Last Friday, the police chief of Oakland, California, resigned amid a growing scandal involving a number of his police officers who had sex with an underage sex worker while their supervisors looked the other way, according to reporting by the East Bay Express. The sex worker, who was 17 at the time, says she had sex with multiple officers in exchange for not getting arrested or prosecuted. According to the Express, this amounts to coercion and thus the sex worker could be considered a victim of trafficking by the police.
This scandal reeks of irony because the Oakland Police Department and the surrounding Alameda County have long styled themselves as leaders in the fight against human trafficking. In my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, I interviewed Nancy O’Malley, the district attorney for Alameda County, who is known as one of the toughest anti-trafficking prosecutors in the state. “We’ve been very aggressive about trafficking for a number of years,” she said proudly.
Yet when Celeste Guap, the underage sex worker in question, approached a police officer for help in escaping a pimp on the streets of Oakland, he didn’t write her up as a trafficking victim or help her obtain social services. Instead, he started sleeping with her and made her sexually available to his pals on the force.
Sad to say, this is just one more example of how anti-prostitution laws corrupt police. Research I dug up for my book shows that cops are among the biggest customers of sex workers and that it has long been common for women to provide sex to police in exchange for not getting arrested. Indeed, in the state of Ohio, law enforcement topped the charts of the listed occupations who purchase sex, according to a 2012 report on domestic sex trafficking by Ohio’s Human Trafficking Commission. Police even beat out politicians for this distinction, and as the report shows, it didn’t matter whether the women were selling sex voluntarily. According to the Ohio report, law enforcement officials were the number one customers even when the women they frequented were found to have been trafficked into the trade.
Indeed, one of the many compelling reasons to decriminalize sex work would be to remove this corrupting influence on law enforcement. Police could of course still pay for sex (like anyone else), but it would reduce the element of coercion that inevitably exists when a police officer detains a sex worker who has only one thing to offer in exchange for not getting arrested and prosecuted.
Granted, at age 17, Celeste Guap would still have been considered a trafficking victim (federal law defines anyone under the age of 18 who engages in commercial sex as a trafficking victim). But in a decriminalized environment, she would no longer fear being arrested for the crime of selling sex and might perhaps be less likely to have sex with police officers. Or should we call it statutory rape?
And that brings me to my next question: why weren’t the Oakland police pursuing Guap’s pimp as a trafficker, instead of holding her hostage for their own sexual demands? As I show in my book, vice squads in the U.S. spend much of their time entrapping and arresting female sex workers (both those under and over 18), instead of focusing on exploitative pimps and actual traffickers. Why? Because as one Las Vegas cop admitted, it’s easier and a lot more fun!
In countries that have decriminalized sex work, like New Zealand and the Netherlands, sex workers feel more comfortable working with the police to target abusive clients and exploitative pimps. And police are less likely to get ensnared in the kind of scandal now enveloping Oakland.
As Norma Jean Almodovar, a former LAPD traffic cop and sex worker herself, said in a 2010 keynote address, “Bad laws lead to bad cops.” So let’s start by changing the laws.
This blog has been cross-posted on The Huffington Post.