Sex Workers vs. Cops

A new essay collection shows sex workers are refusing to be either criminal or victim.

By Emily Janakiram

Art By Kyle Richardson

Recently, the city and state of New York announced a significant change in their approach to policing prostitution. Rather than prosecuting sex workers, the state would only prosecute pimps, traffickers, and clients, an approach often referred to as the Nordic Model. This move, which comes on the heels of nationwide uprisings against policing as well as the economic devastation of a global pandemic, is meant to signal a more enlightened and humane approach to policing vulnerable people. 

In fact, this approach does nothing to end dangerous conditions for sex workers. An investigation by ProPublica found that the New York Police Department’s policing of johns and pimps still involves surveillance, brutality, and persecution of the city’s poorest Black and brown communities – conditions which only put sex workers at greater risk. The NYPD has neglected most buyers of sex, who skew white and wealthy. These tactics are in direct opposition to what many sex workers have demanded for decades: decriminalization of sex work and social supports that would allow them to make a wider range of choices. 

We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, edited by Natalie West and Tina Horn, chronicles these demands, making an unapologetic argument for “rights, not rescue.” The book’s 32 chapters, largely written in the first person by former sex workers or service providers, explore issues including sexual assault, race, queerness, policing, pleasure, survival, and resistance. The book comes at a time when attitudes toward sex work may be changing. Some of the authors are involved in groups like Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) and Support Ho(s)e Collective which are increasingly prominent in arguing for decriminalization.

Taken together, the chapters illustrate how carceral models perpetuate the dangers that would-be rescuers claim are inherent to sex work. Workers face violence not only at the hands of their clients or pimps, but also at the hands of the law. The conflicting messages around sex work – it seems that politicians and cops can never decide whether the worker is a victim or a criminal – tell a revealing story about who the criminalization of sex work really serves.

Workers face violence not only at the hands of their clients or pimps, but also at the hands of the law.

pink handcuffs by kyle richardson

If the chapters on policing reveal one thing, it’s that the law’s interventions are frequently unwanted, unhelpful, and dangerous. Professor, counselor, and advocate Christa Marie Sacco’s chapter draws from her relationships with sex workers in her Los Angeles community, as well as from her work as an advocate and counselor for sex workers, rape survivors, and trafficked women. She includes the story of an underage sex worker, waiting for clients in a park. The girl describes watching a “condom lady,” a health worker often harassed by the police who distributes free condoms to sex workers. “She has to keep those condoms hidden away, and if she gives them out, only one or two at a time and the person who receives them has to put it away immediately, otherwise it’s solicitation.” 

Instead of getting help from people like the condom lady, she is supposed to seek aid in more official quarters, like the police. As an underage sex worker, this girl would not be subject to criminal charges; surely she has no reason to hide? 

“For us underage girls,” she says, “what we get is worse than jail sometimes. At least in jail you eventually get out. I don’t ever want to go back to another (foster care) placement again…If the cops get me again, they will drag me back to one of those child-molester homes.” She fears not only the foster homes in which she had been placed in the past, but retaliation from pimps for being seen to cooperate with cops. “They (the police) want to rescue me and shit and have me snitch, but they can’t protect me from the people who would come for me. They don’t even have a decent place for me to live to get me off the streets. They’re bullshit.”

It is not the sex workers themselves, as Sacco explains, but law enforcement (in this case, the Human Trafficking Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security also have offices) who decides who is a victim of trafficking and who is a criminal. And police often use this power for their own purposes. Provisions such as an emergency shelter, which Sacco terms “coercive services,” are often dependent on cooperating with the police and prosecutors, including testifying in court. This testimony is negotiated in exchange for removal of the criminal charge. So-called victims are subject to a filmed police interview before they have access to an advocate whereas sexual assault victims by law have the right to have an advocate present when they speak to the police. Who police decide to count as a criminal and who as a victim depends on how useful the arrested person is to them. “The authorities have solidified their place in the victim-defendant-survivor pipeline,” writes Sacco, “which they themselves created.”

And it’s not as though cooperation with law enforcement magically makes the arrest consequence-free. Potential retaliation aside, “the consequences of being on record as a human trafficking  victim-defendant, even if testifying to obtain services or expungement, range between mandated classes, years of surveillance by the court system, an arrest record that follows you forever, child welfare or custody issues, immigration issues and detention, and additional charges for related crimes such as drug possession—which can further damage employment opportunities, family unification, or the ability to participate in government funding for college through FASFA.”

Further, to receive federal funding from the Office of Emergency Services, organizations that provide services to trafficking victims must convene a task force with local law enforcement per the 2017 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. They must not use language like “sex work” instead of “prostitution,” or discuss decriminalization. 

Cementing the antagonism between the police and those they’re supposed to rescue from iniquity is cops’ enthusiastic patronage of the sex workers they arrest. Former LAPD cop turned sex worker rights advocate Norma Jean Almodovar describes the steps involved in a prostitution bust. The vice cop will call the madam and “tell her he has a bunch of buddies coming into town….He will also mention particular sex acts that he wants these ‘victims’ to provide him or his buddies.” The cops enjoy a luxurious hotel, food, and free alcohol as part of the setup. Sometimes they request a “double” (two sex workers at a time), a trick that is both more efficient for arrests and twice as entertaining for the cops watching the show – and his buddies videotaping it next door, “so the jury will see just how degrading being a prostitute really is.” 

Vanessa Carlisle, founder of self-defense group Hookers Army Los Angeles, points out that starting with the Honolulu police department in 2014, states and cities have begun passing laws against cops having sex with prostitutes as part of these stings – initiatives generally met with much resistance by cops. But as recently as the summer of 2020, as the nationwide police abolition movement picked up steam,  this practice was still legal in Pennsylvania. HB 2709, proposed that summer to end the practice, is currently under review by the Pennsylvania state judiciary. Besides engaging in sex acts with prostitutes in order to arrest them, cops in California, Alaska, and New York have also been found guilty of running prostitution rings among themselves.

fuzzy pink handcuffs by kyle richardson

As long as sex work is criminalized, the public will see the people who do it not as workers trying to provide for themselves and their families, but as inherently sick, dangerous, or helpless people. As these chapters show, the state assigns sex workers a strange shifting position, simultaneously victim and criminal. Sex workers are somehow unfortunates in need of rescue, collateral damage from trying to get the bad guys, and criminals who must be coerced into cooperating with police, regardless of the danger. 

As long as sex work is criminalized, the public will see the people who do it not as workers trying to provide for themselves and their families, but as inherently sick, dangerous, or helpless people. As these chapters show, the state assigns sex workers a strange shifting position, simultaneously victim and criminal.

Why police sex work at all if the goal is to make the people who do it safer? The 2018 passage of  Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which criminalized the use of online platforms for the purposes of prostitution and led to the closure of Backpage.com, the closure of strip clubs along New Orleans’ Bourbon Street that same year, and the 2012 police crackdown on prostitution in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Bushwick neighborhood are illustrative. While proponents claim the law is designed to protect vulnerable women from traffickers and pimps, these measures in fact put sex workers in greater danger and were opposed by sex worker organizations. SESTA allowed for greater government surveillance and made the internet more hospitable to commerce (while making it harder for sex workers to screen their clients). The closure of the strip clubs paved the way for New Orleans’ gentrification, much like the “cleanup” of Times Square in the 1990s. It is the violent displacement of mostly Black, often trans sex workers throughout Manhattan during the 90s and early 2000s that allowed the city to become the lucrative tourist-friendly playground that it is today. It’s remarkable how often rescuing women coincides with commercial development.

Cleaning up a city by cleaning out sex workers is an old story, one in which respectable people project the many sins and anxieties of modernity onto its most vulnerable people. In 18th century London, the rapid growth of industrialization, urbanization, and privatization of public lands led to a boom in prostitution within the city. Writers opined with ferocity about the disgusting spectacle of prostitutes openly walking the streets, meeting their clients in alleyways, and bemoaned the shame this would bring to the city in the eyes of foreign tourists. Prostitutes were seen as vectors of sickness, rot, and degradation both physical and spiritual; of money-hungry soullessness, exchanging the most important womanly attribute – chastity – for silks and jewels. Alongside this condemnatory campaign was the reformist strain. The reformers, unlike more strident anti-prostitution campaigners, were cognizant of the material conditions that led to prostitution, responding to prostitutes with pity rather than disgust. But their pity led to miserable outcomes as well. Prostitutes, having compromised their humanity by “selling themselves”, were in need of rescue, the reformers determined. And this rescue took the form of detention in punitive homes for fallen women. The dichotomy of sex workers as simultaneously criminals and victims is centuries old.

Beneath these attitudes was anxiety about how the rapid development of industrialization and markets upended the ways in which we relate to ourselves, our bodies, and each other. Sexuality, particularly the sexuality of women, was strictly relegated to the sphere of social reproduction; sex for pleasure outside of marriage might lead to children who would be a social drain, instead of a well-regulated workforce. A woman’s purity was an essential asset that she would eventually trade for economic security under the auspices of marriage. As Silvia Federici’s foundational study Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation as well as Laura J. Rosenthal’s definitive Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture have made clear, criminalizing sex work was one way to draw a sharp line between correct and incorrect ways of selling one’s sexuality, and preserve the notion that some things were sacred and not on the market. The sex worker thereby became the bearer of society’s anxieties about modern capitalism, and that hasn’t really changed.

Today the victim-criminal distinction continues to play out in predictable ways. Trans women, Black and brown women, disabled women, and women with drug addictions in this carceral system obviously occupy the criminal side in the eyes of the public and law enforcement. In particular, trans women of color are not only disproportionately likely to engage in sex work compared to white cis women, but are more likely to suffer violence at the hands of both johns and law enforcement. Until recently, the trans women were de facto criminalized under the “Walking While Trans” ban, which was only overturned this year after sex workers and political allies organized. This ordinance allowed law enforcement to harass and arrest anyone they consider to be “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” which in practice led cops to harass Black trans women on the basis of her clothing, or the condoms in her purse. 

If those who support and enact carceral policies were truly interested in ending sex work, they would support legislation that would allow all working people to work less. They might advocate for basic socialist demands – free housing, free healthcare, free education, and free childcare. Not to mention advocating for open borders (many women choose off-the-books work because they don’t have papers) and an end to economic interventionism overseas that forces women around the world into poverty. Instead, it is legal across the United States to discriminate on the basis of profession. In the housing market, a landlord can refuse to rent to a sex worker, even a sex worker in a legal profession such as a stripper or porn actress, often forcing them into unstable housing and deepening their precarity. 

Free social services are of little interest to most 21st century politicians because, of course, they cost money. But as this book makes clear, the lives of sex workers could be vastly improved simply through decriminalization. Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Brooklyn demands “Legislation that fully decriminalizes consensual adult sex work, including people who sell sex or are perceived to sell sex, people who buy sex, and third parties,” which goes hand in hand with “Defunding the police and using the money to fund non-carceral, non-coercive services” for people who do sex work or are at risk of trafficking.

It is law enforcement that arrives to evict a sex worker from her home, to arrest her, or to deport her. It is absurd folly to believe that the police – whose patterns of brutality have been exposed by the movement for police abolition – have the interests of the most marginalized people at heart. As the essays in this powerful collection demonstrate, it has always been sex workers who have kept each other safe: from predatory clients, from pimps, and from the police. These essays reveal workers who are not helpless, but oppressed, and are increasingly organizing for their rights. “Don’t be surprised,” writes Norma Jean Almodovar, “that we ‘victims’ are fighting back any way that we can.”

Emily Janakiram is a writer and book publicist living in Brooklyn.