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Alaska's "sex trafficking" law hurts the people it claims to help

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In Alaska, not all sex traffickers are actually sex traffickers. Under the state's legal definition, sex workers who consensually decide to get together in a safe space — like a house in which they see clients — are engaging in trafficking.

How is that possible? In 2012, Alaska passed a law that broadly redefined sex trafficking to include some acts that don't involve any coercion, force, or deception.

Alaska's law sounds outrageous — it literally strips the word trafficking of its meaning, and it criminalizes and hurts the sex workers it's supposed to help along the way. But in some ways, it's a more genuine reflection of what opponents of prostitution believe than other states' anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws.

How Alaska stripped sex trafficking of its meaning

Fishing boats in Alaska.

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In 2012, the Huffington Post's Hilary Hanson reported, Alaskan lawmakers made it so "procuring a patron" for prostitution is second-degree sex trafficking (a felony), managing or owning a "place of prostitution" — such as a safe space that sex workers agree to work in — is third-degree sex trafficking (a felony), and "engaging in conduct that institutes, aids, or facilitates" prostitution other than through "a prostitution enterprise" — an individual putting an ad for sex on Craigslist, for instance — is fourth-degree sex trafficking (a misdemeanor). (First-degree sex trafficking remained the traditional definition of sex trafficking.)

Then-Gov. Sean Parnell (R) at the time said he approved the law out of concern of "the depth and extent of this depravity in our state" when it came to sex trafficking, based on stories from law enforcement about native girls being lured into what was essentially slavery.

At first, law enforcement didn't seem to target sex workers who were engaging in prostitution. But Tara Burns, a former sex worker who received a master's degree in social justice from the University of Alaska Fairbanks this spring, found that police are using it more and more to crack down on sex workers who consensually work together, not traffickers who force people into prostitution.

But this can actually make sex work more dangerous. A sex trafficking charge carries way more penalties — it not only inflicts harsher criminal penalties than a prostitution charge, but also imposes extra legal barriers to finding a legal job. And the deterrent the law creates against sex workers consensually working together may push them out to more dangerous solicitation in the streets — instead of letting them set up a house where they can watch over each other and ban potentially abusive clients.

So the law risks punishing sex workers, according to Burns, while doing little to deter actual sex trafficking any more than typical anti-trafficking laws do.

Opponents of legal prostitution think sex work is never truly consensual

The Alaska law seems absurd. (And in strict dictionary terms, it is.) But it makes a lot more sense if you view it from the perspective of anti-prostitution activists.

The main argument against decriminalizing prostitution is that sex work — including but not limited to prostitution — is inherently or at least largely exploitative. Under this view, all sex work should be eradicated, and governments should do everything in their power to make sure this happens. Vox's Amanda Taub explained:

In the more extreme version, advocates see sex work itself as inherently degrading and exploitative. To them, all prostitution is a crime against women. Accordingly, their goal is to end it entirely.

The less extreme version of this, the one that [Lena] Dunham advocated on Twitter, says that prostitution can in theory be a legitimate choice, and that for some women it is, but that many other women are coerced or trafficked into it. This argument tends to focus on, for example, girls who are recruited into sex work before the age of consent or women whose history of abuse or poverty leaves them especially vulnerable to exploitation. They argue that this exploitation is so entrenched in the practice that the only way to protect vulnerable women and girls is by stopping all sex work.

From this perspective, Alaska's law make a lot more sense: Critics genuinely believe all prostitution is coercive in some way, so it may as well be trafficking, and the government may as well treat it as such by cracking down on the people who sell sex or facilitate prostitution. (Although many opponents of prostitution also prefer the Swedish model, in which johns who purchase sex are criminalized instead of the sex workers.)

This is, of course, absurd to people who don't share that view — particularly those who support decriminalizing prostitution and view sex work as work. And in the end, it seems to be harming sex workers — the people these types of laws are supposed to protect — by criminalizing them and denying them safe spaces.

Watch: 9 facts about violence against women