HuffPost Live interviews me for segment on the Rentboy raid

I was interviewed on HuffPost Live about the recent Rentboy raid and its implications for sex workers. You can view the video below or use the direct link provided: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/homeland-security-rentboy-raid/55d7f4be78c90a7f88000522 Share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new...

Rentboy Raid Latest Salvo in Government’s Counterproductive War on Sex

This week, federal and state law enforcement officials shut down the well-known website, Rentboy.com, which provided a venue for thousands of gay escorts to post ads and screen potential clients. In a raid on the site’s headquarters in New York City, the officers arrested seven of the site’s employees, including its CEO, and charged them with selling sex and laundering money. The Rentboy raid is just the latest salvo in what civil rights attorneys and sex worker rights advocates say is an “ongoing war against sex” by the government. Earlier this year, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, pressured Mastercard and Visa into refusing to process transactions for Backpage, an online website that posts ads for sex workers. And last year, federal authorities shut down myredbook.com, an online site that allowed sex workers in California and other states to post ads and share tips about doing sex work safely. The operator of myredbook recently plead guilty to facilitating interstate prostitution and was sentenced to 19 months in prison. Civil rights attorneys say this is all part of a broader effort by state and federal government to crack down on companies that provide financial and advertising services for sex workers and others in the adult industry. At a time when much of the developed world has decriminalized sex work – with Amnesty International recently calling for decriminalization as the answer to much of the violence and abuse that surrounds commercial sex – the United States appears to be lurching in the opposite direction toward harsher criminal and civil penalties for sex workers and those who make their lives easier. The...

Amnesty International is on the right side of history (and the New York Times needs to get its facts straight)

Now that Amnesty International seems to be getting behind the movement to decriminalize sex work, the issue is finally getting some attention in the mainstream press. But as usual the media, or at least this article in the New York Times, has got some of its facts wrong. First of all, laws that criminalize buyers, such as the much-vaunted “Nordic model” first adopted in Sweden and now enacted in Canada and northern Ireland, are not “sheltering” sex workers. As I’ve blogged about before, research shows that such laws actually make life more dangerous for sex workers in those countries because it makes it harder for them to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). The Times article trumpets the fact that street prostitution has declined as a result of the Swedish law, but the truth is that overall, sex work has not declined appreciably in Sweden or other Scandinavian countries since the law passed in 2000. Nor has trafficking, according to the Swedish government’s own reports. As I discovered in writing Getting Screwed, Sex Workers and the Law (Oct. 2015), all the law has done is made sex work more hazardous for the women and men who sell sex and made sex workers more likely to be discriminated against in court and child custody battles. This is precisely why Amnesty International is considering a petition that calls for decriminalizing sex work. Unlike many in the mainstream media, they have done their homework and discovered that in countries that have decriminalized prostitution and regulate it to some degree, sex workers not only have much safer working conditions but are much...

Why laws that prevent prostitutes from working together lead to unsafe sex

Sex workers like to work together because it’s safer for them. A co-worker who knows where they’re going and who they’re with can intervene if necessary. Now, a new Canadian study has found that working together or what the researchers call “social cohesion” enhances the ability of street walkers to practice safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Yet anti-prostitution and trafficking laws make it much more difficult for sex workers to work together or feel connected to their peers. In fact, law enforcement in a number of states including California, Alaska and Ohio have used anti-trafficking statutes to arrest sex workers who work together and charge them with trafficking.  In 2013, for example, Karen Carpenter, the owner of an Anchorage massage parlor (where she worked with two other women) was charged with and convicted of sex trafficking, according to the Alaska Native News, even though the other women were working with her by choice. In the most recent study, researchers at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS interviewed 645 Vancouver sex workers over a three-year period. They found that sex workers who reported feeling more “social cohesion” were more likely to say no to having sex without condoms, according to the Globe and Mail.  The researchers determined the level of social cohesion sex workers felt by asking them to rate statements such as, “You can count on your colleagues to accompany you to the door.” The study, which was presented last week at the International AIDS Society conference in Vancouver, also found that under Canada’s criminal laws, many of the sex workers felt pushed to engage in...

How Visa and Mastercard are endangering sex workers’ lives

Law enforcement officials have been unable to shut down Backpage, a website for personals and sex work ads, by legal means. So they have resorted to a more indirect approach: asking credit card companies to deny transactions by sex workers seeking to pay for ads on Backpage. Recently, they succeeded in convincing Visa and Mastercard to stop processing payment for Backpage ads, according to an article in the New Republic.  Noah Berlatsky writes that Tim Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, argued that reducing sex worker ads will help fight trafficking and the exploitation of sex workers by pimps. In reality, denying sex workers the ability to advertise on Backpage will only make their lives more dangerous. As I discovered in doing research for my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law and noted in previous blogs here and here, having the ability to advertise online allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers and work indoors. Research shows that when sex workers can’t advertise online and screen clients, they are often forced onto the street, where it is more difficult to screen out violent clients and negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). They are also more likely to have to depend on exploitative pimps to find customers for them. Dart says he appealed to the credit card companies because he wants to reduce prostitution, but that’s a zero sum game. Indeed, studies show that when women and men who are doing sex work by choice leave the profession, that only creates a vacuum for traffickers, who provide a corresponding increase in trafficked sex...

Why the Swedish approach to prostitution endangers public health

At the beginning of June, northern Ireland became the only part of the United Kingdom to outlaw the purchase of sex, adopting what is known as the “Nordic model” because Sweden was the first country to criminalize the buyers of sex. The Nordic model has since been claimed by Norway, Iceland and Canada and it is hailed in some quarters as a “progressive” or “feminist” approach to prostitution. The reality is that the Nordic model is the opposite of progressive, and many feminists are opposed to it because it ends up making life more hazardous for sex workers and the general public. Research shows that while the 1999 Swedish Purchasing Act was intended to protect sex workers, it has actually harmed them. As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, streetwalkers in Sweden have reported increased violence, in part because regular clients avoid them for fear of arrest and have turned instead to the Internet and indoor venues for sex. The clients who remain on the street are more likely to be drunk and violent, and they often demand unprotected sex. As two Swedish researchers, Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, found in a recent study, when clients are in a hurry and frightened of being arrested, it is more difficult for the sex worker to assess whether they might be dangerous or to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Sweden’s prohibitionist approach also discourages the distribution of condoms to sex workers, according to a recent survey by HIV Sweden, a nonprofit health group, and the Rose Alliance, a sex workers group in...

Shuttering websites does nothing to help sexually exploited teens

Two weeks ago, Eric Omuro, a California man who operated myRedbook.com, a website for personal ads, was convicted of facilitating prostitution and sentenced to 13 months in prison. Omuro and a coworker had been arrested last June and myRedbook shut down, much to the chagrin of sex workers on the west coast who advertised their services on the site for free. At the time, sex worker rights groups said that closing myRedbook would make it more difficult for sex workers to screen customers safely and push some women back out onto the street, where sex work is more dangerous. “Today we also lost extensive online forums for a community of sex workers to keep each other safe, screen clients, and blacklist predators,” wrote Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, spokeswoman Patricia West in a statement published by the San Francisco Examiner. Law enforcement’s success in convicting Omuro (the trial of the other operator is still pending) is problematic on another front as well. It may embolden authorities to go after other websites, like backpage, Craigslist and eros.com, which also run personal ads, thus depriving sex workers of the means to negotiate sexual transactions safely. As I discovered in researching my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, providing sex workers with online forums where they can post ads actually allows them to be more independent of pimps or others who might exploit their labor. It also takes them off the street where, studies show, negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) is far more difficult. In addition, law enforcement routinely work with such online...

Most Sex Workers and Smuggled Migrants Aren’t Being “Trafficked”

Even some of the most respected news outlets in the United States are getting it wrong. In a recent Talk of the Town  in The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch referred to the men who are smuggling migrants from Africa to Europe as traffickers instead of what they really are: smugglers. And the headline of a New York Times article this week on the same crisis blared, “African Children Caught in Trafficking Machine.” The print article itself referred to such children as “being innocent victims of the human trafficking machine that is now sucking so many African migrants into the Libyan maelstrom and out onto the Mediterranean waters.” The problem is that the men who are charging exorbitant rates to ferry migrants into Europe are not by and large traffickers; they are smugglers being paid to transport people who are desperate to escape to Europe for economic or political reasons. The United States government defines trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion.” What’s going on in Libya is not trafficking, but a large-scale effort to smuggle migrants into Europe by men who are often unscrupulous and greedy. But these smugglers are not harboring or transporting the vast majority of people for labor by force, fraud or coercion. In the vast majority of cases, they are smuggling migrants at their own request. (In recognition of this, an editor at the Times changed the reference in the online text of the article cited above from trafficking to smuggling, but the headline and caption remain inaccurate)....

Nick Kristof is wrong about Backpage (and other things too)

Nick Kristof is at it again. On Sunday, the New York Times columnist wrote yet another column about sex trafficking that was filled with inaccuracies and misleading statements. He was writing about a new lawsuit filed by two young women who say they were trafficked as teen prostitutes through ads that appeared on the online website, Backpage.. In his column supporting this lawsuit, Kristof says that Backpage makes it easy for traffickers to peddle underage prostitutes, and he blasted the online website for “blocking efforts by police or families to trace missing girls and boys.” That is simply not true. But before I explain why, let me first say that the commercial sexual exploitation of children is a major problem in the U.S. and one that demands our best minds to solve. But shutting down Backpage (and before it craigslist) is not the solution to eradicating underage prostitution. I have spent the last four years interviewing law enforcement, sex workers and experts on the sex industry for an upcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Work and the Law, and they all say that shutting down one or two websites that permit ads for sex work will only make things worse for girls and women who are being sexually exploited. Not only will it drive sex advertisers to offshore websites that are not accountable to American laws or law enforcement, but it will make it more difficult for adult sex workers to work safely and protect themselves from violent clients and sexually transmitted disease. (Research shows that when sex workers can’t advertise online and screen clients, they are often forced onto...

My upcoming book on sex work and the law

For the past four years, I have been working on a new book that is a departure from my previous book, Side Effects.  Tentatively titled Getting Screwed: Sex Work and the Law, the new book weaves the true stories of sex workers (past and present) together with the latest research to make what I hope will be a compelling argument for decriminalizing adult consensual sex work in this country. The book takes a wide-ranging historic look at prostitution in the United States and explores why, at a time when the rest of the developed world – much of Europe along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – has moved toward decriminalizing sex work in an effort to improve public health and safety, the United States has moved in the opposite direction: toward counterproductive and largely ineffective laws.  The book illustrates how such laws have done little to curb the rising demand for sex work and don’t protect workers from exploitation or trafficking. If anything, criminalization has made it more difficult for sex workers to protect themselves from violent predators and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. If adult sex work were decriminalized in the United States, law enforcement could focus on more serious crimes, such as the sexual exploitation of vulnerable teenagers or the trafficking of illegal immigrants into the sex trade. In Side Effects, I attempted to speak up for one group of underdogs: vulnerable patients who weren’t getting the full story about the side effects of potent psychoactive drugs.  With Getting Screwed, I am speaking up for another class of underdogs: people who have been marginalized and...