In the last few weeks, the New York City area has seen a spate of arrests of clients of the sex trade under the “End Demand”-styled Operation Losing Proposition. Law enforcement has proudly announced the arrests of 260 individuals for solicitation in stings from Manhattan to Nassau County, a process which has also included releasing the names and mug shots of these individuals.** To say that this practice is misguided is an understatement. To say it is damaging to those in the sex trade by increasing fear, shame, and stigma, and making it increasingly difficult to operate safely without providing a single new options for those engaged in the sex trade to find economic security is more apt.
As we and many others have noted, “End Demand” tactics, which use criminalization and increased prosecution of both sex workers and clients under the guise of “saving victims” from the sex trade is a misguided and ill-informed effort which increases the vulnerability of an already-marginalized population. “This means that for the next few months, it’s going to be harder to screen [potential clients now fearing arrest]. I can’t stop working – I just have to work under worse conditions.” noted one online-based worker. “I don’t understand why people can’t wrap their heads around that.”
The language around these arrests being used by proponents of End Demand like Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, though, make it clear why: he considers everyone in the sex trade a “victim,” and his conceptions, opinions born out of misinformation and a deep disrespect, as the only one which matters. By seeing everyone in the sex trade as a victim, it is easy for Kelly and others to ignore the harms which this will inevitably cause to everyone in the sex trade, and ignore pleas for harm reduction principles, inquiries of what will support anti-trafficking efforts, or basic common sense and logic.
But as much as End Demand-promoters want to push this idea of across-the-board, one-size-fits-all victimization, it simply does not hold up to the experiences of those in the sex trade. And this is not to say that individuals in the sex trade are not victimized, but the perpetrators of victimization are too often those are the same individuals being given increasing power to “help” – often against the will of the “victim.” In a 2012 study from the Young Women’s Empowerment Project on Bad Encounters had by their youth membership, 30% of those were perpetrated by police, followed by Health Care settings and schools. Victimization by clients and pimps made up roughly 13% of the encounters total. Furthermore, despite the consideration of everyone in the sex trade to be a “victim” there has not been a whisper from these individuals about the importance of decriminalization, nor the damage and trauma caused by an arrest, conviction, incarceration or record.
This is also not to say that individuals are not victimized by both clients and management/pimps/third parties who see people in the sex trade as an easy target. Even when then, though, law enforcement is often a contributing problem, instead of a reasonable solution. In Connecticut, when a women called the police to say she was being assaulted by her pimp (language used in the article, it is unclear if she used this terminology), the police arrived and arrested her for prostitution. And in a staggering case in Texas, which has received barely a murmur of coverage outside of the sex worker community, a Texas court recently acquitted a man who shot and killed a woman he hired for escort services. His reasoning was that he had assumed there would be sex, and she attempted to leave without providing such services. [For a fuller discussion of this case, read How Texas Made Ezekiel Gilbert’s Acquittal Possible on Tits & Sass.]
Apparently Kelly and others missed the lesson where you ask a (self-identified) victim what happened and by whom they were victimized, and instead prefers to use biases, stereotypes and misconceptions to do the work for you. To be fair – it’s a much easier strategy than being present, accountable or respectful.
By viewing sex workers as both victims and perpetrators, End Demand promoters get to pick and choose whatever is most convenient for their arguments and ignore the demands of a community against which violence is being perpetrated. This ignores and dehumanizes those impacted by the sex trade, turning very real and complex experiences and needs into convenient tropes for third parties. So if Ray Kelly, members of law enforcement, and promoters of End Demand actually asked someone who and what is contributing to the marginalization, violence, stigma, shame, and discrimination which make the sex trade dangerous, the answer should be easy to say, but difficult to hear.
Community Organizer, SWOP-NYC & SWANK
** Despite frequent references to trafficking and exploitation, there was no indication that any of those arrested were seeking to exploit, commit acts of violence, or even solicit a minor, which only seeks to conflate the sex trade and trafficking. In Nassau County, where 104 arrests occurred, suspects were responding to the Backpage ad of a 27 year old.