18 Sep 23

18 U.S.C. § 1591 – Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud or coercion

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Last Updated on: 20th September 2023, 09:55 pm

18 U.S.C. § 1591 – Sex Trafficking of Children or by Force, Fraud or Coercion

Sex trafficking is a big problem in the U.S. Lots of kids and adults are forced or tricked into doing sex work every year. The main law that makes sex trafficking illegal is 18 U.S.C. § 1591. This law tries to stop people from trafficking kids or adults using force, lies, or threats.

Section 1591 says it’s illegal to knowingly recruit, transport, provide, get, or keep someone to do commercial sex work if:

  • You know they are under 18 years old, or
  • You use force, threats, or lies to get them to do it

It applies to trafficking that happens locally or across state lines. The penalties are really high – up to life in prison if the victim is under 14!

What is “Commercial Sex Work”?

This includes prostitution, pornography, stripping, live sex shows, etc. Any sex act done for money or something of value. The law is trying to stop people from exploiting kids and adults in the sex industry.

How Does Someone Violate This Law?

There are a few ways someone can break section 1591:

  • Recruiting, enticing, or transporting someone while knowing they will be sex trafficked
  • Providing or obtaining someone for sex trafficking
  • Harboring or maintaining someone for sex trafficking
  • Benefiting financially from sex trafficking
  • Managing or controlling a sex trafficking business

So you don’t have to do the actual trafficking yourself. Just helping or profiting from it is illegal.

Penalties for Violating Section 1591

The punishments are harsh, especially if minors are involved:

  • 10 years to life in prison if the victim is under 14
  • 15 years to life in prison if the victim is between 14-17
  • Up to 40 years in prison if the victim is an adult

The penalties go up if force, threats, or coercion are used. There are also huge fines up to $250,000.

What About Defenses?

There are a few defenses people try to use in sex trafficking cases:

  • Consent – But minors can’t legally consent, and adults consent obtained by force or threats doesn’t count.
  • Mistake of Age – You can try to argue you thought the victim was older, but this rarely works.
  • Entrapment – You were tricked into trafficking by police. Hard defense to prove.
  • Duress – You only trafficked because someone threatened you. This could work.

In reality, these defenses don’t work most of the time. The penalties are just so high that people try anything to get out of it.

What About Free Speech?

Some people argue that section 1591 limits free speech. Like how could advertising escort services be illegal? But the Supreme Court said the law is focused on conduct, not speech [1]. So free speech doesn’t protect sex trafficking.

What About Backpage and Other Sites?

Section 1591 makes it illegal to run a sex trafficking business. In 2018, Backpage was shut down and its owners charged for facilitating trafficking [2]. But critics said this will just push trafficking underground. New laws like FOSTA try to hold sites accountable too [3].

Should There Be a Safe Harbor for Trafficking Victims?

Many states have “safe harbor” laws that protect minors from being charged with prostitution [4]. The idea is that they are victims, not criminals. But there’s no safe harbor in federal law. Some groups are pushing for this [5].

What About International Trafficking?

Section 1591 focuses on trafficking within the U.S. International trafficking is covered by other laws, like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act [6]. But experts say we need to do more to address global trafficking networks.

The Bottom Line

Section 1591 is the main federal law against sex trafficking. It tries to crack down on people exploiting kids and adults in the sex industry. But there’s still a lot of debate around how to stop trafficking while protecting rights. This law will keep evolving as we figure out how to stop trafficking for good.