STARS Counselor/Adovcate Testifies before the New York City Council

The STARS (Services to Access Resources and Safety) Advocate/Counselor, Sarah Dolan, testified yesterday at the New York City Council hearings on Sex Trafficking. Below, is the text of her testimony. The STARS initiative, funded by the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, is a project of the Center for Court Innovation at two demonstration projects, Bronx Community Solutions and Midtown Community Court. The entire STARS team is thrilled with the testimony. 

Sarah Dolan
Advocate Counselor
Sanctuary for Families
Testimony before the New York City Council
June 27, 2011

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure and an honor to testify before you today.  My name is Sarah Dolan, and I work for Sanctuary for Families on one of its newest projects: Services to Access Resources and Safety, or STARS.  The STARS project acknowledges the unique needs of adult survivors of sex trafficking and seeks to provide them with trauma-sensitive services as an alternative to incarceration.  As the Advocate Counselor, I am based full-time in the Bronx Criminal Court and work in conjunction with Bronx Community Solutions.  Working with women on an individual and group basis, I conduct counseling sessions, provide safety planning and case management services, and link victims to a range of other legal, health, and social services.  Funded by the federal Office on Violence Against Women, the project’s mandate in the broadest sense is to shift society’s understanding of women arrested for prostitution from one of “offender” to that of “victim”.   

For many, the term “prostitute” conjures up an image of a woman selling her body for sex because she chooses to because “she likes it”.  I am here to tell you that of the nearly one hundred women I’ve seen in the last year, not a single one of them stays in the commercial sex industry because she wants to.  And why would she?  When 94% of women in street prostitution experience sexual assault, 80% have experienced or been threatened with violence, and 75% have been raped by one or more buyers, we must question the assumption that these women are on the street because they choose to be there.  So why do they stay?  They stay not because they like it, but because after a lifetime of trauma and abuse, and stigmatized by a lengthy criminal record, they literally have no other choice.  STARS exists to give them that choice back.

Lakeesha’s first arrest occurred when she was just 15 and under the control of a pimp, her trafficker.  At the time she encountered him, Lakeesha had run away first from a home in which her stepfather was molesting her, and then from a group home that failed to give her the love and support she desperately needed.  Like many domestic sex trafficking victims, Lakeesha believed that her trafficker was her boyfriend.  She carried out his demands that she prostitute because she both feared and loved him.  Just as Lakeesha was simultaneously a domestic violence victim and sex trafficking victim, her pimp was simultaneously her batterer and her trafficker.  Both the UN Trafficking Protocol and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act recognize that children subjected to exploitation by an adult are inherently powerless and vulnerable, making Lakeesha, at 15 years old, a victim of sex trafficking.  

Now, at 20, Lakeesha is still in prostitution, although not under pimp control.  Some might contend that Lakeesha has become a free agent and is no longer a trafficking victim, but those of us at Sanctuary believe otherwise.  Adult women in prostitution who first experience sexual exploitation as children (which we may assume to be the majority of prostituted women, since the average age of entry into prostitution is 13), should be recognized and protected as trafficking victims.  But, if there is no pimp, then who is the trafficker?  Under the standard of the UN Trafficking Protocol, which understands traffickers to be those who harbor or receive prostituted people by means of “the abuse of power or a position of vulnerability”, it is evident that sex industry buyers or “johns”, who prey on vulnerable women like Lakeesha, should also be considered traffickers.

The tragic reality is that trafficked children often remain in conditions of prostitution as adults because they are so deeply traumatized that they see no alternative.  And while I just said that they see no alternative, it would be more correct to say that no alternative exists for them.  We wonder, “why they don’t just get out there and get a ‘real job’?”  When Lakeesha tried to do just that, by participating in a training program and applying to get ‘a real job’ with a home health care agency, she was denied employment eligibility by the Department of Health due to her eight convictions for prostitution, the first of which took place when she was still a minor and under the control of her pimp.  Trafficking survivors are being arrested in the hope that it’ll ‘teach them a lesson’ and be the impetus they need to stop selling sex for good. However, each arrest only lengthens their criminal record, further stigmatizes them as criminals, and provides yet another obstacle in their way to engaging in legitimate employment. 

So what, then, is the solution?  First, we must begin to recognize that the vast majority of adult women in prostitution are victims of childhood sexual abuse, are victims of intimate partner violence, and are victims of sex trafficking.  As such, they urgently need intense, sustained holistic services including shelter, counseling, legal assistance, and economic support.  The acute level of trauma that these women have suffered means that they are likely to need mental health services that specifically address post-traumatic stress disorder.  Since many have turned to alcohol or drugs to dull their psychic pain, they often need substance abuse programs tailored to the needs of victims of gender violence.  And because many have become dependent on the sex industry for economic survival, educational and job readiness assistance is paramount.  Indeed, at Sanctuary for Families we believe that the holistic approach that helps classic victims of domestic violence leave abusive relationships is precisely what can help victims of sex trafficking to leave their pimps and the sex industry.

Second, we as a society, and especially those within the legal and social services communities, must begin thinking and talking about prostitution differently.  We must acknowledge that the majority of adult women in prostitution are victim by replacing terminology that portrays these women as criminals and free agents—words like “prostitute” and “sex worker”—with language that makes visible the harm they have endured and continue to be subjected to, like “prostituted women” or “victims of sex trafficking”.

Finally, we need to recognize that arrest and prosecution only further stigmatize and punish women whose exploitation in prostitution reflects their lack of choice.  Instead of holding them accountable for the violence that is done to them, it makes far more sense to focus our law enforcement resources on those in the sex industry who make the meaningful choices—the patrons and the pimps.  New York State has strong anti-trafficking laws which, if properly enforced, can do precisely this.  Unfortunately, a recent legislative development does just the opposite.  Just last week, the New York State legislature passed a new law that raises the penalty for prostitution in the vicinity of schools while completely ignoring the primary role—and culpability—of the men who patronize.  This law reflects the old victim-blaming approach that many of us are working to end.  I urge City Council to send a resolution to Governor Cuomo urging him not to sign this bill.