Politics & Policy

Wilberforce Can Free Again

Protecting trafficking victims.

The nation’s most recent political sex scandal — New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement with a high-end call-girl ring — will doubtless provide much fodder for the late-night comedy shows. But American prostitution is no laughing matter: The victimization of women and girls, and sometimes men and boys, by pimps has been widely recognized throughout U.S. history.

In the mid-1800s, Congress passed a law criminalizing the importation of aliens for prostitution. In the early 1900s as part of the first international movement against sex trafficking, Congress passed the Mann Act, a law criminalizing the act of transporting persons across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), making the pimping of persons under the age of 18, or pimping by means of fraud, force, or coercion, a serious federal felony. (“Pimping” is an informal term for what the TVPA 2000 calls “sex trafficking”: “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”) And in 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act created new federal anti-trafficking crimes and enhanced the penalties of the Mann Act.

In December, the House of Representatives passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act by a vote of 405 to 2. The legislation modernizes and harmonizes existing federal laws against pimping to create a new set of criminal statutes, which will make the prosecution of sex-trafficking offenses easier and more efficient. It also creates a new international standard as a model for other countries.


Now the bill is in the Senate, where the same groups who opposed its passage in the House are rallying forces to derail it. Critics of the House-passed Wilberforce Act allege that it will “federalize” anti-trafficking efforts.

The Washington Post claims it will send FBI agents on the “trail of pimps,” and sources in the story claim it will cause all prostitutes to be considered victims of trafficking. Laurence E. Rothenberg, deputy assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Policy, made a related charge before the House Judiciary Committee: “The federal government cannot prosecute every prostitution case.” None of these objections holds water.

In fact, FBI agents have been on the trail of pimps for decades, bringing down major prostitution rings and arresting sexual predators, particularly those that exploit children or work in organized networks. Last year, through the Department of Justice’s Innocence Lost Initiative, which targets perpetrators of child sex trafficking, the FBI carried out 125 investigations that resulted in 308 arrests, 55 indictments, and 106 convictions of sex traffickers who exploited children. Most of these perpetrators were American pimps.

Also, the reforms do not conflate pimping with prostitution. They target sexual predators — the recruiters and organizers of prostitution/sex trafficking operations who routinely brutalize and destroy the lives of young women and corrupt local communities. The proposed bill does not involve the federal government in non-pimping prostitution offenses.

Sex-worker-rights groups and pimps, not surprisingly, also oppose the act. The Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Erotic Service Providers Union held a demonstration against the bill outside the office of Rep. Tom Lantos, the prime sponsor of the bill in the House before his death earlier this year.

Most of the debate and misunderstanding of the Wilberforce Act is centered on the requirement of proving that “force, fraud, and coercion” compelled victims to engage in commercial sex acts. The TVPA “severe form of trafficking” statute requires the use of force, fraud, or coercion on an adult victim, while the Mann Act (the federal law against transporting a person across states lines for purposes of prostitution) does not require that the perpetrator to use force, fraud, or coercion. These statutes will be brought together in the criminal code to create two levels of sex trafficking: sex trafficking (without force, fraud, and coercion) and aggravated sex trafficking (with force, fraud, and coercion).

Also, the Wilberforce Act will change the older Mann Act statute by eliminating its transportation-of-victims requirement — and substituting in the TVPA’s “in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce” requirement. When transportation across state lines is not provable, prosecutors will no longer need to show brutality or acts of fraud, force, or coercion — such acts will increase the punishment of a pimp rather than being the sole basis of conviction.

In addition, one of the biggest challenges to prosecuting cases of sex trafficking is getting victims to cooperate or testify against brutal pimps. These reforms will make it possible to bring multi-defendant cases against pimps.


When sex trafficking is a federal crime only when there is proof of force, fraud, coercion, or the exploitation of a minor, this encourages states in the U.S. and foreign governments to require high standards of proof for trafficking convictions. This type of law is supported by those favoring the legalization of prostitution. Currently, the TVPA sex-trafficking statute would be acceptable in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, because recruiting and exploiting women and men in prostitution is allowed as long as the victim can’t prove that force, fraud, or coercion was used or the victim is not underage. By defining prostitute recruitment as sex trafficking, the Wilberforce Act will send a message that all pimping-related activities are illegal.

In addition, the Wilberforce Act will create a new standard for the evaluation of countries’ performance in combating sex trafficking. Called the “demand standard,” countries will be assessed on whether they are making efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sexual activities.

The Wilberforce Act doesn’t introduce radical new laws, but rather pulls together a century and a half of laws and approaches. It sets a new standard for the U.S. and a model for the world to oppose all forms of pimping.

A broad coalition of groups recognizes the historic importance of this bill. In November, they organized a lobby day in the House that conveyed to members of Congress the passion and commitment with which they supported these measures. They are now preparing to campaign in the Senate to ensure the passage of this important bill.

— Donna M. Hughes is a professor and Carlson Endowed Chair at the University of Rhode Island.

Donna M. HughesDonna M. Hughes is a University of Rhode Island professor of women’s studies and an activist against prostitution, human trafficking, and pornography. Hughes has written extensively on the prevalence of ...


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