• Ideas
  • women

Lawmakers Must Champion Victims of Sex Trade and Human Trafficking

4 minute read
Hersh is National Director and Founding Co-chair of World Without Exploitation.

“I can’t stay in school… It’s too expensive. My healthcare is a mess. I am back in prostitution and on Backpage again. I can’t make it work any other way.”

My heart sank as Jacey said these words a month ago. A young woman I’ve worked with for the last four years, Jacey is one of the smartest and most eloquent 21-year-olds I know. She is someone with the raw potential to do anything. But her ordinary journey to adulthood was interrupted.

When Jacey was 13, she was lured into prostitution by a pimp who brutalized her and repeatedly raped her. In the years that followed, foster care and the educational system too often failed her. Nevertheless, she managed to earn her high school diploma. When she enrolled in college, we celebrated her grit and determination and the beginning of her new life.

Life—and progress—aren’t always linear. Through the years, Jacey received counseling and other services, but poverty, trauma and a corrosive culture of misogyny have made permanently exiting the sex trade a long and painful process. Since she was 13, men have been buying Jacey and sending her an unrelenting message: This is all you are good for.

In my 15-year career, first as a prosecutor and now with World Without Exploitation, I have witnessed stories like Jacey’s playing out in communities across the country. Often poor and without options, women and girls are lured from desperate circumstances into the sex trade, their bodies bought and sold for profit and pleasure. Their exploiters, however, often seem untouchable.

Many have been working to counteract the acceptance of exploitation. And while there’s been some progress, today we are seeing a setback from the halls of power. In a climate of “Trump that B-tch” and “Grab her by the p-ssy,” men can demean women and commit sexual assault with impunity. The worth of a woman lies in her marketability to men. Vladimir Putin said on Jan. 17 that false-news purveyors are “worse than prostitutes,” who have “loose morals,” suggesting that they are a barometer for immorality. When the vulnerable and struggling are met with indifference, it inevitably filters into high schools and online platforms, and it impacts women and girls from all walks of life.

If there is a silver lining here, it is this: There is no longer a need to uncover the subconscious bias against women that runs through our everyday lives. The prejudices are no longer hidden; the bigotry is in plain sight. It is all but impossible to ignore the expressions of hate painted as graffiti on churches and playgrounds, the vicious anti-women messages filling social media feeds. The bully looms large, and it’s our responsibility to call out bullying wherever we see it and to come together to change the culture that permits it.

In October 2016, 65 organizations and individuals from across the country came together to launch a new movement to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation. True freedom means being free from violence, exploitation, and oppression. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation must be understood as human rights issues fueled by gender, racial and income inequality. We must listen to survivors and their experiences—and promote their voices—to change and shape laws, policies and public perception. Lawmakers must stop talking about how women love them and start acting the way they would want their wives, daughters and sisters to be treated.

As millions descend on Washington, D.C., for one of the most closely watched transitions of presidential power in the history of our country, we recognize that this is the moment to stop bemoaning where we are and begin changing the course for tomorrow. Throughout the nation’s capital, World Without Exploitation will be running “The Ugly Truth,” a public service campaign created by The Voices and Faces Project and Kinetic Worldwide. Informed by the stories of survivors, the campaign exposes the ugly truth about buying and selling human beings. It urges the public to rethink its perception of the sex trade.

During the first 100 days of the Donald Trump administration, lawmakers and opinion-shapers need to champion legal reforms that truly respond to victims. These reforms must include providing exit strategies for those in the sex trade and holding exploiters accountable. There should be a bi-partisan dismantling of Backpage and any other online entity that facilitates the exploitation of children and adults.

It’s time to stand up and speak out, to come together as survivors, advocates, activists, educators, community leaders and opinion-shapers. For the sake of Jacey and all of our young people, we cannot wait another day to start creating a world where no person is bought, sold or exploited.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.