Note: In honor of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I thought I'd share something I wrote for my local weekly paper. Unfortunately, our local police department decided to honor this day with a crackdown on internet based sex work. While addressing issues specific to Eugene, OR, you'll find the sentiment applicable on a much broader level. Craig's List, which has been a useful tool for those engaging in sex work, is now requiring a credit card in order to post in their erotic services section, specifically with the intent of turning that information over to police when subpoenaed. That means that sex workers everywhere who had been relying on Craig's List are seeking other options, not just those in Eugene. And I'm sure Eugene isn't the only city that is using this time, when sex workers are still using Craig's List, as a time to crack down.
The Eugene Police Department announced last week that they were cracking down on prostitution that is arranged online. Of course we are told that it's not about punishing people who find few enough other opportunities to survive that prostitution is the best available option. It's really about the drug use, unreported assaults, unreported robberies, and pimps. Yet a crackdown like this is only going to make those problems worse.
Sex workers are less likely to report assaults, rapes, and thefts when they fear arrest. Many of the other public concerns around sex work, such as violence, drugs, and other crimes, are in fact a result of the criminalization of sex work. A police crackdown will only push people further underground, where recourse against exploitation is harder to access.
We've seen the result of an environment of police antagonism of sex workers. In 2003, Gary Ridgeway confessed to strangling ninety women to death, stating, "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." For years there were people who knew he was responsible for the killings, but because of their own involvement in or relationship to sex work, they either did not come forward or were not believed. As can often happen when police crackdown on sex workers, many were as afraid of the police as they were afraid of Ridgeway.
Online listings of erotic services had become a relatively safer option for those engaged in sex work. The internet has helped individuals effectively compete with pimps and agencies, and have more options to work for themselves rather than a potentially exploitative "manager." For those with access to a computer, this alternative avoids some of the risks and dangers associated with street based sex work.
It's not clear how EPD expects their crackdown to improve anything. Eugene police Detective Rick Lowe said "People involved in this sort of thing should be real cautious... We want to let them know that if they aren't careful, they could find a police officer answering their ad, or ordering up a police officer for themselves," The increased threat of arrest won't get too many people to leave the business - especially if they don't have any other options - but it will make them become more cautious and less likely to trust police.
Sting operations on Craig's List and other online listings will make such places less viable options for independent sex workers. The police wish to protect sex workers from those who would exploit them. Yet the more police position themselves as a threat to sex workers, the more they will decide to turn to various managers that can offer them protection from the police.
Fear of police is not just about arrest. Sex workers are often targets of violence because the shaming and stigma associated with sex work makes violence less likely to be reported. The unfortunate reality is that the people who take advantage of that include people who are police officers. According to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, "A 2002 study found... 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist." Police hold a lot of power over people, especially those involved in a criminalized line of work. In Eugene, we know that well. That was essentially the issue with Officers Lara and Magaña. [For reader's unfamiliar with recent Eugene history: these were local cops who were convicted of several dozen counts in 2004, including several rapes of women who they threatened with arrest. Many but not all of those women were sex workers. It was a very publicized case.]
Every year on December 17th, gatherings are held around the world to participate in the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This year the Sex Worker Outreach Project is organizing a march on Washington D.C. to demand rights for all sex workers.
Some cities are considering decriminalization acts that would bar police from investigating or arresting people solely based on engaging in sex work with. The intent is to create an environment where sex workers can report crimes without fear. It may take some time before such policies are enacted. In the meantime, however, perhaps we can get a law enforcement strategy that prioritizes the welfare of those involved in sex work, rather than one which creates an environment of fear and mistrust of police.