Night Shifts Newsletter No. 5

SJN Newsletter #5: Does legalizing or decriminalizing sex work open the door for increased illegal sex activity?

Alison Phillips and her business partner Dan Nash operate the Human Trafficking Training Center (HTTC) in Kansas City, Missouri. Their mission is to provide skill-based training for law enforcement officers in not only how to identify human trafficking activities, but what action to take when they do. 

Once the police recognize activity or are called to a scene, they need to know more than just what looks suspicious. Which is exactly what HTTC’s training programs furnish. They also have programs for parents, grandparents and guardians, truckers, hotel and hospitality workers and others who need to be aware of trafficking.

For law enforcement officers, however, the HTTC training focuses on the steps they need to take that are rarely taught in police academies, such as: What evidence should they gather? How do they talk with the person who may have complex PTSD as a human trafficking victim might? How do they gain the person’s trust and rapport, especially when most victims have had difficult experiences with law enforcement? How do they communicate with potential offenders? How do they write up the proper reports? How do they set up proactive operations?

“It’s one of the biggest missing pieces in our country’s fight against human trafficking because we have a situation across the U.S. where law enforcement is not prepared for dealing with human trafficking when they interact with it,” Alison says. “We can teach all of these people what to look for and report, but if we don’t have the police actually doing it, what good is it?”

After an initial conversation in August, I spoke with Alison in more detail in November. I knew she would be a good source as someone who could talk about her work, but also her thoughts about whether or not sex work should be decriminalized, after more than a decade studying and working in anti-trafficking and seeing how prostitution or sex work – not always equivalents – provide the primary platform for sex trafficking.

She originally got into the field in 2009 when she and her husband decided to adopt a four-year-old girl from India. During the three-year period it took to complete the stringent international adoption process, she learned about the crimes and depravities of human traffickers that victimized women, men and children, especially if they are orphaned, destitute and have no family to protect them. Fortunately, her child had not been victimized.

“Learning about trafficking is something that compels a response,” she states.

Her response was to return to school and earn her MS degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2017. Her commitment to her new field was so dramatic that she transitioned from working as an airline transport pilot in Alaska with a passenger list that included two former U.S. Presidents, members of Congress and other public figures to combat traffickers.

In 2020, while working as Director, Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Alison met Nash. He had retired after 27 years as a Missouri State Trooper, 24 of those spent as an investigator in the Narcotics/Vice Unit, Criminal Investigation Unit before he created the Human Trafficking Unit.  After retiring, he served as the enforcement supervisor of that Missouri AG’s task force. (I will feature him in an upcoming newsletter.)

The foundation for what the two and their colleagues teach is that prostitution is “probably the biggest indicator of sex trafficking,” according to Alison. 

“Women who are engaging in commercial sex, 90% of the time there is force, fraud or coercion [the definition of human trafficking] behind it,” she says. “The entire purpose of trafficking is prostitution, so we teach the officers how to identify physical and behavioral indicators of what a person being controlled looks like.”

One of the classic immediate signs is that someone else (the trafficker) is holding their money and identification documents. The person is not allowed to speak with anyone else alone. They typically answer questions with rote, rehearsed responses. The U.S. State Department lists a number of signs a person is being trafficked. 

When I ask Alison what she thinks would happen if sex work were decriminalized or legalized, she answers unequivocally: “Well, it will go very badly, because there are counties in Nevada where we have legalized it,” she says. “We don’t have to theorize about what will happen. We can just look at places where they have done it, and the results are always the same: it’s a disaster.”

Las Vegas, where prostitution is not legal, for instance, has significant crime problems and high prostitution arrest rates because people think that it is, since it is legal in all but seven of Nevada’s 17 counties. Legalizing prostitution or decriminalizing sex work will increase the demand by removing the inhibition for someone who potentially wants to purchase sex, she says. It would validate that behavior, a behavior that not all agree is normal or moral or believe should become legal.

She adds that, while there may be a “1%” of people who want to do sex work and can find a way to do it safely and independently, she comments that they are the ‘unicorns,’ meaning there are not enough of them to meet the sizable demand. So traffickers force, coerce or defraud people into prostitution to fill the potent demand.

For sex trafficking victims alone, estimates of women and children forced into sexual slavery annually in the U.S. vary greatly, when you look at figures from the Department of Health and Human Services or academic research studies. The range usually falls somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000+. However, if you search for similar estimates of total number of prostitutes or sex workers in the U.S., they land closer to between 1 to 2 million.  

Additionally, Alison expresses her concerns for the physical and mental health of the predominantly women who end up compelled into prostitution or sex work whether through their own choice or forced by a trafficker or survival conditions such as extreme poverty or addiction. Whatever their motivation, sex workers are often vulnerable to violence inflicted by pimps, Johns, or drug dealers. Sometimes, they also suffer from interactions with police.

But she is especially concerned with the impacts on the person’s mental health, even if it is their choice to work in some facet of the sex industry that requires them to have sex with multiple partners, whether for prostitution or pornography. 

“If I’m going to turn my body into a place of business where I am performing intimate acts – and the inside of your body is intimate – we can’t get around that,” she believes. “If I do that and I have sex with 5, 10, 15 men a day every day, I have to do something in my mind to switch my body out of this mode where it’s intimate into a business place.”

To do that, she says, sex workers employ different practices to protect themselves or their personal identity/being. For example, they use a made up name and persona rather than their real name or they set up boundaries as to what the client can do or they tell them they won’t say “I love you” or pretend to be their girlfriend and so on.

“The problem with that is whether it’s creating a dividing line in your body or shutting off your mind and going into another person, whatever that form of dissociation is, if you’re doing it over and over and you’re living in a dissociative state that usually causes mental health problems,” Alison says. “You may end up having personality disorders and other issues, and if you are a child whose brain is still developing, then that’s an even bigger problem.”

She also doesn’t believe that legitimate work typically causes mental health problems on that level of severity for a worker. She adds that clients can use degrading language and be abusive to the sex worker and have no repercussions, something that she would never have to tolerate. Sex workers are seeking rights to protect themselves against such violence, abuse, and sexual harassment, but it is not currently available; those violations are part of the experience of the sex industry for many of the sex workers, whether employed through a pimp or completely independent.

Lastly, we talked about how people working in that world are potentially damaging their ability to enjoy and benefit from a loving, sustained relationship with intimacy at the core.

“I’m not shaming or passing judgment on anyone,” she says. “What I’m saying is to look closely at who we are as human beings and what matters about our lives. Part of our humanity is our sexuality, our ability to connect with another human being in that really intimate way, so it’s sad if that has no value, because I don’t believe you can just turn it off and turn it on.

“If you have that 1% of people and that’s what they want to do, I’m not one to say they can’t or shouldn’t,” she continues. “But I don’t think we should make policy around that 1% if it’s to the detriment of the 99%, because that vast majority is not doing it out of a position of power or choice.”

Next Up: Savannah Sly, musician, artist, courtesan in Seattle. She is also the director of New Moon Fund, an organization dedicated to securing rights and opportunity for people in the sex trade by building awareness, attracting resources and seeking to address highest priority needs toward community wellbeing.