A new bill that would allow victims of sexual exploitation to sue for compensation is the latest piece of legislation to curb sex trafficking, which lawmakers say is a growing problem in the state.
The bill would alter current Wisconsin law to give victims the right to sue those who exploited them for physical damages to their bodies, punitive damages and any revenue accrued from their sexual exploitation.
Acts that fall under “commercial sexual exploitation” include soliciting a prostitute, involving a child in prostitution, buying or producing child pornography and hosting a place for prostitution, according to the bill.
Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said she introduced the bill last week after she learned the weight of Wisconsin’s sexual exploitation issues through a series of disturbing “wake-up calls.”
Billings said she felt it was her duty to bring the issue into legislative light after attending a conference in La Crosse in the fall, where women shared their experiences in human trafficking.
“There were women who were coerced into this for decades,” she said, adding civil action could help compensate these victims for the “years or decades of their lives stolen from them.”
Billings said she was also prompted to introduce the legislation after learning about a disturbing event that occurred in a La Crosse hotel room this past summer, involving a man and two underage girls who had been pressured into sexual exploitation. This event, along with other FBI investigations, prompted Billings to take a stand, she said.
Like Billings, Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said she saw a lack of protection for victims of sexual exploitation under current state law and signed on to support the bill with a similar sense of duty to fill this void.
“I’m trying to advocate for those young people and make sure they have a pass out and hand up,” Sargent said.
According to Billings and Sargent, Wisconsin is often overlooked in terms of human trafficking, but has a much stronger hold in this multi-billion dollar industry than anticipated.
A report compiled by Fox6Now Milwaukee ranked Wisconsin among the top 10 states in the country for human trafficking incidents.
Rep. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, another sponsor of the bill, said this report provided a strong motivation to sign onto the bill.
“Wisconsin needs a lot of laws regarding human trafficking,” Johnson said. “This is basically just a springboard or a step in the right direction.”
Johnson also recently proposed a bill that would require police investigation into reported cases of human trafficking. According to Johnson, Wisconsin is a “feeder state” for human trafficking. Perpetrators from nearby states, including Illinois and Indiana, come to Wisconsin, find their victims, and take them back to their states, she said.
With her bill, Johnson is seeking to find these children and secure protection for them through the Department of Children and Families.
Johnson also questioned the reliability of “consent,” since many victims have unhealthy relationships with their perpetrators.
“The vast majority of these children are convinced their trafficker is their pimp or their boyfriend or their caregiver,” Johnson said.
Johnson is not alone in furthering protective measures for victims. The Legislature also recently passed a bill authored by Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, that would provide prosecutors with “additional tools” to charge perpetrators, which include eliminating non-consent as part of a definition of “trafficking.”
“These victims are so psychologically abused that it’s hard to distinguish between whether or not they consented,” Loudenbeck said.
Billings said she consulted both Johnson and Loudenbeck to see if they had included civil action as part of their provisions. Billings said she thinks her bill “sits nicely with other trafficking legislation,” by providing a financial component.