Beacon Hill Weighs Changes To Sex Trade Laws

Download Audio

The Massachusetts House is considering a bill that would change the way the state prosecutes criminals in the sex trade. The proposal would define the people who manage prostitutes, or “pimps,” as “human traffickers.” It would also impose much stiffer penalties on pimps and the johns who pay for sex.

Some say the law would help put an end to trafficking by making it easier to prosecute those who benefit from prostitution. But others say it would do little to curb the sex trade.

'The Life'

Tanee Hobson, 21, is among the bill’s supporters. As a teen, Hobson felt unwanted and ugly, and she had little support from her family. At 14, she ran away from home. Soon after, she started dating and living with a man she met at the Dudley Square T station in Dorchester.

"We strive, in most cases, to take the young woman out of the harmful situation and focus our prosecutorial energies on the pimp, the human trafficker."

Suffolk County DA Daniel Conley

A month later, the man Hobson was dating told her he was a pimp. He was physically violent, and he pushed her into prostitution.

“When he hit me, he hit me so hard that I think my mind was kinda just stunned and I just wanted to do whatever it was so he wouldn’t hit me again,” Hobson said.

One she got into “the life,” it was hard to get out, Hobson says. She needed the money, she couldn’t go home, and she was addicted to the self-esteem boosts she got every time someone paid to have sex with her. She makes it clear: people don’t sell themselves unless they’re desperate.

“I don’t think anyone wakes up one day saying, ‘I want to sell my body for money,’ " Hobson said. “Things have to be going on in your mind, you had to be going through some things to make you want to go to that part where you think your body isn’t worth it.”

Hobson says people often feel trapped soon after they start to engage in prostitution. But she got out. Now, working for the Justice Resource Institute program My Life My Choice, she helps girls leave “the life” behind.

Treating Prostitutes As Victims

These girls might soon be getting help from another corner, as prosecutors rethink the way they define the sex trade.

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley regrets that his staff used to arrest and charge young women for prostitution while pimps and johns went free. He is also troubled by the fact that in the United States, on average, girls get into prostitution between the ages of 12 and 14. Boys and transgendered youth usually start between 11 and 13. This harsh reality is one of the reasons Conley decided prosecutors should change the way they approach prostitution.

“I concluded that the best way to deal with this problem is to treat the prostitutes, especially the young ones, as victims,” Conley said. “It’s classified by our office as human trafficking, instead of just prostitution, because the phrase prostitution or the concentration on the prostitute emphasizes their criminal behavior. So we strive, in most cases, to take the young woman out of the harmful situation and focus our prosecutorial energies on the pimp, the human trafficker.”

Conley says state laws do not reflect this shift in thinking. Massachusetts is one of five states with no law against human trafficking. Prosecutors can only go after pimps and johns under state prostitution laws that have minimal penalties.

Currently, pimps could face three months to two years in prison or a few hundred dollars in fines. Under the new trafficking law, they could be sentenced to 20 years for selling adults in the sex industry and sentenced to life for exploiting children.

Someone caught paying for sex now could get one year in jail or a $500 fine. If the bill passes, a john could face a maximum of two-and-a-half years, or 10 years for underage prostitution.

The law would also allow courts to seize the money pimps make and give it to their victims. And it would create a task force to study trafficking and come up with strategies to end it.

Debating The Legislation

But some say the bill is out of touch with reality. Among the critics: Cherie Jimenez, the director of Kim’s Project, a Boston-based group that gives women the resources to leave prostitution. Jimenez, who spent 20 years in prostitution and got out when she was 39, said many people end up in the sex trade because they're poor and have no other options. Telling these people you’ve freed them from their pimps won’t change their situations or compel them to leave prostitution, she said.

“You could say to some young person, ‘You know what you’re doing is harmful, this is going to hurt you,’ well they’re going to look at you too, like, ‘What are my options here?’ ” Jimenez said. “So it’s up to us to create those options so that so many young people don’t get into this. But if we don’t come at it from a real perspective here, we’re not going to solve it.”

Jimenez says defining everyone who engages in prostitution as a trafficking victim is problematic, because it sensationalizes the sex trade and disempowers the people in it.

“It’s the imagery I’m uncomfortable with," Jimenez said. "When you look at in the context of, oh, these sorry victims, or passive victims, or in order to be a victim to you have to be passive, or you have to be enslaved… it’s not like that. You know, I’ve met young women that are very edgy. It’s not that they’re passive. They have incredible strength and resilience, and yeah, they’re edgy because they’ve had to endure a lot.”

But Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley says the proposed law takes a fair approach, because it targets the people who are responsible for prostitution.

“We want to look at the market here,” Coakley said. “Who is making the demands, who is making the profit? And certainly the least fair thing is to focus the criminal law only on the young women who are the people who are being exploited by this.”

Coakley says the proposal would fill gaps left by the federal government to prosecute traffickers. It would also give the state a way to gather concrete statistics on trafficking so advocates can fund resources for victims, she says.

Still, one aspect of the bill seems to clash with the rest. It would uphold current criminal penalties for prostitutes. Someone caught working in prostitution could still be arrested, charged and sent to jail for a year.

Coakley says that’s because prostitution is still a crime.

“Keep in mind, the act itself is criminal, so we’re not excusing that criminal behavior," she said. “We’re just saying we want to have the broadest focus as possible on it, to make sure that we can provide for the resources, prevent a life of crime for some of these young folks, and intervene in a way that’s much more fair.”

That intervention could include referrals to programs like Kim's Project and My Life My Choice. DA Conley says prosecutors would probably only enforce penalties against people who refuse to accept this kind of help to get out of prostitution.

This program aired on May 10, 2011.


More from WBUR

Listen Live