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Utah might end up being a good place to look for examples in tackling sex trafficking and sex work.

Utah might end up being a good place to look for examples in tackling sex trafficking and sex work.

Sex trafficking is a subject that remains difficult and even taboo for many. There’s good reason for this: It deals with a topic that is sacred to most, the exchange of money for that act and the questionable treatment of other people.

The sex trafficking and treatment of sex workers discussion is often swept under the rug, and perhaps that’s part of the reason it’s become so complicated and full of issues. A new bill in Utah is bringing some of those issues to light, and revealing just how many more there are.

The proposed legislation, HB40, is aimed at improving Utah criminal code, and part of it would grant immunity from criminal charges of solicitation and prostitution. In other words, it would allow sex workers immunity when reporting on clients who abuse, rob or take advantage of them. Sex workers often endure abuse but feel unable to report it, since it is they who will get arrested, which has turned them into targets for many abusers.

Some might say that this isn’t the sort of solution to sex work that needs to happen. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that most would probably prefer sex work to be eliminated as an industry altogether, and I agree. But contrary to what some might initially believe, this bill can be a step in the right direction.

There are a couple of popular theories about the best way to address sex trafficking and sex work.

In Washington state, they’re employing the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the workers and instead punishes the buyers, making buying sex less appealing. Those convicted of buying sex are required to take a rehabilitation class. It was initially adopted in Sweden and Norway and has recently been picked up by Ireland, Canada, France and even Israel.

In Nevada, a form of legal prostitution uses brothels. They are highly regulated, requiring a business license and for each worker to have a permit. Those in the business of legal brothels say it works because it prevents just anyone from being a sex worker and provides a safer environment for workers.

Here’s an idea: If real change is going to be made, the issue needs to be attacked from all sides. Buyers need to be held accountable and workers need to be given other options. Pimps need to be held just as responsible as buyers, and workers who are forced into the industry need to be protected as well as given a way out. It also involves tackling poverty and addiction, which too often lead desperate people into feeling they have no other choice. The demand and supply must both be eliminated.

The proposed Utah bill swings on the side of decriminalization and tackles one big problem. Many workers are abused and taken advantage of by buyers because they can’t report without getting arrested themselves. Allowing them to report abuse without questioning their line of work puts accountability on the buyers and adds some protection for workers, many of whom do not have a choice about their situation.

Sex trafficking is a problem that does not have one solution — it needs reform on all sides if we have any chance of solving it. Conversations about what’s really going on in sex trafficking need to happen so that effective solutions can be found. There are organizations that take in workers and offer them more opportunities and options, but we can do more. Not enough is done to teach the signs of recognizing trafficking or what to do if one encounters it.

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Utah is a prime place to address this issue and the conversation around it is starting to grow. It’s a state that predominantly still believes in the sacredness of sex, but also believes in helping others, redemption and finding unique, effective solutions. We are capable of listening to all sides. Along with HB40, the 2019 Legislature will see bills clarifying the treatment of underage sex workers and that eliminates the statute of limitations on human trafficking.

Other states and lawmakers should take notice of Utah’s example and consider expanding on it.

If these issues are taken seriously, it opens a door to the right conversations. It shows that Utah can accept that a decriminalization of workers is a part of eliminating and resolving issues with sex trafficking and sex work. Tackling all sides of the problem — buyers, sellers, poverty, addiction and homelessness — is how effective changes can happen.