Do we want Politicians to be the Fashion Police?

Staff & Wire Reports

Opinion: Sagging Pants Should Be a Low Priority for Legislators

By SteVon Felton

In states like South Carolina and Montana, elected officials are moonlighting as the fashion police. As if the social pressures to look presentable are not enough of a hassle, some government officials keep working to add restrictions to the way we dress, in the form of fines and even jail time.

While statewide restrictions have been rejected, some towns have already passed variations of these regulations. One such law calls for as much as a $600 fine after two warnings for individuals who wear “pants, trousers or shorts such that the known undergarments are intentional (sic) displayed/exposed to the public.”

Before its repeal, Ocala, Florida, residents could face as much as 6 months in jail for the same “offense.”

Obviously, such laws and their punishments are highly questionable. For starters, the ability to see undergarments is hardly a sign of indecency. In fact, it merely suggests that the underwear in question is functioning precisely as designed.

Kidding aside, the most commonly cited justifications for these attempts to police fashion choices are public decency or violations of expected clothing standards.

However, such laws merely represent an astounding level of government paternalism through regulation of “acceptable” dress.

Whether we look to Rep. Joe Jefferson’s, statement that he’s “looking out for the benefit of men,” or Councilman LeRoy Blackshear’s comment that “(sagging) had become a nuisance to me and most of the citizens of the county,” the message is clear: law-abiding citizens will be penalized if they fail to conform to these men’s arbitrary standards.

However, irrespective of their level of public support, in the United States of America personal preferences are just that: personal. And thus, they are not the business of the state. No one has the right to dictate what others must wear or to force another individual to change. Like it or not, the tradeoff for living in a free society is that others are free to do things we may not like or approve.

While many have rightfully attacked such laws on these grounds, few have touched upon the far more insidious implications that lie at their heart. While on the surface these dressing laws may seem harmless enough, they work to increase police intervention into otherwise law-abiding society, forcing law enforcement to “police” that over which they arguably have no legal right.

Secondly, since many of the “offensive” styles of dress are those that have been traditionally associated with the black community, these laws act as vehicles merely to lock up more black men — for doing nothing. And, in an age where individual liberties and freedoms are increasingly being attacked and jails are already packed full of non-violent offenders, any call for more unnecessary regulation only exacerbates such problems.

Beyond being entirely unnecessary, these proposals highlight a long-standing tradition within American politics; an over-reliance on laws and, by extension, the police to resolve perceived social “nuisances.” More than just addressing minor inconveniences, these slight modifications in policing powers compound into an ever-expanding list of police responsibilities and new methods of social control.

Instead of explicitly stating their opinions and the purpose of the policies, politicians rely on emotionally driven, vaguely defined rhetorical devices like public decency standards to codify personal attitudes in law. This allows officials to further entrench narratives of police necessity and to perpetuate the normalization of law enforcement involvement in minor aspects of daily life.

It is this expansion of “micro-policing” that has allowed our criminal justice infrastructure to expand into a system that far outpaces those of other countries. Accordingly, the Terrebonne, Louisiana, NAACP (one of the jurisdictions that banned sagging pants) was completely correct in stating that “this is not a black issue, this is not a white issue, this is a people issue.” And not because it will impact every group equally but because of the larger trend toward codifying civil rights violations that bans like these represent.

Are sagging pants aesthetically pleasing? Perhaps not. Should people who fail to meet the particular fashion standards of others be fined or jailed? Absolutely not. With over 10.6 million jail admissions in 2016 alone, the last thing we need to do is expand the population of incarcerated individuals in the United States.

It is no exaggeration to say that even seemingly small debates over clothing thread into discussions of the fabric of our society. Our laws should seek to protect our founding principles, not to solidify some people’s preferences to the detriment of others and, most often, to the most vulnerable segments of our population.

Put simply, government power should not be used to regulate fashion, and certainly not by the generation that donned fanny packs and leisure suits. As a society, we must be more cautious and deliberate whenever we employ police and, by extension, state power. Laws regulating individual choice — even sagging pants — should be left where they belong, behind us.


SteVon Felton is a criminal justice policy associate at the R Street Institute. He wrote this for

The Conversation

Kofi Annan: a complicated legacy of impressive achievements, and some profound failures

August 19, 2018

Danny Bradlow

SARCHI Professor of International Development Law and African Economic Relations, University of Pretoria

Disclosure statement

Danny Bradlow’s SARCHI chair is funded by the National Research Foundation.


University of Pretoria

University of Pretoria provides funding as a partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

Kofi Annan (80) was an important historical figure who played a critical role in many key events of the 1990s and 2000s. His death is therefore an opportunity to both celebrate his life and to begin honestly assessing his contributions to the world.

The Ghanaian diplomat’s legacy is complicated. He served as both head of the United Nations peacekeeping and as Secretary General of the UN. His tenure in these high offices – from 1992 to 2006 – were marked by great human tragedies as well as episodes of progress. His role in these events raises difficult questions about individual responsibility and the role of international organisations and their leaders in creating a more peaceful and just world.

On the plus side, his contributions were impressive. He was an effective diplomat, a shrewd negotiator and an intelligent strategist. He was such a successful bureaucratic operator that he was the first UN employee to rise to the position of Secretary General.

When he took over the organisation it was facing numerous challenges. They included a tense and often hostile relationship with its most powerful member state, the US, a difficult budgetary situation and what appeared to be an inability to fulfil its core peacekeeping, human rights and development functions.

By the end of his term, things looked very different. Relations with key member countries had been restored, the UN had a sound fiscal position and both he and the organisation had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In addition, the organisation had launched some important new initiatives. It had adopted the Millenium Development Goals, which contributed to significant gains in health, education and human welfare in many countries around the world. The initiative was so successful that it was succeeded by the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition, the international community had established the International Criminal Court and had begun prosecuting war criminals for their deeds in the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

He had also initiated the process of getting corporations to recognise and accept their responsibility for the environmental, social and human rights consequences of their activities. This process moved slowly. But his efforts ultimately led to the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. These have now been incorporated into the human rights policies of many companies and have led to a number of countries adopting national action plans on the human rights responsibilities of business.

After he left the UN, Annan continued to do good work with both the Elders, a group of global leaders working for peace and human rights, and his own foundation. In these capacities he had some notable achievements. He helped resolve the post-election violence in Kenya, helped ensure peaceful elections in Nigeria and a number of other countries, and helped promote more productive and sustainable agriculture and good governance across Africa. He also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to end the civil war in Syria and the campaign against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

But there’s also a darker side to Annan’s record.

The tragedies

Annan was the head of UN Peacekeeping operations in the 1990s when two of the biggest failures in UN history happened. Under his watch both the Rwandan genocide and the massacres in Srebrenica took place.

In both cases his commanders on the ground requested authority to take stronger action to limit the risk of tragedy to those under their protection. In both cases he declined their request –with tragic results.

In addition, under his leadership UN peacekeepers in a range of countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, were found to be sexually exploiting those they were charged to protect. The UN failed to respond promptly to these actions and they continued into the 2000s.

In most organisations, a leader who is responsible for such profound failures would be held accountable. If not fired, or forced to resign, they would at the very least be moved to a position of lesser authority. But this didn’t happen because the UN has poor mechanisms and a weak culture of accountability. In fact, the UN and its member states, decided to promote Annan, selecting him to replace the first African Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was deemed to be too independent minded by the US.

Annan continued relying on the UN’s lack of accountability once he was in office. His son was implicated in the infamously corrupt food-for-oil programme that was initiated to help the Iraqi population during the period of sanctions against Saddam Hussein.

Eventually, under pressure, he appointed the independent Volcker Commission to investigate the programme. It concluded that, although Annan himself was not guilty of any wrong doing, his actions in response to the abuses were inadequate, including that he had failed to refer the matter to the UN’s independent watchdog agency.

He also tolerated sexual harassment within the UN Secretariat, protecting the former head of the UN refugee agency when he was accused of sexual harassment, penalising his accuser and then relying on the UN’s legal immunity to avoid having to respond to her efforts to seek justice. The adverse publicity eventually forced the guilty official to resign.

Lessons to be drawn

There is no doubt that running a complex international institution like the UN is difficult and requires leaders who are willing to compromise. Given the Secretary General’s weak position, it may also be inevitable that its leaders will have to turn a blind eye to some acts and omissions that have tragic and possibly evil consequences in order to advance higher priorities.

Annan showed throughout his career that he was a master at playing this game. As a result, his record includes both some impressive achievements and some profound failures. It will be up to history to decide if he made the right choices and struck the correct balance between doing good and tolerating evil.

In the meanwhile, we should all draw lessons from the life of this important historical figure about the importance of holding leaders and the institutions that govern our world accountable for their actions and decisions.

You don’t have to look far to find human trafficking victims

August 20, 2018

Laurie Charles

Clinical Assistant Professor, Registered Nurse, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, Texas A&M University

Disclosure statement

Laurie Charles MSN, RN, SANE-A, SANE-P is affiliated with International Association of Forensic Nurses as a member. The College of Nursing has received funding from the Texas Attorney General for contracted projects for deliverables from our program (as Co-Investigator).


Texas A&M University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Many people think that human trafficking means kidnapping and moving victims across state or national borders.

After working with human trafficking victims as a forensic nurse and now while teaching at Texas A&M University’s College of Nursing, I know that this often is not the case.

I have found that many perpetrators find, entice and sell their victims right in their own backyards.

Victims are often hidden in plain sight, leading everyone from police to health professionals to miss clues to their plight and vastly underestimate the scope and economics of human trafficking.

My colleagues and I once missed one of those victims. That led us to change the way we work.

Becoming aware

As the manager of a busy, urban forensic nursing program for 16 years, I oversaw the care and treatment of thousands of children annually who were suspected of being abused. I thought I understood the many intricacies of child abuse.

I was proven wrong when a Texas Child Protective Services caseworker told me we failed to identify a victim of human trafficking.

After taking a deep breath, I begged him to share what we missed and how we could improve the lives of these vulnerable and traumatized children.

The program in which I was then working consisted of extremely experienced and highly trained registered nurses who specialized in the care and treatment of children suspected of being sexually or physically abused or neglected.

We worked with children from over 20 Texas counties. Each nurse on the team routinely saw 200 children or more per year. We were one of the most experienced pediatric forensic nursing team in the state, with one of the best child abuse pediatricians as our medical director.

If we could miss the subtle signs of human trafficking, anyone could.

Trading in humans

Here is what happened: One of our expert forensic nurses examined “Zena,” a very young teenage girl who was sexually assaulted by two men.

The nurse provided care, collected evidence and discharged Zena, sending her home with a parent. This forensic nurse made all of the mandated reports to Child Protective Services and law enforcement.

Several months later, Zena was back in our emergency department, accompanied by law enforcement and CPS. After they rescued Zena from a room where she was to perform sex acts on several adult men, she was identified as a victim of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, according to scholars Noël Bridget Busch-Armendariz, Maura Nsonwu and Laurie Cook Heffron, “includes the victimization of adults and children in the commercial sex industry and forced labor.”

Trafficking’s definition under federal law also includes the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting a child under 18 years of age for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”

Sex traffickers, formerly known as “pimps,” use violence, or the threat of violence, lies and coercion to lure victims, especially children, into the commercial sex industry.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 made the trafficking of persons a federal crime. The legislation enabled states to prosecute traffickers, buyers of sex – “johns” – and those who profit from the crime of trafficking, including businesses or people who facilitate the illegal process.

Men, women and children can be trafficked. But children are especially vulnerable, with those who run away or are thrown out of their home especially at risk.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private, nonprofit group supported in part by the federal government, received more than 25,000 runaway reports in 2017 and estimate 3,500 were “likely victims of child sex trafficking.”

Eyes opened

When I asked my CPS caseworker and friend to explain how we could have identified Zena on her first visit to our emergency department, he answered, “You should have asked how she met those two men.”

It turns out that Zena’s mother sold her.

If the forensic nurse would have asked her specifically how she met the men, I believe Zena would have shared her story.

The atrocities done to Zena shook our team to the core, but we felt we could learn from this and work to identify any future victims. We decided to educate ourselves.

We worked with our medical director and attended conferences and meetings with law enforcement, CPS, federal and state prosecutors, and nonprofit organizations.

The training worked: In the years before Zena, I cannot recall any trafficking victims who were identified by our team. The year after Zena, we saw 14 children suspected of, or identified as, trafficking victims.

Since then, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott created a child sex trafficking team within his office. Our forensic team was invited to assist the governor’s child sex trafficking task force.

The Texas attorney general’s office distributes this poster about human trafficking. Texas Attorney General

Health care for trafficked victims

Our hospital’s work reflects the growing understanding that health care professionals can intervene and potentially rescue human trafficking victims.

Researchers Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel found that 88 percent of the human trafficking survivors interviewed had contact with a health care professional while they were being trafficked, mainly in emergency departments. That means emergency department physicians and nurses have a unique opportunity to intercede.

Health care professionals have the advantage of being able to speak with patients alone and not alert the trafficker. Asking non-leading questions and using trauma-informed techniques can create an environment where victims feel they can disclose the abuse they experienced at the hands of their buyers and traffickers.

Questions about the victim’s safety, and that of other persons, should always be asked if health care professionals believe trafficking is happening.

Children who disclose having sex with multiple people over short periods of time, who are homeless or who show up with a non-relative that does not want to the leave the child alone should all be suspected of being trafficked.

Education helps identification

Zena will always be on my mind. My health care colleagues can learn from her. Early intervention can rescue children from chronic sexual assaults, physical abuse, prevent drug addiction, and lifelong mental health problems.

Health care facilities across the country should be aware that there can be remarkable results from education about trafficking. In the graduate human trafficking course I now offer, two students were able to identify two trafficking victims, who were subsequently rescued.

During a recent conference I host, a probation officer realized that one of her probationers was being trafficked. She was able to help her with the education she received at the conference.

This work can be emotionally exhausting. But my colleagues and I have seen immediate results for some trafficked victims and that keeps me working. I want to prevent further abuse like Zena suffered from occurring again – in my backyard and beyond.

Staff & Wire Reports