Quinnipiac Law hosts discussion on potential ways of curtailing human trafficking

January 25, 2022

Child in shadows

The Quinnipiac School of Law is leading a series of discussions on human trafficking, and what can and should be done to curtail the practice this week.

The Human Trafficking Prevention Project at Quinnipiac — in partnership with the Connecticut Bar Association and Connecticut Bar Foundation — presented “Finding Common Ground: Debates Around Sex Trade Reform, Decriminalizing Prostitution and the Fight Against Trafficking,” with more than 350 registered Zoom attendees.

Event organizer Sheila N. Hayre, Waring & Carmen Partridge Faculty Fellow and Visiting Associate at Quinnipiac, expressed the importance of leading the conversation, particularly during Human Trafficking Week, despite how contentious it can be.

“States are looking at legislation and we do need to have this conversation, even if we don't have any solid answers, so that people are more informed about how challenging, complex and important these questions are for Connecticut and the country,” Hayre said.

While there is general agreement among advocates that the criminalization of the sex trade — the current model in the United States — is not working, experts disagree over how best to reduce violence and other associated harms.

Advocates are theoretically divided into the following models of legalization: full decriminalization, partial decriminalization and outright criminalization.

The discussion was moderated by Erin Williamson, vice president of global programs and strategy for New Haven-based Love146, an international anti-trafficking organization.

“There should be elimination of exploitation of our fellow human beings,” she said. “There's an agreement that underlying vulnerabilities like poverty, discrimination and housing insecurities lead people to trafficking and that needs to be considered if we’re going to really address it through prevention and intervention.”

On the other hand, one of the primary areas of disagreement are how and which policies will be most effective in achieving that goal of reducing exploitation of human beings.

“We have to treat this intersection of sex work and human trafficking with civil discourse and come together with unity and a shared vision of a world where there isn’t exploitation and trafficking of human beings,” Williamson said.

While there is agreement across the four-model spectrum of legal services, there is also agreement that full criminalization – the United States’ approach to human trafficking, where it is illegal to both sell sex and purchase sex that – isn't working.

The two expert speakers discussed other options:

Kate D'Adamo, partner at Reframe Health and Justice, leads a consulting collective of people who work at the intersections of harm reduction, criminal legal reform and healing justice. She began as a community organizer and now continues to work with service providers for trafficking victims.

Mary Speta, chief impact officer at Amirah, Inc., researcher and policy analyst, provides exit and aftercare services for women coming out of the sex trade.

“Full criminalization of the sex trade does not reflect the realities. It is an antiquated policy without considering research that show the realities of sex trade, particularly studies that showed that 87 to 89% of people in the sex trade are not by choice. They are either trafficked there or they're there out of a need to a need for economic survival,” Speta said.

She said the criminal aspect limits government funding to people who have a trafficking background and also limits advocates’ ability to design harm reduction services for everyone who trade sex regardless of choice. With many people experiencing crimes such as rape assault, battery, other violent crimes at the hands of sex buyers, there is little form of retaliation.

D'Adamo agreed: “In more than a decade of community organizing, I've dealt with so many situations of and in my experience, not many of them wanted to report to law enforcement - and of the ones who did, the first step across the board was always trying to figure out how they were not going to get arrested. And that is simply a barrier that we need to dismantle immediately.”

On the other side of the spectrum is legalization, another stance that D'Adamo and Speta agree is not the right approach.

“So we’ll focus on the middle of that spectrum between criminalization, partial and full decriminalization is the equity model,” Williamson said.

Speta explained: “When we look at countries that are legalized, we see a massive spike in sex trafficking. In countries with partial legalization, a fully formed equality model policy links to all of those other policies that we have, it links to healthcare, housing, education and poverty reduction.”

She referred to a recent study in the Midwest that cited one out of 10 arrests related to sex trade are buyers and nine out of 10 are people sold for sex.

The speakers found themselves a hot seat topic at the intersection of criminalization and services.

“No one should have to get arrested before they get access to services. No one should have to deal with the trauma of arrest before they are allowed to be cared for,” D'Adamo said.

“We have to talk about the intersection between criminalization and services. We agree there should be services and there aren’t enough. Anybody who wants services should be able to access them, but sometimes policy does not always pass criminal changes to criminal law along with service provision, or if they do pass it, they don't always fund it,” Williamson said.

The relationship between criminalization and services turns to a conversation surrounding criminalization and health and wellness.

“We knew that criminalization and policing was putting people at risk, it’s also a preventative to other services such as health and wellness,” D'Adamo said. “We knew that the simple act of policing of the sex trade was actually putting people at risk and making them less healthy and less safe.”

“There is not equitability in the way that criminalization is applied to these two groups of people. When we shift to a partial decriminalization model that shifts the power dynamics to create more equality, that gives people who are sold for sex, the ability to report violence with impunity, knowing that that violence is actually going to be taken seriously,” D'Adamo said.

Speta closed by saying that if she and D'Adamo were to each write a policy, they would look remarkably similar.

“This is really where those camps have a lot of alignment, because services are necessary across so many different perspectives,” she said. “I think what's important to note here is that that full criminalization model that we have in the U.S. equates participation in the sex trade with being a moral failure. And if you look at a lot of the statutes that are written, they reflect that sentiment. Being a moral failure is missing the points - the point is that the majority of individuals who are in the sex trade are there because some vulnerability that is out of their control,” Speta said.

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