New law links pornography, human trafficking

Unlike reality shows, pornography is very real. The sexual abuse and degradation that female and child porn actors suffer isn’t much different than what prostitutes go through. As the internet and other technologies help blur the line between pornography, actors and other sex workers, what remains clear is that the majority have been victims of sex trafficking. A new Minnesota law — the first of its kind in the country — is drawing attention to the problem of sex trafficking and pornography through data collection and a new penalty for those involved in both.

“We consider pornography sex trafficking with the camera turned on,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which helped draft the law. “I think that’s an important point to drive home to people: When you use [pornography] you’re fostering and nurturing the sex-trafficking trade.”

Destructive appetites

Pornography is feeding an appetite for commercial sex, which in turn is filmed and posted on the internet to aid in more solicitation, experts say. Often through online trafficking, women and children are being coerced into sex work and forced to participate in increasingly violent acts. When they are filmed, traffickers may use the images to prevent victims from leaving the industry.

Sex trafficking has been a serious problem in Minnesota, and there is evidence that pornography plays a role, said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, one of the state legislators who sponsored the legislation. Empirical data generated under the law will provide proof of the connection.

The law adds pornography to the list of issues studied in the legislature’s annual human trafficking report, it increases in that report the number of crimes identified for connections to human trafficking, and it directs fines associated with those crimes, while adding a surcharge to help victims.

While 18 states have passed resolutions regarding pornography, the Minnesota law represents a concrete first step toward further action, Adkins said. The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the Church’s public policy voice in Minnesota, approached the issue in its work to end commodification of persons, he said.

Sex trafficking is defined as inducing commercial sex acts by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such acts is under 18 years, according to the U.S. government’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Perpetrators involved in recruiting, harboring, enticing, transporting, providing, obtaining, patronizing, soliciting or maintaining a person for that purpose are guilty of sex trafficking of an adult, according to the law.

Some human trafficking victims are trafficked for labor rather than sex, but that also can involve sexual abuse, said Hilary Chester, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ anti-trafficking program.

Cultures of coercion

Pornography — taken from Greek words meaning “prostitute” and “writing” — meets the legal definition of trafficking if the pornographer recruits, entices or obtains women for photographing live commercial sex acts, according to Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography/prostitution activist. Though pornography meets the definition of commercial sex, oftentimes major producers are protected from prosecution on free speech grounds, said Noel Bouché, author of “Exploited: Sex Trafficking, Porn Culture, and the Call to a Lifestyle of Justice.”

By the Numbers
◗ Persons trapped in sexual servitude globally: 1.4 million

There is a direct link between pornography, strip-club work and prostitution, said Terry Forliti, executive director of Breaking Free, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that helps women escape prostitution and sexual exploitation.

“Some of the biggest harms of pornography and stripping are that a person may be coerced to appear in pornography or work at clubs by threats, deception and/or the use of violence,” she said. “Even when a person has agreed to perform in pornography or clubs, she may be coerced to perform acts to which she has not consented.”

On the internet, pornography and prostitution work in tandem. Pornography is used to train prostitutes and to advertise and sell prostitution, mostly online. A growing amount of amateur pornography is traded and sold online, said Chester, adding that sex also is live-streamed for buyers.

Porn looks different in the internet age, Bouché said. “We’re recognizing how pervasive it is and how the neurological effects are real and documented.”

In their 2015 statement on pornography, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” the U.S. bishops recognized the problem: “Everyone, in some way, is affected by increased pornography use in society. We all suffer negative consequences from its distorted view of the human person and sexuality.”

Getting at the roots

In response to the proliferation of online sex trafficking, the U.S. Congress passed a law this spring giving federal and state prosecutors more power to pursue websites hosting sex-trafficking ads and enabling victims and states to file lawsuits against those sites.

Most sex-trafficking victims suffer violence and psychological coercion, Farley said.

In addition, traffickers may use pornography as blackmail, Chester said. “Now there is all that pornography out there, and the person is recognizable in it.”

As pornography becomes more violent and deviant, users want to act it out with prostitutes, not their partners, Chester said. “It’s more often women who are in these really imbalanced — probably forced prostitution — relationships with a pimp, for example, who would be subjected to ... those kinds of very degrading services. “

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Catholics who want to help stop sex trafficking can find resources on the USCCB’s website, Chester said. They also can learn to recognize signs of exploitation, she said. Bouché highlighted the need to combat the glamorization of pornography.

“You can show that pornography has negative secondary effects on the broader society,” said Adkins.

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.