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What's the difference between sex trafficking and pimping?

Illinois's move to decriminalize prostitution pushes the question of whether prostitution really is a choice.

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Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute who now works as a peer specialist and counselor for the Cook County Sheriff's Department, speaks to female inmates at a meeting of Prostitution Anonymous at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013.

Martha Irvine/AP/File

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Cops in the Chicago area call it a "track," a stretch of street known for its steady sex trade.

Women in tight, scant clothing stand in high heels on street corners along an industrial strip in suburban Cicero. Customers, usually men, slow their cars and roll down a window.

"How much?" they ask.

Some might see these interludes as exchanges between consenting adults, or at the very least, consenting criminals, if the prostitute is, indeed, an adult and seemingly free to come and go as she pleases. They may call it a victimless crime, seeing domestic prostitution as something very different from human sex trafficking - with its cross-border abductions and brutal coercion - a scourge that's come to the forefront of news in recent years.

But are they so different, after all? Increasingly, experts in the field are saying no, and applying the label human trafficking to homegrown prostitution. And now more lawmakers, police and prosecutors across the country are starting to shift their view on this, too. Increasingly, they are focusing on arresting traffickers and customers (pimps and johns, as it were) and on getting help for prostitutes.

"It's almost similar to a domestic violence issue," says Michael Anton, commander of the Cook County Sheriff's vice unit, based in the Chicago. "A lot of (people) say, 'Well, they can just get out.'

"Well, it's not that easy."

As of this year, Illinois became one of several states where prostitution is no longer a felony. It's also one of a growing number where a minor cannot be charged with prostitution, even as a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Cook County, which includes Chicago, have set up a human trafficking unit and, in recent years, have been using new state laws to put more traffickers in jail.

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