As the state legislature moves forward with more teeth against forced prostitution, there are things to consider beyond fines and penalties, at least one advocate says.
Known as human trafficking, forced prostitution is a centuries-old problem that remains persistent today as abusive partners pimp their victims, families sell sex services of children, and, in more rare cases, children and adults are abducted for illicit sex rings. Human trafficking can also include forced, unpaid labor.
Recent headlines in South Carolina showed reports of human trafficking cases have surged more than 360 percent as the public has become more aware of the nefarious trade.
But as the Statehouse moves toward ratification of a bill that creates an automatic legal defense of human trafficking for minors involved in prostitution and increases penalties for soliciting or pimping sex services, there are other items to consider.
Lawmakers' other actions on sex education and introduction of bills aimed at transgender people could be proving counter-productive in the fight against human trafficking, according to South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault executive director Sara Barber.
"When you talk about trafficking, youre talking about already-vulnerable youth who are at risk," she said, adding that there is a link between trafficking and ideas around sexual consent and respect in relationships.
Citing "bathroom bills" of years past that sought to mandate public restroom goers use the bathroom of their birth sex, and a current House bill called the Youth Gender Reassignment Prevention Act, Barber said those bills send a clear message to LGBTQ youth: We don't support you.
"All those kinds of policies serve to alienate LGBTQ youth. They further the bias against them in school and in their communities. We should support people whoever they are and however they identify," Barber said. "If you have policies that are further alienating or leading to lack of support ... which means they are far more likely to be homeless and far more likely to be victims of trafficking, you have a big old circle going on."
Another idea some states are exploring, legalizing sex work, is not even on the radar for some lawmakers and advocates. Decriminalization of sex work has been considered in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the city of Washington D.C.
"That's a horrible idea," S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) said. "This is a good Southern state and we're not talking about legalizing selling sex in South Carolina."
Shealy has led many of the efforts to increase prostitution penalties, including a bill that has recently passed both the House and Senate that also creates an automatic legal defense of human trafficking for minors involved in prostitution. That bill, S. 194, is awaiting conference between the legislative bodies.
South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator Kathryn Moorehead said that while she is aware of other states exploring legalizing sex work, there needs to be "more research."
"We need to have success as much as possible, and be really strategic about it," she said, adding that there appears to be some interest in creating a registry for those working in strip clubs among other states and that's something "we could potentially discuss."
"That would be a very heavy lift in our state and I don't think we're there yet," Barber said. "There's a very clear argument that some people engage in sex work voluntarily and there is the other argument that a majority of people engaged in sex work have been trafficked." —Lindsay Street