Who’s a victim? More law enforcers treating homegrown prostitution as human sex trafficking

“How much?” they ask.

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 dif f erent, af ter all? Increasingly, experts in the f ield 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 shif t their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are f ocusing on arresting traf f ickers and customers (pimps and johns, as it were) and on getting help for prostitutes.

“It’s almost similar to a domestic violence issue,” says MichaelAnton, 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 Calif ornia, voters recently passed Proposition 35, which increases prison terms f or human traf f ickers, as well as f ines, which also are to be used to pay f or services f or victims.

 

It’s progress, experts say. Yet a question often persists: Who is really a victim?

“We’ve got this idea of an ideal victim - someone who is physically locked in a room, chained up . and who makes no money,” says Catherine Longkumer, a Chicago attorney who works with victims of trafficking to help them get their lives back together.