By JENNIFER LOWERY-KEITH
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance recently announced that he will stop prosecuting people arrested for prostitution and unlicensed massage. Although this shift toward decriminalization has received mixed public support, it’s important to understand how it will impact human trafficking victims like me. The short answer: It’s a step forward, but not one nearly big enough. Even as we stop prosecuting victims and consenting sex workers, we need to ramp up our efforts to root out and punish traffickers.
My first memory of victimization is when I was 5 years old. I was molested so often and by so many people that by the time I became an adult, I functioned on autopilot — something I’m told could be "child sexual assault accommodation syndrome."Because of this, it didn’t take much plying for a sex trafficker to coerce and deceive me into being exploited in the commercial sex industry, like thousands of girls and women across the country.
For over a decade, I was trafficked on and off by various men, who promised to rescue me from my circumstances. I just wanted to provide for myself and later for my children, so I believed their false promises. At times I thought, “At least I have a roof over my head and food in my stomach, even if I’m being abused before I go to sleep.”
Yet, despite the fact that I was a victim, when I called the police on my sex trafficker, they arrested me, not him. The Associated Press covered the story with the headline, "Connecticut woman charged with prostitution after calling police on pimp."
Unfortunately, this misidentification and erroneous criminalization happens more often than you think.
In attempt to retroactively address this issue,many states have passed laws to provide post-conviction relief to erroneously criminalized victims. Proactively, the recent move toward the decriminalization of prostitution — a shift supported by Amnesty International — will likely empower more victims to come forward and report their traffickers and abusers, without fear of being arrested.
This is important because although America has taken a symbolic stance against trafficking, the reality is that victims are typically treated like disposable people and are repeatedly misidentified, erroneously criminalized and denied services.
There were so many missed opportunities for intervention during my victimization. I had multiple encounters with law enforcement and even called 911 after being physically abused by my trafficker, with no redress. I had numerous stays at various hospitals, even once after being shot at point-blank range by my trafficker, which required a vascular transfusion to save my right leg. Yet nobody recognized that I was being trafficked because I didn’t disclose my victimization and was trained to conceal the abuse.
My rescue came from pure happenstance. Dr Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking expert, was driving by when my trafficker threw me out of his car in the middle of the day in 2015. She called police and stayed with me until service providers were able to find me a safe place to stay. Yet although my trafficker was already facing charges for malicious wounding of another victim, he was never convicted.
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Even after my rescue, it has been difficult to thrive. Quality residential placement centers are few and far between, with long waitlists. I actively struggle with transportation, job placement and coping with the trauma. I was unjustly charged with crimes related to my victimization and have a record that has yet to be fully expunged.
Although decriminalization of prostitution is a step in the right direction, there is so much more that needs to be done. We need to identify children at risk of trafficking and focus on prevention, improve law enforcement’s ability to identify victims and increase the number and quality of services provided to survivors. We also need to provide pathways for social mobility to survivors post-rescue, otherwise they will be a greater risk for re-victimization.
Although District Attorney Vance claims that by no longer criminalizing adult consenting sex workers, he will be able to go after traffickers more effectively, that is heavily contingent on law enforcement’s ability to discern prostitution from sex trafficking. In my experience, and according to experts, that distinction is difficult to make without thorough investigation.
My greatest fear is that traffickers will thrive under the guise of consenting sex work. While decriminalization has its benefits, there is a strong possibility that the incidence of trafficking may increase; sex trafficking often increases in areas with legalized prostitution. As such, I don’t support legalization or full decriminalization, which would afford protections to commercial sex consumers — the “johns,” who, in my experience, often perpetuate the abuse. Moreover, I’m concerned this approach may normalize sex work for the next generation.
If we ever hope to end this scourge, we must take a more deliberate stance against sex trafficking and empower survivors.
Lowery-Keith is a sex trafficking survivor.