostitution.

Over the past four years, I have met many girls like Ruth; girls who the masses call “throw away kids”, “whores” or worse; girls who have been viciously abused by pimps and then re-victimised by a criminal justice system which targets the prostituted and fails to hold accountable the real perpetrators – the traffickers and sex buyers who fuel the demand. In 2011, three times as many women and girls were arrested for prostitution in New York than pimps and buyers.

Later this month, in a comprehensive attempt to target the traffickers and sex buyers and provide necessary services for victims, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA) will be put in front of New York legislators. The TVPJA seeks to eliminate the need to prove a minor sex trafficking victim was coerced into prostitution, align statutory rape penalties with penalties for buying sex from a child and classify sex trafficking as a violent felony. This bill is urgently needed.

However, legislative justice is only part of the solution. Sexually exploited girls, like Ruth, also need to be given a voice in the advocacy process. On a chilly day in March, we began Project IMPACT, an eight week leadership-through-storytelling journey at JCCA Gateways, a residential facility for youth who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation or domestic trafficking. The project was designed to introduce survivors to the concept that sharing a personal story is a powerful advocacy technique that can shift societal perspective, change laws – and changes lives. The project also strives to help survivors understand that storytelling is a choice – the survivor gets to select if, when and how she wants to share her story.

On that first day, Ruth sat in our circle with other survivors, social workers from Gateways and activists from Equality Now and The Arts Effect NYC. Ruth’s arms were crossed. She remained quiet. Her blank stare was cold. In my previous life as a prosecutor, I became accustomed to this “stare of distrust.” But, like the victims I worked with then, time, patience and jokes at my expense began to melt Ruth’s icy look. 

With each session, Ruth gradually emerged as a group leader and a compassionate listener. Through poetry, she told her story of trauma and terror. But despite moments of paralysing pain, resilience shone through.

Ruth was not alone. As the weeks passed, it became apparent that each girl in the room had her own unique story of survival and her own way of sharing it – through words, songs and drawings. This month, Equality Now is showcasing these girls’ truths through our Survivor Stories series. The stories demonstrate what can happen when you give survivors the space and tools to allow their voices to be heard.

Energised by their progress and keen to have their voices heard, a group of these girls joined us in Albany to lobby for the passing of the TVPJA. Our first stop was at the office of a New York Assembly member. Ruth caught my eye as she sat quietly, too nervous to speak. At our next meeting, she continued to hold back and listened to the debate. However, when the Assembly member inquired why sex trafficking should be a violent instead of a non-violent felony, Ruth’s hand immediately shot up.

Her hands trembled. Her voice shook. She began: “You see, I am a commercially sexually exploited kid. I was run by a pimp. A pimp who beat me, who raped me…” With each word, her voice grew stronger. “I have scars on my body from where my pimp hit me when I didn’t bring home enough money or when I tried to protect my friend. My mouth was duct-taped when I was out of line. I was raped by buyers.”

With the confidence of a seasoned lawyer, Ruth concluded, “There is nothing non-violent about sex trafficking.”  The room stood still.

Ruth is a change maker. Today, along with countless others, she chooses to use her voice to educate the misinformed that sex buyers cause harm, that sex trafficking is inherently violent and that "prostitute" is a stigmatising word.

Whether she is 16 or 60, she who has lived it, understands it. It's time for New York to listen to the real experts.

Lend us your voice - Take Action and call on the New York State legislature to pass the TVPJA this June.

Lauren Hersh is the New York Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organisation. Further information is available here.


Lower Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.