NEW YORK–Kate (not her real name) wants a career in finance, and she’s pursuing her education for it. But there’s one problem: many of the jobs for which she will apply require background checks-and when they look into her history, they’ll find a prostitution record.
Raised in the suburbs, Kate ran away from home at the age of 14 after years of enduring physical and emotional abuse from her father and her mother’s drug-addiction. But she ended up trading in one form of abuse for another: the lack of any place to which to turn forced her into having sex with random men, simply so that she could find shelter. One of these men turned out to be a violent and abusive pimp who took control of her life, forcing her into the oldest, and the most often currently practiced, form of slavery: forced prostitution.
Cut off from the outside world by the pimp, she was raped repeatedly by customers-once at gunpoint. The record that now shows up in background checks was generated over the years when she was arrested six times for prostitution. Despite all those arrests, police never bothered to work out what was going on, that Kate was a victim of trafficking-a sex slave.
At 16, she escaped and fled to another state, where she joined a recovery program. Upon returning to New York, she testified against the pimp, bravely enduring threats of death. As a consequence, the pimp was sent to jail for 12 years.
Kate was clearly victimized. Nonetheless, the crimes perpetuated against were still listed on her record as crimes perpetuated by her, shutting out any number of possible job options.
As of August 16th, when Governor David Paterson signed into law a bill sponsored by Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and State Senator Thomas Duane, a person who has been the victim of sex trafficking can go back to court to have any arrest for prostitution that occurred as a result of their slavery erased from their record.
Those who work with trafficked people hailed the measure. “Some of our clients, survivors of trafficking into commercial sex, were arrested more than 10 times before escaping,” said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, which helped draft the bill.
“These survivors,” Baskin continued, “have suffered enough and simply want to move on with their lives, by finding a good job and a safe place to live.”
While the new law won’t clear up the traumatic psychological after effects of repeated rape, it will likely help the young women move forward economically. Kate, for example, will no longer have to tell prospective employers that she was, at one time, a prostitute.
Currently, New York is the first and only state in the country to have enacted such a law.
Baskin said that the “landmark legislation” could be considered “a model that will help end treatment of these survivors as criminals. We hope the rest of the country follows New York’s leadership.”