If you live in Wisconsin, you have likely heard that our state is a hub for human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sex, otherwise known as “sex trafficking.” News articles (see this, or this, or this) frequently report that women and girls are being saved by Wisconsin law enforcement in human trafficking stings across the state.
Except they aren’t.
In the fine print, you’ll see the vast majority of human sex trafficking stings in Wisconsin result in arrests, fines, and criminal charges related to “prostitution and commercialized vice” brought against adults consensually selling and soliciting sex. Wisconsin police are not rescuing trafficking victims; they are arresting sex workers and their clients.
The conflation of prostitution and sex trafficking and the punitive treatment of people working in the sex trade is misleading, ineffective, and dangerous. Despite their intention, these policies actually harm sex workers, victims of human trafficking, and communities stigmatized by the criminalization of sexual labor, particularly members of the LGBTQ+ community.
December 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. As an LGBTQ+ sex-worker led collective in Wisconsin, our goal is to help more people understand that achieving public safety and queer liberation require actualizing human rights for people in the sex trade, not interaction with law enforcement.
What is sex work anyway?
Prostitution and sex trafficking are both criminalized in Wisconsin. However, the frameworks around the two concepts are vastly different. Sex work, also referred to as commercial sex or the sex trade, is the consensual exchange sexual labor or services for money, housing, food, drugs, healthcare, or any other kind of resource. ‘Sex worker’ is an umbrella term for people who do sexual labor, including selling sexual performances, materials, or services, and is generally preferred by those in the industry to the label “prostitute.” Sex trafficking, on the other hand, is a form of exploitation involving coercion or the transport of people across geographical borders for the purposes of forced sexual labor. The key is consent; sex workers agree to trade sexual services under specific conditions for a desired resource. Sex trafficking victims are stripped of their personal agency and are forced to engage in sexual activities they do not choose or benefit from.
As in many other industries, people do sexual labor for a myriad of reasons that fall on a spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. On one end you have sex workers who absolutely love their job and what they do. On the other far end are victims of sex trafficking. Between these two boundaries the vast majority of sex workers fall somewhere in the middle. We do sex work for the same reasons most people do whatever it is they do for work; it is the most personally fulfilling or economically beneficial opportunity available to us to earn a living given the circumstances we’re in. For some BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled folks, and immigrants who have been historically marginalized through discriminatory social and economic policies, sex work gives us the ability to maintain our independence, keep ourselves fed and housed, and pay for our education and medical care.
Decriminalization of sex work is inherently an LGBTQ+ issue because LGBTQ+ folks with varying intersecting identities have been slandered throughout history as perverts and sexual deviants for resisting conventional religious and cultural conformity. Historically, we have faced higher than average levels of social stigma, surveillance, incarceration, and employment, housing, and medical discrimination. This deep-rooted legacy of prejudice continues to incite state-sanctioned violence to this day, including the historic rise in anti-trans legislation this year nationally and in Wisconsin. As a result, LGBTQ+ folks are more likely to participate in extra-judicial economies like the sex trade. Sex work is a way for LGBTQ+ adults to provide for ourselves when the institutions that are supposed to protect and nurture us don’t.
Although sex work is consensual, buying and selling sexual labor is illegal in all 50 states. Laws against prostitution in Wisconsin were created in the late 19th century at the behest of white women with conservative Victorian ideas about sex and an unfounded paranoia about the emergence of a white slave trade. Today, many well-meaning folks including self-described feminists still believe prostitution laws are necessary to protect women from violent men who will abuse and traffic them into sexual slavery if provided the opportunity.
In reality, there is no evidence of increased sex trafficking in countries that have repealed criminal prostitution laws. Sex worker’s services are primarily sought after by clients desiring physical gratification and/or emotional intimacy, not violence. Research on violence against sex workers shows the most contentious relationships sex workers actually have are with law enforcement officers who surveil, harass, and arrest us– not our clients. While sex workers do encounter problematic clients, the risk of experiencing violence is greatly exacerbated by the fact that our work is criminalized and stigmatized. Dangerous clients know we can’t report crimes against us to the police, for fear we will be arrested or further victimized by law enforcement. Ultimately, those perpetuating the myth that sex workers need saving have it backwards: sex work is not criminalized because it’s dangerous, it is dangerous because it is criminalized.
The FAQS about Sex Trafficking in WI
If you weren’t clear on the distinction between sex work and trafficking, you are not alone. A 2019 Wisconsin Department of Justice (WI DOJ) assessment of law enforcement’s handling of sex trafficking cases in Wisconsin found that 90% of police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the state do not have specific policies for differentiating between human trafficking and prostitution. According to the WI DOJ, because so many law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin incorrectly conflate prostitution (sex work) and sex trafficking, there is not adequate data available to understand of how much coercion is actually taking place within the sex trade versus how many people are simply being arrested because sex work is criminalized. Reporting problems persist even though the Wisconsin legislature passed a law in 2013 requiring police departments to identify and disclose human trafficking incidences to the FBI annually, and despite law enforcement being the largest municipal spending category in the state with an aggregate annual budget of $1.3 billion. The Wisconsin DOJ also received millions in federal grants for the specific purpose of combatting sex trafficking. Yet after nearly a decade, law enforcement in WI are still unable to report on sex trafficking effectively.
According to state-wide data that is available, sex trafficking incidences have been reported in 24 counties in Wisconsin since data collection began in 2014 (not all 72 as is erroneously reported by journalists, policymakers, and even judges). In 2018, 73 incidents were reported to the FBI. In 2019, there were 53 sex trafficking offenses that led to arrests in Wisconsin. A separate report looking specifically at Milwaukee incidents found there were an average of 55 victims of sex trafficking identified per year between 2013-2016.
In comparison, there have been nearly 5,000 arrests for prostitution in Wisconsin over the last decade, meaning Wisconsin police make at least five times the number of prostitution arrests than are confirmed incidents of human trafficking each year. Seventy-seven percent of prostitution arrests between 2010-2020 took place in just six counties: Milwaukee, Outagamie, Winnebago, Brown, Dane, and Waukesha. There is massive racial disparity in who is being arrested for prostitution, with Black people accounting for 33% of total arrests despite making up only 6% of Wisconsin’s general population. The average ages of those arrested and charged are young adults, in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties.
All of this points to the fact that current approaches are not adequately addressing the occurrence of human trafficking. Instead, it appears that under the guise of protecting public safety, law enforcement casts a net so wide that many more people are arrested for consensual sexual activity to make ends meet than are engaged in trafficking. This is a misappropriation of time and resources that should be invested in community building housing and employment programs aimed to eliminate the need for most people to even participate in sex work initially.
Impact of Criminalization
Criminalizing consensual transactional sex does nothing to end exploitation in the sex trade. In fact, it further harms both sex workers and trafficking victims.
The criminalization of prostitution increases stigma and violence experienced by sex workers and creates conditions that make it easier for bad actors to traffic victims into the sex trade. Criminal records trap people who have been arrested for prostitution in the sex trade by creating yet another barrier to alternative employment. Additionally, contact with the criminal justice system is often traumatizing and stigmatizing in itself, especially for already over-policed black, brown, and LGBTQ+ communities. Police stings are especially inefficient and harmful. Law enforcement agencies themselves admit that stings helped identify at most only 8% of all confirmed trafficking cases in Wisconsin. Instead, they typically result in fines, arrests, or court-ordered diversion programing, increasing the burden on already marginalized and low-income communities. Criminalization only further perpetuates cycles of poverty and discrimination that lead many to rely on sex work in the first place.
Critically, criminalizing sex workers does nothing to address the underlying factors – systemic racism, transphobia, homophobia – that create the economic conditions that make children and adults vulnerable to sex trafficking. An 2018 analysis of confirmed human trafficking victims identified by the Milwaukee Police Department, among others, reported that trafficking victims are overwhelmingly Black teenage girls (average 16 years old) living in poverty. Fifty-six percent of the confirmed victims had previous involvement with the Milwaukee Police Department related to a theft or property crime, and a staggering 64% had a history of being reported as a missing person at least once, most often from a group or foster home. The report states, “the vast majority of all individuals who were identified as victims of sex trafficking had challenges in their youth, including being reported as a missing person and involvement with the child welfare system. When these challenges are addressed early, rates of victimization may decrease.”
Victims of sex trafficking almost always personally know the predator who takes advantage of their vulnerable situation and traffics them. These are not kids getting snatched by strangers in white vans. These are children who live in racialized, state-sanctioned poverty, who’ve endured abuse, neglect, addiction, or who have been rejected by their families due to their sexual orientation or identities. To be clear, repealing laws against sex work does not also decriminalize human trafficking. The exploitation or youth and adults in the sex trade should and always will remain illegal. However, law enforcement will never be able to sufficiently combat human trafficking until the material conditions in these communities change through equitable public investment and intentional wealth redistribution.
Rights, not Rescue!
Adults should not face criminal repercussions for engaging in consensual commercial sex activities, especially since criminalization results in increased danger and trauma for all people working in and stigmatized by the sex trade.
This is especially true for the LGBTQ+ community. The carceral system as it exists was not created to help or protect us. In fact, it was built to ensure our exclusion, to violently force us to conform to cisgender heteronormativity, and to criminalize our means of surviving state and societal violence. Queer liberation is directly tethered to sex work decriminalization, which precipitates our divestment from patriarchal, puritanical anti-sex yet sex-obsessed ideologies that fetishize, patronize, and exploit us. The decriminalization of sex work is one facet of the broader scope of abolition necessary for us to truly thrive.
There are encouraging signs of a growing understanding that the carceral approach is harmful, not helpful. Across the country, state legislatures are proposing strategies for repealing laws that make sex work a crime and a growing list of prosecutors are refusing to enforce anti-prostitution laws.
Some advocates believe the best solution is to “end the demand” for the sex trade by only criminalizing those soliciting sex, not selling it. However, this approach has been proven to make sex workers less safe. Instead, sex workers, public health experts, leading human rights organizations, and national anti-trafficking advocates overwhelmingly support the full decriminalization of sex work.
Here in Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have taken the first small step towards reducing harm caused by sex work criminalization laws by introducing Safe Harbor legislation.
Safe Harbor laws make it illegal to criminally charge and prosecute a minor under the age of 18 for prostitution. While this law seems redundant, as criminalizing youth engaged in the sex trade directly contradicts state and federal trafficking laws protecting children from exploitation, 83% of chief and sheriffs in Wisconsin have reported their agencies enforce prostitution laws against juveniles. Rights Not Rescue WI supports the effort to pass Safe Harbor legislation as part of a broader movement to decriminalize all sex work in Wisconsin. You can read our full statement here.
Understanding that sex workers are workers, not victims, does not absolve the sex trade of its problems. We are not attempting to overly glorify sex work. Instead, we aim to point out that if the state’s goal is to enhance safety and wellbeing, sex workers need human rights, not rescue or criminalization. We need our government to protect and uphold our right to bodily autonomy, accessible healthcare, affordable housing, safe workspaces, gender and racial equity, quality educational opportunities, and the ability to live without fear of police violence. As long as society continues to tolerate the myth that police are the only solution to violence in the sex trade instead of ensuring every family and child’s basic needs are being met, we will continue to see people in the sex trade suffer and exploitation persist in many forms in Wisconsin.
Join the movement!
Join us! You can learn more about us and our work at our website, www.rightsnotrescuewi.org. Keep in touch with us by signing up for our quarterly newsletter. Bring up sex work decriminalization in your circles and communities! Read more books and articles written by sex workers (start here, here, or listen here) to begin to understand the intersecting issues that end up harming and criminalizing innocent folks. Reflect internally with why you think the way you do about sex and sex work and perhaps how those ideas have been negatively influenced by sensationalized trafficking claims and puritanical ideologies about transactional sex. Challenge your thoughts with more research and have difficult conversations about what it means to survive with dignity in a world set up to only benefit rich cisgender heterosexual white men.
Wisconsin residents, contact your state representatives and urge them to pass Safe Harbor Laws and to support broader sex work decriminalization efforts in Wisconsin. Journalists, educate yourselves on how to accurately report on sex workers’ experiences.
December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Ending violence can begin with a reassessment of your own beliefs about sex work. These new understandings can blossom into humanizing compassion for your friends, colleagues, neighbors, family, and fellow proud LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites who do sex work.
Rights Not Rescue is a queer grassroots collective of current and former sex workers in WI who have a vested interested in improving the lives of people impacted by criminalization of sex work nationwide. RNR was cofounded by Milwaukee-based trans Latina sex worker activist Alex Corona.