219 – The Equality Model: A Paradigm Change to Reduce Sex Trafficking

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Bradley Myles to discuss the depth of decriminalization laws. Brad has served one of the country’s leading anti-trafficking organizations, Polaris, for 15 years and is currently a strategic consultant through his firm, Meora Global, which optimizes more coherent collective efforts against human trafficking. Together they discuss different actors in the sex trafficking ecosystem and how decriminalization laws and the equality model both impact those actors.

Key Points

  • It’s too simplistic to think of decriminalization bills as only about the person selling sex, when in fact these bills impact multiple different actors in the sex trade and sex trafficking ecosystem.
  • The full decriminalization model proposes decriminalizing everything in the sex trade including the pimps, brothel owners, sex buyers, and people directly selling sex.
  • The equality model, also known as the Nordic model or partial decrim, decriminalizes the act of directly selling sex and offers support services for individuals who wish to leave the sex trade. However, it would still remain illegal for pimping, owning a brothel, or buying sex.
  • There has been resounding support amongst the survivor community for the equality model. Especially considering that it would be more difficult to identify sex trafficking within a full decriminalization model, rather than in the paradigm we have in place now or the equality model paradigm.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is Episode 219, The Equality Model: A Paradigm Change to Reduce Sex Trafficking.

Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, today someone who has made a big difference in ending human trafficking. I’m so glad to welcome a wonderful expert to the show today, Bradley Myles. Bradley is the former CEO of Polaris, serving one of the country’s leading anti-trafficking organizations for 15 years. He helped launch the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline at Polaris, a 24/7 live operation that identified and responded to more than 50,000 cases of human trafficking nationwide. And he’s formed partnerships with over 3,000 NGOs and law enforcement, and received more than 10,000 calls directly from survivors, and analyzed a typology of 25 major human trafficking markets in the US. Bradley Myles has served as an advisor, coach, and technical subject matter expert on human trafficking, gender-based violence, and social entrepreneurship to multiple government and non-government organizations in the anti-trafficking field, including Freedom Forward, AnnieCannons, Freedom United, The Sanar Institute, and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Currently, he’s a strategic consultant through his firm Meora Global, which provides support on strategic planning and envisioning, scaling and growth for social impact, leadership coaching, sector wide mobilization, venture philanthropy in the human trafficking space, and optimizing more coherent collective efforts against human trafficking. Brad, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.

Brad [00:02:13] Glad to be here. Thrilled to join you all.

Sandie [00:02:15] Brad and I have known each other a really long time, Dave. In fact, I remember when the hotline number 888-3737-888, just so my listeners will check that box because they know how much I promote that. When that number started and I was the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force administrator, someone saw some of your statistics and they extrapolated from the number of calls from Orange County that there was more trafficking in Orange County than any place else in California, even than L.A. And I reminded them that we were promoting it at every event 2 and 3 times. So, it’s just another example of how messy trying to use statistics can be.

Dave [00:03:04] Very true, sometimes when I was at Polaris, we would say call volume doesn’t necessarily equal prevalence. It might be more a reflection of which communities are doing a better job promoting the number. And it also might be it might be a reflection of prevalence, but you shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that because calls are spiking in one area, that that’s where the most trafficking is happening, but it could be the case. The underlying importance is the importance of data and that more data is needed in this sector. Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline is one of the important data sources along with many others. But I know that many different communities rely on data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and I think that’s a good thing.

Sandie [00:03:54] Well, and in another podcast, we will explore data and prevalence strategies because that is an emerging priority need, I believe. But today, we’re going to talk about the equality model. A couple of months ago, we interviewed Dr. Donna Hughes from Rhode Island University and we talked a little about the various models of decriminalization and legalization in the context of commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution. And so, we want to look at it from a different perspective today. And so, I thought we could start by asking you to kind of give us an overview of your understanding of the conversation in the legalization decriminalization community right now.

Brad [00:04:47] Sure. Well, I think that it’s very important when having this conversation to realize that there are multiple different actors in the sex trade and in the broader sex trafficking ecosystem that are impacted by these policy discussions. And its way too simplistic, and in fact, inaccurate, to think that these bills are only about the person selling sex and whether or not the person selling sex should be criminalized by law enforcement or decriminalized by law enforcement. I think superficially, that’s what most people when they hear about these bills, they think, oh, well, maybe we’re just going to decriminalize people selling sex. But make no mistake, many of these bills and much of this conversation is about whether or not pimping should be a crime or not, whether or not brothel owning should be a crime or not, and whether or not sex buying should be a crime or not. In addition to whether or not the person selling sex should be held criminally liable or not. So, we’re talking about at least four different areas of law and we’re talking about four different actors in the sex trade. So, when you hear about these bills, you know, you read about something in the news or you hear a conversation and someone says, “do you support decrim?” My experience over the past few years is that most people think we’re only talking about the seller. It’s not on their radar at all that we’re actually talking about sex buyers and brothel owners. So, it’s a much more complicated discussion. It’s important for people to really understand and get the facts and understand how far-reaching these bills can really get.

Sandie [00:06:40] I really appreciate your framing this from a perspective of the complexities and emphasizing that we don’t want to oversimplify our approach to this. And I have been in several communities where we aren’t actually going into a critical thinking approach. We’re just saying morally, I’m against this. And that’s one perspective. But we have to go deeper, and we need to be able to understand all of those complexities or at least try to understand. So, can you take us on a little bit of a journey to help us understand what some of the ramifications of each of those models might create?

Brad [00:07:33] Sure. Well, before we get to the ramifications, just to walk through kind of how we got here.

Sandie [00:07:40] Oh ok, that’s good.

Brad [00:07:41] If you don’t mind, going there, I think is important. So, you know, look, over the past hundred years or so, law and policy usually build on itself. It’s an iterative process. So, focus on the United States and the vast majority of communities and the vast majority of states, the laws over the past hundred years have made pimping crimes illegal. And so, it’s a crime to pimp somebody in the sex trade. It’s an even worse crime to pimp a minor in the sex trade, and it’s even worse crime to use force, or fraud, or coercion to put somebody in the sex trade. And so, we have all these laws around pimping. And sometimes it’s called promoting prostitution, sometimes it’s called pandering, sometimes it’s called procuring. But all of those laws, usually at the state level, are about making sure that that third-party person is profiting off of somebody else in the commercial sex trade, that is a criminal act. Then you have this whole other set of laws around operating houses of prostitution, which are usually laws about brothels. And sometimes these cover residential brothels, sometimes these cover illicit massage businesses that are operating as a brothel. But these laws speak to owning these types of brothels and operating these locations and also profiting off of people in the commercial sex trade. Those are criminal acts. Then you have the third area of law around sex buying and patronizing somebody in the commercial sex trade. Even worse, when you’re committing statutory rape and you’re attempting to purchase sex from a child, you have these laws around sex buying. So, there’s this whole backdrop of thousands of different policy efforts over the years, over the decades where we’re now at the present tense. We have a policy framework wherein the vast majority of communities pimping is a crime, operating brothels and owning brothels is a crime, and buying sex is a crime. And all of those crimes are made way worse when you’re doing that towards children or when you’re using any type of force or coercion to commit those crimes. So, what these laws are proposing to do is it is a quite a radical shift, is they’re looking to erase and take a very, very different approach, kind of swing the pendulum completely the other way and repeal all of those laws about pimping, repeal all those laws about brothel owning, and repeal all those laws about sex buying. So, that those three behaviors are no longer a crime. And I think that the first group to speak out so passionately against that approach were sex trafficking survivors. And they said as sex trafficking survivors, we are deeply disturbed and horrified at the idea that all of a sudden pimping would be legal and not a crime. Brothel owning would be legal and not a crime. Sex buying would be legal at the crime because they knew firsthand that those are the policy areas that pimps and brothel owners and sex buyers prefer because no longer do they fear any sort of arrest. And so, traffickers can say this is great. The police are no longer enforcing pimping crimes. The police are no longer enforcing crimes around brothel owning.  This is our lucky day, because now the risk of trafficking just went way down. So, sex trafficking survivors have been sounding the alarm on these laws and saying be very, very careful about suggesting that we should repeal pimping crimes and sex buying crimes and brothels and crimes, because the ramifications could be disastrous in terms of the amount of sex trafficking that could begin to happen when those things are no longer crimes. So, that’s a bit of the history of how we got here.

Sandie [00:11:58] OK, so you also know that there have been attempts in pretty high-profile places to enact legislation, policies and so on. And some of the folks who have testified in favor of one of these models have been survivors. So, how do we respond to that?

Brad [00:12:27] Well, think about what the equality model is. Right? And sometimes it’s called the Nordic model, because some of the first countries that tried this were in the Nordic region of the world, like Sweden and Norway and Iceland. And so, you have these kinds of two different approaches. So, it’s important to kind of see them side by side. Right? So, the equality model, which some people call the Nordic model, some people call it partial decrim. What it does is it decriminalize the act of selling sex, being somebody who is in the sex trade, directly selling sex, that would no longer be a crime. And it also provides folks with support services and exit services if they wish to leave the sex trade. So, grants for housing, grants for job training, case management services, and the various things that someone would need to effectively exit the sex trade. It basically says people in the sex trade should not be criminalized. And instead, they should be provided with support services to exit the sex trade if they wish. But why it’s called partial decrim is that all those other active pimps brothel owners, and the sex buyers, those acts still remain criminalized. On the full decriminalization front, they say decriminalize all of it, decriminalize the pimps, the sex buyers, the brothel owners, and the people directly selling sex. So, my understanding is and kind of what I’ve seen directly in the vast majority of sex trafficking survivors who have signed sign-on letters, that op-ed, and have spoken to presidential candidates about this, as you’ve been very vocal about this, including in the D.C. hearing that happened this past few months ago in October 2019. The vast majority of sex trafficking survivors are saying we are for the equality model, we are for partial decrim. And then you have people who identify as sex workers and say that sex work is what they choose to do. And they’re advocating for the full decrim model. I’ve yet to see and I have not yet met a sex trafficking survivor whose experienced severe forms of sex trafficking, either sex trafficking as a child or sex trafficking as an adult by force, fraud, or coercion, who is speaking out and saying I’m for a full decrim. So, if that exists, maybe there’s two or three of them somewhere in the field. But those stand in pretty stark opposition to four or five hundred others who are sex trafficking survivors who are saying we are deeply alarmed at what full decrim can mean for trafficking. And we’re throwing our whole weight behind the equality model. What everyone agrees is both sides are saying let’s decriminalize the person selling sex. So, there is widespread consensus that law enforcement spending their time arresting people who are directly selling sex and prostitution is something that we should be moving away from. But where the crux of the debate and where most survivors are following on is saying pimping, and sex buying, and brothel owning should still be crimes. And the full decrim camp is saying pimping, sex buying, and brothel owning should no longer be crimes. So, it’s important to kind of see the crux of where that debate is lying. But I don’t think it’s a fair representation to say that survivors are kind of divided on this or there’s a debate in the Survivor community about this. I think that there’s resounding support amongst the survivor community for the equality model and any survivors that are speaking out on for other models is either something I’m not very familiar with or something that I think is in a very small minority.

Sandie [00:16:43] OK. And that’s good. So, then let’s look at this from the community perspective, because you mentioned the D.C. effort. And I can’t remember exactly. I’ll find a link and put it in the show notes. But the name of that agenda item sounded like it was all about better health for the community. And so, can you speak to that? Because the average person that hears that and hasn’t read up on the issues might just click yes because it’s about being healthy.

Brad [00:17:18] Yeah. I think that there’s been some deceptive naming and some deceptive language used around the framing of these bills. I don’t think they want you to read the fine print. And so, they purposely chose in DC a very, very innocuous-sounding name, something about kind of the community health and safety bill. Where if you read it on its face, you say, you know what sounds wrong about that? But the people who are advocating for these bills don’t want to come out and directly say this is a bill that makes pimping legal. And this is the bill that makes brothel owning illegal and a bill to have sex buying legal because I think that the messaging and the framing around those bills would be would land and be received very differently in these communities that people really knew what these bills did. So, they take these kinds of innocuous, harmless sounding names. And similarly, where we’re already seeing this in Vermont, a bill that talked about what would be the impact of decriminalizing the sex trade. The initial kind of anecdotal reports on the ground in Vermont is that when people read that bill, something similar happens to what happened to D.C., where they immediately assume, oh, I think we’re only talking about whether or not the person selling sex should be decriminalized or not. And people have their own opinions about that. But yet again, people are not realizing that we’re also talking about whether or not pimping, sex buying, and brothel owning should be decriminalized or not. So, I think that there’s some misinformation out there, and that is either kind of a strategic omission to try to win more support superficially for these types of bills, because people know that many people in the community, law enforcement, and others, would be deeply concerned about a bill where all of a sudden pimping is legal in the community, brothels are legal in a community, sex buying is legal in the community. Imagine what would happen when all of a sudden, a big announcement comes out that says to a group of people in the community, guess what? It’s no longer a crime to buy sex. You’re going to have so many new buyers that didn’t see anything wrong with buying sex. The only thing that was holding them back was the fact that it was a crime. Once you put the information out there to say it’s no longer a crime, that last thing that was holding them back is no longer a barrier. And you’re going to see increases in the number of buyers, and that then begins to change the market dynamics because the market gets much more lucrative. And now you see more pimps and traffickers gravitating towards the markets where more people are buying. So, these bills have the potential to set in motion this chain reaction of a domino effect of no longer a barrier to buy sex, sex buyers no longer fear arrest, more people begin buying sex, market changes because there are so many more customers now, pimps and traffickers notice that and begin gravitating towards those communities where there’s more money to be made. And now you have increases in trafficking in those communities. So, the domino effect and chain reactions are what’s so concerning about these bills, especially when they’re proposing let’s no longer make buying sex, pimping, and brothel owning a crime.

Dave [00:21:00] Brad, I’m thinking about what you’ve said on just how these are framed and some of the used the word deception. And this is very much a part of our political environment here in the states. We use these words that are innocuous and could be framed in lots of different ways. Thinking about the bills that are out there and the ones that will emerge in the future, the/e average citizen, what would be one thing that you would want people to be thinking of, maybe be doing in their communities when they see a bill like this that is under consideration or maybe is in front of voters? /

Brad [00:21:35] Yeah, I think the one thing is, do not fall for the trap of overly simplistic framing of these bills. And when you hear the question framed as do you believe in decriminalizing sex work or not? Understand and unpack what the person means by that and say, “let me clarify. You’re asking me if I believe in decriminalizing sex work. Are you asking if I believe in decriminalizing, pimping, brothels and sex buying as well as people who sell sex? Or are you asking me, do I only believe that the person selling sex should no longer be criminalized?” And so really redirect the question and don’t let those other areas go unspoken. Leave no stone unturned. Because when someone says, do you believe in decriminalizing sex work? I think a lot of respondents are answering with the frame of if you’re asking me, do I believe the person in prostitution should be a criminal? I don’t think they should be a criminal, and so I’ll answer “yes, I believe in decriminalizing sex work.”.

Sandie [00:22:48] Right.

Brad [00:22:49] The respondent doesn’t mean that they’re also saying yes to these other areas.

Dave [00:22:53] So, just by asking that next question opens up then, a broader perspective on where the intention of a policy or law is going and begins to dive in on some more of those details that are pretty important as to how this is framed.

Brad [00:23:10] Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the sex trade is not binary. But when you look at the sex trade globally as a sex trade in any community, it’s not just people selling sex and people buying sex.  There aren’t just those two categories of people. Right? There’s also pimps, there’s also brothel owners, there’s also traffickers who are using force, fraud, or coercion against adults or they’re or they’re trafficking children. There are also advertisers, there are also online Web sites that sell sex ads. And so, the sex trade is a very diverse ecosystem. And there are six or seven different actors. And its way too simplistic to just say, don’t you think that two consenting adults who are buying each other for sex, someone is selling and someone buying, don’t you think that should no longer be a crime? It’s almost too simple to be realistic because it just ignores all these other actors. And for people that don’t really work on this all day, every day, or don’t think about this all day, every day, they’re vulnerable to falling into these deceptive framing traps of making things more simplistic than it really is.

Sandie [00:24:27] Well, and I have to jump in here, because every time I hear someone use the term “sex work”, it legitimizes this as a career opportunity. And sex work includes all those other actors. It’s all part of a business plan. And so, we can get distracted from the vulnerability issues. And I listen to testimony in D.C. and over and over, I heard survivors talk about how they had no option, they had no option. And this wasn’t like a career choice from the time they were in seventh grade and other kids were deciding to become firemen or firewomen. So, this idea of legitimizing this as work. We don’t call people who sell drugs “drug workers”. We criminalize them because they’re bringing in something into our community that doesn’t strengthen our community but actually weakens it. And the idea of legitimizing this through the language, I think that’s part of our battle in this conversation.

Brad [00:25:38] There’s a lot to unpack there for sure. And people mean different things by the term “sex work”. Some people, when they hear that term, they only think of the person directly selling. Other people, there’ve been instances where someone facilitating or someone pimping other kinds of the third party is also involved in the sex trade, will identify as a sex worker. So, even what is meant by that term is fuzzy and is a gray area. But I think the solution that really has a lot of promise is what’s being called the equality model. And I think there’s the potential to rally a lot of support for that. And I think that it’s where the majority of people actually are in terms of the mass sentiment. But you hear like the mass sentiment of, you know, the majority of Americans are for universal background checks before you can buy a gun or these major policy issues that the majority Americans think is kind of common sense. I think that when framed properly, you can get at a sentiment where the majority of people would support the equality model and say, let’s decriminalize the person selling sex, let’s give them supportive services, housing and other things to exit the sex trade. We know that the majority of people in the sex trade surveys and studies have shown want to exit the sex trade, it’s not what they would want to be doing with themselves and their lives if given meaningful other choices. There’s probably a slim minority of folks that in the face of meaningful other choices, are still selling sex and being involved in the sex trade. But the vast majority of people in the sex trade are there because of a lack of choice, not because of proactive choice. And so, once they’re given more choices and more options, they would welcome the chance to not have to sell themselves for sex all day, every day, and find other ways of making money. So, I think decriminalizing the person selling sex, which is what the majority of people in the sex trade want, but then also making sure that pimping and sex buying and brothel owning remain crimes that kind of split hybrid approach where it doesn’t have to be one side where it’s all criminalized and then swing the pendulum the complete another way, where it’s all decriminalized, where it’s like it’s either three for three or 0 for three. It doesn’t need to be those two stark polar opposites. There is that middle ground approach, which is this really thoughtful compromise that is shown promise in multiple countries already Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Israel, France, Canada, Ireland. There’s momentum gaining around this middle ground compromise with saying decriminalize one actor, keeps the other three remaining criminalized. And we are already seeing the city of Seattle, for example, putting in place the equality model basically in practice. They haven’t really changed the actual Washington state laws yet, but in practice, they are no longer charging and convicting people for selling sex. And police and law enforcement are spending more majority of their time arresting buyers and arresting those engaged in pimping and arresting traffickers. So, Seattle is kind of doing this and walking the walk. And this middle-ground compromise is, I think, where we’re going to see some really exciting momentum grow in the trafficking field in the coming years, starting this year. This Web site that’s been launched, equalitymodelus.org. That has information about the equality model and survivor testimonies and whitepapers and other things that are beginning to say, this is the common-sense middle ground, let’s avoid these polar opposites of all or nothing.

Sandie [00:29:41] I like that. And we’ll put that in the show notes as well. I also want to report on a conversation I had with the human trafficking investigator this week, who when I mentioned the legalization battle. I mentioned that it may be more difficult to find sex trafficking victim if this comes to fruition, just like it’s very difficult to find labor trafficking victims because it’s not against the law to wash dishes in a restaurant, it’s not against the law to mow lawns, and it’s not against the law to work in a textile factory. But if they’re under force, fraud, or coercion, it’s very difficult to find people doing something that isn’t against the law. That’s why we have so many more sex trafficking cases than we do labor trafficking cases. So, just dropping that into the conversation.

Brad [00:30:38] I’m so glad you brought that up. That is a point that survivors have also made. They’re very worried that when you have these places where law enforcement no longer really has a reason to investigate because it’s a legal brothel, it’s just like a legal restaurant or it’s like a legal hair salon. Why would law enforcement think that anything’s going wrong there? And if that place is run by a trafficker and that trafficker is using force, fraud, or coercion to muzzle the people there from speaking out, how would law enforcement ever know that there is a crime happening in those places if those people are too afraid to speak out? So, I do think both survivors and law enforcement have made that point, that they believe that there is the potential that sex trafficking would be harder to identify in a full decrim paradigm than in the paradigm we have now or in the equality model paradigm. And I think we should really listen to the expertise of the people that have that lived experience, both within law enforcement and within the survivor community who are saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s watch out here because there might be some serious unintended consequences to this if we’re going to see rates of identifying sex trafficking decrease. So, thank you for raising that because it’s a really important point to have part of this conversation.

Sandie [00:31:59] It’s been great to have this conversation with you, Brad. And I know we’ll have to keep it going.

Brad [00:32:03] Wonderful. Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Dave [00:32:07] Yeah. Thank you so much, Brad. Boy, there’s so much here for us to explore, Sandie, and we’re just scratching the surface. And I love the invitation from Brad today too, just ask that next question, right? Of taking a few moments to not just assume based on what something sounds like or a word that’s used, but to really ask questions, to have that dialog, to make sure that we understand what is being suggested and proposed. And we are inviting you to take the first step as well. Perhaps you’ve just started listening recently to the show. And if you have, we hope that you’ll take a moment to ask the next question about the key things about human trafficking you want. We’re inviting you to download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s completely free, it’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie and the Global Center for Women and Justice have identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to the guide by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That is also the best place to find the episode notes for this episode, all the links we’ve mentioned, and everything else inside our ecosystem. Again, that’s endinghumantrafficking.org. And we will see you back in two weeks. See you then, Sandie.

Sandie [00:33:27] Bye.

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