Legislators will consider a bill next session that would allow judges to vacate prostitution convictions for women forced into the act through human trafficking. Legislative leaders originally rejected the bill, sponsored by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, but that decision was reversed last week upon appeal.

Now the bill will get its day. There are questions about the mechanics of the bill as well as its constitutionality that will have to be ironed out in committee. But there is no question about the virtue of helping women turned criminal by force to erase that part of their public record and allow them a chance to move forward with their lives.

The bill is also an opportunity to talk about the deep-rooted, almost casual culture of violence that is an everyday reality for vulnerable women across the state. Its victims may be most visible in the urban streets of a city like Portland, but they are everywhere, enduring dehumanizing acts just to get by, and accumulating physical and psychological damage at the hands of men.

“There are all kinds of ways that [the assailants] use coercion,” said Donna Strickler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center in Winthrop. The women trade their bodies for a place to stay, for drugs and food, and for the safety of themselves and the people they care about. “It comes down to things as simple as that. … That is what they know about how to survive.”

There are no easy answers. The problem lies at the intersection of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, past exposure to violence and many other social ills that defy simple solutions.

But there is hope in the dedicated people and organizations who confront these issues in Maine, who with the right support and resources can make a difference.

To make it work, there has to be an understanding about the culture outside of social workers and advocacy groups. The simple fact is that violence against vulnerable women is normalized. A study by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence found that 92 percent of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Almost 58 percent reported instances of violence in at least two of four age groups provided by the study. The violence, severe and cowing, starts when the women are young, and continues for years. The threat is always present.

This is happening to women who sleep on the street, or in shelters. They may be couch-hopping, particularly in rural areas that lack a concentration of resources. They are short on money. They are dealing with addictions. They have mental and physical disabilities.

There is a connection, too, to the sex trafficking Volk’s bill is trying to address. To a certain kind of man, these women are a walking bulls-eye. For a small amount of money or attention — or through the threat of violence — they can be brought under the control of traffickers.

Help is available. Victims of sexual violence can call a state hotline — 1-800-871-7741 — and be connected to an organization in their part of the state. The hotline is operated by the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which offers support and services for victims.

There is also the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kennebec & Somerset Counties, which has helped more than 300 child victims of sexual abuse since it opened in May 2012. The first center of its kind in Maine, the Waterville facility places treatment, investigative and prosecutorial resources all in one place. It is a good model for breaking the strong correlation between child sex abuse and both adult victimization and homelessness.

Just as Volk’s bill aims to remove the stigma of a prostitution conviction, we have to work to treat the victims of a lifetime of sexual violence so that they can move past the shame not attached to victims of other crimes. And we have to reach victims earlier, before violence becomes an accepted part of their lives.

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