Story by Lisa Katzman

"I'm a patriotic prostitute," Robin Few told Judge Marilyn Patel the day she was going to be sentenced for "conspiracy to commit prostitution."

"My vote counts too. My right to vote is one of the strongest weapons I have to fight back against the federal government," said the medical marijuana activist and former call girl, who, once sentenced as a convicted felon, would lose that right. The judge postponed her sentencing until after the mayoral election in November, 2003.

The next day the papers carried the headline "Patriotic Prostitute Gets Reprieve." As she left court, Ms. Few was joined by prostitutes carrying signs that proclaimed: "U.S. Out of My Underwear" and "Sex Workers for Medical Marijuana." On the steps of the federal building, Few announced the formation of a new activist organization, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (S.W.O.P.), which aims to place an initiative to legalize prostitution in California on the 2004 ballot.

The very same day President Bush devoted the last third of his public address to his campaign to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and global sex trafficking. Bush spoke of international efforts to combat what he termed violations of "moral law." Though Bush claimed "moral clarity" on the subject of trafficking, his working definition actually blurs an important distinction between trafficking as forced prostitution, and prostitution that is voluntary.

This is how the National Security Presidential Directive that Bush signed in February defines trafficking: "trafficking in persons refers to actions, often including use of force, fraud, or coercion, to compel someone into a situation in which he or she will be exploited for sexual purposes, which could include prostitution or pornography, or for labor without compensation, which could include forced or bonded labor. The United States is committed to the eradication of human trafficking both domestically and abroad. It is a crime that is an affront to human dignity."

Under Bush’s broad definition of trafficking, a woman who engages in prostitution is being trafficked and thereby subject to international trafficking laws, which means she could be deported at any time from the country where she is working. There are cases of women who have left their countries to voluntarily pursue prostitution. When forced to return to their homeland, especially if it is a Muslim country, these women have faced extreme ostracism, even death.

University of Chicago sociologist Gretchen Soderlund has claimed that Bush’s view of trafficking is heavily influenced by the abolitionist perspective on trafficking, which has its origins in the 19th Century Feminist movement. Abolitionists viewed not all forms of commercial sex to be degrading, morally wrong, and ultimately subject to legal intervention. At the root of the controversy lies the question: do women (and to a lesser extent, men) have the right to sell their bodies? And does society have the right to legislate this decision?

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