[One woman], she was like 19, and she was old enough to get a motel room for herself and her 17 year old friend. They were both homeless and trading sex together and just surviving. And they both got arrested for prostitution, but one got ‘rescued’ and one got arrested as a trafficker.” Robarge also noted that victims are sometimes arrested on “aiding and abetting” or “conspiracy charges” for trafficking when they refuse to testify against their traffickers. Two examples of this – in Wisconsin and Alabama reveal this dynamic.
As for less horizontal relationships, Eve, a sex worker, talks about a woman who entered the sex trade at 15 who now, at 30 occasionally earns money “pimping” other women: “They would be in a much worse situation if they didn’t have her. Because they don’t know how to do a lot of the things themselves and it’s not like old-school pimping…these women seek other women out that have different skills than they have. To get paid better, to get better picutres…to better their own selves, they seek these other people out. I think it’s a very complicated relationship and I think it’s more complicated than it’s perceived. Like we’re not in the ‘80s and 90s anymore with like, Pimpin’ Ken..It’s like women helping each other…The relationship isn’t what we think of in the typical pimp-ho relationship. and when you think of the context these people are living in, those types of relationships are not automatically problematic and exploitative. And so that’s what we’re criminalizing with those laws.”
Robarge also questions the trafficking stereotype when the “promoter” is a woman’s male romantic partner: “I think the other thing that’s an issue right now is…intimate partners who are just kind of lazy men who are living off whatever type of wages their partner earns, and if those wages happens to be from sex work, they are now pimping their girlfriend. And they aren’t pimps, instead they’re just lazy. So that is a problem. And if the boyfriend is now, if it’s an abusive relationship where there’s a power and control dynamic that’s very close to domestic violence and then prostitution is involved, they’re conflating that with human trafficking. And charging men, domestic abusers, with human trafficking.”
Fatima, another sex worker, agrees with Robarge. “I’ve got a friend who…was basically a homeless mother and who got picked up by this Romeo pimp kind of guy, who coerced her into [prostitution]. And then she wound up with this other guy, who is a complete [jerk] and is basically exploiting her. Like, sort of meeting all of her needs, it’s two-thousand a week to have his sister watch the kid, he’s ‘investing’ her money for her but not in her name, just really taking advantage [of her]. So there’s that. But then, they [the two men] are already criminals legally right now, and that didn’t help. It would still be illegal if this weren’t criminal[ized]. And [criminalization] is really just pushing her to their hands…like, she can’t do normal childcare without the kid getting taken away, it’s illegal money so if she puts it in the bank [herself], she could get money laundering charges or have it get taken away, so having it illegal is just making her need things and she’s getting it from these bad people…It’s not like she can sue for extortion or for money that they took from her, she’s not gonna go to the police because she’s doing something illegal.”
Myth: Arrest is the only way to reach victims of the sex trade.
Truth: Many individuals impacted by the sex trade have tried to reach out for voluntary substance use or exit support, only to be turned away because there aren’t enough services to go around or they don’t meet eligibility criteria. Further, while mandatory education or services can help get people to access resources they otherwise would not have accessed (CLEs, CEUs, Drivers’ Ed), arrest is the worst way to compel access to helping systems.
There is a major dearth of targeted, non-judgmental, voluntary services for sex workers in the United States. There are only 7 major sex worker-centric service providers in the United States, and these are constrained to 4 cities. Other services often are under-funded and volunteer-run, are shaming and alienate sex workers, or are general social service agencies who fail to provide culturally competent services.
Arrest is not outreach. A survey of trafficking victims in New York found that 100% of victims viewed police raids as harmful. Arrest, even if charges are ultimately dismissed, has very real consequences for those arrested–it can affect immigration processes, access to education, employment, public services and housing.
Arrest is also not the only way to compel sex workers to access supportive services For example, drug paraphernalia laws grant amnesty from syringe possession charges to members of syringe exchange programs. This model could be extended to sex work. Or an anonymous licensing program could be created where sex workers are given a unique, non-identifying identification number are able to avoid reasonable fines by accessing flexible counseling or continuing education resources. In short: we don’t arrest social workers or lawyers to compel continuing education, we don’t arrest students to get them to class, we shouldn’t be arresting sex workers to connect them with services.
Arrest is also not the only way to gain access or entry into places where cops suspect trafficking. For example, in Berlin (where prostitution is defacto decriminalized, unlike in other German states) police have “right of entry” into any property they suspect is used for prostitution. In the United States, cops are required to respond to any report of domestic violence or child abuse. Similar rights could be granted in the United States.
We also need to recognize how our laws are criminalizing the most attractive and valuable kind of support: peer support. Laws against “promoting prostitution” lead us to withhold advice that could increase the autonomy or economic well-being of dozens of hotline callers each year. Laws against prostitution prevent us from creating community banks and saving initiatives for fear of money laundering charges, initiatives which have been incredibly successful in India. They prevent creation of collectively run, community-owned alternatives to advertising websites like Backpage. They even prevent basic helping behavior: Jacqueline Robarge of Power Inside said “ I asked a public defender, could I be charged with human trafficking if I take someone from my office after caring for them all day long down to the area I know they trade sex in? Is that human trafficking? Why yes, it is.”
Myth: The average person who pays for sex has a $120,000 income, and thus, arresting johns means arresting privileged men who exploit marginalized women.
Truth; Data suggests that men who pay for sex are demographically indistinguishable from the average man; worse, arrest data suggests that men arrested for purchasing sex are actually less educated and more likely to be Black or Latino than the average man.
In 2012, Rachel Lovell of DePaul University analyzed mugshots of “johns” published by the Chicago Police Department[CPD] between 3/8/2010 to 3/9/2012. Lovell found nearly all stings targeted clients of street-based sex workers and took place on Chicago’s South and West Sides (poor, African-American neighborhoods). Over 85% of those arrested were Black or Latino. Data from the 2012 Day of John Arrests, which took place in 10 major cities found that of the ~360 men arrested, 40% of those arrested did not finish high school, and 42% had only a GED or high school diploma. In short, john arrests follow the same pattern of class and racial bias that exist in across the criminal justice system.
Myth: Harm Reduction Services do not support individuals seeking to exit the sex trade.
Truth: In the United States, every major sex worker service organization provides exit support to the extent their funding allows, often better than rescue organizations do.
HIPS, Power Inside, Women with a Vision, Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, and the St. James Infirmary all provide case management, vocational and life skills training, and often linkage to more comprehensive job skills and placement services. Red Umbrella Project and Persist Health, in New York, also began offering job training, resume editing, and job placement services for people impacted by the sex trade when women processed through the NYC Human Trafficking Intervention Court expressed that court-mandated diversion programs were not meeting their needs. Harm reduction does not preclude abstinence or exiting the sex trade. Rather, it simply asserts that exiting the sex trade is not the only option–that people in the sex trade need support making positive decisions that are right for them.