Obama Administration Eases Ban on Funds for Sex-Trafficking Groups

Anca, a former Romanian sex slave, hides her face behind a poster in Bucharest in this Dec. 1, 2006 file picture. Every year, thousands of women like Anca, some as young as 13, are kidnapped or lured by promises of well paying jobs or marriage and sold to gangs who lock them up in night clubs and brothels or force them to work on the streets.
Anca, a former Romanian sex slave, hides her face behind a poster in Bucharest in this Dec. 1, 2006 file picture. Every year, thousands of women like Anca, some as young as 13, are kidnapped or lured by promises of well paying jobs or marriage and sold to gangs who lock them up in night clubs and brothels or force them to work on the streets. (photo: REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel (ROMANIA))

WASHINGTON — A new regulatory rule that went into effect May 13 modified a policy of President George W. Bush that barred U.S. international aid for organizations that supported either prostitution or sex trafficking.

The new rule does not drop the funding restrictions, which are required by federal law, but the change allows “affiliated entities” — including a separate part of the organization receiving federal funds — to conduct actions in support of prostitution or sex trafficking.

Anti-human trafficking leaders in Congress and some feminists are concerned about the new Obama administration rule.

“Prostitution and sex trafficking are degrading to women and minors, and we should not be in the business of funding organizations that support it,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., at a Capitol Hill press conference on the day the new rule became effective.

Like other trafficking opponents, Chris Smith, R-N.J., co-chairman of the Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus, said the new rules would allow “loopholes” in the congressionally mandated funding ban by allowing overseas groups that receive federal taxpayer funds to share facilities, for instance, with organizations that support trafficking and prostitution.

Smith, who authored a sweeping anti-trafficking law in 2000, wrote the Obama administration opposing the rule and is considering legal action to reverse it.

“The Obama administration is enabling sex trafficking and prostitution by this action,” Smith said.

The new rule has raised concerns among some feminist groups, such as Equality Now, which does not oppose it but has urged careful monitoring of its implementation.

“It is critical that the U.S. government monitor the groups [that receive funding] and make sure they don’t enter into any activity that advocates for the legalization of prostitution or trafficking,” said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now.

Catholic leaders, including members of the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, which is led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, generally declined to comment on the new regulatory rules but emphasized that more efforts are needed to combat trafficking in America and overseas.

“This is a problem that is very significant but is largely unseen,” said Todd Scribner, education outreach coordinator for the Migration and Refugee Services at the bishops’ conference. “Because human trafficking is a direct affront to human dignity, it is important that we work to eliminate it.”

The conference has provided a nationwide network of support services to about 2,000 women and girls who have escaped trafficking over the last two years. The State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year, and approximately 14,500 to 17,500 of them are trafficked into the U.S. annually.

Additionally, more than 300,000 U.S. children are in danger of becoming trafficking victims because of vulnerable circumstances, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

Trafficking Profile Expands

The rule change comes as more advocates of controlling both sex trafficking and prostitution view the two activities as both inherently linked and requiring a new approach to resolve.

“Demand for prostitution fuels sex trafficking,” said actress Demi Moore during a May forum on trafficking in the U.S. Capitol Building. “We need to focus on how we can make the Johns more accountable.” She used the slang term referring to male patrons of prostitutes.

Moore launched a foundation with her husband, actor Ashton Kutcher, in January to fight sex trafficking. She is one of a growing number of anti-trafficking advocates who see a clear link between adult prostitution and the domestic and international trafficking of unwilling women and girls for sex. She and other secular opponents of both trafficking and prostitution have begun to urge federal, state and local governments to focus on both the prosecution of sex buyers and preventive education for men and boys.

“Any comprehensive education campaign would have to address the demand side of the trafficking equation,” agreed Scribner from the bishops’ conference.

A growing number of researchers have become convinced of a solid connection between adult prostitution and sex trafficking. A 2003 study by London Metropolitan University of different governments’ approaches to discourage adult and child prostitution found evidence of such a connection.

“International trafficking in women and children cannot flourish without the local prostitution markets. If a local prostitution market decreases substantially, organized crime networks are likely to relocate to a more profitable location,” concluded the authors, based on data from law enforcement and social welfare agencies.

It’s a linkage that at least some victims of trafficking also see.

Shawana Blount, a 22-year-old American who was forcibly trafficked for sex beginning at age 12, said men and boys need to be taught that it is never acceptable to buy sex, even if they think they are with an adult.

“What these buyers need to understand is that they are participating in human slavery,” said Blount during the May anti-trafficking forum for congressional staff.

The link has led many secular advocates to urge a common approach to both problems that replaces prosecution of the woman or girl with prosecution of the buyers. Additionally, educational outreach can teach men and boys who have never bought prostitutes or sexually trafficked women and girls about the damage the sex trade does to the sellers.

The approach is popularly known as the Swedish model because that country was among the first to implement it nationwide. In 1999, Sweden decriminalized the sale of sex but made it a crime to buy sex, while launching a nationwide education campaign about the damage women suffer under commercial sex. The resulting arrests of sex buyers, not prostitutes, led to demand dropping, as well as reduced trafficking in Sweden.

Similar — but more limited — efforts have begun in the United States, where several states toughened laws against Johns, pimps and traffickers. This focus would reverse the long-standing practice of arresting prostitutes, while male customers are routinely let go. Smith, who authored the 2000 law that deemed all girls and boys caught in prostitution arrests trafficked victims, said he has been disappointed in the years since with the low priority that federal prosecutors have given to pursuing cases against men buying and pimping such girls.

Additionally, men who are leaders in the anti-trafficking movement have begun to urge male pop-culture figures like Kutcher to combat the abuse of women through prostitution by speaking out and standing up against popular myths that the use of prostitutes is healthy for either party. The ability of men to shatter the glorification of paying for sex, according to sex-trade opponents, is the most effective way to reduce demand that drives sex trafficking and prostitution in general.

Rich Daly writes from Washington.