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Senators and Stars Shine Light on Domestic Sex TraffickingMikhail BellJune 2, 2011
New federal anti-trafficking legislation was “inches away” from passing during the last Congress, according to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). His March pronouncement echoes the mood among Capitol Hill allies and grassroots advocates who are keen to bring sex trafficking back into the national spotlight.
The proposed Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (S. 596) would establish three essential tools to assist human trafficking survivors: funding for shelter beds, law enforcement training, and greater protections for sexually exploited minors.
Greater awareness among social services providers has not materialized in the form of robust resources. Currently, estimates suggest there are fewer than 100 shelter beds for survivors of sex trafficking in the entire country. The paltry supply prevents service providers from adequately aiding the 100,000 American children that are prostituted annually within our borders.
Police officers are often the first point of contact and untrained law enforcement departments can miss obvious signs of trafficking. States like Washington, the first to pass a state anti-trafficking law, have implemented their own programs. Yet the proposed federal legislation would broaden the prevention and outreach capacity of local actors. It would concurrently require that missing children databases to be updated with images taken within the last 180 days.
Finally, S. 596 would broaden protections for commercially sexually exploited minors. In some states, children forced into prostitution can be arrested and charged with solicitation of sex. Oddly, the pimp who may have abused or raped the girl or boy in question often escapes punishment.
In the absence of such a law, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and Bureau of Justice Affairs, principal grantors of funding, has relied on the “four Ps” for their success. Focusing on prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnerships has yielded tremendous results for an entity that many believe is insufficiently funded. Still, the office and its allies realize deterring traffickers will require more than concise diplospeak.
The “Bionic Woman”
Cleverly, trafficking abolitionists are adding “S” to the equation: star power. At a March briefing, an established advocate attended the proceedings: Oscar winner and UN Goodwill Ambassador Mira Sorvino. In 2005, Sorvino starred alongside Donald Sutherland in “Human Trafficking,” a Lifetime TV miniseries that illuminated the shadowy trade in persons for commercial sex. Her passion has only grown with the increased national awareness of human trafficking, leading Senator Wyden to call Sorvino a “bionic woman” for justice.
“All child [sex] trafficking is prostitution,” the mother of three reminded her audience. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2001 (TVPA), anyone under the age of 18 caught in a commercial sex act- one induced with the intent of financial gain- is classified as trafficked.
Sorvino is one of the more prominent celebrities that has campaigned for an end to demand for human trafficking. The diverse array of supporters includes Christian rock ensemble Switchfoot, Princeton University professor Cornel West, British actress Julia Ormond, and model-turned-actor Ashton Kutcher.
The movement to combat sex trafficking started in the United States and is largely driven by Christian organizations. Lisa Thompson, Salvation Army’s lead anti-trafficking voice, was among the diverse coalition backing the TVPA. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and current Kansas governor Sam Brownback, noted for public expressions of their Christian faith, co-sponsored the 2001 legislation. In addition, Dr. Janice Crouse, a current IRD board member, has been involved with the effort.
Since President George W. Bush signed the TVPA, America has led the charge to bring the illicit activity into the light. Virginia is the most recent state of 45 in total to enact anti-trafficking legislation.
The grassroots mobilization of campaigns to combat human trafficking has not removed Congress from the picture. Ultimately, the bicameral body pulls the purse strings of funding and national awareness.
Under the 111th Congress (2009-2011) the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act was halted because of squabbling over mandatory minimum sentences for possession of child pornography. Several representatives were stuck between their ideological support for anti-trafficking legislation and their ideological opposition to mandatory sentences. With only 40 votes in the House of Representatives, the bill did not pass.
Sorvino appealed to Congress to overlook these disputes and act promptly to assist trafficking victims. “We need your support yesterday,” she urged.
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