On Wednesday, actor Ashton Kutcher made national news when he testified, eloquently and passionately, in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on progress in combating modern slavery.
As part of his anti-trafficking work with his foundation, THORN (Tech Innovation to Fight Child Sexual Exploitation), Kutcher said, “I’ve been on FBI raids where I’ve seen things that no person should ever see. I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia.”
Sex trafficking as defined by those images — the forcible kidnap and sexual exploitation of minors — is appalling and emotionally wrenching. But the attention paid to those stories helps foster a narrative that is, to a large extent, false — and that keeps us from addressing the root causes of teens in the sex trade.
That’s the message Alexandra Lutnick wants to get across; after 15 years researching the sex industry she has recently published a book on domestic minor sex trafficking to provide a “more nuanced story.”
Only a very small percentage — about 10 percent — of sex workers report being forced into the sex trade against their will by a stranger, Lutnick told an attentive audience at the Alaska State Capitol Thursday.
Lutnick spoke at a Lunch &Learn about her research and then fielded questions on how best to address sex trafficking issues in Alaska.
“We wanted to expand education about domestic minor sex trafficking and about effective strategies for the legislative community, from an evidence-based perspective,” said Terra Burns of Community United for Safety and Protection, an advocacy group for those in the sex trade that invited Lutnickin to speak.
The popular narrative that is spread in the media is not the entire story, Lutnick explained. Most sex workers report being 15 to 17 when they entered the sex trade, mostly because they were homeless and had a financial need for food and shelter. This group includes runaways and those pushed out of their homes; according to Lutnick, one California study showed a staggering 60 to 80 percent of minors arrested for sex work already were in the child welfare system.
Lutnick told the audience she uses the term “third party” rather than pimp or trafficker to describe the role of a person who facilitates sex work. In many cases, she said, sex workers work for themselves or with peers, citing a study that had only 50 percent of the respondents reporting a stereotypical “third party.”
Because sex workers are a very diverse group, a one-size-fits-all solution is not feasible, she said. The issue becomes how communities can better meet those needs so sex work does not become the “best worst option,” Lutnick added.
There is no data to suggest that arrest is a positive intervention despite the hope that it might force sex workers into using services. For one, many sex workers experience exploitation by law enforcement, so there is a lack of trust to overcome. And there is no better way to keep someone in the sex industry than to saddle them with a criminal record, Lutnick said.
Policies to protect sex workers who report crimes are one great option, Lutnick said; CUSP worked unsuccessfully during the last legislative session to get a bill passed that would give prostitutes immunity for prosecution when they come forward as a victim or witness of a violent crime. Peer-led support and outreach is a positive way to connect sex workers with needed services. And it must be explicit that exploitation by law enforcement is unacceptable, Lutnick added. CUSP currently has a bill in the works, HB 112, that expands Alaska’s current sexual assault statute to prohibit peace officers from having sexual contact with those they are investigating.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.