Opposing sex trafficking isn't controversial, but a newly introduced House bill on the issue might be.
Rep. Randy Hultgren, an Illinois Republican in his first term in Congress, has introduced legislation designed to combat sex trafficking by putting diplomatic pressure on countries with legal prostitution. The bill would make countries' policies on prostitution a factor in their access to foreign aid money from the U.S. -- and it could affect American relationships with countries where prostitution is legal, such as Germany, Mexico and Greece.
Hultgren's case for that change is based on the premise that legal prostitution fosters human trafficking. And he's not alone in making that argument. Mark Lagon, former ambassador-at-large on the human trafficking issue at the State Department, argues that prostitution and sex trafficking go hand-in-hand, and that countries with legal prostitution see an uptick in trafficking.
“The men who buy sex are part of the problem,” Lagon said. “My view is that you can’t address that unless it’s illegal for them to buy sex. Subtle people, whether it’s me or the current ambassador, feel that prostitution is the enabling environment for sex trafficking.”
Prostitution and sex trafficking aren’t synonymous, Lagon adds. But legal brothels often provide cover for trafficking, he argues, and legal prostitution makes it harder for countries to prosecute johns who pay to have sex with trafficked persons.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (Photo: Congress.gov)Hultgren concurs.
“If you have prostitution in your area, then you have child prostitution in your area,” he said. “When nations have government-sanctioned prostitution, that is a major factor to sex slavery.”
Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the State Department considers 11 factors when determining whether foreign governments are making “serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons.” Based on these factors, countries are rated and placed in one of three tiers -- Tier 1 being the best and Tier 3 the worst.
Countries in Tier 3 can face certain sanctions and can lose nonhumanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance because of that status. The U.S. government can also oppose their access to assistance from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or other international financial institutions.
Hultgren’s bill would make the State Department take a country’s prostitution laws into consideration when determining which tier it belongs in. He said he is meeting with the State Department in the next few weeks to discuss the bill and its impact on American diplomacy.
“I haven’t felt a lot of pushback, but just some questioning of how will this impact the rankings and things,” he said. “I’m not sure. But I know what we’ve got to do is do everything we can to protect children who are getting pulled into this, women who are getting pulled into this.”
Hultgren didn't name any specific countries whose rankings could be lowered if the legislation passes. Countries with legal prostitution include Brazil, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Peru. Of those countries, Austria and Germany are currently in Tier 1. Tier 3 countries include China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, and Kuwait.
Prostitution is illegal in most of the United States; it is legal in some counties in Nevada.
The congressman has enlisted Exodus Cry, an anti-sex trafficking organization, in his efforts. In May, he hosted a presentation for members of Congress and their staff that featured Laila Mickelwait, a representative from the group. She argued that there is a correlation between demand for prostitution and sex trafficking and said she was "looking forward with anticipation to the important effect his forthcoming legislation will have in the realm of reducing the demand for commercial sex, which in turn will significantly help prevent the horrific injustice of sexual slavery from continuing."
Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who wrote the law that Hultgren's legislation would amend, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
“If we are going to effectively combat human trafficking, we have to challenge the environment that makes exploitation normal, low-risk and lucrative," he said in a statement. "Rep. Hultgren’s bill does that.”