Should prostitution be decriminalized? Few questions attract such heated debate, and few are as likely to divide people and organizations that believe they are championing the best interests of vulnerable people. In the next few days our colleague in human rights work, Amnesty International, will be tackling this question at its International Council Meeting in Ireland. We who work with sex trafficking victims urge the delegates to vote no. To do otherwise would let pimps and johns off the hook for acts of violence and exploitation.
We recognize that there are people who participate in sex work of their own free will, for their own profit (often out of desperation to meet basic needs when there are few other options). We agree that they must be kept safe from disease and violence, and must be allowed to protect themselves from exploitation, including from law enforcement. These are the folks Amnesty International’s proposed decriminalization policy aims to protect, but they are very different from those we see at our doors.
Each year at our homeless shelters in 27 cities in six countries and our new safe housein the New York area, Covenant House sees devastated prostituted people, mostly young women, who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being raped repeatedly in the sex trade, most often for someone else’s profit. Recent studies at our New York and New Orleans shelters have shown that almost a quarter of surveyed homeless young people have either been trafficked for sex or felt compelled to trade their bodies for food or a place to sleep.
We know pimps and traffickers target homeless young people, believing that no adult is looking out for that runaway at the bus station, and that a young person who has recently aged out of foster care may have nowhere safe to stay and scant opportunities for supporting him or herself. We see people with few resources and weak support systems, like Muriel, from our book Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, whose pimp kept her working with a combination of cocaine and the date rape drug, a chemical concoction that kept her in a cruel, artificial state of high libido and high energy.