The FBI recently announced that it had rescued 105 exploited children and arrested 159 pimps as part of the national effort against sex trafficking of minors. Last summer, they made a similar announcement regarding the rescue of 79 children and 104 pimps. These efforts highlight the priority law enforcement is placing on trafficking in persons, particularly the sexual trafficking of minors. They also highlight how far we have to go as a nation to protect the vulnerable from exploitation.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines “sex trafficking” as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Sex trafficking is considered a “severe form” of human trafficking when the trafficker makes the victim engage in commercial sex through “fraud, force, or coercion” or where the victim is a minor. The latter category makes it somewhat easier to prove that a pimp is a trafficker under federal law because the government does not have to prove that the victim was coerced, forced or defrauded into the “sex industry.” State legislatures have also been enacting new and stronger measures to combat all forms of human trafficking.
These efforts come at a time when the idea of legalizing prostitution is gaining increasing cultural currency, despite the fact that prostitution, by its nature, often meets many of the requirements of severe trafficking set out by the TVPA. A number of articles over recent years, both scholarly and general, have promoted the idea of prostitution as a mere commercial exchange. The general theory that regulation increases safety, state revenue, and workers’ rights, while intuitive on the surface, has not proven true. Contrary to expectation, countries that have legalized prostitution have seen an increase, not a decrease, in the illegal sex trade, including trafficking. The legal sex trade, in fact, provides a smokescreen for illegal trafficking; it is easier to hide victims when sex work is more visible and common. When prostitutes can unionize, trafficking is even more profitable by comparison. Even Amsterdam, famous for its red light district, has reclaimed some of it for other industries. What’s more, the safety is illusory: prostitutes in Amsterdam have panic buttons, a sign that violence is still a part of their lives.
Whether there is a meaningful difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is difficult to answer. What we do know, however, is that children who are victims of sex trafficking often engage in prostitution as adults. We know that women and children are “trained” through violence, the erosion of resistance through activities such as stripping, and pornography. We know that men who buy women often demand or pay extra for demeaning and perverted acts. We know that some trafficking networks are vast, and that in some cases women and girls are traded among strip clubs and brothels across several states. We know that most victims are women, and many of them are children. We know that most victims of domestic minor sex trafficking are first exploited between the ages of 11 and 13.
As noted above, legalizing prostitution won’t solve these problems. It merely puts a mask of free choice and the free market on what is effectively the sale of human beings. Usually, paying for someone’s body (as opposed to their labor) amounts to slavery. The fact that the duration of this arrangement is shorter than most doesn’t change that. The women and girls purchased for sex are not treated much differently from a sex toy, an object engaged for the sexual use and self-pleasuring of men. Regulations can’t cure the ills suffered by exploited women and girls any more than they can cure the attitude that there’s nothing wrong with purchasing a person for one’s own use and pleasure. A society that legalizes the exploitation of women will have little success fighting exploitation of any kind.
Truth be told, however, we’re already struggling. Victims of trafficking number in the thousands, but if there were no one willing to purchase women and girls, there would be no profit in selling their bodies. Legal or underground, selling sex isn’t a sign of freedom, the marketplace, women’s equality, or any other catchy phrase: it’s a sign that we have a long ways yet to go to end these profound abuses of human dignity. The rescue of 105 children from trafficking is great news; greater news still would be a society that doesn’t view them and their peers as commodities in the first place.
*Nadja Wolfe is a student at William and Mary School of Law and a CLI Contributor.
 22 U.S.C. § 7102(9) (2013).
 22 U.S.C. § 7102(8)(A) (2013)
 See generally Polaris Project, 2012 Complete State Ratings Packet (2012), available at http://www.polarisproject.org/what-we-do/policy-advocacy/current-laws (click “Download the full 2012 state ratings map, state ratings chart, and methodology document here”). Wyoming was the last state to impose criminal penalties for human trafficking. Joan Barron, “Wyoming Legislature passes bill to outlaw human trafficking,” Casper Star-Tribune (Feb. 23, 2013), http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/wyoming-legislature-passes-bill-to-outlaw-human-trafficking/article_c56a55fe-3337-52e0-b7e9-b2df7bf7f637.html.
 The fact that this is being defended on a generally conservative website is noteworthy.
 Melissa Farley, Prostitution, Trafficking and Cultural Amnesia: What We Must Not Know in Order to Keep the Business of Sexual Exploitation Running Smoothly, 18 Yale J.L. & Feminism 109, 136 (2006).
 Caroline Achieng Otieno, The Pitfalls of Legalizing Prostitution in Amsterdam, The WIP (July 9, 2012), http://thewip.net/contributors/2012/07/the_pitfalls_of_legalizing_pro.html.
 Farley, supra n. 5, at 138.
 Celia Williamson & Michael Prior, Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: A Network of Underground Players in the Midwest, 2 J. Child & Adolescent Trauma 46, 58 (2009).
 Janice G. Raymond & Donna M. Hughes, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States: International & Domestic Trends 63 (2001).
 Id. at 69.
 Id. Porn “actresses” may also be exploited, and sex trafficking victims are sometimes coerced into or “persuaded” to participate in the creation of pornography. Id. at 57-58, 62.
 Id. at 70, 72.
 Id. at 10.
 David R. Hodge, Sexual Trafficking in the United States: A Domestic Problem with Transnational Dimensions, 53 Social Work 143, 143 (2008).
 Linda A. Smith et al., Shared Hope International, The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children 33-34 (2009).