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:
This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.
Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.
When it takes a police force six months of “sting”-level efforts to arrest 36 people for prostitution or solicitation (no trafficking charges, no minors involved, no coercion, and only one drug charge) either that police force is terrible or prostitution is rare in their area. Quite possibly, in Syracuse, both are true.
Last week, I came across a bizarre article detailing the findings—I can’t think of any other word for it—of Syracuse police after they spent almost $4,000 renting an apartment to try to catch potential prostitutes and johns. (Keep in mind that figure doesn’t include the taxpayer money suppling the salaries of the police who spent half a year on this misdemeanor-yielding project.) It’s unclear at the moment how many of their arrests will result in convictions, but at least there’s one tangible outcome from all that time and energy: a 238 page report sharing juicy details of how prostitutes and clients interact “behind close[sic] doors.” Ooo, this is going to be good!
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.
As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!
The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.
The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.
“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.
(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.
The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.
It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.
It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.