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When Will It Be #TimesUp For Rapist Cops? #MeToo And Sex Workers

Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of sexual assault and state violence. 

Last week, Time Magazine published a story about sex worker exclusion from the #metoo phenomenon. Sex workers are a criminalized population vulnerable to sexual assault, composed of people oppressed in many intersectional ways, so the inaccessibility of this newly popularized movement against rape and harassment is particularly egregious. At worst, it seems that only privileged women have access to an individualized #metoo movement. At best, sex workers are told they should have their own separate-but-equal movement in a manner which reinforces popular misconceptions about the sexual violence we face as intrinsic to sex work and our clients rather than stemming from stigma and the state.

In reality, much of the abuse and violence sex workers face comes from institutions like the police. This makes participating in a sex worker #metoo difficult since it entails calling abusers in positions of power to account.

Police are guilty of routinely targeting marginalized women and raping them. They prey on women whose allegations against police are rarely taken seriously. These women include sex workers (especially street and survival sex workers), women of color, trans women, and drug-using women—most often, women who are part of many or all the above groups. We are told to stand up for ourselves and report sexual assaults to the police, but when the abuser is the police, it becomes impossible to report it. A Brooklyn teenager tried to report a sexual assault committed by two police officers. Nine officers showed up en masse at the hospital she was in to convince her not to do a rape kit. Predatory police officers are commonly simply shuffled from one department to another when suspected of sex crimes.

In Alaska, the police are allowed to engage in sex acts before arresting a sex worker. This system of rape-as-entrapment results in only the provider being arrested. In Oakland, police officers had sex with an underage sex working teen in exchange for information about future busts. Only three of the men involved were convicted and the victim was sent away by the department to an out of state rehab facility in an attempt to shut her up. NYPD officer Raul Olmeda was paid to investigate sex trafficking. Instead, he paid an underage girl for sex and filmed their numerous encounters. It took seven months after police seized his computer for charges to be filed against him. A Phillipsburg police officer demanded free sex from two Backpage providers, threatening arrest. The officer, Justin Sanderson, had a history of sexual harassment at other law enforcement jobs and yet he was still able to gain employment in Phillipsburg. When sex workers get in trouble, we are not as immune to consequences as Sanderson was—when we are arrested, our records are tainted and we are not able to skip from job to job. This is one of many reasons why the threat of arrest has historically been very effective for rapist cops to wield against sex workers. Ex-Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw assaulted 13 Black women and young girls, many of them drug-using sex workers and almost all possessing records. It was only because the thirteenth Black woman he assaulted had a clean record and friends within the police department that the other twelve women’s reports became credible. It’s rare that officers are held accountable for being sexual predators the way Holtzclaw was. The majority of police departments do not have a training program for on-duty police officers to teach them to avoid sexual misconduct toward citizens, let alone ones training them to behave themselves appropriately specifically towards sex workers.

Confronting this police abuse is next to impossible for sex workers. Some of us have been arrested after police engaged in sexual activities with us. Some of us have been raped by cops who threatened us with arrest if we spoke out. Some of us have been assaulted and bullied by men posing as police officers. Police harassment can literally ruin our lives. Early last November, a migrant Brooklyn sex worker died jumping out of a window in order to avoid being re-arrested and deported during a brothel raid, after local cops carried out a campaign of terror to pressure her into becoming a confidential informant. The police are major perpetrators of violence against sex workers, whether as abusive individuals or as an oppressive system of state violence, and most of us are not in a position to speak out against them.

Judges also hold prejudices against sex workers. In Philadelphia, Judge Teresa Carr-Deni reduced a gang rape charge to “theft of services”, leaving the sex worker victim without justice. Several states make sex workers ineligible to receive rape victim compensation funds due to the criminalization of our work. In Indiana, for example, “a victim who was injured while committing, attempting to commit, participating in or attempting to participate in a criminal act” is ineligible for victims’ compensation.

When the entire apparatus of law enforcement and criminalization contributes to sexual violence against sex workers, it’s difficult to understand how an individualized, neoliberal movement like #metoo has become can help. Standing up against specific abusers, however powerful they are, cannot do much when an even more powerful system continues to create the conditions of our abuse. While the Time piece does devote a few paragraphs to police sexual abuse of sex workers—most notably, referencing the results of a 2016 Department of Justice report on the Baltimore police which found that the department ignored sexual assault reports made by sex workers and many officers raped sex workers after threatening incarceration—what it and other mainstream media reports on the topic miss is that criminalization and state violence are responsible for the particularly vicious rape culture we sex workers live with. When will it be #timesup for rapist cops—or for a criminal justice system which legitimizes that rape as an investigation technique and would rather jail us and reward our abusers?

Activist Spotlight: BARE on the Mass Closure of Strip Clubs in New Orleans

via BARE’s Instagram

An unholy mix of gentrification and trafficking hysteria created the perfect political climate to allow law enforcement to shutter several New Orleans strip clubs, leaving scores of dancers unemployed. The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers rapidly sprung into action; they disrupted the mayor’s press conference and organized the Unemployment March the following night, which drew national attention. I talked to them about the situation in NOLA, their strategy, and their future plans.

So, to start, what is BARE? How long has BARE existed and what kind of activism does BARE do?

Lindsey: BARE is the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers. We are an organization run by strippers, for strippers. I started coming to meetings a few months ago, but some of our members have been at this since the Trick or Treat raids of 2015. What we do first and foremost is provide a voice that’s been previously underexposed during the city’s assault on strip clubs: the voice of actual strippers. We’re attempting to work with city officials to influence policies and decisions that affect us. Outside of that, we really just want to foster community among dancers and show the people who don’t understand us that we are valuable members of the New Orleans community. During our first ever charity tip drive, participating dancers donated all of their tips from a Friday night’s work to a women’s shelter. Strippers literally paid that shelter’s rent for six months!

Lyn Archer: I arrived in New Orleans after being laid off from two seasonal jobs in a row, one in secretarial work and one in hospitality. I was on unemployment and got a job cocktail-waitressing at a Larry Flynt drag club. One night, a few weeks before Christmas, the club closed without notice and let everyone go. That’s when I saw how quickly fortunes could reverse on Bourbon Street and how little protection there is for workers. My first week on Bourbon, I was the likely the only stripper that didn’t realize that Operation Trick or Treat had just happened. I entered a work environment where strippers were scared, mgmt was over-vigilant, and customers were scarce. Everyone seemed confused about “the rules.” I later learned that’s because what’s written into the city code about “lewd and lascivious conduct” is different than state law and different than federal law. But these supposed “anti-trafficking” efforts are a collaboration of badges. Undercover agents from many offices move through the clubs. I began researching and writing on this for my column in Antigravity, called “Light Work.” I began to see how a feedback loop between press, law enforcement, self-styled “anti-trafficking” groups and civic policymakers can cause so much destruction for people they haven’t even considered. The club I started at was the first to close. The club was inside a building that was the house Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in. The house I live in was the home of a Confederate general. We are working against, while inside-of, unfolding histories that are deeply, deeply violent. The more I learn about the history of sex worker resistance in New Orleans, the more I know this fight is lifetimes old and will replicate itself if we do not end it entirely.

Fabrication Used To Scam Sex Worker Community Funds

5/22: THIS WAS A FABRICATION. WE ARE DEEPLY SORRY, ESPECIALLY TO OUR READERS WHO ARE SEX WORKING WOMEN OF COLOR, AND TO THE WOMAN WHOSE PHOTOGRAPH WAS USED FRAUDULENTLY. SEX WORKER COLLECTIVE FUND LYSISTRATA HAS STATED IT WILL RETURN ANY DONATIONS GIVEN TO THEM FOR THIS. LILY FURY IS A FORMER CONTRIBUTOR, AS WERE HER INVENTED PERSONAS OF COLOR, “HARMONY” AND “BAMBI”, AND WE APOLOGIZE FOR GIVING HER A PLATFORM TO FURTHER HER FRAUD AND RACIST POLITICAL POSTURING. WE CONDEMN HER ABSOLUTELY.

On the night of May 15th, immigrant sex worker activist and Tits and Sass contributor Bambi and longtime Tits and Sass contributor and sex worker activist Lily Fury were raped and then arrested by an NYPD undercover cop posing as a client. He called himself “Thomas Carvan” and referred to a provider by the name of “Lucy Luxe” to vouch for him as a reference. Fury was held for five days until she was released on her own recognizance on the 19th. Bambi was held in Rikers without bail for 8 days, until this evening. Tits and Sass will continue to report on this story throughout the week. In the meantime, if you’d like to donate to Bambi’s legal defense, you can donate via her friend Harmony Ortiz through her Facebook profile, as well.

Diversion Programs Are For Cops

(Photo by Flickr user Javier Morales)

There is significant debate within our sex worker community about whether LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) programming, a pre-booking diversion program for low-level drug and sex work related offenses, is a good or bad thing. The first LEAD program launched in Seattle, Washington in 2011, with private funding from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Vital Projects Fund, and several others. This pilot program has been championed by law enforcement and drug reform advocates alike and has since launched in several other cities, with slight regional variations—just this Monday, the Baltimore Sun ran a story about the launch of a three-year pilot LEAD program in that city which Police Commissioner Kevin Davis framed as a response to Baltimore’s proposed police reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. A recent evaluation of LEAD programs, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, yields seemingly impressive outcomes for the communities they allegedly serve. Indeed, LEAD programming even names “sex workers” and “drug users” as their “consumers”—a rather misleading label for those in state custody, implying agency where there is none. In truth, LEAD programming does not serve sex workers or drug users, or those profiled as such. Rather, LEAD can be understood as a diversionary program for law enforcement officers and should be analyzed under this lens.

Diversionary programs like LEAD represent the co-optation of harm reduction lingo in the service of criminalization masquerading as social services. While we may rejoice at terms like “sex worker” and “people who use drugs” being used by institutions who typically use other, nastier language to describe these populations, the population they are actually talking about is people living in poverty. Programs like LEAD, which claim to provide case management, public housing, and job training, don’t target drug users and sex workers, as most people who do drugs or trade sex have those needs met. Many, if not most, sex workers and drug users have the social and economic capital to get high or make money in private homes, apartments, or rented rooms in areas that are not under constant police surveillance.

So why do poor people, many of whom lack economic capital because of deliberate, targeted U.S. policies, need a diversionary program? They don’t. Cops do.

Many sex workers I have talked with about LEAD think it is a good way to get desperately needed housing or medication or other necessities, things which traditionally fall under the category of “fundamental human rights.” But we must consider what is gained and what is lost when private funders like Open Society Foundation and other progressive grant-makers support programs in which individuals achieve access to fundamental human rights as a consequence of crimes they may or may not have committed.

LEAD reinforces the logic that people who are trading sex or using drugs need intervention from law enforcement, even if that intervention is a “softer” redirect towards social services. Do we? Increasingly, the answer, as supported by research, is a resounding no.

As prohibitive policies against drug use and sex work are repealed and replaced, law enforcement workers are looking for ways to stay relevant in the lives of those they have hunted, abused, and marginalized for the past few decades. The LEAD National Support Bureau, made up largely of law enforcement, publicly acknowledges an “urgent crisis of mass criminalization and incarceration,” and yet advocates for, well, more police. The logic of LEAD is not much different from that of “community policing,” which made strategies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” household names, and redirected billions of tax payer dollars to the justice department and away from education, infrastructure, and health care. Advocates of these policies fail to realize that the issues they want to address, like drug use, are hardly a matter of police and community relationships. Rather, the root of these issues lies in the systematic disenfranchisement of targeted communities.

We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)
An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.