Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | April 10, 2023

Bill aiming to curb sex-trafficking draws pushback

Ray Carter

An effort to increase the penalties on individuals who pay prostitutes for sex, informally referred to as “johns,” has run into unexpected resistance.

One prominent Democrat has argued prostitution is one of the “streams of incomes” chosen by individuals who find entry-level job wages insufficient, while an advocacy organization has declared the bill is effectively anti-transgender.

But the bill’s authors have both said the point of the legislation is simple.

“This bill aims to curb sex trafficking by reducing the demand for prostitution services,” said state Rep. Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City. “Many of those engaging in prostitution are victims of human trafficking.”

“This just simply is about the demand side,” said state Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore. “It has nothing to do with the prostitute themselves.”

As passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives, House Bill 2054 increases the penalty for someone who purchases prostitution services from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The Oklahoma City Police Department Vice Unit requested the legislation. During House debate on the bill, Roberts said HB 2054 is modeled after Texas law.

“They did this in Texas,” Roberts said. “And it was very successful, to the point where the girls are now being moved to Oklahoma where the laws are more lax.”

As passed by the House, under HB 2054 a person can be sentenced to up to three years in prison and subjected to a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, $2,500 for a second offense, and up to $5,000 for a third or subsequent offense.

If the victim of the offense is a minor, the penalty is a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and provides a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offense, $10,000 for a second offense, and up to $15,000 for a third or consecutive offense.

The measure would also require an offender to register as a sex offender upon a third conviction.

But the legislation drew opposition from state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, who said lawmakers need to instead “make sure that we are creating an economic Oklahoma for everybody to survive without villainizing or criminalizing folks’ streams of incomes that are helping them put food on the table, helping them pay for medical bills, car registration, all of these types of things.”

Turner described prostitution as an activity pursued by individuals seeking a greater level of income than what can be achieved through entry-level employment.

“The majority of [prostitutes] are trafficking victims.” Ahsha Morin, president of an anti-human-trafficking organization in southwest Oklahoma

“At a time where Oklahomans haven’t seen an increase in our living wage, right, where we continuously put in strongholds that keep Oklahomans from being able to financially take care of themselves, we create an economic Oklahoma where folks have to resort to economic streams where some of us might not agree with it,” Turner said.

HB 2054 also drew vocal opposition from Freedom Oklahoma, a group that describes its mission as working “to build a future where all Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and fuller spectrum of people whose sexuality or gender or romantic identity exists beyond a heteronormative, binary framework (2SLGBTQ+), have the safety to thrive.”

In a Twitter post, Freedom Oklahoma denounced HB 2054, saying, “Sex work is real work. This bill isn’t about protecting folks engaging in sex work, it’s about advancing the power of our criminal punishment system. We know increased policing of sex work will only further harm trans folks who depend on this survival economy.”

But officials who work with victims of human trafficking say the reality of prostitution rarely involves an individual voluntarily choosing prostitution as a form of employment.

Ahsha Morin, president of The Red Cord, an anti-human-trafficking organization in southwest Oklahoma, said individuals who engage in prostitution with full control of their money and the ability to cease participation at any time are the exception, not the rule.

“That’s about 2 percent of our ‘prostitutes’ out there,” Morin said. “The majority of them are trafficking victims.”

Lori Aery Gonzalez, vice president of advocacy services for Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa, said tolerance for people who pay prostitutes for sex generates other harm.

“I work with human trafficking survivors or people who have experienced human trafficking, as well as domestic violence and sexual assault, and the overlap in those three things is pretty horrendous,” Gonzalez said. “If we continue to make excuses like, ‘It’s okay because …,’ and it’s okay because this is money for some people, we’re still perpetuating the idea that it’s okay to mistreat and buy human beings.”

While the outcomes of prostitution are bad for most who engage in it, Morin said LGBT individuals are especially prone to harm.

“Here’s what we know statistically: LGBT are at a higher risk of being trafficked and murdered in the trafficking field,” Morin said.

HB 2054 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 76-15 vote. Following Turner’s debate, only four Democrats joined Republicans in support of the bill’s passage—state Reps. Meloyde Blancett of Tulsa, Mickey Dollens of Oklahoma City, Andy Fugate of Oklahoma City, and Suzanne Schreiber of Tulsa. All 15 opponents were Democrats.

HB 2054 has since passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 10-2 vote. In that setting, two of the three Democratic members of the committee supported the bill while the two opponents were a Democrat and a Republican lawmaker. Neither of those two lawmakers publicly suggested prostitution is an alternative revenue stream.

The bill now awaits a hearing from the full Senate.

Morin, pointing to the impact of the Texas law, said she supports passage of similar legislation in Oklahoma.

“I’m all for laws that are penalizing our johns heavier, because that is where our issue is,” Morin said. “Right now, it’s basically a slap on the hand. It’s a citation for $50. It’s a parking ticket.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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