Does California's anti-human trafficking bill get it wrong?

Activists and sex worker advocates say California's Proposition 35 dangerously oversimplifies forced labor

By Natasha Lennard

Published October 24, 2012 9:05PM (EDT)

Californians will vote in November on Proposition 35 -- a bill that would increase fines and prison sentences for convicted human traffickers. While the desire to fight human trafficking seems uncontroversial, the bill itself is rife with problems and penned in poorly defined terms.

Writing in the Guardian Wednesday, writer and sex worker advocate Melissa Gira Grant points out the dangerous but all too common conflation of the terms "trafficking" and "sex work" present in Proposition 35 and anti-trafficking efforts in general. Gira Grant explains that, at the expense of many victims of coerced labor, the bill only defines "trafficking" as involving the sexual exploitation of women and children. She writes:

This schism over who gets to define trafficking is about to come to a head for California voters in the form of Proposition 35, which, if passed this November, will set higher criminal penalties and fines for those who commit what the authors of the bill define as sex-trafficking, as opposed to labor trafficking. It will also force those convicted of "trafficking" to register as sex offenders and submit to lifelong internet monitoring – whether or not sex or the internet were involved in their case.

Writing against the bill in the Sacramento Bee, criminal law specialist Stephen Munkelt noted that this aspect of Prop. 35 is potentially unconstitutional, let alone ill-devised. He notes too that the bill is ripe for abuse: "a crusading DA or sheriff could seek felony convictions and prison terms for adults working in the legal porn and erotic services industry." The L.A. Times too has come out against Prop. 35, noting "voters should not be lulled into believing that by approving this measure they will be taking effective action against slavery and sexual exploitation." Gira Grant gives perhaps the most nuanced account of the proposition's problems, based on its failure to address or understand the real, severe struggles of coerced laborers:

There is no question that California is home to several industries where, according to the Freedom Network (whose member organizations employ a human rights-based approach to anti-trafficking work), forced labor is known to occur: agricultural work, restaurant work, construction work, hotel work, garment work and sex work. But what unites the workers in these industries is not "commercial sexual exploitation", but the erosion of labor protections and the toughening-up of immigration policies – which makes many more people vulnerable to coercion and abuse. Cindy Liou, staff attorney at the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, a Northern California-based project that has worked with hundreds of survivors of human trafficking, is advocating for Californians to vote no on this proposition.

  "It redefines trafficking in a way that's incorrect, confusing, and terrible. It's highly problematic because it does this at the expense of all trafficking victims – it ignores labor trafficking victims."

In fact, so-called "sex-trafficking" constitutes only a small percentage of all forced labor, as estimated by the International Labor Organization... [O]f the nearly 21 million people the ILO estimates are forced laborers, 4.5 million are estimated to be what the ILO calls "victims of forced sexual exploitation" – that is, over three-quarters of the people around the globe estimated to be in forced labor are not involved in "forced sexual exploitation".

While arguing against any "purposeful conflation" of trafficking and sex work, Gira Grant makes clear that there can be no satisfactory definition of trafficking, especially not one based on trying to simply enumerate victims or simplify messages about systems of coerced labor. She urges, instead, a nuanced approach, which involves working with individuals in forced labor situations -- sex workers or not -- to understand "the challenges faced by the millions of people working, struggling and surviving in abusive conditions, whose experiences will never fit on a billboard," or, indeed a flawed and oversimplified ballot.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

MORE FROM Natasha LennardFOLLOW natashalennardLIKE Natasha Lennard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

California Human Trafficking Labor Rights Proposition 35 Sex Trafficking Sex Work