Tobi Hill-Meyer

Crackdowns on Sex Work Make Things Worse

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | December 17, 2008 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Day to End Violence, police violence, sex work

Note: In honor of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I thought I'd share something I wrote for my local weekly paper. Unfortunately, our local police department decided to honor this day with a crackdown on internet based sex work. While addressing issues specific to Eugene, OR, you'll find the sentiment applicable on a much broader level. Craig's List, which has been a useful tool for those engaging in sex work, is now requiring a credit card in order to post in their erotic services section, specifically with the intent of turning that information over to police when subpoenaed. That means that sex workers everywhere who had been relying on Craig's List are seeking other options, not just those in Eugene. And I'm sure Eugene isn't the only city that is using this time, when sex workers are still using Craig's List, as a time to crack down.

The Eugene Police Department announced last week that they were cracking down on prostitution that is arranged online. Of course we are told that it's not about punishing people who find few enough other opportunities to survive that prostitution is the best available option. It's really about the drug use, unreported assaults, unreported robberies, and pimps. Yet a crackdown like this is only going to make those problems worse.

Sex workers are less likely to report assaults, rapes, and thefts when they fear arrest. Many of the other public concerns around sex work, such as violence, drugs, and other crimes, are in fact a result of the criminalization of sex work. A police crackdown will only push people further underground, where recourse against exploitation is harder to access.

We've seen the result of an environment of police antagonism of sex workers. In 2003, Gary Ridgeway confessed to strangling ninety women to death, stating, "I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." For years there were people who knew he was responsible for the killings, but because of their own involvement in or relationship to sex work, they either did not come forward or were not believed. As can often happen when police crackdown on sex workers, many were as afraid of the police as they were afraid of Ridgeway.

Online listings of erotic services had become a relatively safer option for those engaged in sex work. The internet has helped individuals effectively compete with pimps and agencies, and have more options to work for themselves rather than a potentially exploitative "manager." For those with access to a computer, this alternative avoids some of the risks and dangers associated with street based sex work.

It's not clear how EPD expects their crackdown to improve anything. Eugene police Detective Rick Lowe said "People involved in this sort of thing should be real cautious... We want to let them know that if they aren't careful, they could find a police officer answering their ad, or ordering up a police officer for themselves," The increased threat of arrest won't get too many people to leave the business - especially if they don't have any other options - but it will make them become more cautious and less likely to trust police.

Sting operations on Craig's List and other online listings will make such places less viable options for independent sex workers. The police wish to protect sex workers from those who would exploit them. Yet the more police position themselves as a threat to sex workers, the more they will decide to turn to various managers that can offer them protection from the police.

Fear of police is not just about arrest. Sex workers are often targets of violence because the shaming and stigma associated with sex work makes violence less likely to be reported. The unfortunate reality is that the people who take advantage of that include people who are police officers. According to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, "A 2002 study found... 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist." Police hold a lot of power over people, especially those involved in a criminalized line of work. In Eugene, we know that well. That was essentially the issue with Officers Lara and MagaƱa. [For reader's unfamiliar with recent Eugene history: these were local cops who were convicted of several dozen counts in 2004, including several rapes of women who they threatened with arrest. Many but not all of those women were sex workers. It was a very publicized case.]

Every year on December 17th, gatherings are held around the world to participate in the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This year the Sex Worker Outreach Project is organizing a march on Washington D.C. to demand rights for all sex workers.

Some cities are considering decriminalization acts that would bar police from investigating or arresting people solely based on engaging in sex work with. The intent is to create an environment where sex workers can report crimes without fear. It may take some time before such policies are enacted. In the meantime, however, perhaps we can get a law enforcement strategy that prioritizes the welfare of those involved in sex work, rather than one which creates an environment of fear and mistrust of police.

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While I can certainly agree that there are better uses of law enforcement resources than busting hookers who work discreetly out of their home, I think your premise of "they only do drugs and commit thefts because it is illegal" is naive at best.

Legalizing prostitution doesn't solve the problems for sex workers. Amsterdam did, and what happened? In comes the Mafia, the money launderers, and the drug lords. What's the solution to that, legalizing money laundering also?

While an atmosphere where sex workers can freely report crime is to be encouraged, we need to also emphasize the welfare of those who are victims of the crimes perpetrated by sex offenders. Just ask Bil-whose neighborhood is crawling with prostitutes, and the drug dealers and theifs that come with them.

This is true. Although I must admit, the hooker problem has diminished over the summer while home invasions and murders increased dramatically. Sadly, I think the hookers have even abandoned my neighborhood for safer climates.

I don't think that legalization is the answer, at the very least not by itself. But criminalization, and especially crackdowns, certainly make problems worse.

It would be idiotic to try to stop sweatshop labor by making the textile industry illegal. Yet that's the approach people have to solving the poor working conditions in the sex industry. The only real way to improve working conditions in any industry is through organized labor. And that, of course, is difficult when admitting your line of work can end you up in jail.

Thefts, assaults, and other crimes don't happen because sex work is illegal, but they can happen because the perpetrator doesn't believe the victim would be unwilling to go to police. Drugs, are a whole different problem, and aren't often solved without looking at some deeper underlying issues.

If your worried about neighborhoods being overrun with prostitutes, then why not let them work out of their own homes? And if your worried about drug lords, thieves, etc, then arrest those people, or better yet, find solutions to poverty so that people have more options.


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think are many points on which we can agree, and some on which we will never agree. I recently dealt with a brothel based out of a home that brought untold crime issues to a neighborhood where it previously had not existed, so allowing prostitutes to work out of home is not always a perfect solution. Then again, there are plenty of homes where prostitution occurs for years with no issues.

The city I live has a pretty comprehensive program to allow prostitution arrests to be expunged if the person completes a program. This assumes that susbtance abuse or some other root cause is the reason behind the prostitution, and not an actual desire to be a prostitute (and I think that we can agree that if someone freely chooses to be a prostitute, they don't usually go the streetwalker route.) I have also noticed that crimes of sexual assualt and such committed on sex workers are treated seriously, though it is an uphill climb to get any sort of successful resolution.

And while we can say we should be arresting drug dealers and pimps, they don't exist in a vacuum. Often, it is the initial presence of the prostitutes that brings them, since prostitutes are oftentimes a drug dealer's most reliable customer. (Ironically enough, they are also a police officer's most reliable source for information on the street as well, which is why the police often look the other way at their activities.)

I think that there is a middle ground here, and in the best conditions, there will be problems. With all due respect to the poster who mentions Gavelston, I think the years have provided a somewhat idealistic tint to the times.

Anyway, thank you for your post, and your thoughtful reply.

sable_twilight | February 5, 2009 2:13 PM

I would question the sentiment that the brothel brought crime to the neighborhood. Correlation does not equal causality. One has to look at other dynamics that were operating in the neighborhood. Why did the brothel move to that neighborhood? It is very possible that those reasons attracted a greater criminal element as well. If the brothel moved there because of low rent and police presence, nearness to bar and liquor stores, and other elements that classically go hand in hand with both poverty and vice trades, those same things tend to be precursors higher criminal activity anyway.

Thefts, assaults, and other crimes don't happen because sex work is illegal, but they can happen because the perpetrator doesn't believe the victim would be unwilling to go to police. Drugs, are a whole different problem, and aren't often solved without looking at some deeper underlying issues.

If your worried about neighborhoods being overrun with prostitutes, then why not let them work out of their own homes? And if your worried about drug lords, thieves, etc, then arrest those people, or better yet, find solutions to poverty so that people have more options.

I'm sympathetic, Tobi. Don't think that I'm not. (See some of my earlier posts about the neighborhood.) But there is a major issue with prostitutes working the neighborhood. 85% are high. Drug deals are becoming common and so are residential crimes - usually theft committed by the prostitute, her pimp, or her john. Almost everyone on the block has had their garage broken into this year. Why? They're in the alley - where the hookers ply their wares. And buy drugs. And leave condoms and needles and trash.

I'm just over it. I don't mind if someone wants to sell themselves sexually (note: wants as versus "has to" or "forced to"), but not around my damned garage.

What you're describing is most certainly a problem, I'm not contending that at all. But quite often circumstances like that can be a result of cracking down on alternative venues for sex work. Don't you think they'd prefer a better space than your garage or alleyway?

Addressing both your and Chuck's concerns, is it really that crime follows prostitutes, or is it that prostitutes follow crime? Probably a cycle in some ways, but the real issue is that people persecuted by the police go to the neighborhoods that the police don't spend as much time in. If you're chased off the internet and other venues from police stings, then you go to where the police don't patrol. The place where there is a lot of crime. Certainly other outlaws have the same thinking, so once a neighborhood gets a reputation for crime, people seeking to avoid the police go there. The same thing can be said about the sex work and drug connection. Are sex workers more likely to do drugs, or are drug addicts more likely to do sex work? I'd argue the latter.

My point, though, is that none of that has to do with the selling of sex -- it has to do with the criminalization of selling sex. And the problems you complain about don't have anything to do with the selling of sex except that they congregate in similar places and overlap there.

I remember asking a police officer why sodomy was illegal (back when it was). The answer was that they never investigated or arrested that crime alone, but that if there was a case of rape where they couldn't firmly prove the lack of consent, they could still charge the perp with the criminal charge of consensual sodomy. As much as I know how hard it is to prosecute rapists, that struck me as quite an unfair loophole. Not to mention that it's a loophole that disproportionately lets folks go if they are engaged in opposite sex rape.

I'm struck with the same thought here. If drug use is the problem, if breaking and entering is the problem, if littering is the problem, then crack down on that. Arresting them for selling sex, and arresting others who sell sex but don't use drugs, steal, or litter, seems more like taking advantage of a stigmatized population and doesn't address any of the reasons for why those problems exist in the first place.

It doesn't sound like prostitution is what you have a problem with; it sounds like it's drugs and crime. Sex workers aren't the only people who abuse drugs or commit crimes. I highly doubt that cracking down on prostitution in your neighbourhood will really help get rid of these said yourself that home invasions and murders have increased despite the fact that there's less prostitution going on in your neighbourhood since the summer. Maybe instead of cracking down on prostitution, you should encourage your police department to crack down directly on drug dealing and crime...I think that would be a lot more effective in cleaning up your neigbourhood than adopting a NIMBY attitute towards prostitution.

I think you're misreading. I don't see anywhere Tobi says that sex workers use drugs and commit theft because it (prostitution?) is illegal. I think what you're picking up on is that there are a lot of ways that criminalization exacerbates many problems, including drug use and theft.

Regarding drug use - people use drugs for a lot of different reasons, but some contributing factors to drug use in general are stress and trauma. Having to do something which is both stigmatized and illegal in order to survive is likely to cause stress. Being an easy target for violence (because you're stigmatized and your job is illegal, for two), increases your risk for experiencing trauma. Ensuring that people are living with constant terror of arrest is not an effective way to reduce either of these contributing factors.

As for theft - criminalizing sex work makes it unlikely that theft will be reported. Regardless of whether the sex worker is stealing from the client or the client from the sex worker, neither is going to go to the police and explain the situation - both were breaking the law at the time.

I have also heard that Amsterdam has a lot of problems. However, it seems a bit dense to assume that means sex workers need to be arrested. The logic I've heard over and over, and what I think you're saying here, seems to be that sex workers are in exploitative working conditions, and therefore sex work is bad, and therefore sex work should be illegal, and therefore sex workers are criminals and should be in jail. Or, straight from start to finish, sex workers are being exploited and therefore should be put in jail. I do not see any way that being exploited is an arrestable offense.

I'm not exactly sure how to respond to your last paragraph. How is sex workers being able to report crime in opposition to welfare of survivors of sex crimes? And how is it that if a neighborhood has problems with theft and drug dealing that it is because sex workers brought them there? You're pointing out that prostitution, drug dealing and theft are likely to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods. OK. One of the big problems with a society that puts more effort into incarcerating people than into education, family welfare, and other things that help people live and be healthy is that a lot of people end up in illegal industries for survival reasons. So in a neighborhood that's struggling economically, some people might be breaking laws with no harm to anyone, and some people might be breaking laws in a way that does cause some harm but which the criminal justice system is basically incapable of handling effectively, and of course, as in any neighborhood, some people are breaking the law in a way that definitely causes harm and perhaps police could be helpful. Police harrassment and brutality, along with disproportionate incarceration, hurts communities and makes it very hard for people to work with police when they could be of use. Sorry that turned into such a tangent - my initial point was that it's ridiculous to look at a variety of illegal and/or harmful activities going on in a neighborhood and blame all of them on sex workers.

Just ask Bil-whose neighborhood is crawling with prostitutes, and the drug dealers and theifs that come with them.

"crawling with prostitutes"? Prostitutes aren't rats or bugs who need to be exterminated - they're human beings.

Not to be flip, Alex, but you haven't spent enough time at my house. While I doubt this was how the comment was originally meant, yes, literally, the hookers crawl. They're high and looking for the rock they dropped - or that they think they've dropped. They'll crawl on the sidewalk looking for non-existent drugs until a cop comes along or someone fetches them. I've seen it at least a dozen times this year.

Dear Bil,

I appreciate that you are sympathetic, as you said above, but it's a little hard to believe that when you're also talking about sex workers in derogatory ways. I understand that you're upset about people getting high around your house, and I don't know enough about your neighborhood to want to argue with you about how much overlap there is between sex workers, drug users, and people who steal. But you're speaking in a context where sex workers are commonly stereotyped as thieves and drug users who can't get it together, which is not the case for many if not most. You're also using the word "hooker" a lot. It's not necessarily a bad word, but it's not really for most non-hookers to use - kind of like how "fag" is not really a word for most straight people to use. Of course there are exceptions, like for people who are actually allies, but the your usage here is more like to a straight person saying "all those fucking queers are ruining this town." (In fact, that's quite an apt parallel, since there's plenty of association with illegal and unhealthy activities in queer history, what with laws against queer sexuality making queer people into criminals who had to hide from law enforcement. When a huge chunk of your life is illegal already, it can be hard to avoid ever being around other illegal activities.) The point is, though, that it's not really sympathetic to stereotype people and call them derogatory terms.

Rick Elliott | December 18, 2008 2:16 AM

While illegal prostitution was quite open in Galveston, TX until 1957. The workers had to be thoroughly examined by a doctor once a week with blood work and everything. At the same time illegal gambling was quite open also. Both were supervised by one Italian family. There was very little crime and almost no crime against the many tourists who flocked to the island city on the Gulf of Mexico. it was well-known the Italian family meted out swift justice. The sexually transmitted disease levels were the lowest in the state.
After the "reform" movement drove out prostitution and gambling, the violent crime stats sky-rocketed and the number of STD sufferers doubled within a few short years. In addition the economy of the city has plummeted. Now the city has the highest per capita number of government housing in the state. There are only two industries left for the cit of just under 60,000: a medical school hospital and tourism. Unemployment levels are among the highest in the state. Because of the damage from Hurricane Ike, the medical school hospital will be downsizing 3800 jobs and the future of the medical school staying in Galveston is being seriously discussed. The state has a state Medical School less than 60 miles up the road in Houston.
But I digress. The Italian mafia family have been more successful for the city and STD's were at an all-time low. I wonder--Hm-m-m

behindTheCurtain | December 18, 2008 6:25 PM

Violence against sex workers is horrible. And it happens. In major cities and small ones, sex workers are abused, mistreated, and a healthy fraction of them are underaged, and part of human trafficking networks that are in actuality, human slavery.

It's not a question of legality; it's the oldest profession. What can be stopped is the exploitation, and the abuse taken by sex workers, no matter the sex worker's motivation for being in the business in the first place. No one deserves beatings, exploitation, and slavery. No one deserves sub-standard wages, exposure to disease, and horrible working conditions. No one.

Do we treat various underlying mental illness, disease, dysfunction, addiction, and self-abuse? Yes. Is there such thing as a healthy sex worker-- yes. We in puritan America look down on prostitution terribly. Yet you can look in local publications, Craigslist, and dozens of other resources to find many that are willing. No, it's not the sort of thing you get a university degree for. Instead, it's one human servicing the intimate needs of another.

You have to separate these attitudes to get to the core of the problems. Then you address the problems. Being a sex worker is not a problem. Being abused and exploited, is.