In the spring of 2011, an officer with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office contacted a female escort via an adult erotic website to arrange a session. “Do you have time for me tomorrow? I would love to see you,” he wrote in a message, according to police records. When he showed up at the woman’s house the next day, he pulled out his badge, interrogated her, took note of her condoms and lube, seized her cellphone and laptop as evidence, and arrested her for prostitution. “[She] did not express any remorse,” another officer later wrote. “[She] told me law enforcement was the only problem she experienced as a result of her work.”
The sting operation and arrest illustrates many of the typical flaws in police agencies’ approach to prostitution, according to sex worker advocates. The sheriff’s office was wasting resources targeting a consenting adult sex worker, cops were taking away her property and depriving her of income, and the arrest would only have the effect of forcing her to conduct her work even further underground in the future — greatly increasing her risk of harm. But activists said one part of the police report in particular highlighted the unethical nature of the operation: When labeling the incident, the sheriff’s office wrote: “sex crimes children.”
The sex worker, an African-American woman in her late twenties, was the only suspect in the case. There were no children. In an interview, Marin County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Nina Snyder said that the agency did not report this incident as a child sex case in its crime statistics — despite the fact that the official police report included the “sex crimes children” description. But activists and researchers say this is a common strategy across the country; law enforcement agencies arrest and charge adult sex workers — often low-income people of color and LGBT people — under the guise of protecting or rescuing child victims. Now, the Oakland City Council and Mayor Libby Schaaf have formally endorsed a controversial law enforcement initiative that activists say clearly promotes this same kind of bait-and-switch tactic.
On October 20, councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Annie Campbell Washington, and Abel Guillén held a press conference promoting a resolution they co-sponsored with Schaaf that endorsed a national initiative called Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE). While those officials’ public statements emphasized their intent of protecting minors from trafficking and exploitation, the resolution, which the council unanimously approved, broadly targets sex work. In some places, the language makes no distinction between adult workers and child victims. The goal of CEASE is to “reduce sex-buying by 20%,” according to the Oakland resolution, which also states that the city supports one of the core values of CEASE: “The illegal commercial sex industry is inherently harmful.”
The “CEASE Network” — a collaboration of eleven municipalities across the country, including Alameda County — is a project of Demand Abolition, a Boston-based program dedicated to “eradicating the illegal commercial sex industry” by going after “demand.” That means targeting clients or “johns” who pay for sex. Demand Abolition is a program of Hunt Alternatives, the foundation of Swanee Hunt, a philanthropist and the daughter of conservative oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. The philosophy of Demand Abolition and CEASE is that the best way to stop both child trafficking and prostitution is to deter people from purchasing sex of any kind. The groups fund law enforcement and public media campaigns and advocate for stronger legal penalties. “If there’s no buyer, there’s no business,” said Lina Nealon, founding director of Demand Abolition, in an interview. “They’re the ones who are driving this entire industry.”
Critics, however, argue that when police agencies and district attorneys broadly target demand, they end up wasting resources on arrests and prosecutions that further criminalize adult sex workers and their clients — instead of prioritizing efforts to stop child traffickers. “They are using people’s justifiable horror at the abuse of children … to go after all demand,” said Rachel West, spokesperson for US PROStitutes Collective, a sex-worker advocacy group. “It’s a kind of moralistic crusade.”
Some fear the Demand Abolition approach does more harm than good by threatening the safety of marginalized workers in the sex industry. That was a concern of government officials in San Francisco, which last year ended a brief partnership with Demand Abolition after facing a backlash from adult sex workers. “Sometimes, efforts to address demand can have unintended consequences on vulnerable sex workers who are voluntarily engaging in sex work,” said Minouche Kandel, women’s policy director for the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Last year, the department was part of a collaborative that accepted an $80,000 Hunt Alternatives grant to participate in the national initiative that eventually became CEASE.
But after some discussion, the collaborative — which included San Francisco police, prosecutors, and service providers — ultimately decided to withdraw from the grant, according to Kandel. “We are trying to be very clear that there’s a distinction between sex work engagement by adults and sex trafficking. … We were trying to be nuanced in how we approach this,” she said. The collaborative planned to target the 20 percent reduction in sex-buying by focusing exclusively on people who purchase sex from minors and on people who commit violence against sex workers, Kandel said. But Demand Abolition insisted that San Francisco also agree to pledge that the sex industry itself is “inherently harmful.”
Nealon said survivors of prostitution and trafficking in her coalition felt strongly that all CEASE partners must support that statement.
San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women does not take a position on prostitution, but works to ensure that women’s involvement in sex work does not prevent them from getting the help they need when they become victims of violence, Kandel explained. Activists argued that when police go after people buying sex from adults, it doesn’t eliminate prostitution, but rather forces workers to conduct their business in more covert and dangerous ways.
For example, when sex workers meet clients online, sex workers can share information with each other about violent men or offer reference checks for specific clients. But if police use these websites to target “demand” and arrest “johns,” workers can’t use the sites and lose the opportunity to vet clients. They may instead be forced to work on the streets, which is more dangerous. And when cops go after adult sex work on the streets, it can make it harder for workers to meet clients out in the open, which can lead to rushed transactions and increased safety risks.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s both parties criminalized or just one part of that equation … it pushes it further underground,” said Alexandra Lutnick, a senior research scientist with RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. “It makes clients leery. There’s not enough time to negotiate with clients or screen them for safety issues.” She noted that increased enforcement also makes it much harder for women to seek help from police when they actually need it — if a client assaults or rapes them, for example.
What’s more, adult sex workers also collect a lot of valuable information about predators, traffickers, and child victims — but they can’t share those tips with police if law enforcement is targeting them or their clients. “None of us want to see kids abused,” said Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento, who helped pressure San Francisco to decline the Demand Abolition grant. “These women want to help. But they can’t talk to police.”
While some policymakers contend that their focus is on rescuing children, the reality of increased criminalization is that it can push both adult workers and minors into a criminal justice system that is more interested in prosecutions than providing services to these marginalized groups, activists said. Lutnick, who is based in San Francisco and has researched human trafficking and sex work, recently testified in Sacramento about alarming trends in arrests in Alameda County, which joined CEASE last year after San Francisco cut ties with Demand Abolition. Alameda County receives roughly $40,000 annually from Demand Abolition.
Using California Department of Justice data, Lutnick analyzed prostitution arrests by county and found that while the state on the whole is arresting fewer adults for prostitution, Alameda County’s numbers have climbed substantially. From 2006 to 2014, there was a 28 percent drop in prostitution arrests statewide, while in Alameda County, there was a 46 percent increase.
More troubling, while California overall is arresting significantly fewer minors for prostitution, Alameda County’s rates are the same as they were eight years ago, despite a 2006 California law that stated that all minors involved in the sex trade are considered trafficking victims — regardless of whether someone had coerced or forced them. Since the law was passed, California law enforcement agencies have arrested 67 percent fewer minors for prostitution. But Alameda County’s rates only dropped 5 percent. San Francisco, by contrast, has slashed its adult prostitution arrest numbers by 85 percent — and arrested only one minor for prostitution in 2013 and did not arrest any minors last year.
The data, critics say, highlights how Alameda County remains focused on criminalization — a practice that the Oakland resolution, which is a largely symbolic show of support for CEASE, only serves to reinforce. Spokespeople for Schaaf, Campbell Washington, and Guillén did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report. Casey Farmer, spokesperson for council President Gibson McElhaney, told me that her office has not heard from any sex worker advocates. “These councilmembers have been very much focused on the impacts … on minors who are coerced,” Farmer added.
In a lengthy phone interview, Casey Bates, head of the Alameda County District Attorney’s human exploitation and trafficking unit, expressed anger at sex worker advocates’ opposition to Demand Abolition, calling the activists a “very well-organized vocal minority.” Targeting demand in the commercial sex industry is the best way to protect children from horrific abuses, he argued. “For years, we’ve only addressed the supply side. We’ve focused solely on arresting women and trying to capture the pimps. … It’s been terribly lopsided and actually really ineffective.” He argued that men who buy sex end up purchasing both adults and minors, so that when agencies arrest and prosecute all “johns,” it disrupts child trafficking.
Bates claimed that sex worker rights’ groups were essentially asking law enforcement to abandon child victims so that prostitutes could continue their business — which, he emphasized, is illegal. “To give johns a pass, which they have historically received, is not acceptable,” he said. Regarding the arrests of minors, Bates argued that in some cases, an arrest is the only way to get a child victim the help she needs to get off the street. “What’s the alternative? To leave the kid on the street to be further traumatized and raped?” he said.
Nealon, from Demand Abolition, emphasized that the group does not advocate for the arrest of sex workers or minors and instead wants CEASE partners to aggressively prosecute buyers while funding programs and services for child victims and workers. Bates and Nealon both also argued that the adult sex work industry is already underground and dangerous. “Unless we eradicate it,” Nealon said, “it’s never going to be safe.”