Will a new federal sex trafficking law help Alaska’s endangered youths?

WASHINGTON — Alaska's U.S. senators hope a new federal law will help prevent and prosecute sex trafficking, but some sex-worker advocates argue unintended consequences of the law will put the most marginalized women and children in greater danger.

In April, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that combined House and Senate legislation, both nominally aimed at online sex trafficking. (The House bill is known as "FOSTA" — Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act; the Senate bill is known as "SESTA" — Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.)

Alaska has long been a home to prostitution and a hotspot for sexual violence. But there is little clarity as to how many people are suffering. Most stories of sex trafficking are anecdotal. Many attempted crackdowns by law enforcement have been unsuccessful in rooting out those who exploit the young and the vulnerable. And just how this new bill will change things in Alaska remains unclear.

Alaska Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski both signed on as co-sponsors of the Senate bill last August and lauded its bipartisan passage out of Congress.

"If you're trying to be a pimp online, with young girls in Alaska, you're likely going to go to jail with this new law. Period," Sullivan said in an interview.

But advocates for sex workers, including those in Alaska, have been adamantly opposed to the new law. They say it will drive women back to often dangerous and violent pimps, who had been previously sidelined by the internet. They say it conflates consensual sex work and abuse. And they say it will make it harder to find and help abused children.

The law amends the Communications Decency Act, which has been previously interpreted as providing legal cover for websites that host advertisements for prostitution. That legal protection is now gone. Companies whose websites host sex-work advertisements can be both civilly and criminally liable for sex trafficking crimes.


The new law also makes it illegal for a website to "promote or facilitate prostitution of another person."

The new law, Sullivan said, allows states' attorneys general to prosecute federal trafficking cases, without waiting for federal prosecution that can be hamstrung by funding constraints. "You don't even need to ask permission," he said. "That's a big innovation and I was proud to be part of that."

Murkowski has said the bill "gives power back to prosecutors, victims, and state attorneys by giving a clearer path to pursue legal action against website providers who are posting advertisements for sex workers, many of whom are actively caught up in sex trafficking."

Common market factors

There are few statistics illuminating the scope of sex work and sex trafficking in Alaska, or the overall rate of arrests and prosecutions.

But prostitution runs far back through the history of Alaska — during the Russian fur trade, the gold rush and the building of the pipeline in the 1970s. Male workers flock to the state for natural resources jobs, often alone.

The common factors for a market for trafficking are all present in Alaska.

"Places where you have a lot of transient male industry … oil, military, tourism, fishing. We have a bunch of those. Place them in rural areas. And then also if you have them next to populations with high amounts of trauma or high amounts of historical trauma," said Josh Louwerse, who runs the outreach program at Covenant House in Anchorage.

There's not only a market, but people who are vulnerable to fill it, he said.

Meanwhile, the state remains rife with sexual violence — above and beyond the rest of the United States. Sexual crime rates in Alaska are three times the national average, and child sexual assault rates are six times the national average. In 2015, the rate of rape in Alaska was 122 incidents per 100,000 people, according to the state and the federal Uniform Crime Reporting program. That year the national average rape rate was 38.6 per 100,000 people.

The issue is most stark for Alaska Natives, who account for one-fifth of the state's population, but make up 61 percent of Alaska's rape victims and nearly half of child abuse reports.

[New report offers a more in-depth look at Alaska's many sexual assault cases]

There are several entities in the state working on investigating and combating sex trafficking, said Chloe Martin, public affairs officer for the U.S. attorney's office in Anchorage. The Anchorage mayor's office, for example, runs a human trafficking task force, combining efforts of law enforcement, government agencies and social service providers.

The task force's work has led to several sex trafficking cases, including a man sentenced to more than 13 years in prison in November.

"The FBI and the Anchorage Police Department have also worked with our office to target individuals who seek out commercial sex with minors, leading to multiple prosecutions at the state and federal level of individuals who have offered to pay to have sex with children," Martin said. She could not provide overall arrest statistics, she said.

It is not clear, however, if anyone has been prosecuted for trafficking a minor in Alaska in recent years. There is surely already some impact from the bill, but it's difficult to quantify on a local level.

The sites that used to host ads for sex workers — or their traffickers — are gone. Craigslist took down the sections previously used for prostitution.


And several days before Trump signed SESTA/FOSTA into law, top officials at Backpage.com were arrested after a grand jury returned a 93-count indictment in Phoenix. The website "is notorious for being the internet's leading source of prostitution advertisements," which provide the "overwhelming majority of its revenue," the indictment said. "These practices have enabled Backpage to earn over $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since its inception."

The website's facilitators were charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering. The federal indictment described a casual staff attitude toward facilitating prostitution, and terrible instances of children abused through employment of the website. The government alleged Backpage.com made more than $100 million in profit a year.

But the law was needed even though the Justice Department was able to shut down Backpage.com, according to the anti-sex trafficking nonprofit ECPAT-USA. "Backpage.com did not start in the adult personal ad business," ECPAT-USA wrote on a blog about the new law. Another website was likely to spring up in its place.

But some advocates say that the law is only going to make sex work more dangerous, and push the most heinous traffickers who abuse children further into the shadows.

Online vs. on the streets

Terra Burns, a self-proclaimed former sex worker who has lobbied on behalf of sex workers in Juneau, said she is dismayed by the new law.

Removing the ability to advertise online, talk online with other sex workers, and screen clients (through blacklists and Yelp-style review sites) will push the most marginalized and crisis-driven sex sellers onto the streets, Burns said. On the streets, women face a heightened risk of violence and murder.

"It's awful," Burns said. "Pimps were basically made irrelevant by the internet," and now most sex workers she knows are getting multiple "recruiting" texts a day.


Convicted Anchorage sex trafficker Amber Batts said she was surprised when she heard about the new law, and didn't expect it to pass through Congress, much less on a near-unanimous basis. Online ads are a tool "that law enforcement is able to use to to find traffickers and investigate," she said.

[Inside Alaska's world of sex work from someone who lived it]

Removing the trackable part of online prostitution, she said, will "put the traffickers even further underground."

Batts was convicted of sex trafficking in 2015 for running an escort ring online in Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Juneau, Kenai and Fairbanks. She managed payments and kept an apartment where prostitution took place, and for that got a cut of sex workers' payments. She's out on parole now.

Batts was a "trafficker" in the sense that she profited off of other people's prostitution, but was not accused of coercion or abuse, like some other cases prosecuted in recent years in Alaska.

Batts said she thinks the law is not about preventing sex trafficking, but about making prostitution more difficult.

"This is victimizing people even further. It seems like we're being stripped of more legal and social protection" and the voices of sex workers are being driven "further and further to the background," she said.

Now they have no way to screen clients, and many will end up back on the streets, Batts said.

National research has indicated that "outdoor" prostitution is far more dangerous than when sex workers move online. Baylor economist Scott Cunningham tracked the roll-out of Craigslist's "erotic services" section in different cities at different times, and he found a correlation between the online ad service and a 17.4 percent drop in the female homicide rate. The section of the classified website was "used almost exclusively by prostitutes to advertise illegal sex services," his report said.

The presumed reason is that the availability of free online classified advertisements shifted prostitution from the streets to the internet. "Outdoor solicitation (i.e., street prostitution) is considered the most dangerous market segment for sex services … and has a death by homicide rate over 13 times higher than the general population," the report said.

Nationally, the internet limited the role pimps and offered more agency to those engaging in prostitution. Sex workers used websites to verify clients and let each other know about dangerous individuals.

But ECPAT-USA, a group that lobbied for the federal law, argued that the internet doesn't really make prostitution safer.


"Whatever percentage of the prostitution trade is composed of voluntary sex workers, it is far outmatched by demand. And one way the gap is filled is through the exploitation of vulnerable children," the nonprofit wrote on its website.

"An online blacklist may deflect a john from a particular sex site, but that only makes it more likely that he will find a trafficking victim who has no choice in whom they service. These vetting lists offer at best a false sense of security, and at worst, an excuse to allow for the sexual exploitation of children online," ECPAT-USA said.

Vulnerable youths

There's some disagreement about just how deep the problem of trafficking runs in Alaska.

A study released last year found that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys receiving services from Anchorage's shelter for homeless youths, among those surveyed, reported being victims of trafficking for sex or labor.

Alaska youths were surveyed as part of a 10-city study by researchers from Loyola University New Orleans of young people 17 to 25 years old using services at Covenant House International. The rate of victimization of young people in Anchorage outpaced others in the survey nationwide.


Batts thinks the state and the federal government are "most definitely" overestimating the number of children involved in sex work in Alaska. Nobody wants to question the assertion of how widespread the problem is, because "if you're not against sex trafficking, you must be for it," Batts said. "What we have is a sex trafficking hysteria going on."

"It happens; it's horrible, exploitative. People are marred for life. That's real s—. But to conflate that with actual, consensual sex work … is absolutely ridiculous and it's a waste of resources," Batts said.

Batts said more of the issue is the "large population of homeless teens in this state," some of whom become exploited by older people, and are prone to it because of their position.

Louwerse, from the Covenant House in Anchorage, said he and others first became aware of how serious the issue was for their clients when an FBI agent gave a presentation about how young people are recruited "into the lifestyle" at Covenant House.

"So we went and got ourselves trained," Louwerse said.

Louwerse noted that the Loyola study only included 60 young people from Anchorage, and the questions were framed as being about labor — how they made money. The study found one in four Alaskans surveyed "were either sex or labor trafficking victims."

Most were recruited when they were homeless, he said. Sometimes people just offer to help, sometimes they begin a relationship before they are able to "manipulate them," he said. "We know that it's happening in our city."

"I have been talking about the trafficking of Native women and girls for as long as I have been in the Senate," Murkowski said in a recent speech. "Over the past 15 years there is something that has changed, though, the internet means that predators don't need to lurk in the shadows on the street corners anymore. And even though internet coverage in Alaska isn't what it is in the big cities of the Lower 48, the FBI confirms the internet is used to recruit girls for sex trafficking in my state," Murkowski said.

But Burns argued that the number of sex workers in the state isn't as high as one might think.

She said there are about 10 to 15 sex workers in Alaska for whom "this is their chosen career." Far more use sex work as "fall-back" money when they need it. Many who work on the streets do so temporarily, for a year or two, she said. At any one time, there are fewer than 50 street sex workers in Alaska, she said.

Prior to the removal of Craigslist's dating section and the takedown of Backpage.com, Burns said there were usually 20 to 30 people advertising in Alaska at one time, as many as 40 in the last year or two during the state's economic downturn. And more are participating in a more informal manner — in bars, on dating websites, and on "sugar daddy" dating websites, Burns said.

Burns argues that much of what is now known as trafficking of a minor is a "new home for an old problem" — homelessness. Young people who have left home and have nowhere to stay are vulnerable to the influence of an older person looking to trade sex for a place to stay.

Burns said politicians have it wrong — sex trafficking isn't the problem. Access to housing and social services is.

But Louwerse said he thinks the federal legislation will be "really helpful."

"Part of why many folks don't know or believe that we have a trafficking issue is because so much of it happens behind the scenes," Louwerse said.

He also said that it is hard to see trafficking being prosecuted because sometimes traffickers end up facing drug or weapons charges instead. Often, "those exploited are not in a place where they want to sit before their trafficker in court," and sometimes, the victims "don't look like a reliable witness in court."

Louwerse wants to see more help for victims. the state should look into vacating past prostitution charges that can keep people from moving on with their lives, he said.

Louwerse said the key is to look at causes of homelessness for young people: generational poverty and large gaps in mental, behavioral and substance abuse health systems.

Instead of being arrested, they should be given a social service plan, he said.

"Divert them out of the criminal justice system and into a system of service. We don't have those clear paths right now," he said.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.