An anti-sex-trafficking law recently passed in Alaska demonstrates the failure of the criminal justice system to help or rescue victims of trafficking. In fact, women who are at the highest risk of violence, including some who have been sex trafficked, say that anti-trafficking laws put them more at risk.
The Alaska law pulls many activities associated with prostitution under the banner of sex trafficking, redefining "promoting prostitution" as sex trafficking, and including advertising sexual services or co-managing or owning a place a place where prostitution takes place as sex trafficking.
A wave of concern about sex trafficking has led to news exposes, celebrity spokespeople, and laws and policies across the US promising to stop traffickers. But after Alaska governor Sean Parnell signed HB 359 in 2012, the first people charged under the new law were adult women engaged in activity that would previously be defined as simple prostitution. None of them have been accused of the behavior that most people think of when they hear “trafficking,” such as using force, or activity involving minors. Now, these women are labeled under the law, and in news reports, as sex traffickers. Some of them appear to be charged with trafficking themselves.
In January of 2013, a few months after the law was passed, police went to a massage parlor in Kenai, a town south of Anchorage with a population of about 7,000. They arrested a 49-year-old woman, and a 19- and 20-year-old. All three were charged with prostitution. But the 49-year-old was also charged with first, second, and third degree sex trafficking, apparently because she was accused of owning the business.
A few months later, a 24-year-old woman who had allegedly advertised on craigslist was caught in an online sting by police. It appears police did not have enough evidence to even support a prostitution charge – according to police reports, the woman would not "guarantee sexual contact" in person. She was charged with "promoting prostitution," a misdemeanor. Because of the new law, she was initially charged with sex trafficking, apparently because she was accused of advertising sexual services online, even if she didn't offer them in person.
Maxine Doogan is a member of Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), an organization of Alaska's sex workers and their allies. She says the new law has criminalized practices that would make sex workers safer. "We see people who are working together, sharing space, sharing customers, can be charged with enterprising sex trafficking," Doogan explains. "The safety conditions we set up for ourselves are now being called sex trafficking."
One of the things that we spend a lot of our time doing is trying to reverse or undo the harm that the criminal justice system has caused our clients who have been trafficked.
As an example of the abuses of the new law, Doogan discussed a woman arrested this year for allegedly running what police and media called a sex trafficking ring. Doogan says the woman appeared to have run a model sex business, with safety screenings of clients, a safe place to work with other people around, as well as providing advertising, independent contractor agreements, and help with processing credit card charges. Police and press reports labeled all of this as trafficking. An article described a section on her website that recommended etiquette for clients seeing a sex worker as "advice for patrons of the sex trafficking ring."
The 39 year old woman, who was also allegedly having sex for money, was charged with 8 different counts of sex trafficking, including running a sex trafficking enterprise, running a place of prostitution, procuring customers, inducing a person over the age of 20 into prostitution, accepting proceeds from prostitution, and facilitating prostitution.
"The police are turning around and telling the reporters, and the reporters are turning around and telling the public, that somebody is being rescued for being a sex traffic victim," says Doogan, who describes anti-trafficking campaigns as a "weapon of mass destruction to the prostitute nation."
Kate Mogulescu is founder and director of Legal Aid Society's Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project in New York City, the first anti-trafficking project in the US run out of a public defender organization. Her team sees close to 2,000 clients each year charged with prostitution, many of whom have experienced trafficking. She believes that anti-sex-trafficking laws like Alaska's cause more harm than they solve. "There is a real interest in trafficking right now in this country," says Mogulescu. "It's the focus of countless articles. And I think at times that we are doing a disservice, particularly to the people that we purport to want to help, by making it such a huge media issue focusing on these sensationalist stories of rescue."
Mogulsecu says that women she sees who have been victimized by sex trafficking are unlikely to be helped by police intervention. "One of the things that we spend a lot of our time doing is trying to reverse or undo the harm that the criminal justice system has caused our clients who have been trafficked," she says. "There's this notion that the more people you come in contact with through the criminal justice system, the more you're going to get at the issue of trafficking. That somehow, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, you're going to be able to figure out who's a trafficker, who's a victim, and justice will be done. And what we've seen repeatedly is that that's not the case."
Women who have been arrested and "rescued" have actually been sexually assaulted by police.
Terra Burns is now a graduate student, but as a young girl she was forced into the sex trade by her abusive father. She testified against anti-trafficking initiatives in front of the Alaska state legislature, and does community outreach to gather local support for reform. "The state coerces people into prostitution by denying them access to shelter, SSDI, and foster care," Burns says. "We had women freeze to death because they couldn't get into the shelter. When the state makes survival harder, they force people to make desperate choices. But then when those same people turn to prostitution to survive, they are labeled as sex traffickers." Burns says women she's spoken with who have been arrested and "rescued" have actually been sexually assaulted by police.
In conversations with women in Alaska who sell sex, many say that fear of police makes it hard for them to report crimes. Sarah is a member of CUSP, and a parent of two kids, who spends her time helping them with their homework and chaperoning field trips. She has been a sex worker for ten years, and the biggest fear she has is of police. She says an officer once posed as a client and then after having sex, told her that he was a cop and he would arrest her if she took any money.
"If we get raped, if we get beat up, if we get robbed, we have a fear of going to jail," Sarah tells me. "A lot of times we just go through things and we can't do anything about it."
Ann, 32, moved to Alaska from southern California, and has been a sex worker for 6 years. She is not surprised by Sarah's story. She has faced arrest and harassment from police as well. "The local police find out you're a sex worker, and they want you out of the county, they'll fuck with you until you leave," she says.
Burns has her own story of police abuse. At 18 years old, she was working as a stripper and was raped. When she went to the police, she says they told her they were going to arrest her for filing a false report. Burns says officers told her, "The way you're dressed doesn't look like you didn't want to have sex," and added that she was likely just a prostitute upset that she didn't get paid. "I had, like, bruises and tears and stuff," adds Burns. "It was a really traumatic experience trying to report it to the police."
The biggest threat was not the work itself, but the atmosphere created by making it illegal.
A 2012 study of sex workers by Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago quantified the problem. They found that violence and harassment by police was the biggest danger reported by those who trade sex for money or goods. 32 percent of respondents reported violence or harassment from police, including sexual assault, while only 4 percent reported violence from pimps. They concluded that the biggest threat was not the work itself, but the atmosphere created by making it illegal.
"This notion of rescue coming in the form of an arrest is really problematic," says Mogulescu. "This does not provide security, stability, safety, empowerment, to them."
The victims of trafficking Mogulescu sees often have been re-traumatized by police. "One of the things that we spend a lot of our time doing is trying to reverse or undo the harm that the criminal justice system has caused our clients who have been trafficked," She says. "Both our trafficked and our non-trafficked clients do not have a favorable view of law enforcement or the police. In fact, they suffer mightily at the hands of police. We see, with prostitution policing, extensive police misconduct. We see sort of the wild west."
Mogulescu says as long as prostitution is illegal, women who sell sex will not feel safe going to police. "When my clients are exposed to arrest, over and over and over again, the notion that they would then see in the police, or in law enforcement a friendly place, a place to go for help, is laughable."
It's not just sex workers who fear police in Anchorage. Outside Beans Café, an Anchorage agency that distributes free meals, an indigenous woman named Esther Brown, who had been homeless for the last several months, described beatings and harassment from police. "The police are hardly there to help you," she said. "They have even gone to jail for rape themselves."
Brown was describing a well-publicized case in Anchorage, of former officer Anthony Rollins, who was convicted in 2011 of five rapes committed while in uniform from 2008-2009. Rollins had received multiple awards and commendations during his time with the department, including a medal of valor and, ironically, an award from an organization called Standing Together Against Rape. He also frequently represented the department by speaking in area schools.
"I think any time that a woman is selling her body for sex, it should be illegal. It's very degrading and exploitive."
Sergeant Kathy Lacey, who started and runs the vice division of the Anchorage Police Department, oversees prostitution arrests in Anchorage. She sees herself as rescuing women trapped in desperate situations. She approves of the new law, and rejects any distinction between prostitution and sex trafficking. "We should stop calling it prostitution, we should call it sexual exploitation," she told me. "I think any time that a woman is selling her body for sex, it should be illegal. It's very degrading and exploitive." Lacey adds that the women she sees are pushed in to selling sex by abuse or force. "I just don't often run across women that have a stable background, and are involved in prostitution. I don't think I've met one yet," she says. "They don't just wake up at 21 one day and say ‘I'm going to sell my body for sex.' That just doesn't happen."
Lacey says there have been issues of police misconduct, but the department does not tolerate it. "Arrest is not the best answer, I recognize that," she adds. "We don't want to punish them. We want to remove them from that situation, and the tools that we have to remove them from that situation are to arrest them and to remove them from that trafficker."
Lacey says her job is involves navigating a balance in seeing women selling sex as both victims and at the same time subject to arrest. "They do have that dual status," says Lacey. "They're both victims and offenders. We're trying to figure out how they were a victim to start with and how they got into this to be an offender." At the same time, she is firm that anyone making money off of someone selling sex is a trafficker. "I use that term trafficker and pimp interchangeably," she says. "It's not like she goes out on a date and she makes four hundred dollars, and she gives two hundred to him and she keeps two hundred. In most cases she gives everything to him."
"As a homeless teenager, my case worker would come and take my money from me. She would be like, ‘Well, you're just going to use this to buy drugs.'"
Members of Community United for Safety and Protection are not just critical of law enforcement, but other state policies. They say the lack of a safety net to survive the brutal Alaska winters makes the problem worse. Burns tells me that even when she was free from her abusive father, she was still forced to sell sex because of a lack of support provided by the state. "I think that the biggest sex trafficker, what induces the most people into prostitution, is the state," she says. "As a homeless teenager, my case worker would come and take my money from me. She would be like, ‘Well, you're just going to use this to buy drugs.' The system essentially removed my entire safety net and then kicked me out into the cold Alaskan winter. The only choice I had was literally prostitution or sleeping in a snow bank. I literally did dig holes into the snow bank. But, you know, at 60 below, you'll freeze to death doing that, so you've gotta turn a trick."
Mogulescu says the answer to the problem of sex trafficking has to come from addressing the root causes. "Anyone who wants to do anti-trafficking work needs to really roll up their sleeves and start doing anti-poverty work," she says. "Because what we're talking about here is a group that's disproportionately affected by poverty, by gender based violence, by racism, by xenophobia. But we don't want to talk about that stuff because that stuff is actually kind of hard to fix. But if we write a big piece about trafficking and sex slaves and the police are going to solve this problem, we feel good about that."