Keeping Sex Workers Safe While Their Job Is Still Criminalized

Note: This article is, in some ways, a continuation of an earlier piece printed here at Queens Free Press. The author wishes to thank everyone who was interviewed for being so generous with their time and insight that this was able to turn into a series. The author once again wishes to thank Kevin Lippes for his love and support...and for coming to collect her when she was detained by the Canadian Border Service while trying to get media to use with the articles.

A 2015 study carried out by National Ugly Mugs and University of Leicester’s Professor Teela Sanders regarding incidences of violence against sex workers found that 49% of respondents “…were either ‘unconfident’ or ‘very unconfident’ that the police will take crimes against them seriously.”

Janet Duran, co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) won’t argue with the statistics.

According to their website, the NJRUA “…is a working alliance of activists and allies who are dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for the human rights of sex workers in the state of New Jersey. This alliance is committed to the belief that people of all genders have the autonomy and right to decide for themselves whether or not to be in this line of work. Recognizing the violence and other forms of human rights violations that stem from criminalization and stigmatization, we wish to counter this through public education, documentation and community organizing.”

Queens Free Press obtained a copy of an email that Duran sent to city officials in Newark, reporting a number of different issues, calling the city out on their lack of action, and asking for the city to finally take action. Excerpts from that email appear below:

Just following up that tree branch is still down blocking the sidewalk. It's summer and lots of kids trying to walk down the sidewalk and I am considering sitting out there and just recording the activity, speeding, running red lights, texting and driving. Eventually someone will pay attention… I just got semi doxed on twitter, but as sex workers no big deal. Whoever it was kept emphasis on my criminal record and shaming me and flat out lies due to poor research. I own what I do. Can't shame someone who doesn't care about others opinion.  All my family knows.  Any time I have spoken I have always started with my convicted felon status due to unlawful arrests and rights violations & flat out lies. Nothing is a big secret, I was threatened & my kids brought into it. their language and verbal abuse sounded so much like how LE speak to folks when they arrest them, speech meant to dehumanize.  Funny I haven't spoken on my alias lately except to folks here in Newark govt in last 7 days.  Funny the timing, coincidence… I went back to the women's center and I was told because I came in and said the f word was their problem. Well I said it when repeating verbatim the threats the police allowed to continue while I was in custody, and at end of day, a time I chose when traffic would be light.  The woman made it sound like I was using it in my own personal expression and not telling the abuses I had to endure.  Which is the same way I spoke to Ms. Hillsman, included the curses when telling the way I was harassed and threatened for hours while laughed at by police.  Their response was to call the police to come and try and intimidate me.  Then she goes and not convincingly defends the actions of the cop…. I used the f word so that was an excuse to be pushed along and ignored. Also told I chose to do sex work, as if victim blaming is ok when we are victim to circumstance, which she clearly did not understand.  I was called young in my advocacy, but not so young I do not realize the risk for replication of trauma/oppression as micro-aggressions from those we are seeking help from. I am an ACTIVIST for my community & I am my own boss… Hope this letter serves to remind folks sex workers are people with many concerns like "real people".  Just because we complain and call out things does not mean we don't want to work together to ensure our survival from gentrification to sex worker rights. After all it was the mayor who said we need unity in his announcement of Team Baraka 2018.  I should not feel scared to report these threats and harassment on social media…

“No matter what, there’s always going to be someone who’s against you,” explains Duran, speaking more generally, "…Depending on where you are, it’s very hard to trust law enforcement.”

This is especially true when sex workers feel like they need protection from law enforcement. For example, Duran recalls one time she was called for a date who ended up being a cop. According to Duran, the cop said she had to sleep with him or else she was going to be arrested.

Attitudes like this are part of the reason that many sex workers have developed their own coping mechanisms and safety strategies.

 “Once You Don’t Get Paid, We Call It Rape”

If you are a sex worker who is victim of a crime, and are going to deal with law enforcement, Duran suggests that you see if the precinct has a Special Victims Unit (SVU) that deals with sex workers. She says that’s where you’re likely to receive the best help if you’re a sex worker.

But nothing is guaranteed.

“It’s not equipped to handle…us being victims…The System is not equipped to handle that,” says Duran.

Duran’s advice is informed by her personal experiences. She recalls a time she was the victim of a crime and was yelled at and blamed by the person who was supposed to be prosecuting the case.

Duran’s  suggestion till things change: “Lie to get the help you need. Lie or do favors.”

Duran mentions that there are police lieutenants and sergeants who use the services of sex workers, & speculates that perhaps if they finally stood up and said something, it would make a difference in larger debates on the decriminalization of sex work.

In the meantime, while sex workers wait for change on that front, Duran also suggests that groups like hers need more workers to do more outreach on how sex workers can be safe.

“If you’re going to do an overnight,” she says, “you better be able to go check your account and see that the money [from the client] is there…”

Duran provides a longer safety check list for sex workers in an earlier article published here at Queens Free Press.

Duran also raises an interesting point about the difference in circumstances faced by indoor and outdoor sex workers. For example, she mentions that street workers often don’t screen their clients, and suggests that is a subject that should be addressed in street outreach efforts. She also stresses the importance of everyone looking out for each other, in addition to working with organizations.

There’s no such thing as TOO MUCH support.

“Always try to keep your circle close," Duran says, "We need to be able to trust each other in the sex worker community.”

“I can’t imagine a woman who gets raped if she’s in her job”: Law Enforcement’s Often Problematic Approach To Sex Work

Jara Krys used to study at the University of Pennsylvania.  She turned to sex work so she could afford to medically transition from male to female.

She was raped by a friend, and didn’t feel comfortable going to the police because the was worried they’d try to “criminalize” her.

“There’s no way for you to approach a cop without being criminalized,” she says.

She elaborates on the mindset of police, noting that many don’t believe that a female sex worker can be raped if she’s “in her job.”

As an alternative to law enforcement, Krys suggests seeking support from support organizations that are run by sex workers, as she says it is easier to get access to resources from such organizations.

“They’re going to feel that they’re entitled to oppress me,” says Krys of law enforcement, and notes that cops tend to get away with more when they’re dealing with someone who is considered a criminal. She notes that there have been cases of girls who have been mocked, raped, and threatened by cops.

“You don’t want to get into a sensitive situation with officers who are power hungry and feel they can do anything with someone who is viewed as a criminal,” she says.

Krys says that being transgender and being a sex worker is an “intersection of oppression.” For example, she points to times where law enforcement saw old identification, got defensive, and would assume she was a sex worker because she is transgender.

“A lot of times, the girls who are working specifically have to be very careful in public so they don’t get a certain kind of attention,” Krys says, “It was really important for us to keep our tone down in a certain way.”

Changing Conversations On Sex Worker Safety In The US

For sex workers, ensuring their safety is a different experience when their job isn’t criminalized.  As it stands right now, prostitution is illegal everywhere in the US, with the exception of 12 counties in Nevada.

By Flickr user Joseph Conrad (06Jul01_MoundHouse01small) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Christina Parreira, a PhD researcher and “brothel enthusiast” explains in a blog post how some legalized brothels also provide sites for sex workers to enter the debate on how their bodies and their lives are regulated in the political arena, and points to brothel owner Dennis Hof as an example of effective brothel management. Hof owns seven brothels in Nevada. Parts of Parreira’s blog post , and two related tweets, are re-printed here with her permission:

Hof has always made a point of bringing sex workers to media and political events so that we can also be seen, heard, and integrated into the community…Dennis is easily found in one of his 7 open bordellos almost any night of the week. We can text or email him if we are having a problem, and he encourages clients to do the same. He even put his actual cell phone number on! I watched him answer a call from a stranger while we were out to lunch during his political campaign and I listened as he answered her questions. Afterwards, I remarked ‘you seriously answer these calls and answer everyone’s questions?’ He did….As Hof has said of his establishments, ‘This ain’t your daddy’s old cathouse anymore!’ He bought the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in the early 90s, and immediately took down the ‘Men Only’ sign, got rid of the fixed price menu, and empowered the women to set their own rates. He also gave the women the choice to say no to a client — quite a change from the ‘boys club’ mentality that permeated the brothels before Hof came to town. While several Nevada brothels still run on a ‘lockdown’ system in which the women are not permitted to leave the brothel for weeks at a time, Hof allows us to come and go — like human beings. Even in 2017, there are brothels that do not permit women to leave without a chaperone.

This ISN’T your daddy’s old cathouse anymore. Brothels today are so much more! They offer safety. Sex workers are empowered.

Sex Worker Safety In Canada

In Canada, unlike the US,  the sale of sex is legal, but the act of purchasing sex is illegal. It is also illegal to advertise sexual services for another individual, and to receive any sort of “financial or material benefit” from the sale of that other individual’s sexual services. Additionally, any sort of communication leading to the sale of sexual services is prohibited from taking place in public.

As sex work is partially decriminalized in Canada, conversations on sex worker safety are a little different than they are in the US.

Master Tom, reportedly “The World’s Best Known Pro Male Dom,” suggests that sex workers and clients have clear expectations set out before any session. He also suggests that sex workers verify the information that clients provide before booking a session.

“There are resources for providers to check if an individual has a history or a background,” he says. At the higher end of the industry, he suggests that sex workers check references, or require references from a client before agreeing to book a session.

Requiring references in Canada is complicated though. Master Tom notes that there is always the possibility that if a provider requests references, the client will just hang up, or go see someone else who doesn’t require that information.

“The fact is, the setting in Canada creates more competition, and with that, it makes it more difficult to screen clients,” he says.

But even in Canada, sex workers don’t always feel comfortable reporting crimes against them to law enforcement.

“That’s not always the case, but it’s often true,” says Master Tom.

Master Tom points to stigma, criminal implications, and general attitudes towards sex work as specific reasons why sex workers may not feel comfortable going to the authorities. He also mentions the risk of clients providing retaliatory bad feedback and reviews which would have obvious implications for the worker.

For persons from groups which are more vulnerable to exploitation, Master Tom Suggests seeking the advice of a support group.

Groups like Canada’s PACE Society help to provide the sorts of support that Master Tom describes. On their Twitter profile, the group says they offer “…#harmreduction front-line support services by, with, & for #SexWork-ers since 1994." For example, they’re trying to open a weekly clinic space to serve Vancouver’s transgender community as part of their Gender Self-Determination Project. Though the project serves everyone, the needs of persons who identify as sex workers are prioritized according to their website.

It would be the first program of its type in British Columbia.

PACE also offers a violence prevention workshop, an aboriginal sharing circle, and provides referrals to outside resources when necessary.

The violence prevention workshop focuses on both the mind and the body. Brenna Bezanson, PACE Society Community Liason explains that the workshop  opens with a discussion of self-esteem because if people believe they deserve violence, they’ll be less likely to use any of the other tools discussed in the workshop. They also teach confrontation management skills.

“It’s like conflict resolution,” Shari Kiselbach, PACE’s Violence Prevention Coordinator explains, when asked to explain what sorts of confrontation management skills are taught. Program attendees are taught to de-escalate with words & body language, and trust their intuition.

“Because you probably know before it even happens that something is up, that something might happen,” Kiselbach explains.

It also helps that PACE’s workshop has the backing of the City of Vancouver.

“Our safety workshop is actually funded through the city of Vancouver,” explains Bezanson.

“They’ve been supporting us for 10 years,” adds Kiselbach.

The VPD also has an officer who works directly  with sex workers.

“Many sex workers have her number and trust her,” explains Bezanson.

There is a right and a wrong way for law enforcement to support sex workers though.

The RCMP’s K Division in Edmonton runs the KARE/Pro-Active Team. Some say that the program promotes sex worker safety. Bezanson offers a slightly different read.

“It’s extremely paternalistic,” explains Bezanson, “It’s based on an assumption that street level sex work is predominantly exploitation. It involves a lot of raids. What the news never reports about that is the fact that those indoor working spaces--all research shows that they are safer than street level sex workers.”

“What they need is the law to be on their side so they can report violence, and they can have some health and safety standards,” adds Kiselbach.

Common Ground

One thing everyone seems to be able to agree on, regardless of the country they live in, is that the best strategy for keeping sex workers safe is to completely decriminalize their trade.

"Criminalization just makes us bigger victims,” explains Janet Duran, "If a crime is convicted during a crime, no one is going to report it."

“A lot of these issues can’t really be solved until  you have decriminalization," says Jara Krys, “In a place where sex work is criminalized, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to anyone who works for the government or is engaged with the government.”

Even in Canada, where sex work is already partially decriminalized, there is a push for more action to make the industry more "worker friendly."

“Decriminalization and de-stigmatization are the two things that would make it more worker friendly," explains Master Tom, "Sex work needs to be more socially acceptable and responsible.  It goes both ways.  It applies to the sex work as well as anyone else that touches on that industry.”


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