While seemingly preoccupied this week with criminal justice reform and avoiding a government shutdown, Congress also authorized a national strategy for arresting sex buyers and approved the use of secret wiretaps in misdemeanor prostitution cases.
The national plan to “end demand” for prostitution was part of the massive “Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act,” which cleared the Senate Monday through a secret vote of the sort civil libertarians have long opposed.
Congress is now “strengthening federal efforts” to be tough on sex buyers, based on the false idea that customers of consenting adult sex workers drive demand for minors. All state and local cops, prosecutors, and judges are to be trained on “best practices for prosecuting buyers” of sex and how to use asset forfeiture in these cases. A federal working group on the study of sex-buyer arrests will also be created, and grants related to human trafficking must include language encouraging those working on demand-reduction efforts to apply.
In addition, Congress “clarif[ies] that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of gender-based violence,” whatever that means.
“Any comprehensive approach to eliminating sex and labor trafficking must include a demand reduction component,” states the bill, which passed the Senate Tuesday after clearing the House in July 2017.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) was using the process to usher through four bills at the intersection of law enforcement, human rights, bureaucracy building, and foreign diplomacy. In addition to the Frederick Douglass Act (H.R. 2200, with no separate Senate version), the following bills also passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Monday:
- The Abolish Human Trafficking Act (S. 1311)
- The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2017 (S. 1312)
- The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (S. 1862)
The chambers are now resolving differences on all three before sending them to President Donald Trump for signing. The total package includes a mixed bag of policies and funding priorities.
Tucked in some tiny sections are significant changes, some that go way beyond human trafficking. For instance, a section of S. 1311 would allow state law enforcement to use secret wiretaps on sex workers and their customers.
A part of S.1312 “amends the federal criminal code to broaden the authority of the U.S. Secret Service to provide forensic and investigative assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies by allowing assistance in support of any investigation—not just an investigation involving missing or exploited children.” [Emphasis mine]
Another “amends the federal criminal code to authorize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to bring a civil action to stop or prevent criminal offenses related to suspected forced labor, sex trafficking, or sexual abuse.” This would give the DOJ more leeway to preemptively shut down businesses while building a criminal case.
One provision essentially creates a new federal crime initiative by directing resources and money to fight “sextortion.” Among other (expanded) missions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will now teach school kids, cops, and staff about the dangers of “sexting and sextortion,” too.
Overall, there’s a lot of overlapping instruction and redundancy in the four bills approved in the Senate Monday. Perhaps they could have benefited from full attention by the legislature instead of McConnell rushing them through under secret votes right before a holiday break.
But the fact that he was able to do that underscores something interesting. For at least a decade, lawmakers have made a big deal about introducing, supporting, and passing bills related to sex trafficking. Interestingly, there was little fanfare from folks in Congress about the passage of these measures. It seems that when these efforts aren’t full of sex panic and high-profile targets like Backpage, there’s little glory in claiming credit for them.