Prostitution is illegal in Alaska, as it is in all of the United States except for Nevada. But the relationship between law enforcement and sex workers in Alaska has supposedly altered in recent years. In 2012, Alaska passed laws against sex trafficking—the practice of using force to coerce individuals into selling sex. The change reflects a general reconsideration of prostitution laws in many parts of the country and the world. Rather than seeing sex workers as criminals, new theories and laws targeting trafficking present sex workers as victims who need to be rescued from dangerous situations. Those empowered to do the rescuing are, typically, the police.
The new regime does not seem to work quite as it was intended to, though, according to a new report by Tara Burns titled People in Alaska's Sex Trade: Their Lived Experience and Policy Recommendations. Burns, who is pursuing an interdisciplinary masters in social justice at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, surveyed 40 sex workers and interviewed eight.
What Burns found was that, despite the new laws, the role of the police has not changed that much. Alaska's definition of "trafficking" is broad and vague. Federal trafficking laws focus on fraud, coercion, and the exploitation of minors. Alaska's law, on the other hand, defines trafficking more broadly, to include those who work indoors, or who work together. There have been only a handful of trafficking charges since the new law was implemented, and none of them involved force or coercion. Instead, the law has been used against people selling sex (who are said to be trafficking themselves) or against those who own a place of prostitution. "In none of the documents I’ve examined since the law’s inception," Burns says in the report, "has it been used to benefit a victim. "