In the face of increasing media interest and consistent pressure from sex worker activists, A&E has deleted the website for 8 Minutes from its site and pulled the next episode, which was scheduled to air this Thursday night. Tits and Sass left a message with the show’s publicist (and even spelled out the name of this blog), so if they choose to reply we will update this post. (Edit: the website has re-appeared sans video.)
On Sunday, reporter and sex worker activist Alana Massey spoke to On The Media about the A&E docudrama in which cop-turned-pastor Kevin Brown tries to convince sex workers to leave the business by offering them help getting out. The show is pure artifice. Supposedly, Brown poses as a client, calls workers to make an appointment, and then once they are in the room (outfitted with hidden cameras, Brown wearing a clumsy earpiece to communicate with his “team”), he has 8 minutes to make his case. In reality, the show was scripted, and producers identified themselves to workers to explain the setup and offer them compensation at filming. The premise was as much a sham as the offer of help, which took the form of phone numbers for counseling centers and hotlines rather than housing and job assistance.
Before the show’s premiere, Massey wrote about the show for the New Republic. “Any attempt to coerce them out of sex work in the absence of viable work alternatives is an invitation to starve.” In her On The Media appearance, she said that everything that sex workers had been saying about the show had proved true: Not only did it further an unhelpful and sensational narrative that all sex workers were victims, it failed to actually come through with meaningful help for those who wanted to leave the business and possibly put them at higher risk of arrest.
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.
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.
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?
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 reformagreement 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.
Tuesday morning, Homeland Security and Brooklyn police raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting its CEO and several current and former workers, seizing six bank accounts, and freezing the website in what the U.S. Department of Justice’s press release bragged was a raid on the “largest online male escort service.”
Coming right on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial and much talked about decriminalization policy, the raid was a shock to many in the sex work world. Law enforcement agencies appear to be turning their eyes on sex work advertising services in North America, from the crackdowns on Backpage and Redbook, to Canada’s new anti-sex work law—the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act—which includes provisions banning the advertisement of sexual services.
According to the release, it took a crack team of detectives and the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Field Office to work out that despite Rentboy.com’s claim that the site only facilitated companionship, it was actually advertising sex. “As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” said New York Police Commissioner Wiliam Bratton in the press release.
Reading the press release, I was immediately struck by its use of rhetoric. Unlike official statements around the crackdowns on Backpage and similar services that are known primarily for advertising cis women sex workers, no mention is made of Rentboy aiding the nefarious work of sex traffickers. As well, unlike in most sex work raids, no mention is made of anti-trafficking organizations reaching out to supposed “victims.” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.
Natalia tweeted this photo during a raid that happened at the Dolphin II in Beaverton, OR last month. It wasn’t a drug raid but a tax one, as it turns out, the consequence of an undercover investigation. Portland’s Willamette Week published this story about a federal investigation into tax misbehavior by the owners of Portland’s Dolphin and Cabaret strip club chains. Why would either of these owners fail to heed the lessons of the downfall of Vegas’s Crazy Horse Too thanks to tax evasion and Seattle’s shuttered Colacurcio clubs and PAY HIS FUCKING TAXES?