Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, right, and Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, right, and Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell. (VTDigger file)

A law that takes effect July 1 aims to help prosecutors crack down on human trafficking in Vermont.

A one-sentence amendment, slipped into another bill virtually unnoticed, outlaws masturbation, so-called "happy endings" or "hand jobs," performed by victims of human trafficking.

The change comes after a state's attorney's failed attempt to prosecute two massage parlors where women admittedly performed "happy endings."

Legislators in January heard from Bennington County State's Attorney Christina Rainville and sexual violence victims' advocates, who said the existing law was inadequate. They pushed for a broader definition of the types of sexual acts for which traffickers can be prosecuted.

In partnership with the FBI, Rainville last year investigated two Bennington massage parlors. Korean women working there denied being the victims of trafficking. They admitted to giving "hand jobs," which were legal under Vermont's prostitution statute.

"I went and looked at the statute and I was shocked to see that, in fact, our definition of prostitution did not cover this," Rainville told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill broadens the definition of "commercial sex act" in the human trafficking law, but does not prohibit masturbation of another person under the prostitution statute.

"All this amendment does is address the actual sexual acts that are covered by the (trafficking) statute," Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell said.


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The governor has not signed the bill into law but his spokeswoman said he will.

Under the human trafficking law, a person who knowingly solicits a "commercial sex act" from a victim of trafficking can be imprisoned for up to five years and/or fined $100,000.

Trafficking itself is punishable with up to life in prison and/or a fine of $500,000.

Treadwell, who leads the AG's criminal division, said the bill will also help the state prosecute so-called "pimp-controlled prostitution" and "survival sex."

Victims' advocate organizations in January explained to legislators that domestic sex trafficking is a bigger concern than international or even interstate trafficking.

Pimp-controlled prostitution is typically when a man persuades a young girl that he is her boyfriend, showers her with gifts, then forces her to have sex with his friends or others, who pay him, advocates said.

Men often control the women with drugs, alcohol or gifts. Victims are often scared to come forward, especially because laws are vague about what is a crime, they said.

Survival sex is another gray area where desperate minor (or adult) women exchange sex for a place to stay, food, protection or transportation. In that case, the trafficker and the "john" are the same person.

"I would think that pimp-controlled prostitution, to the extent that there is any force, fraud or any coercion in the relationship would fall within the human trafficking statute," Treadwell said.

Advocates also asked that the state start keeping data on trafficking in Vermont, something this bill does not require.

Advocates at H.O.P.E. Works, formerly the Women's Rape Crisis Center, on Thursday did not return several calls for comment about the law. They were among those who testified in January. Rainville also did not respond to a request for comment.

The human trafficking statute criminalizes trafficking in the context of sexual acts, but the definition, until now, did not include masturbation.

The American Civil Liberties Union supports the bill. While the ACLU does not believe prostitution should be a crime, "holding someone against their will is bondage," ACLU-VT Executive Director Allen Gilbert said.

"We hope this new provision will be applied to stop those abrogations of what is perhaps a human's most basic right - to be free and to be able to make one's own choices," Gilbert said in an email.