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By Shawn Raymundo
The i-5 Freedom Network, a San Clemente-based nonprofit organization, hosted a forum last week to discuss the potential effects that legalizing or decriminalizing sex work is likely to have on human trafficking.
The group, which works to educate the hospitality industry on how to identify human trafficking, says that efforts to legalize prostitution—while oftentimes well-intentioned in the belief that it would protect sex workers and reduce trafficking—is more likely to increase trafficking.
Brenda Wells, founder and executive director of i-5 Freedom, explained that there are two schools of thought when it comes to decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution: the substitution theory and the scale theory.
The substitution theory posits that the interest and demand for trafficked parties would decrease if sex work becomes legalized and licensed. And under the scale theory, legalized prostitution would expand the market and increase exploitation.
Citing a 2012 study in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, where prostitution was legalized, Wells said that the scale theory proved to be the dominant result, as larger flows of trafficking were reported. Essentially, she said, the licensed businesses, unable to keep up with demand, would rely on imported individuals.
Furthermore, Wells noted, because legalizing prostitution is more likely to lead to an increase in trafficking, it would likely also mean an increase in immigration and undocumented individuals.
With legislative proposals to either legalize or decriminalize prostitution becoming more prevalent on the political landscape, the group hosted the latest forum with the intention of explaining the nuances of the matter.
“I really want to approach this very objectively. Personally, I want to remove the morality out of the conversation; this is a health and safety conversation . . . and also a women’s rights issue and a bully issue,” Wells said near the outset of the forum at the San Clemente Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, Jan. 15.
Noting that while a woman shouldn’t be criminalized for making a choice to use her body to make money, what usually happens “is the minute a woman gets to make that choice, it kind of stops becoming a choice.”
“There’s very few scenarios where someone goes into the life and thinks they’re going to make money and have the life of Pretty Woman, that Hollywood version of it,” she said, expounding on her thought. She added, “But there’s very few scenarios where it either doesn’t begin or end in some version of exploitation.”
Wells also brought up Senate Bill 233, which Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted last year, as one the of state’s first steps to protect victims. The new law prohibits the arrest of sex workers for sex work-related crimes after coming forward to report they have been a victim of a violent crime such as rape.
The bill’s author, State Sen. Scott Wiener, says SB 233 is intended to allow sex workers, who are likely victims of human trafficking, to feel comfortable reporting incidents of violence to law enforcement and in turn helping police go after traffickers.
During the two-hour-long forum, Jeff Jensen, an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, spoke about the agency’s efforts to thwart human trafficking in Orange County, which he called a hub for such activity because of its vast amenities and tourist attractions.
“Orange County is a hub, because we have a lot of money here . . . we’ve got the beaches. We’ve got all these things that bring people here,” Jensen said. “The tourist attractions in Orange County are phenomenal. Well, when you bring tourists here, the prostitution also comes.”
But, he noted, that’s not to say the department isn’t addressing the issue. Jensen boasted that OCSD’s task force and collaborative with multiple agencies, non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and the District Attorney’s office is a model for the state of California.
“So the Orange County collaborative is the model, and we actually go up and down the state and teach that model,” Jensen said, adding: “In Orange County, you have such a great effort by law enforcement and the collaborative groups we work with to fight this.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.