The Illinois House just passed the Predator Accountability Act, which the Chicago Tribune’s Dawn Turner Trice describes as allowing prostitutes to sue their pimps for damages. This sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you think you can already file a civil suit against someone who beats or rapes you? Of course you can. Bills like this aren’t a progressive and feminist attempt to protect prostitutes, they’re an attempt to eliminate prostitution by discouraging people from doing business with prostitutes.
Whoever coined the phrase “The devil is in the details” might well have been talking about legislative bills. You have to read past the title and the summary to see what sort of trouble they will cause. The synopsis talks about making it possible to sue people who coerce people into prostitution, but the language of the bill says something else.
For one thing, “sex trade” is defined to include pornography and stripping, even if there is no physical contact. In some ways, I suppose, this expansive defnition makes sense: You shouldn’t be able coerce women into making pornography or taking their clothes off. Then again, you shouldn’t be able to coerce women into washing dishes, building web sites, or approving bank loans. You shouldn’t be able to coerce women, period. But that’s not what this bill is about.
This becomes clearer in the section describing who may be sued. We’ve all seen the mean pimps in TV shows yelling “You’re holdin’ out on me, bitch!” while beating a young girl with a coat hanger, and that’s probably what supporters of this bill have in mind. I think we’d all agree that these guys ought to be sued, prefferably while they’re in prison. In fact, as I said, I’m pretty sure you can already sue for that. But that’s not who this bill is about.
HB 1299 says people “subjected to the sex trade” may sue any “person or entity who:
- “(1) recruited, hired, offered, agreed, or attempted to hire the individual to engage in the sex trade;
- “(2) procured, enticed, led away, pimped, trafficked, financed, or profited from his or her sex trade activity;
- “(3) collected or received any of the individual’s earnings derived from the sex trade; or
- “(4) advertised or published advertisements for purposes of recruitment into illegal sex trade activity.”
Note what’s missing: No part of this law says anything about any kind of force, harm, or threat. Rather than applying to people who hurt or threaten prostitutes, it applies to anybody who receives money from them, including hired drivers, nannies, doctors, and cleaning ladies.
I’m not just making up this interpretation. The criminal codes have used these kinds of expansive definitions of “pimp” for years, and prostitutes have been complaining about them for a long time. Almost anyone a prostitute shares money with can be prosecuted as pimp, including anybody she hires to do work for her, a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, and even a relative who receives money to care for her child.
It gets worse. The bill also lists a number of specific defenses that it disallows:
- the plaintiff apparently initiated involvement with the defendant
- the plaintiff made no attempt to escape, flee, or otherwise terminate contact with the defendant;
- as a condition of employment, the defendant required the plaintiff to agree not to engage in the sex trade
- the defendant’s place of business was posted with signs prohibiting illegal sex trade activity
In other words, there’s nothing a prostitute (or for that matter, a stripper) can do to convince people that she won’t sue them.
It’s not hard to imagine the damage. Call girls often work for agencies that provide services such as advertising and client screening. If this bill becomes law, a few angry prostitutes and their lawyers will be able to sue such agencies out of existence. Similar suits could be pressed against hotels that rent rooms to prostitutes or against landlords who rent to prostitutes, even if they don’t serve customers there.
Prostitutes trying to work in safe, indoor locations will find it more and more difficult to find space, and those that do will have trouble finding safe customers. Many will have no choice but to ply their trade on the streets. There they will become easy prey for precisely the kind of violent jerks we’d like to protect them from.
Allowing prostitutes to sue people for accepting money from them doesn’t protect them. As a broad rule, you rarely end up helping people by impairing their ability to enter into contracts. That just limits their options, which is almost never good for them.
Update: In Part 2, I discuss how to really protect prostitutes.