In December, after more than seven years behind bars, 32-year-old LeeAnn walked out of federal prison. But she’s not a free woman — she will spend the rest of her life on the sex offender registry. Her crime? Letting a girl shower in her mother’s apartment, giving her a clean change of clothes and holding the girl’s $40 while she had sex with a man in another room.
These are normal actions in the daily life of sex workers trying to keep themselves and each other safe. But the girl turned out to be 14 and, in the eyes of the federal government, these acts constitute sex trafficking of a minor. It didn’t matter that the girl had told LeeAnn that she was 17. It also didn’t matter that LeeAnn, who was addicted to various drugs and also engaged in sex work, never made money from the girl’s actions. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the girl was considered a trafficking victim, and LeeAnn a trafficker.
One year later, federal agents questioned LeeAnn. She was high at the time and doesn’t remember much, but she does remember admitting to everything. “I didn’t realize it was a federal offense,” she told Truthout. “That’s normal in that life.”
LeeAnn pled guilty and was sentenced to 87 months in federal prison, five years of probation and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
The danger of sex trafficking has become a rallying cry for law enforcement, prosecutors and politicians. Furthermore, sex work and sex trafficking are often conflated, aided by inflated (and wrong) statistics and sensationalized stories, and reflected in laws that fail to distinguish sex work from trafficking. When minors are involved, prosecutors and courts come down especially hard. But in the rush to “save” people, little attention is paid to sex workers swept into the dragnet of these laws — and then subject to prison and a lifetime of punishment. The FBI reported 744 arrests for human trafficking for sex work in 2015, a steep jump from…