The recent case of two Chicago police officers being investigated for trafficking  a 14 year old raises the question: how frequently does police sexual misconduct and violence against sex workers occur?

In a article, Elizabeth Nolan-Brown gives a summary of nearly 40 police misconduct cases involving sex workers in the last year. Most cases involved police paying for sex. Other cases involved buying sex from minors in the sex trade, managing escort agencies and profiting off of prostitution, or coercing sex workers to have sex with them through threat of arrest. In one case, a cop had an ongoing, coercive relationship with a sex worker and extorted over $500,000 dollars from her over the course of several years.


Is police sexual misconduct with sex workers common? In 2004, Sudhir Venkatesh conducted a study where street-based sex workers were paid to track income, arrests, sex acts provided, and violence. Venkatesh found that participants evaded arrest by having sex with a cop
[or cop impersonator] as frequently as they were arrested.
The Young Women’s Empowerment Project [YWEP] published a study analyzing Bad Encounter Line reports from 2009-2011. YWEP used a youth-defined interpretation of violence that included state violence, verbal violence, and systems violence. YWEP found that the Police were the primary perpetrators of violence, and that 30% of all bad encounter reports involved the police. While the YWEP study does not indicate the percent of sex workers who face violence, it does clearly indicate that police are viewed by street-based youth as one of the main sources of violence in their lives. A 2015 Urban Institute study also identifies police a major source of harassment and structural violence for New York youth involved in the sex trade and notes that police profiling experienced is often related to gender identity and homelessness.


Katie Jares-Hail, a SWOP board member, PhD candidate at American University and Georgetown adjunct professor provided an overview of research on police violence and sex work via email in late 2014:


There is (sadly) not a lot of good research on police violence against sex workers in the United States. Most of the work that does exist has been done in collaboration with community-based organizations. I’m attaching a few different articles that do provide rates or touch upon related concepts.


Generally speaking, most studies that I have seen find between 5-10% of respondents reported experiencing police violence. The concept of police violence itself is often sort of difficult to parse out because some studies include individuals who were impersonating police in the category or measure the rate of sex workers who report coercive sex at the hands of police. That rate, as you would expect, is much higher for harassment.


I’m including here an assortment of U.S. and international studies:
  • Arrington, et al. (2008) Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, DCWashington, DC: Different Avenues. Awesome, awesome community-driven project that surveyed  DC sex workers about their experience with policing. The study includes lots of statistics on exposure to violence, harassment, and arrest. The sample was largely trans women of color and street-based sex workers. An abbreviated version was also published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the full report contains all the statistical findings. Of the 104 individuals who reported police interactions, 17.3% reported being asked to provide sexual favors or services to police officers and 9.1% reported being physically assaulted or attacked by police officers.
  • Decker, M.R., Pearson, E., Illangasekare, S.L., Clark, E., and Sherman, S.G. (2013). Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetratorBMC Public Health. Mixed method study involving 35 women involved in sex work in Baltimore, Maryland. Found that 5.7% reported being forced or coerced to have sex by police in the past month.
  • Hail-Jares, K. Bad Dates: How prostitution strolls impact client-initiated violence (Forthcoming. Studies in Law, Politics & Society. This study is an analysis of 282 bad date reported to HIPS over an 8 year period. We found that just over 5% of reports were tied to a police officer or someone impersonating one. That’s more than the number of bad dates that were committed by someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol and more than those related to pimping. This was approximately the same percentage as two analyses done on Canadian bad date reports:


Then, results more internationally:
Terra Burns, an activist and graduate student, recently completed a mixed methods study on the experiences of Alaskan sex workers.  The study included 41 survey respondents and 8 unstructured interviews. This study found higher rates of sexual assault that previous studies andrevealed a strong correlation between being a victim of force, coercion or fraud in the sex trade and experiencing police violence. It also revealed higher levels of police misconduct when sex workers attempted to report crimes to them:

The police took reports from 44% of [sex workers], arrested 6%, and threatened 33% with arrest. Of those who had been victims of force, coercion, or manipulation in the industry, 80% had tried to report being the victim or witness of a crime, and the police had taken reports from only 20% of them, threatened 60% with arrest, and actually arrested 20%.
Overall 26% of survey participants reported being sexually assaulted by police. Of those who had been victims of force, manipulation, or coercion within the industry, 60% reported being sexually assaulted by an officer. In interviews, only those who met the federal definition of a sex trafficking victim had been assaulted by police officers. Of the four interview participants who met the federal definition of a sex trafficking victim, three had been sexually assaulted by police officers. For two of them, this occurred before they entered the industry. Another was physically assaulted by officers before entering the industry, and raped by a police officer after many years in the sex industry.

For research on violence against sex workers generally, check out Michael Dango’s review of research on violence against sex workers, drafted for SWOP-Chicago in 2013.