The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) is a non-profit working to establish a community free from the commercial sex trade. As the CAASE Policy Director, Lynne Johnson has sought to shift the attention placed on prostituted women toward the individuals who profit from all forms of sexual exploitation. Now, Lynne is working to change legislation in Illinois, advocating for the rights of prostituted people through her statewide campaign, End Demand Illinois (EDI). In 2013, the state ruled to de-felonize prostitution after years of harsh penalties for the accused, putting CAASE and EDI at the forefront of a change they largely created. Catch the Sex Slaves: Chicago marathon on Sunday, November 9th, 7-10 p.m. ET.
Q: What is the mission behind CAASE?
A: CAASE was founded in 2006, and was one of the first non-profits that we’re aware of in the country that addresses the culture and institutions of individuals that are profiting from sexual exploitation. So, really we’re going after the exploiters that we consider to be pimps, traffickers and people who buy sex.
Q: Could you speak a bit about the type of outreach and legal services that CAASE provides?
A: CAASE works toward our mission through four primary ways. We have a prevention program, which is an educational curricula that educates high school age boys to work against sexual exploitation. We educate them about the truth of prostitution and encourage them to see themselves as allies. We also do community engagement, which is our work to increase public understanding about the harms of the sex trade. A third strategy is policy work. That’s my role. So, cases advocating for legislative and policy reform to transform our communities’ response to prostitution and sex trafficking, such as End Demand Illinois. The fourth program at CAASE is our legal services program, where we represent survivors of sexual harm and exploitation in both the civil and criminal side of our court system, with the goal of trying to hold perpetrators accountable and advocating for effective criminal prosecution
"We’ll never refer to somebody as a prostitute, because that deprives them of their human dignity. Nobody is just a thing being done to them"'
Q: As of last year, Illinois voted to end the felony sentence for prostitution. That was an End Demand Illinois initiative. What was the motivation for this bill?
A: We’ve passed five laws in five years. That was our fourth law. The reason we ran the bill was that felony prostitution was a failed 13-year experiment in Illinois. It was an ineffective use of very limited law enforcement resources. It was not addressing the real reasons behind why people were in prostitution, and it was encouraging law enforcement to arrest and re-arrest prostituted people, instead of seeing prostituted people as worthy of supportive specialized services.
Q: How did Illinois compare with other states in that regard?
A: Illinois was far behind. We had one of the harshest laws in the country at that time. The Illinois law allowed police — prosecutors — to charge someone with felony prostitution after only one prior conviction in their background. That was very harsh in comparison to laws around the country.
Q: What did having a prostitution felony on their record mean for those women?
A: The law was sending thousands of women to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and that meant they all had felony records, which made access to employment and job training and other services even more difficult. At the same time, Illinois has a felony statute for people who actually buy sex. It’s called, “Patronizing a Prostitute.” There had been less than 10 convictions for that in six years. Compare that to hundreds of women during that time period going to the Illinois Department of Corrections. We saw a significant gender imbalance in how laws were being enforced. It was imperative for us to pass that law.
Q: I’ve found that while society largely distinguishes between prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking, the same cannot be said for the organizations representing these victims. How should one distinguish between the two, or rather, should a distinction even exist?
A: This is a very complicated question. Pimps, johns and traffickers need prostitution to profit and become successful, and it is a system where our community has normalized the buying and selling of human beings. So CAASE believes that prostitution is a violation of human dignity, and that, in and of itself, is worthy of attention and focus on the people who profit and exploit others by buying and selling them. I don’t agree there should be some kind of sliding scale where some people are more exploited than others. It all involves the buying and selling of human beings.
Q: What might something like this say about our larger societal makeup?
A: You see this obsession to break down the motivation and beliefs of individual women, so that we can blame them for their own oppression. When we spend all of our time thinking about that, we fail to hold accountable the people who are exploiting her and buying her. I would like for our community to take a break from blaming and shaming women, and start to think about this other group of people who are largely invisible to us.
Q: What goals does the End Demand Illinois campaign have in order to help to shift the attention of the sex trade?
A: We have three goals. The first is to redirect law enforcement attention away from trafficked people and toward pimps, johns and traffickers, so that we can deter them. Secondly, we are proposing a statewide system of specialized services for prostituted and trafficked people to provide meaningful options and alternatives. Third, we’re trying to raise awareness, particularly among elected officials and opinion shapers, about the truth of prostitution so that we can engage them in the campaign and move people to action. We’re a campaign advocating for a transformation of our community’s response to prostitution and sex trafficking.
Q: What compelled you to create End Demand Illinois?
A: End Demand Illinois really is standing on the shoulders of a ten-year movement here in Chicago. What we saw were some intractable issues that we needed to address in a more intentional way. One of the intractable problems we saw in Illinois was that pimps traffickers and johns were almost never held accountable by our law enforcement. Number two — mostly it was prostitutes being arrested and re-arrested. Then, add the lack of specialized services being available for survivors of prostitution. So, those three things allow the commercial sex trade to thrive here in Illinois and anywhere those three things exist. Because our community is failing to name those things as wrong — those people who are buying sex — we’re failing to hold them accountable.
Q: There doesn’t seem to be a clear dialogue established for discussing sex trafficking. I’ve spoken with organizations that prefer to use the term “slavery” as opposed to “trafficked.” Do you think this lack of clear discourse might cloud the issue at hand?
A: Yes. Very recently many of us in the movement worked on a letter that became public and was sent to the Associated Press. They were working on their Style Guide and they were the subject of an online campaign to advocate that they start using sex work and sex worker every time they referred to the commercial sex trade. And so, there was uniform agreement in the movement that those words were biased, politically loaded, and won’t really help readers understand a complex issue. There was consensus among the movement, and this was signed by over 300 organizations around the world. That there were opportunities to use language that could be more clear or more factually correct. CAASE was a signatory to that letter. That just happened. That’s going to be a tool that we use when we talk to the media about language. CAASE is very intentional about referencing people impacted by prostitution by referring to them as “prostituted people” or “prostituted women.” That is an effort to shine a light on the fact there are transactions that often are controllers or exploiters. We’ll never refer to somebody as a prostitute, because that deprives them of their human dignity. Nobody is just a thing that’s being done to them. We also believe that since prostitution is a form of violence against women, and we would never want to refer to somebody by something being done to them.
Q: Looking into the future, what can we expect to see next from CAASE and the End Demand Illinois Project?
A: In the upcoming years, End Demand Illinois is planning an upcoming legislative initiative that hopes to reform something in the Illinois criminal law called “affirmative defenses.” People facing prostitution charges who may be victims of human trafficking currently do not have a legal opportunity to tell the judge that they are a trafficking victim and should not be found guilty. We’re exploring the possibility of offering people facing prostitution charges with an affirmative defense that would basically help them avoid criminal charges for prostitution. The laws that we’ve already passed represent a substantial change in how the criminal justice system is responding to this issue.
Don't miss the Sex Slaves: Chicago marathon on Sunday, November 9th, 7-10 p.m. ET.