Trouble in Paradise?

Bryell Turner , Contributing Writer

I am a self-proclaimed “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” superfan. I have watched more episodes than I’d like to admit, and I have seen crimes depicted that I couldn’t conceive in my worst fever dreams. No matter how depraved or shocking the crime, one thing is nearly certain: the police are (usually) above reproach, removing themselves from sticky undercover situations at the last minute. This includes the ever-present scene of the cop who solicits a prostitute, heads to a shady hotel room, and whips out his badge as soon as the money-for-sex agreement is verbalized. So cops don’t actually have sex with prostitutes while on the job because that is clearly illegal, right?

That’s where you’re wrong. This week, a shocking fact about undercover police investigations in Hawaii hit the news, proclaiming “Hawaii Lawmakers to End Prostitution Exemption!” So yes, for decades sex between police and prostitutes in Hawaii has been sanctioned. Hawaii Senator Clayton Hee expressed outrage and held a senate hearing to discuss his proposed bill ending police exemption in the prostitution law. The main argument hinges not on the exemption to make a verbal agreement for sex, but on sexual contact between the officer and the prostitute. Just how much contact is necessary to serve as evidence of law breaking? Be it a handshake or sexual penetration, the exemption has brought an age-old debate back into our national conversation.

Most of us probably think of a few stereotypes when we think of prostitution: concubines in ancient empires; women in brothels and saloons during America’s westward expansion; poor, strung-out minority women on dirty city street corners; and high-class and high-priced escorts on the arm of politicians. I’m not here to argue for or against the legality of prostitution. As a feminist, I believe that people should have agency to do whatever they choose with their body, and if that means making money with it, then so be it. What I do have a problem with is the criminalization of a profession into which a significant percentage of women have been forced into, rather than freely enter into themselves.

A report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 found that 82 percent of the cases of human trafficking involved adult prostitution or the exploitation and forced prostitution of children. Women represented 94 percent of sex trafficking victims, and 64 percent of victims were children. The average age that a woman enters prostitution is between 14-16 years old—federally, the age of consent is between 16 and 18, and differs by state (Idaho and Hawaii share the lowest at 14).

Prostitutes are targeted, detained or deported, arrested, and incarcerated. Most states enforce the same consequences for both prostitutes and their clients, which seems like an equitable approach. But as long as the perception of prostitutes as willing participants in the sex trade persists, we will be supporting legislation that further traumatizes and punishes victims who are largely selling themselves against their will. Victims of sex trafficking experience physical and emotional violence, deplorable living conditions, exposure to disease, and lack of healthcare, not to mention a range of sexual contact without consent. So what good is it to criminalize victims? To do so is to simply exchange incarceration on the streets with incarceration behind bars—both which inherently damage and victimize individuals.

Recently, the Anaheim Police Department (APD) in California realized that there were commonalities among the prostitutes they had arrested, pointing to the fact that most were sex trafficking victims. This paradigm shift led the APD to focus on helping, rather than criminalizing, prostitutes. Within nine months, 29 women were rescued from their traffickers. 81 percent of the 29 women had been trafficked out of their home counties, and 40% of them were under 18. A simple change in perception can mean the difference between incarceration and intervention. Hawaii, it’s time to take note and focus on the victims rather than the scandal.

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