It’s time to ban sex trafficking in Hawaii

Hawaii is only one of two states that still does not possess a comprehensive sex trafficking ban. Here are three bills that would change that.

Kris Coffield

It’s time.

A half-decade after our state enacted its first human trafficking law, the moment has come to ban sex trafficking in Hawaii.

In the last five years, policymakers and anti-trafficking activists have made numerous changes to the islands’ prostitution code to curb sexual exploitation. In 2011, we increased the grade of offense for promoting prostitution violations to class A and B felonies, subjecting abusive pimps to lengthy jail sentences. In 2012, we made it possible for trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution convictions that were the result of coercion.

In 2013, we attacked demand for the sexual exploitation of children by criminalizing solicitation of minors for prostitution. We also required high-risk sex-trafficking establishments, like strip clubs and hostess bars, to put up a poster with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number, and took away the ability for johns to get out of jail free by deferring their sentences.

Last year, we closed a loophole that allowed law enforcement to have sex with trafficking survivors during prostitution busts. Equally importantly, we removed the “mistake of age” defense for criminals who buy sex with kids, permitted reverse stings to catch child predators, and raised fines and fees for prostitution charges to make perpetrators pay for the rehabilitation of their victims.

Yet, the progress we’ve made isn’t enough. Hawaii remains, today, one of only two states without a comprehensive sex trafficking ban (the other being Virginia). Put simply, we still haven’t outlawed slavery on our shores.

Make no mistake, sexual slavery is what we’re debating. Victims of sex trafficking are no more in control of their actions than Africans oppressed under chattel slavery. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sex trafficking survivors experience “terrorizing physical and sexual violence,” as well as “multiple layers of trauma, including psychological damage from captivity and fear of reprisals if escape is contemplated, brainwashing, and for some, a long history of family, community, or national violence.”

Studies show that between 60 and 75 percent of prostituted persons are raped and as many as 95 percent are physically assaulted, according to the U.S. Department of State, which notes that such statistics are likely lower than reality because of heightened victim traumatization. Still, nearly 90 percent of prostituted women reported a strong desire to escape in a 2003 study published in the Journal of Trauma Practice, a number that’s made more urgent by the fact that the average age of entry into the American commercial sex industry is 13-years-old.

Victims of sexual and psychological terror should not be called criminals. Rather, they should be provided with the services needed to restore their health and dignity. When we hoist the “prostitution” label on sex trafficking survivors, as Hawaii’s promoting prostitution laws inherently do, we brand them with a unjust code that impedes their ability to obtain housing, higher education, and employment.

Branding is a way that pimps mark their victims as property. It has no place in the restitution of human rights.

To prevent our sands from being sullied by sexual servitude, lawmakers must approve three measures drafted by Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and IMUAlliance for the 2015 legislative session. Most critically, they should pass Senate Bill 265, which would change the state’s promoting prostitution laws into sex trafficking statutes, while recognizing sex trafficking as a violent offense whose victims should be eligible for crime victim compensation to cover medical and psychological care.

The proposal would also subject johns who purchase sex from trafficked women and children to prosecution as traffickers themselves, since their money fuels the demand that drives the commercial sex industry. Admittedly, implementing a sweeping sex trafficking ban won’t cure the islands of sexual slavery. It will lift the label of prostitution off of survivors’ heads, though, and allow victims to be accurately identified and placed within a coordinated social services network that unites governmental resources with nongovernmental trauma response expertise.

Additionally, policymakers should pass Senate Bill 479, which would create separate statutes covering solicitation of prostitution and general prostitution. Currently, johns and prostitutes are criminalized under the same law, creating a mind-boggling legal mess in which sex trafficking victims are penalized with the men who finance their subjugation. Enacting this piece of legislation would allow advocates to strengthen penalties johns without concurrently hardening sentences for victims, who are frequently misidentified as voluntary prostitutes and prosecuted for selling sex.

Finally, elected officials should champion legislation cracking down on sex trafficking that is expedited by the internet, also known as “cybertrafficking.” Each year, pimps post roughly 110,000 ads for Hawaii-based prostitution online, using the adult services sections of websites like Backpage.com. Senate Bill 264 would prohibit the use of nude images in advertisements for high-risk sex trafficking businesses, like massage parlors and escort services. The draft’s logic is simple: legitimate relaxation enterprises are unlikely to risk being mistaken for houses of prostitution by featuring pornographic images in their ads, but brothel owners rely on this kind of commercial deception.

While Stopping sex trafficking is an ambitious goal, signing these proposals into law will signal our common commitment to that cause. It will send the message that slavery will not be tolerated on our watch. Not in our neighborhoods. Not on our islands.

Not anymore.

Kris Coffield is the Executive Director of IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy organization devoted to advancing human rights, socioeconomic equality, and educational opportunity.