Trafficking in Wrongs: Why Californians Need to Vote No on Prop 35 and Why the Rest of Us Should Care


The CASE Act, Californians against Sexual Exploitation, is a ballot initiative against trafficking that’s designed to tug at the heartstrings of a misinformed public. After all, no one supports commercial sexual exploitation except the people who gain from it. But here’s the thing: the people who actually know about human trafficking, like its survivors and the organizations that work with them, are encouraging Californians to vote No on Proposition 35.

That the act is a ballot initiative at all raises considerable concerns about its validity; it would never stand up as a piece of legislation, so it’s being placed in the hands of voters who don’t understand its true implications. The initiative works on the assumption that harsher sentencing prevents crime, an assumption that’s been disproven a zillion times over. It also works against legislation that’s already in place, redefining trafficking, increasing sentencing, and punishing victims of trafficking along with its perpetrators.

Unlike California’s current legislation against trafficking, which was written by a whole lot of people who sort of know what they’re talking about, Prop 35 was hastily thrown together with the backing of billionaire Chris Kelly, ex-privacy chief for Facebook. Which I’m sure you totally trust with your privacy. So it’s hardly surprising that one of the primary measures Prop 35 puts in place is the seizure of all digital files and passwords from anyone who’s charged with trafficking.

But anyone who’s charged with trafficking is obviously a danger to society, right? Not so much. Prop 35 conflates pimping with trafficking, and pimping laws already target the wrong people. By law, a pimp is anyone who gains from the earnings of a prostitute. Like the husband of a prostitute. Or the kids of a prostitute. Or the roommate of a prostitute. Pretty much anyone who’s crashed on my couch or let me buy them a drink is a pimp by that definition, and if Prop 35 is passed, that means they’re also traffickers.

And here’s where things get really hairy: anyone who’s been charged with a prostitution-related offense in the past could be considered a sex trafficker and forced to register as a sex offender for life. Seriously. Transwomen and women of color are disproportionately targeted for arrest, and will be disproportionately affected by Prop 35. Aside from retroactively punishing current and former sex workers who have worked by choice, it could also have terrible consequences for the survivors it’s supposed to protect. Trafficking victims get arrested, too. It’s tricky to figure out 20 years after an arrest whether someone was working by choice, so there’s a huge potential for these victims to find themselves on a sex offender registry, screwed out of other jobs and monitored for the rest of their lives.

Pretty much everyone agrees that most trafficking involves forced labor that isn’t sexual. Of course, farm workers and factory workers aren’t as, you know, sexy as sex workers, and sex sells legislation, too. Prop 35 institutes a sentencing binary between these forms of trafficking, putting heavier fines and sentences in place for sex trafficking than other kinds of forced labor, which essentially tells other survivors of trafficking that they don’t count. It’s a message they’re getting enough of already.
The criminalization of prostitution is the biggest hindrance to fighting sexual exploitation. Victims are afraid to come forward because they know that interactions with law enforcement lead not only to arrest, but to physical and sexual abuse. Any legislation that further criminalizes sex work means more police targeting prostitutes, police who have little to no training in distinguishing between sexual exploitation and sexual labor, who themselves engage in sexual coercion with impunity. The CASE Act conflates all sex work with trafficking, dismisses the experience of other trafficking victims, and will work against the survivors it claims to help by punishing them for their victimization and inadvertently redistributing funding that currently helps them. Criminalization pushes trafficking further underground, standing between survivors and the organizations that work for them, putting their lives in the hands of a criminal justice system that punishes them for their experiences.

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Robin Hustle is a writer, artist, and musician living in Chicago. She is the editor of the Land Line, a collaborative print journal, and self-publishes the zines Curdled Milk, Leftovers Again?! and Mirror Tricks. Her writing has appeared in $PREAD Magazine, Vice, and the Journal of Radical Shimming, and her visual art has been exhibited in group shows at Woman Made Gallery, Roots and Culture, and Gallery 400. She archives her writing and drawings at

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