When I learned that one of our elected officials had created a policy to decriminalize sex buyers in our community, I was in shock.
Put simply, Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit has created a policy where sex buyers will not be criminally changed for the purchase of sex.
Savit contends that his policy is “empowering” for women selling sex in consensual transactions. He says he intends to continue to prosecute trafficking, and transactions involving violence and minors.
There is nothing empowering about prostitution and enabling the commercial sex industry. We have seen around the world that the sex industry grows when it is legitimized. When the demand for commercial sex increases and there are not enough willing participants to fill the demand, sex traffickers enter to meet that demand with vulnerable persons — especially children and young adults.
The sex trade preys on the vulnerable. The vast majority of those trafficked are females of color, girls, LGBTQ and homeless youth. And yet, in his first days in office, Savit published a policy that will normalize an inherently harmful sex trade and further disenfranchise those he promised to protect by exempting most sex buyers from prosecution.
Research is clear that legitimizing the sex trade explodes the demand for paid sex, and creates sex tourism destinations. Washtenaw County is a destination for sports, higher education and other attractions let’s not add sex tourism to the list.
For a decade as president and CEO of Vista Maria, I have seen first-hand the trauma and suffering caused by sexual exploitation and trafficking of the hundreds of children placed in our care. We have provided treatment services to girls as young as 11, with the average age of 15. Trafficking experiences for children last not days, but years. Our Michigan childrens’ rights organizations have been working tirelessly to reduce trafficking.
What we need is a policy with a statewide demand-reduction strategy, providing a legal framework with criminal penalties as well as treatment and rehabilitation.
My anti-trafficking recommendation is for partial decriminalization, also known as the Equality Model. This model includes three equally important components:
First, we must decriminalize and offer services to prostituted people. We need to educate and address public perceptions regarding prostitution. Prostitution isn’t glamorous; it is exploitation of a human being. and it is inhumane. People in prostitution must be provided exit strategies and services, not arrest.
Second, we must hold exploiters accountable, including sex buyers and third-party facilitators such as pimps and traffickers.
Third, we must provide a comprehensive and funded continuum of safe harbor, treatment and restoration services for all trafficked persons. A comprehensive approach not only protects, but also provides treatment and restoration services.
If we fail to voice our concerns, we are enabling sex buyers to come into our communities in Washtenaw County and to freely purchase sex, attracting sex trafficking and the exploitation of Michigan’s youth. If you object to Eli Savit’s policy, please let him know.
Angela Aufdemberge is president and CEO of Vista Maria, a Michigan non-profit specializing in mental health treatment services to children healing from abuse and sexual exploitation. Aufdemberge is a state and national advocate for the protection and rights of child welfare youth and survivors of human trafficking.