Why Tennessee Law Enforcement Now Describes Prostitution As Trafficking

May 22, 2017

Law enforcement in Tennessee has altered the way it describes prostitution. Now the preferred language is "sex trafficking" or even "human trafficking" — a term that also refers to modern-day slavery.

But the big human trafficking busts that have made headlines in the state have yielded few trafficking charges. So what's behind the change in the way police talk about the selling of sex?  

A commercial sex act involving force, fraud or coercion — that’s the legal definition of human sex trafficking in the U.S. In Tennessee, law enforcement now increasingly thinks of prostitution in those terms, in recognition of the circumstances that often lie behind it.

Josh DeVine, a spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, says like domestic violence, it’s an age-old problem that only recently is being properly addressed.

"Now we’re calling it what it is," says DeVine. "And we’re trying to do something to end it because we are not ok with people selling other people for the purposes of sex."

The TBI has been leading a series of highly publicized human trafficking stings across the state, by posting fake online ads. However, of the more than 100 men arrested, less than 10 are accused of selling other people. The rest have been men trying to buy sex, mostly from adults. Under state law, that’s not trafficking. In fact, it’s just a misdemeanor.

DeVine admits this has led to criticism that the TBI is simply rebranding prostitution. But he says it’s part of a shift from treating prostitutes as criminals to recognizing that many are victims.

Vanderbilt University professor Jill Robinson sees both sides of the argument, recognizing that it can "be problematic to expand the term so much that it includes everything."

Her studies on prostitution have been instrumental in changing TBI agents’ perception of prostitutes. And ultimately, she’s in favor of the expanded label of trafficking: "I think it also helps shine a light of how incredibly exploitative prostitution is."

Being a prostitute remains a more serious offense in Tennessee than buying sex*, but the TBI has shifted its focus to those who create the demand. DeVine with the TBI says johns drive the sex trade and rarely take into account a prostitute’s situation.  

"And that’s what we want people to realize," says DeVine. "You just don’t know. She very well could be controlled, she very well could be forced to do this."

He says it’s still early days in this new approach towards the world’s oldest known profession. But DeVine also admits that flushing out actual traffickers requires more complex operations than those conducted so far.

*Correction: New legislation was signed in April, now making patronizing prostitution a Class A misdemeanor, the same as prostitution.