In the past few years, Pennsylvania has seen a rise in high-profile sex trafficking arrests. A total of 42 sex trafficking cases have been reported in the state this year, and the victims have been overwhelmingly female. Earlier this summer, a western Pennsylvania man was indicted on child sex trafficking charges, and just this month a Philadelphia drug dealer was arrested for allegedly acting as a pimp at a local motel.
The Polaris Project, an organization that works to eliminate human trafficking and advocates on behalf of victims, found that, in terms of trafficking laws, Pennsylvania was one of the most improved states from 2013 to 2014. But the state could be taking a damaging step backwards with its newest proposed House bill, which would only harm consensual sex workers—i.e., strippers and exotic dancers—and be of no help to victims of sex trafficking crimes.
House Bill 262, currently under review in the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives, would require any "adult entertainment employees" to register their personal information with the state of Pennsylvania. Lindsay, the former president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and a go-go dancer at a Philadelphia strip club, is "terrified" of this new bill. "The registry aspect of it is really scary," she says. "For one, the government has really done nothing to keep women in the sex industry safe. So the idea of the state government, which is incredibly disorganized and irresponsible, having this record with my home address, whether or not I've been accused of any crimes or the victim of any crimes, and other incredibly personal information that's associated with this incredibly stigmatized work is just terrifying to me."
This is provision is said to help prevent anyone with crimes relating to sex trafficking from working at adult entertainment establishments, but in reality it would only violate the privacy rights of consensual sex workers. "We have to apply for these jobs at strip clubs, and in that process they already look into our background and do background checks," Lindsay says. "I'm already giving my identification and my social security card. If people are from other countries, they'd have to provide a visa. I don't know why they would add that level of scrutiny when, like any other job, you have to provide this information to your employer."
HB 262 was proposed by a Republican senator with the help of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative Christian lobbying group. As with many bills that come out of organizations that believe themselves to be "restoring to public life traditional and foundational principles and values," there's little to no evidence that this bill is anything more than moral grandstanding. While sex trafficking remains a horrific crime, there is no research to indicate that strip clubs are at the source of it. Terra Burns, who has been assisting SWOP Philadelphia with statewide research related to prostitution and trafficking arrests, was able to confirm to Broadly that she has examined all the trafficking charges filed by district attorneys in several Pennsylvania counties and has found no instances relating to strip clubs.
"Advocates of this bill have not provided any evidence that regulating strip clubs in this way would lead to any decrease in sex trafficking. Other than the provision that would mandate police training in regards to sex trafficking, we see the bill as only making life a lot harder for workers in this industry," Julie Zaebst of the ACLU of Pennsylvania says, when I spoke with her about the proposed legislation.
Not only is this bill an infringement on dancers' privacy rights, but it will also do damage to their paychecks—the bill would mandate a six-foot "buffer zone" between patrons and entertainers as well as ban private rooms and alcohol. Dancers that I spoke to were, obviously, not thrilled about this provision. "That rule would really be harmful because engaging with my customers is how I make my money," says Lindsay. "That's like saying, 'Oh, of course there can be live music here, but you can't use instruments.' It has nothing to do with human trafficking. Human trafficking doesn't happen because a female dancer has to come close to a male customer. That doesn't cause sexual exploitation."
What does cause human trafficking is the systemic erosion of social safety nets and support systems for poor women and LGBTQ youths who are most at risk. "We have human trafficking intervention courts in Philadelphia that place the burden on victims to make their case to the court [after they're arrested and charged with prostitution]," Lindsay says. "In order to get victim status, you have to have an agreement between the defense and the prosecution, which is incredibly hard to get. The burden is on the victim to prove that they've been exploited, and most of these people don't have money for defense attorneys. It's so unfair.
"As a consensual sex workers the law is a nuisance," she continues, "but what's more harrowing and problematic is that it does nothing for trafficked people"