Sun, Dec 02, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Abused, then arrested: inside California’s war on sex work

As the sex industry is targeted across the US, advocates said that new ‘anti-trafficking’ operations in California are imprisoning vulnerable women

By Sam Levin  /  The Guardian, SACRAMENTO, California

Illustration: Louise Ting

Willia will never forget the feeling of police officers’ hands on her body.

The 37-year-old Sacramento resident said she could not escape memories of police officers following her down the street or questioning her choice of clothing, scolding her for being outside, threatening her, grabbing her, forcing her into their car and searching her.

Willia is a survivor of abuse and sexual exploitation, but because she has also been a sex worker, she said police have only ever treated her as a criminal.

In California’s capital, law enforcement agencies have ramped up their focus on women like Willia over the past few months, sex workers and advocates told reporters.

Under the guise of “anti-trafficking” efforts, police practices in northern California and a new US federal law have broadly affected adult sex workers, both online and in the streets.

Advocates said that the result is a risk of increased violence and suffering for the very women whom lawmakers say they are rescuing.

There have been two sting operations against “human trafficking” in Sacramento this year, most recently in August, in which female officers pose as prostitutes.

Prosecutors hailed the stings as targeting predatory men and 16 men were arrested for soliciting.

However, the stings are not catching traffickers and critics said that they have only put workers in the industry at greater risk.

In the same time frame as the stings, police also arrested 25 women for “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” or “disorderly conduct” for prostitution.

Spokespeople for the police and prosecutor insisted that the women’s arrests were separate from the stings, even though some happened on the same day and location.

A majority of the arrested women were black and Hispanic. Many had “general delivery” listed as their address, which often means that they are homeless, the Sacramento News and Review noted.

Four of the women were only 18 or 19 years old.

Proponents of the stings said that they were geared to “ending demand,” meaning stopping men who might buy sex from a trafficking victim.

However, Alix Lutnick, a researcher at RTI International and expert on trafficking, said that there is growing recognition that “john stings” do not actually help sex workers — and can instead lead to their arrest.

“What we hear from people who are selling sex is that these type of ‘end demand’ initiatives end up resulting in more harms for the very people we are purportedly trying to protect,” Lutnick said.

The crackdown, in a state which presents itself as a progressive leader in social justice and women’s rights, has come at a time when sex work is being aggressively criminalized across the US.

“Who are you serving and who are you protecting?” said Willia, who asked to use only her first name, recalling her arrests for prostitution and experiences with the police. “It’s like I was in the slavery days, like I had no say about anything. I literally had no rights.”

Sex workers are often most vulnerable to abuse, mistreatment and arrest when they try to pick up clients in the streets. Over the past few years, coordinated campaigns against online platforms for the sex industry have made this the only viable option for some women.

In California, a pivotal moment came in the summer of 2014, when the FBI suddenly took control of MyRedBook.com, a popular Web site where sex workers had posted escort ads and other services. The operators of the Web site were accused of money laundering and charged with using the Internet to facilitate prostitution.

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