Staff Columnist

Americans, Iowans having the wrong sex trafficking discussion

FILE PHOTO: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft arrives for the 89th Academy Awards Oscars Vanity Fair Party in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., February 26, 2017.  REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft arrives for the 89th Academy Awards Oscars Vanity Fair Party in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo

Police have filed hundreds of prostitution-related charges stemming from an undercover sting in Florida last month, which authorities say uncovered a major international human trafficking operation. It quickly became a top news story.

Weeks later, however, only one person has been charged with human trafficking, a Chinese woman who operated a massage business. Notably, many of the women involved in the case, who police say are victims of trafficking, were charged and detained as well.

Some worry that’s part of a larger trend of government officials conflating trafficking with consensual sex work.

The story got even more attention due to political ramifications. Robert Kraft, a sports team owner who is reportedly friends with President Donald Trump, was among those charged. So was businessman John Childs, who has donated millions of dollars to conservative causes, including to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and the Republican Party of Iowa.

One prominent liberal group in Iowa jumped on the news. Progress Iowa published a statement repeating police officers’ unsubstantiated human trafficking claims, and calling on Grassley and Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann to donate the money they received from Childs to charity.

“Human trafficking is a serious problem in Iowa, and Jeff Kaufmann and Senator Grassley have the chance to do the right thing,” director Matt Sinovic said in a news release.

Indeed, human trafficking is a serious problem, but I doubt efforts to combat the scourge are aided by politicizing it.

Sinovic, in response to an inquiry for this column, reiterated “[Childs’] thousands of dollars would be far better spent providing educational resources in the fight against trafficking in Iowa.”

Sex trafficking has become a prominent political talking point in the last couple years, with figures from the president all the way down to city council members discussing the issue at length.

In Iowa, cities are revising their licensing and enforcement rules to target illicit massage businesses, like the ones in Florida, which some law enforcement officers say are fronts for human trafficking.

Advocates for sex workers’ rights, however, say that strategy is misguided. Jaime Nevins, a local activist who advocated against Iowa City’s proposed policy changes, wrote in a guest column last year that “such raids will definitely increase sex workers’ vulnerability while driving traffickers further underground.”

Maybe Florida authorities will present more evidence about coercive or violent behavior. Without that, though, labeling prostitution as trafficking might be counterproductive to health and safety.

Martin County, Florida Sheriff William Snyder has said the women involved “allow themselves to be trafficked” and “could’ve walked out in the street and asked for help,” as reported by Reason magazine’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown. That contradicts the claims they were enslaved.

Forcible labor is unacceptable in a civilized society, but so too is blaming people who are either trafficking victims or sex workers.

America needs a serious conversation about sex trafficking, but this isn’t it.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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