Asking About the Victims

Lawmakers, police and prosecutors are focusing more on arresting traffickers and customers (or pimps and johns) and on getting help for prostitutes.

“It’s almost similar to a domestic violence issue,” says Michael Anton, commander of the Cook County Sheriff’s vice unit, which includes Chicago. “A lot of (people) say, ‘Well, they can just get out.’ Well, it’s not that easy.”

As of this year, Illinois became one of several states where prostitution is no longer a felony. It’s also one of a growing number where a minor cannot be charged with prostitution. A law passed in New York State in 2010 allows women who can prove they were coerced to have prostitution convictions wiped from their records.

“We’ve got this idea of an ideal victim — someone who is physically locked in a room, chained up and who makes no money,” says Catherine Longkumer, a Chicago attorney who works with victims of trafficking. “The reality is that traffickers are very smart. You can use a lot of psychological coercion to keep a person bonded, things like threats, or ‘If you try to leave, you’ll be deported, or your family will be harmed.'”

“I never met any prostitute who said, ‘This was my ultimate goal in life,'” Sgt. Craig Friesen, head of the vice unit for the police department in Anaheim, California says. “They’ve all been brought into this life by someone. They’ve been exploited by someone.”

Brenda Myers-Powell — a former prostitute who now works as a peer specialist and counselor at the Cook County jail — says independence should be the goal. “You can’t stay a victim forever,” she says. “At some point, you become a survivor.”

Learn more at Martha Irvine’s KVUE News article: US asks, prostitution or human sex trafficking?

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