Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a new regulation targeting taxicab drivers who knowingly transport people who are engaging in prostitution. The new law imposes a $10,000 fine and the revocation of taxi license when the driver or owner of that taxi is convicted of such crimes as promoting prostitution (first thru third degree), compelling prostitution, or sex trafficking if the licensed vehicle was used in the crime.
Critics of the law have pointed out that the new regulation might lead cab drivers to refuse rides to any woman who are suspected of being prostitutes or sex trafficking victims (based on their appearance and other factors) out of fear that giving transportation to someone who might be involved in the sex trade could be construed as “promoting prostitution.”
When the bill was proposed, female bartenders who must frequently use cab to go home late at night held a protest against the law. The president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers also protested the regulation, arguing that it would encourage police officers to arrest innocent cab drivers who are simply doing their job.
While members of the New York City Council assure us that the law does not require cab drivers to determine who is or is not involved in the sex trade, pointing out that the driver has to be first convicted of one of the crimes listed above before the additional penalty kicks in, drivers’ and female riders’ fears are not entirely unwarranted, considering how broadly “promoting prostitution” is defined. Under law, “promoting prostitution” could simply mean that one “knowingly causes or aids a person to commit or engage in prostitution,” which providing transportation to and from a “date” would qualify, for example.
That said, my concern with this law is not about innocent cab drivers who might be wrongly targeted because he or she transported someone who turned out to be a prostitute or trafficking victim, or even about innocent female riders who experience inconvenience and annoyance as they are refused rides. My concern is about the loss of an opportunity to actually partner with cab drivers to offer resources and support to people in the sex trade, including victims of sex trafficking (though most actual sex trafficking rings do not use regular commercial cabs, as pointed out by the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center; they generally use private vehicles that are not licensed as cab).
New York City does intend to provide training to cab drivers to identify and report suspected sex trafficking victims. But that is not likely to be helpful to the actual victims of sex trafficking, as many victims would simply go back to their traffickers rather than testifying against them in the absence of legal, financial, and emotional support and services they need. It is also very annoying and inconvenient to those who are wrongly reported as potential trafficking victims, and downright harmful to those who are non-trafficked sex workers, immigrants, and others who wish to avoid interacting with the law enforcement.
Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. In an ongoing, long-term relationship that has elements that are abusive, and I include many “sex trafficking” or “pimping” relationships in this, calls made to the police, especially by a third party, might make things worse and more dangerous for the victim, not safer.
There are many initiatives within anti-domestic violence movement that attempt to build community support for people who are in ongoing, long-term abusive relationships. One example of such strategy is anti-DV organizations partnering with cosmetology schools and practitioners to educate hairstylists and others in the field to become the first line of support and information referral point for victims of domestic violence. Hair salons are ideal, because they are female-dominated space where women spend a long time chatting with each other about their lives while their hair is being done, away from their husbands and boyfriends.
The purpose of the partnership is not so that hairstylists can identify and report suspected abuse victims to the police; it is to build trust and rapport with the women, hear their stories, provide support and encouragement, and when a woman ready and willing, give her resources she needs to escape from violence. What I wish the New York City had done is to adapt a similar strategy to reach out to people in the sex trade through cab drivers, whether or not their circumstances meet the legal definition of “sex trafficking.”
The problem with the New York City law is not that innocent drivers might get caught in the crossfire; it is that it discourages them from building trust and rapport with people in the sex trade by generating the fear that any knowledge about their passengers’ involvement in the sex trade might incriminate them and expose them to persecution. The problem is not that cab drivers have no way of determining who is or is not a prostitute; it is that they are prohibited from knowing who is, or from forming relationships with people in the sex trade that might one day allow more trafficking victims and other people in the sex trade to come forward and access support and services they need.