The Bangor Daily News’ extensive reporting on sex trafficking has revealed an ugly truth: The desire of some men to buy sex has created an underground market that is destroying the lives of some of Maine’s most vulnerable residents, particularly poor young women.
Nobody wants to see girls and young women manipulated and forced into sex trafficking rings, but until Maine can deter the customers from creating the demand for the lucrative underground market, it won’t stop.
Right now, the state doesn’t have the legal framework to fight the demand for buying sex. As a result, “we’re losing,” as Portland police Officer Mark Keller said.
Part of the reason Maine police are losing is because many victims are afraid to talk to police. They fear talking could land them in jail for prostitution — a fear often driven home by traffickers as a means of control. That fear is not unwarranted.
The Portland Police Department has arrested 19 people on prostitution charges since 2013. These arrests are not going to allow police to gain the trust of sex trafficking victims, who at first may appear to be consenting in their sex work, and they will do nothing to address demand.
Maine needs to change the way it thinks about sex work. It needs to change its legal framework.
Keller, who is on the frontlines in the fight against trafficking in the state, suggested Maine adopt the so-called Nordic model, which makes it legal for people to prostitute themselves but illegal to pimp, traffick or purchase sex. The model has been adopted by Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Canada.
Maine policymakers should consider this approach.
It has yielded positive results in Sweden, which was the first to implement it in 1999. The Swedish government reported during the first nine years after the law passed that the number of men reporting they purchased sex services decreased, and sex work where the first point of contact was made over the internet grew to a lesser extent than it did in its neighboring countries.
“Police in the field as well as social workers working with these issues state that criminal groups that sell women for sexual purposes view Sweden as a poor market and choose not to establish here because of the ban against the purchase of sexual services,” the report stated.
Critics feared the Nordic model would push sex work underground to massage parlors, sex clubs, hotels and nightclubs. Such a reality, they claimed, would make it harder for police to reach out to vulnerable sex workers and put them at an increased risk of physical abuse and worsened conditions. But Sweden reported those fears had not been realized.
The human rights advocacy group Amnesty International USA also scrutinized the model and found it subjected sex workers to increased police scrutiny, evictions and other penalties since it was implemented in Norway in 2009. But the criticism has more to do with the way the model was rolled out than the law itself.
Some would rather see prostitution decriminalized, including for pimps and johns, while keeping trafficking illegal. This kind of model was rolled out in Denmark, which decriminalized prostitution in 1999. But it doesn’t appear it helped alleviate sex trafficking, which is far more prevalent in the country than it is in Sweden, according to a 2013 report published in the scientific and medical print journal Elsevier. Denmark’s population is 40 percent smaller than Sweden’s, but the country has four times more human trafficking victims, the report found.
Changing Maine law is just the first step of many needed to stop sex trafficking in Maine. The state also needs to expand access to health care and support intensive, long-term recovery programs, so victims have a chance at a better, sustainable future.
To make such changes and investments, Maine leaders need to start thinking differently about the sex workers in our state. They need to realize many of these women and men, girls and boys are vulnerable victims who need a helping hand — not contempt.