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March 04, 2019

Sex Trafficking Laws Rooted in ‘Racial Panic’: WaPo Columnist

Coming up on the one-year anniversary of the day Donald Trump signed the supposed “anti-sex trafficking” bill FOSTA/SESTA into law (pictured above), the Washington Post on Monday published an op-ed in which author Hallie Lieberman argued that the FOSTA law is having the same effect as its best-known predecessor, the Mann Act. In other words, the law does much to persecute racial minorities, immigrants and women—but little to combat actual sex trafficking. Lieberman is the author of the 2018 book Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, and is currently researching a book on male sex workers. Trump regularly rails against sex traffickers in his public speeches, usually tying sex trafficking to illegal immigration, often spinning bizarre and unsubstantiated yarns about traffickers driving women bound with duct tape across the United States-Mexico border.   But according to Lieberman writing in the Washington Post, Trump’s conflating of sex trafficking with racial stereotypes and anti-immigration rhetoric is nothing new, and certainly did not start with Trump. “In theory, FOSTA, and the Trump administration’s fight against sex trafficking, is laudable,’ she wrote. “Yet historically, such legislation has really been about escalating racially rooted fears of immigration, not combating sexual violence.” That sex trafficking laws are rooted in “racial panic” was made clear right in the name of the early 20th-century anti-trafficking law known popularly as the Mann Act, named for its author, Republican Illinois Rep. James Robert Mann. The actual name of the law was “The White Slave Act.” Mann himself explained the name claiming, “the white-slave traffic, while not so extensive, is much more horrible than any black-slave traffic ever was in the history of the world.”  The law, in its original form, was also aimed at immigrants—though in 1910 the immigrants supposedly behind the sex trafficking trade were not coming up across the southern border, but down across the northern border. Mann wrote in his book War on the White Slave Trade that the largest importer of prostitutes into the U.S. was Canada. In the first four years of the Mann Act, Liberman writes, only 14 percent of convictions under the law were for actual trafficking—or “White Slavery”—while 71 percent were convictions of women for engaging in sex work. The law was used to control women, by arresting their male partners when they traveled together across state lines, and to persecute black men—such as boxing champion Jack Johnson and, several decades later, musician Chuck Berry, whose “crime” was to travel with a white woman from state to state. “So far, FOSTA’s development has been eerily similar to the Mann Act’s,’ Lieberman wrote. “Women’s travel is now being monitored by some hotel chains in the name of preventing sex trafficking,” she added, noting that Marriott employees have been instructed to be wary of women  who dare to sit alone at a hotel bar, under the assumption that they are victims of sex trafficking. “And even though sex workers warned that FOSTA would put them at risk, lawmakers ignored them,” Lieberman wrote. “Here is where history matters: Laws intended to protect women from sex trafficking nearly always do them harm.” Photo by White House Official / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain 

 
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