Here’s the story: A well-to-do Virginian businessman takes needy women under his financial wing on the condition that they follow the rules of his “scholarship plan.” If they break these rules, which consist of limits on alcohol and drug intake, and requirements to stay in contact with their benefactor, they receive a spanking. (He’s inspired by “The Spencer Plan,” a system of domestic “discipline” intended to be used by a husband and wife.) All of the women involved are of legal age. Many of them work together at the restaurant he owns.
One day, the man accuses one of these women of stealing from him and fires her (as an employee and, presumably, as a “scholarship” recipient.) A week later, six of these women file charges of sexual assault. A scandal is born.
In just a few weeks’ time, an astonishing pattern of misconduct has been uncovered in the Oakland Police Department that might shock even our readers. At the center of the scandal is a teenage sex worker who goes by Celeste Guap. She alleges that at least three Oakland PD officers sexually exploited her when she was underage. She also alleges that she traded sex for information with some of these police officers, traded sex for protection with others, and “dated” yet another officer, both before and after her eighteenth birthday. Even officers from surrounding municipalities were involved with Guap. In an interview with local reporters, Guap indicated that she felt the officers took advantage of her but she didn’t have any anger towards them. Guap did what she had to do to survive, but either way, going by the federal definition, Guap is a human trafficking victim and the officers are her traffickers.
Sex workers have long maintained that the police are the biggest hindrance to their work, and quite often, the biggest threat to their safety. For every sex worker “rescued” by LE, another one is arrested by LE, or trapped in an LE-sponsored diversion program, or coerced by LE, or literally pimped out by LE. While what happened at the Oakland PD might be an extreme example, it’s certainly isn’t rare. Here are a few other police department scandals that involved sex workers this year:
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?
UPDATED FROM 2016: Four years later, Tits and Sass and the sex worker community reiterate our alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement and all communities of color protesting the police nationally. We have updated the list of fundraisers below through which you can demonstrate support.
Twitter user @Chateau_Cat has compiled an ever-growing list of bail funds. Click here to access it.
There’s also a city-by-city guide in Paper Magazine on how to support people protesting against the police where you are.
Update on 6/1/2020: Finally, Reclaim the Block has created this list of grassroots Minneapolis organizations who haven’t gotten as many donations as some, but who are keeping their communities afloat and need help.
Update on 6/2/2020, International Whores Day and Blackout Tuesday: This is a comprehensive National Bail Fund Network approved list of bail funds for protesters across the country.
Fundraisers for Black sex workers as well as other sex workers of color affected by police violence and incarceration
SWOP Behind Bars offers a variety of ways to donate to incarcerated sex workers, with Amazon wishlists, jail libraries, and scholarship funds being among the many options, as well as a direct donation towards their work.
Update on 6/2:Finally, this is a spreadsheet Twitter user @daemonderriere created out of Caty Simon’s original thread listing sex worker mutual aid funds for COVID-19 relief monies—many of the sex workers these funds serve are criminalized Black sex workers and sex workers of color.
Memorial fundraisers for Black people killed by the police
A fundraiser to cover grief counseling and funeral and burial expenses for Tony Mcdade’s family, designated to his mother. This one was just created an hour or two ago and could particularly use some help.
Update on 6/6/2020: This is a fundraiser for Breonna Taylor’s family. Yesterday would have been her 27th birthday. #SayHerName
Survived & Punished is a national coalition dedicated to supporting people—most often women of color—who have been incarcerated for surviving domestic or sexual violence. You can donate to them here.
Please add any additional fundraisers in the comments and share this list far and wide.
The search for the supposed Long Island Serial Killer began in December 2010, when the bodies of four women who had worked as prostitutes were found in the course of the search for a fifth who had disappeared that May. No suspect has been found to date. I spoke with New York contributing editor Robert Kolker via chat to talk about his first book, Lost Girls, which is a study of the five women who disappeared there and their surviving friends and family. Chat edited from its raw form.
Bubbles: Did your personal attitude about prostitution/prostitutes change a lot over the course of reporting this book?
Kolker: When I first reported on the serial-killer case, I was coming into the subject with no real knowledge of sex workers or sex work. In hindsight, I had a lot of preconceived notions. My first impulse, as a reporter, was to join the crowd and try to report on the whodunit aspect of the case. I didn’t occur to me to learn much about the victims at first because I assumed, naively, that they had no stories at all—that they were “dead” long before they were really killed. (I actually thought of Season 2 of The Wire, in which the bodies of trafficked girls are found in a shipping container. I thought these women were like that—people who were social outcasts who might never be identified.)
Then I quickly learned they all had families, of course, and loved ones and friends. And as I got to know the families I realized that sex work, in part because of the Internet, attracts a very different sort of person from the stereotype. I wanted Lost Girls to be about that change—about the lives of these women—as much as I wanted it to be about the case itself.
About that change in their lives?
About the change in the world of escorts. How the shift from outdoor to indoor sex work has allowed a wider variety of people to find the work appealing.
The ease of entry.
Now, I’ve talked with plenty of escorts who say that the Internet has actually made their work safer—that they can do background checks on clients and so forth—and so I didn’t want this book to beat up on the Internet itself. But I do think the field has changed and the professional challenges have changed, even as the risks remain in place.