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.
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.
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.”
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 child sexual abuse.
Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”
To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.
Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.
After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.
Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.