Alex S. Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, discusses the policing of sex work and offers an excerpt from his new book The End of Policing.
Police in Manchester and across the UK are hard at work criminalizing people involved in sex work. We should all be concerned about poor working conditions and acts of violence and coercion that sometimes occur in this industry. What is clear, however, is that using police to manage this is counterproductive. Recent raids in Manchester conducted in the name of fighting trafficking and helping women have uncovered poor working conditions but not coercion and the women arrested or referred to services have not seen dramatic improvements in their life circumstances. Police have even admitted that many have returned to sex work. It’s time to embrace the work of groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes and the Sex Workers and Advocacy Movement (SWARM) and call for the decriminalization of sex work.
The following is an excerpt from my book The End of Policing that describes the problems with relying on police to regulate commercial sex.
When we allow police to regulate our sexual lives, we inflict tremendous harm on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Young people, poor women, and transgendered persons who rely on the sex industry to survive and even thrive are forced by police into the shadows, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and diminished health outcomes.
Despite decades of police enforcement, commercial sexual services remain easily available, from the $5,000-a-night escorts hired by Wall Street executives and elected officials to those who turn $20 tricks in inner-city alleyways. Even when individual sex workers move out of the profession as a result of police action, others replace them, and there is never a shortage of clients. At best, police can claim that their efforts limit the extent and visibility of the sex industry. It is true that concerted intensive police enforcement can sometimes drive streetwalkers from a specific location, but they move to more remote outdoor locations or indoor ones. This may provide some benefits for residents but does nothing to reduce the overall prevalence of commercial sex or improve the lives of sex workers themselves. Commercial sex has proven largely impervious to punitive policing.
Policing has aimed not to eradicate prostitution but to drive it underground. This process leaves these workers without a means to complain when they are raped, beaten, or otherwise victimized, strengthens the hands of pimps and traffickers, and contributes to unsafe sex practices. When sex workers are forced to labor in a hidden, illegal economy, they have little recourse to the law to protect their rights and safety. Even when they are technically able to ask for police protection from violence, it is rarely forthcoming. Because of their social position and a history of disregard and abuse at the hands of police, these workers rarely see police intervention as being in their best interest. Sex workers have an interest in maintaining the anonymity of their clients; criminal prosecution and public embarrassment are bad for business. There are rarely credit-card receipts, photocopies of IDs, or surveillance footage that might be used to identify and prosecute offenders. Even when there is some evidence, victims are generally loath to open themselves up to additional police scrutiny for fear that they or their establishment might be raided.
In addition, sex workers have no ability to access basic workplace protections. They cannot complain about fire hazards or file complaints about stolen wages. They can’t sue for theft of services or contractual breaches. The only tool they have is to withhold their labor, but even this may be constrained by coercive labor practices ranging from psychological manipulation to enslavement.
Criminalization also strengthens the hand of pimps, organized criminals, and traffickers. Because there are limited legal ways of entering most sex work and because of the criminal status of most of this work which can produce huge financial rewards, third parties play an important role in recruiting and coercing participants. Also, there is a value in being able to provide protection, secure hidden work sites, and organize cooperation from the police. These services are best provided by those already involved in illegal activity. All of this makes it difficult for workers to self-organize to participate independently in the sex economy. Property rentals, security services, and advertising must all be handled covertly, often through fictitious companies or other fronts. Even streetwalkers must contend with informally organized strolls, in which more regular and organized participants either drive off newcomers or force them into their own organizations. In some cases, pimps force sex workers into their “protection” as a way of guaranteeing their ability to ply their trade. Other pimps work in true partnership with sex workers, providing support and protection for a share of the earnings.
Exploitative pimps are motivated to coerce participation in sex work by the money, and because they know that workers have little legal recourse. Police often view these sex workers as offenders rather than victims and fail to take their requests for help seriously. Also, those who are pressured, coerced, or even voluntarily enter this work often come from very disadvantaged circumstances and may have mental health and substance abuse problems or have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse. All of this contributes to social isolation and vulnerability that makes them easier to control. Simplistic “rescue” efforts fail to deal with the depth of isolation and hardship facing these people. Sex workers who are offered counseling and drug treatment but not jobs and housing will often return to sex work, even in an abusive form, because they are not given a sustainable way out. Exploiters capitalize on this dynamic to keep them isolated and dependent.
The illegality of both sex work and drugs creates profit incentives for organized crime to link the two. Sex workers are sometimes given drugs or pressured to become drug dependent as a way of managing them. Others become enticed or coerced into sex work to maintain their drug habits. Clients are also often offered drugs as part of their sexual experience. Offering these two services in tandem is wildly profitable for organized crime, since the avenues of distribution and the provision of security from police and competitors often overlap.
Marginalization also contributes to unsafe sex practices. One of the most troubling is that police often regard possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution. Since streetwalkers often work in cars, parks, or other informal locations, the only way to ensure safe sex practices is to carry condoms. They must then weigh the long-term risks of disease against the short-term risks of arrest and prosecution. Clients will sometimes pay more for sex without condoms, and pimps can drive women to earn more in this way or risk abuse.
Finally, while a few cities, such as San Francisco, have public health clinics for sex workers, many workers have difficulty accessing appropriate care because they lack health insurance and fear being stigmatized or criminalized. Finally, the police themselves have been implicated in demanding unprotected sex as a condition of avoiding arrest.
Police corruption plays a major role in the abuse and marginalization of sex workers and undermines public confidence in the police. Vice crimes such as gambling, prostitution, and substance abuse lend themselves to police corruption for a number of reasons. Police can enact harsh penalties, and those engaged in illegal activity usually have the resources to buy them off. Furthermore, enforcement is largely discretionary, so there is tremendous temptation for police to look the other way in return for bribes or actively pursue bribes as a form of “rent seeking,” in which they use their position to maximize extorted earnings.
In just the last few years, American police have been implicated in running and providing protection for brothels, demanding sex from prostitutes to avoid arrest, hiring underage prostitutes, acting as pimps, stealing from and assaulting sex workers, and demanding bribes from prostitutes and their clients. There is no way to know the full extent of these practices, but the problem is widespread and ongoing. A 2005 survey of sex workers found that 14 percent had had sexual experiences with police and 16 percent had experienced police violence, while only 16 percent reported having had a good experience going to the police for help. Another study found that a third of the violence young sex workers experienced came at the hands of police.
The goal of any new approach to sex work should be to take the coercion out of the process while understanding that, whether you personally find it distasteful or not, sex work will continue. Therefore, we should endeavor to improve the lives of sex workers and offer them voluntary pathways out of a job that can be difficult, demeaning, and even dangerous. While those who fit the idealized image of the college student paying her way through school with sex work before going on to a successful “legitimate” career are a small sliver of the market, many choose this work over low-paid employment in sweatshops, diners, hotels, and kitchens. All of these workplaces can also be demeaning, dangerous, and even sexually exploitative—just ask domestic workers in Singapore, maquiladora workers in Mexico, or hotel maids in Manhattan.
In upstate New York, Susan Dewey found that almost all the sex workers she interviewed had previous employment and that most cycled between sex work and low-paid service work. Most preferred sex work because of the potential for financial windfalls, whereas service work was “exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope of social mobility or financial stability.”
From Mexico to New Zealand to rural Nevada, decriminalizing or regulating sex work reduces harm to sex workers, their clients, and communities, with very little role for the police. Decriminalized sex work has dramatically reduced the role of organized crime and police corruption and in many cases allows for greatly improved working conditions in which sanitation, safety, and safe sex practices are widespread and reinforced through government oversight. Civilian health workers rather than police are the primary agents of regulation, encouraging greater cooperation and compliance. This approach also undermines the view of sex workers as helpless victims in need of saving, which is degrading, stigmatizing, and simply inaccurate.
Do these approaches encourage sexual commerce by giving it the patina of legitimacy? Perhaps. But if the central social concerns of coercion and disease are being managed more effectively than under prohibition, isn’t that a success? We should embrace these approaches as a starting point for policies that directly address social harms rather than moral panics. While commercial sex work will always have harm attached to it, so do legal sweatshops. In fact, the subordinate position of women in our economy and culture is the real harm left unaddressed by prohibition. Despite the lofty goals of abolitionists, as long as they are denied equal economic and political rights and equal pay for equal work, women will be forced into marginal forms of employment. As long as women and LGBTQ people are poor, socially isolated, and lack social and political power; as long as runaway and “throw away” kids have no place to turn but the streets, they will be at risk of trafficking and coercion. Neither the police nor the “rescuers” seem keen to address these social and economic realities.