Article: The Influence of International Human Trafficking on United States Prostitution Laws: The Case of Expungement Laws

When the issue of human trafficking first gained widespread public attention in the United States in the 1990s, the discussion centered on international human trafficking.  In 2000, the United States passed an anti-trafficking law, popularly called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), and the United Nations adopted an anti-trafficking treaty called the Palermo Protocol.  Both the TVPA and the Palermo Protocol focused on combating international human trafficking by encouraging countries around the world to pass laws against trafficking and prosecute traffickers.  Meanwhile, in the United States, state-level criminal justice systems treated United States citizens qualifying under the federal definition of “human trafficking victim” as criminals by prosecuting them for prostitution.  Activists for sexually exploited women and girls in the United States noted the irony that the United States was so concerned about trafficking in other countries, but was neglecting trafficking of its own citizens.  The United States was allowing laws and practices in the states that it was condemning in other nations.  For example, federal law requires other countries to ensure that victims of trafficking are not inappropriately incarcerated for unlawful acts as a direct result of being trafficked.[1]  Yet many states lack laws ensuring that sex trafficking victims are not prosecuted for prostitution.  As a result, anti-trafficking activists have put pressure on Congress and state legislatures to apply the same legal standards used in an international context to sexually exploited women and girls in the United States.  They are leveraging the international human trafficking legal framework to push for legal change to state laws on prostitution.

This essay will begin with an explanation of the legal framework for addressing international human trafficking, including the definitions of trafficking and the laws and policies developed to eradicate human trafficking.  Then the essay will describe how this framework has come to influence state laws in the United States, focusing in particular on the recent trend of laws allowing for the expungement of prostitution convictions if the defendant can show that she was a victim of sex trafficking.  The essay will conclude by evaluating the effectiveness of this legal framework at both the international and domestic level.

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Carrie N. Baker is an Assistant Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Baker holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Yale University and an M.A., J.D., and Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Emory University.  Her work has been published in numerous law and women’s studies journals.  Her book, The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment (Cambridge University Press, 2008), won the National Women’s Studies Association 2008 Sara A. Whaley book prize.

[1]. 22 U.S.C. § 7106(b)(2) (2006 & Supp. III 2010).

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