Blog | Alison Bass http://www.alison-bass.com Fri, 25 Nov 2016 15:03:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 California judge rejects charges against Backpage escort site — at least for now http://www.alison-bass.com/california-judge-rejects-charges-against-escort-website-backpage-at-least-for-now/ http://www.alison-bass.com/california-judge-rejects-charges-against-escort-website-backpage-at-least-for-now/#respond Mon, 21 Nov 2016 15:12:11 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1875

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  2. Nick Kristof is wrong about Backpage (and other things too)
  3. Why shutting down Backpage won’t curb sex trafficking or underage prostitution
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red-umbrella-2The arrest of the CEO of Backpage, a website for sex work ads, as he stepped off a plane in Houston October 6, made headlines. Carl Ferrer, 55, was arrested on a California warrant and charged with pimping by the California Attorney General’s office. Two other men associated with Backpage were also charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.

The entire case, however, may soon be thrown out. In an interesting twist, a federal court judge in California last week tentatively ruled that Backpage’s content was protected by free speech under the Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity to website operators for content posted by users. The judge agreed not to make his ruling final, giving the attorney general’s office until Dec. 9 to convince him otherwise.

In my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law and in previous blogs, I have argued that shuttering online advertising venues like Backpage only makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves — from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

But what makes Judge Michael Bowman’s recent ruling so interesting is that it has ramifications that go far beyond whether websites that allow sex workers to place ads should be allowed to stay open. If Backpage’s operators are found guilty for posting sexually explicit content, then the operators of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites could also be held liable, according to civil rights attorneys.

And that would be a serious blow to free speech. Without the section of the Communications Decency Act that protects websites from liability for content posted by others, platforms for exchanging ideas or information wouldn’t have an incentive to exist, another civil rights attorney recently told the AP.  

Judge Michael Bowman’s tentative ruling echoes previous court decisions. Since the dawn of the internet, court rulings based on the 1996 Communications Decency Act have protected online news sites like Yahoo, review sites like Yelp, and even former political gossip sites like Wonkette, from libelous or controversial content posted by third parties.

Most recently, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit against Backpage by several women who said they were trafficked through ads on Backpage beginning at age 15. The women had argued Backpage profited from their victimization, but the court rejected the case on the grounds that the website itself was not responsible for their victimization. That dismissal was upheld by a federal appeals court.

In its warrant against the Backpage executives, California prosecutors argued that in addition to making millions of dollars off the sale of “adult” ads, Backpage’s operators used data from the website to create other prostitution-related sites that essentially serve as an escort directory comprised of sex workers who advertise on the site. That active process of publishing, they argued, moves Backpage beyond being a passive forum for ads into more active involvement with prostitution.

Bowman, however, didn’t buy that argument — at least in his tentative ruling last week. But in giving the California prosecutors another two weeks to present more convincing arguments for why Backpage’s operators should be convicted, he opened the door to the possibility that he might change his mind.

All eyes are on his final ruling in mid-December. Will Backpage, which has been the target of law enforcement for years, survive for another day? Or will it go down in flames, along with a 20-year-old federal law designed to protect free speech?

 

 

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ACLU joins historic case against anti-prostitution laws http://www.alison-bass.com/aclu-joins-historic-case-against-anti-prostitution-laws/ http://www.alison-bass.com/aclu-joins-historic-case-against-anti-prostitution-laws/#respond Fri, 14 Oct 2016 15:08:42 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1858

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  3. Enforcing anti-kickback laws: a powerful deterrent against ghost-writing in medicine
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A lawsuit challenging California’s laws against prostitution just got a much-needed boost. The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, together with a raft of other organizations committed to gender equality, has filed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit, or rather its appeal of a district court’s ruling against the original suit. This could mean it will be harder for the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court, where the case now sits, to dismiss the lawsuit’s arguments out of hand.

The ACLU brief supports the lawsuit’s contention that California’s penal code violates fundamental constitutional rights to sexual privacy and is enforced in a discriminatory manner.  As I noted in Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, the original lawsuit, filed in March 2015, argued that laws making consensual commercial sexual activity between adults illegal were unconstitutional because they infringe on privacy rights protected by the 14th Amendment. As the ACLU brief points out, the Supreme Court, in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling, recognized that “liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.” The 2003 ruling held that a Texas law classifying consensual adult homosexual intercourse as illegal sodomy violated the privacy and liberty rights to engage in private intimate conduct. The California lawsuit argues the same could be applied to consensual commercial sex.

The ACLU brief also argues that the California penal code is unconstitutional because the way it is enforced is discriminatory. Certain groups, such as transgender women, LGBT youth, and female sex workers are targeted and arrested for prostitution in disproportionately higher numbers than other people. For instance, female sex workers are arrested in far greater numbers than the male clients they serve. As I show in my book, this has long been the reality. Yet such blatant discrimination remains prevalent. Of those arrested for prostitution nationwide in 2014, 66 percent were women and only 34 percent were men, according to an FBI report cited by the ACLU brief.

In addition, LGBT youth, many of whom are homeless and selling sex for survival, are also targeted for arrest in greater numbers than other youth. One of the studies cited by the ACLU brief found that lesbian or bisexual youth are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be in detention for prostitution.

Similarly, transgender women are routinely profiled as sex workers and stopped and searched while doing nothing illegal. And transgender individuals who do engage in sex work are far more likely to be arrested than other sex workers. This kind of discriminatory targeting exposes transgender women to high rates of police violence, according to the ACLU brief.

Indeed, the ACLU brief concludes, as I did in my book, that the criminalization of sex work exposes not only sex workers but all women to more violence. By contrast, decriminalization has been shown to reduce violence and discrimination against sex workers.

The original lawsuit challenging California penal code 647(b) was filed in March 2015 by the Erotic Services Providers Legal Education Research Project, a San Francisco labor rights organization for sex workers. It was dismissed by a judge in the Northern California District court, but ESPLERP appealed the ruling last month.

Now that the ACLU has jumped into the fray, all eyes are on the United States Court of Appeal, Ninth Circuit, to see what happens next.

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

 

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Baltimore is not only the place where police treat sex workers badly http://www.alison-bass.com/baltimore-is-not-only-the-place-where-police-treat-sex-workers-badly/ http://www.alison-bass.com/baltimore-is-not-only-the-place-where-police-treat-sex-workers-badly/#respond Fri, 12 Aug 2016 17:44:54 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1825

Related posts:

  1. Bad (prostitution) laws lead to bad cops: what happened in Oklahoma is just latest case
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  3. Were sex workers caught up in recent Seattle raid really being trafficked? And are such raids an effective use of our taxpayer dollars?
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It’s heartening to see that in its highly critical report on Baltimore’s police department, the U.S. Department of Justice excoriated the police for ignoring sexual assault complaints by minority women, including sex workers and transgender women.The DOJ report not only concluded that the force had systematically violated the rights of African-Americans, but it also highlighted a police culture that was downright toxic toward sex workers and transgender people, according to the New York Times. Specifically, sex workers interviewed by DOJ investigators complained that officers often ignored their reports of being sexually assaulted by clients and that some cops actually coerced sexual favors from these women in exchange for not arresting them.

I’m delighted the feds and mainstream media are finally spotlighting this issue, but as I documented in my recent book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, the Baltimore police’s treatment of sex workers is far from unique. Indifference and outright harassment of sex workers have been found in police departments from Alaska and California to New York City and Washington, D.C. For my book, I interviewed a number of transgender sex workers who told me that the police not only ignored their reports of sexual assault but sometimes victimized the workers themselves.

Take, for example, Kimora, an African-American transsexual whom I met at an outreach center for sex workers in Washington, D.C. Kimora said she was brutally raped by a john near the Trinidad area of D.C. and decided to press charges. But when she went to the 5th precinct police station to file a complaint, the police officer told her that she was to blame, because of the way she was dressed. “He wouldn’t take the report,” she says.

Ironically, Kimora said she and other street walkers are more afraid of the police than they are of johns. She knew of one D.C. cop who patrolled the streets and pretended to arrest street walkers. “Instead he’d take the girls to an alley and rape them himself,” she says, adding: “The laws don’t protect people like me.”

And then there is the story of Jennifer Reed, a former sex worker who is now a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Reed, whom I interviewed for my book, said that she and her family were harassed by a police officer in Ohio when she was a divorced single mother doing sex work to make ends meet. When Reed refused to have sex with this cop, he threatened to have her children arrested. One day, she got a call from both her children’s schools; police were there searching her 13-year-old son, then in middle school, and 11-year-old daughter for drugs.

“I went to my son’s school first and talked to the principal who was female,” Reed says. “She knew my son wasn’t a problem, he was a good kid, and she understood what was going on.” Then, Reed went to her daughter’s elementary school. When she walked into the principal’s office, the same cop who had pressured her for sex was there, “grinning from ear to ear.” He held up a bag of what he claimed was marijuana and said he had found in her daughter’s school locker. “It turned out to be a bag of spices and it had been planted,” Reed said. “My daughter is an honors student, but the principal said my daughter would either get suspended or be sent to an alternative school.”

Reed was forced to pull her children out of their schools and home school them until she could move out of the neighborhood. As she notes, most police officers are not like that, but the minority who harass sex workers and other vulnerable women tend to be habitual offenders – just like the Ohio cop who harassed her family and Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma cop who was convicted of using his badge to sexually assault low-income and minority women, some of whom were sex workers.

As I’ve concluded in my book and previous blogs, the toxic police culture found in so many areas of this country can be attributed not only to racial and gender bias but to the fact that adult prostitution is illegal in the U.S. (except for a number of rural counties in Nevada). As a result, many police treat sex workers (even when they haven’t been arrested for a crime) as subhuman criminals and that creates the kind of atmosphere the DOJ just documented in Baltimore. 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.” The solution, as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, is to decriminalize adult prostitution and start treating sex workers as citizens who have the right to protection just like everyone else.

This blog is cross-posted on The Huffington Post. 

 

 

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Bad laws lead to bad cops; just look at Oakland http://www.alison-bass.com/bad-laws-lead-to-bad-cops-just-look-at-oakland/ http://www.alison-bass.com/bad-laws-lead-to-bad-cops-just-look-at-oakland/#comments Wed, 15 Jun 2016 18:37:43 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1798

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

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Why Jimmy Carter is just plain wrong about sex work http://www.alison-bass.com/why-jimmy-carter-is-just-plain-wrong-about-sex-work/ http://www.alison-bass.com/why-jimmy-carter-is-just-plain-wrong-about-sex-work/#respond Mon, 06 Jun 2016 13:20:15 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1790

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  3. Why can’t the mainstream media get their facts straight in writing about the sex trade?
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Jimmy Carter is the latest persona to jump on the End Demand bandwagon. In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, he called for making the purchase of sex illegal. Unfortunately, the former President’s argument is based on erroneous information and a naïve moralistic viewpoint. Carter seems to buy into the notion that all sex work is a form of violence against women. Yet if you talk to sex workers themselves, from street walkers to high-end escorts (as I did in researching Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law), that is not what they will tell you. Many enjoy what they do; some find it empowering and view the work as therapeutic – they say they are helping people who have needs. Others see it as just another job, like working at Walmart but considerably more lucrative. And while Carter argues that the men who pay for sex have “power over another,” sex workers say the opposite is true. They are the ones who control the transaction and they decide what they will or will not allow. As Julie Moya, a former sex worker in Manhattan told me, “I see prostitution as a way of getting back control over your body.”

Research shows that sex work is not inherently violent. Indoor sex workers, for instance, are much less likely than streetwalkers to encounter violence. One recent British study of 135 indoor prostitutes found that 78 percent of them never experienced any violence. Indeed, much of the violence in the sex trade is bound up in the fact that it is illegal. Many sex workers are afraid to report violent clients to the police for fear of getting arrested themselves. This allows violent men to prey on sex workers and non-sex workers alike with impunity. In countries (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand) where sex has been decriminalized and regulated to some degree, sex workers are more comfortable reporting crimes to the police. As a result, there is an unusually low incidence of violence against all women in those countries.

What Carter also neglects to mention is that in countries that have criminalized the purchase of sex (the so-called Nordic model), sex work has only become more dangerous and sex workers have a harder timer accessing basic health and housing services. Since Sweden adopted this approach in 1999, studies show, sex workers there have had a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They’ve also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele — both on the streets and indoors. In addition, Swedish sex workers face heightened discrimination and stigmatization. In my book, I tell the tragic story of a Swedish sex worker who lost custody of her children simply because she had been an escort. She then lost her life when her ex-husband stabbed her to death during a supervised visit with her children.

Just last week, Amnesty International came out with a new report concluding that much the same thing has happened in Norway since it adopted the Nordic model. Amnesty concluded that the Nordic model’s stated purpose of protecting sex workers while targeting their clients simply isn’t working. Nor has this approach reduced the overall number of sex workers in Sweden, according to a report for the Swedish government. As the Amnesty report says, all that laws criminalizing buyers do is further endanger sex workers, impeding their ability to seek protection from violence and obtain needed housing and health services.

By contrast, in countries that have decriminalized sex work and regulated it to some degree (such as New Zealand), sex workers are better able to protect themselves — from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. At the same time, New Zealand, which decriminalized adult sex work in 2003, has experienced no increase in the sex trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants, nor in the numbers of women and men who sell sex by choice. Indeed, New Zealand retains one of the most favorable rankings in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report.

If we really wanted to help young girls (and boys) who are coerced into the sex trade or selling sex for survival on the streets, we would take the money we now spend on arresting adults engaged in consensual commercial sex and put it into programs that help disadvantaged youth off the streets. As I show in my book, most of what is now called sex trafficking is a new name for an old problem: the sexual exploitation of teens running away from dysfunctional homes where many have been neglected or abused. This includes members of the LGBT community who have been evicted from their own homes or communities.

There’s no question we should be devoting more resources to tackling the decades-old problem of teen exploitation, but that’s not what Carter and his ilk are arguing for. They want law enforcement to continue to go after adults engaged in consensual commercial sex. What I argue in my book is that we should be putting our scarce taxpayer dollars into badly needed social programs that attack the root cause of why young people get involved in paid sex in the first place.

As Carter says, prostitution is the world’s oldest profession and it’s not going away. So why not make sex work safer for the women and men who do it? Decriminalizing sex work would not only be a much more effective use of our taxpayer dollars but it would go a long way toward protecting the human rights of people who engage in sex for money.

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

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Amnesty International accuses Norway of violating sex workers’ human rights http://www.alison-bass.com/amnesty-international-attacks-nordic-model-for-making-sex-work-more-dangerous-and-violating-human-rights/ http://www.alison-bass.com/amnesty-international-attacks-nordic-model-for-making-sex-work-more-dangerous-and-violating-human-rights/#respond Thu, 26 May 2016 16:46:05 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1770

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On Wednesday, Amnesty International published its policy on sex work, calling on governments around the world to decriminalize consensual prostitution and take other steps to protect the human rights of sex workers including ending discrimination against them. The published policy is the culmination of an historic vote Amnesty International’s board took last August and it lays out the reasons why decriminalization is the best means to protect the health and human rights of sex workers. Its policy is based on extensive research showing that laws that criminalize the purchase and solicitation of commercial sex “often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers, with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. In its press release, Amnesty concludes that laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.

The same day, Amnesty published another report on the human cost of laws criminalizing the purchase of sex in Norway, known as the Nordic model. It began with the story of Mercy, a Nigerian sex worker, who was evicted from her apartment after she reported to the police that she and other sex workers she lived with had been robbed and raped at knife point. As she told Amnesty, the police put pressure on their landlord to throw her and the other women out onto the street.  As Amnesty noted:

Mercy’s story is not an isolated case. Amnesty International learned of another violent robbery carried out against three women selling sex around the same time in March 2014 who were rapidly deported from the country after they reported the incident to the police… Amnesty International has found evidence that many sex workers remain subject to a high level of policing and are being targeted and penalized by police in multiple, intersecting ways.

Amnesty concluded that the Nordic model’s stated purpose of protecting sex workers while targeting their clients isn’t working. It’s only making things worse.

As I discovered in writing my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, much the same thing has happened in Sweden after that country was the first to make it illegal to purchase (but not sell) sex. Since 2000, studies show, sex workers there have a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They’ve also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele — both on the streets and indoors. In addition, Swedish sex workers have also faced heightened discrimination and stigmatization. Indeed in my book, I tell the tragic story of a Swedish sex worker who lost custody of her children simply because she had been an escort. She then lost her life when her ex-husband stabbed her to death during a supervised visit with her children.

The irony is that criminalizing sex clients has not reduced the overall number of sex workers in that country, according to the Swedish government’s own reports. Nor has it decreased trafficking in the region either. All that laws criminalizing buyers (as well as sellers) do is further endanger sex workers, impeding their ability to seek protection from violence and obtain needed housing and health services.

My hat’s off to Amnesty for having the guts to stand up and shout the truth. I hope that some day the state and federal governments in this country will listen.

 

 

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Bass to give talk on sex work at California State University May 16 http://www.alison-bass.com/bass-to-give-talk-on-sex-work-at-california-state-university-may-16/ http://www.alison-bass.com/bass-to-give-talk-on-sex-work-at-california-state-university-may-16/#respond Mon, 09 May 2016 18:18:55 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1739

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  2. My upcoming book on sex work and the law
  3. Amnesty International is on the right side of history (and the New York Times needs to get its facts straight)
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I have been invited to give a talk on sex work on May 16 at California State University in Los Angeles. My 4:30 pm talk, sponsored by CSU’s Cross-Cultural Centers, will focus on research I gathered for my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, and why decriminalizing sex work makes sense from a public health and safety perspective. I will also talk about several  recent developments that indicate a growing openness here and abroad to the idea of decriminalizing adult prostitution here and abroad. If you are in the LA area next Monday, please feel free to join me for what should be a great conversation!

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Why laws that criminalize buyers of sex only make sex work more dangerous and do nothing to curb demand http://www.alison-bass.com/why-laws-that-criminalize-buyers-of-sex-only-make-sex-work-more-dangerous-and-do-nothing-to-curb-demand/ http://www.alison-bass.com/why-laws-that-criminalize-buyers-of-sex-only-make-sex-work-more-dangerous-and-do-nothing-to-curb-demand/#respond Mon, 02 May 2016 13:59:49 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1726

Related posts:

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  2. Why laws that prevent prostitutes from working together lead to unsafe sex
  3. Why shutting down Backpage won’t curb sex trafficking or underage prostitution
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There seems to be an international push these days toward making the purchase of sex (but not its sale) illegal. In the 16 years since Sweden criminalized buyers of commercial sex, Norway, Denmark, Canada and most recently, northern Ireland have followed suit. And now England is considering similar legislation, according to VICE. What adherents to this approach don’t understand is that such laws only make working conditions much more dangerous for sex workers and do very little to curb the demand for commercial sex.

As I illustrate in my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, many sex workers are careful to screen clients before they meet with them, asking for detailed information about who they are and where they work. As Maddy, a high-end escort in Washington, D.C. whose clients are corporate executives and top government officials, told me, ” I never see clients I haven’t screened. I find out where they work, and I can verify that they actually are who they say they are.”

As Maddy and other sex workers note, laws criminalizing buyers would make such screening much more difficult — what buyer is going to readily divulge such culpable information — and thus jeopardize their ability to work safely. And indeed, that appears to be what has happened in Sweden. Since 2000, studies show, sex workers there have a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They’ve also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele — both on the streets and indoors.

The irony is that Sweden’s approach has actually increased the overall number of sex workers in that country and did not reduce trafficking in the region at all, according to the Swedish government’s own reports. 

By contrast, countries that have decriminalized sex work and regulated it to some degree (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand) report no increase in the sex trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants. At the same time, sex workers in those countries are better able to protect themselves — from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. Because they don’t fear being arrested, they have more time to negotiate safe sex and they are more comfortable working with police to target traffickers and abusive clients.

In decriminalized environments, sex workers are also able to work with colleagues who know where they’re going and who they’re meeting with, an important safeguard — without fear of being arrested. As I blogged about before, police in the United States often arrest sex workers who work together and charge them with trafficking each other, even when they are working together by choice.

As one British researcher told VICE, the current push in the United Kingdom to criminalize buyers is reminiscent of the solicitation laws passed there in the late 19th century, which resulted in the convictions of 7,415 sex workers but only 165 pimps. As Julia Laite,a lecturer in British history at Birkbeck, University of London, said:

“What really bothers me is that these people present the idea of criminalizing buyers as a brand-new, feminist, revolutionary idea. Really, the idea is very old. It wasn’t originally considered feminist; it was far more connected to the moral reform movement.”

And that’s exactly what’s going on today with the movement to criminalize buyers. The End Demand folks who are pushing this agenda are not concerned with the rights and safety of the women and men who sell sex; they are on some kind of high-minded moral crusade to “rescue” people who don’t want or need to be rescued.

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post. 

 

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Film rights for Side Effects optioned by Hollywood http://www.alison-bass.com/film-rights-for-side-effects-optioned-by-hollywood/ http://www.alison-bass.com/film-rights-for-side-effects-optioned-by-hollywood/#respond Wed, 13 Apr 2016 13:41:32 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1709

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After my first nonfiction book, Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial, was published, a number of readers told me that the book would make a great movie. (It’s written as a narrative and tells the true story of two women who expose the deception behind the making of a bestselling drug). And in fact I did receive a call from a Hollywood producer interested in optioning film rights for the book. Negotiations commenced but didn’t pan out.  I moved onto my next book project (about sex work), figuring that Hollywood just wasn’t in the cards.

Imagine my surprise seven years later to hear from another director and screenwriter that he was interested in optioning the film rights for my 2008 book. This time, it came to pass. Of course, that doesn’t mean a movie will be made. First, the director who bought the film rights has to write a screenplay and then sell it to a production company, and even then there’s no guarantee the movie will be made. Even so, it’s a beginning. I remind myself that it took almost 20 years for the movie Black Mass to hit the big screen from the time the book, written by two of my former Boston Globe colleagues, was optioned. And it took more than a decade for the movie Spotlight to reach global audiences after the The Globe’s Spotlight team won its Pulitzer for exposing the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priest abuse. And we all know what happened to that film: it won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture.

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Were sex workers caught up in recent Seattle raid really being trafficked? And are such raids an effective use of our taxpayer dollars? http://www.alison-bass.com/were-sex-workers-caught-up-in-recent-seattle-raid-really-being-trafficked-and-are-such-raids-an-effective-use-of-our-taxpayer-dollars/ http://www.alison-bass.com/were-sex-workers-caught-up-in-recent-seattle-raid-really-being-trafficked-and-are-such-raids-an-effective-use-of-our-taxpayer-dollars/#respond Thu, 28 Jan 2016 01:02:24 +0000 http://www.alison-bass.com/?p=1655

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In early January, law enforcement in the Seattle area shut down a popular website used by sex workers to advertise their services and by customers to review sex workers. Police also raided a number of luxury apartments in Bellevue where women were allegedly selling sex and arrested a dozen men and two women for arranging the liaisons and moderating The Review Board (TRB) website.

In a recent interview, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett told me that his men, working with the King County Sheriff’s office and the FBI, had broken up a “well-organized ring promoting sex slavery.” He called the shuttered website an “anti-list of the underworld sex trafficking industry.”

There’s just one hitch. The women whom law enforcement said they “rescued” in this raid may not actually have been trafficked. U.S. law 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.” It’s worth noting that King County’s prosecutor did not charge any of the people arrested with trafficking, only with promoting prostitution. The women rounded up in the January 6 raid were all from South Korea, and while police say that some of them may have been doing sex work to pay off debts their families owed back home, the question remains: were these women being coerced or forced into sex work?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but a larger question looms: is shutting down websites and arresting customers the most effective approach to curbing sexual exploitation and helping sex workers who may or may not want to get out of the life? Sex work advocates certainly don’t think so.

“The overwhelming majority of sex workers who advertised on TRB were white cisgendered [straight] women who were not being coerced into a damn thing,” says Savannah Sly, a Seattle sex worker and president of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national advocacy group. “Now these women have one less safe advertising venue.”

As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, being able to advertise on online sites like TRB allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers and work indoors. Research shows that when sex workers can’t advertise online, 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.

Shutting down such websites make sex work more dangerous in other ways as well. “What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients who have a lot to lose from the client pool,” Sly says. “That leaves high-risk or violent predators who don’t respond to increased law enforcement. And because you have reduced demand, you’re more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous.”

That’s exactly what happened in Sweden, when that country began making the purchase of sex illegal in 2000, studies show. Sex workers there were exposed to more violent clients and less able to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Yet criminalizing buyers did not reduce trafficking in the region or the overall number of people selling sex in Sweden, according to the Swedish government’s own reports.

Criminalizing prostitution, whether from the demand or supply end, is not going to curb trafficking or make significant inroads into the soaring global demand for commercial sex. Indeed, one recent study found that in countries where sex work is illegal, trafficking increased to meet the demand. What this New York University study found was that when voluntary sex workers leave the business because they fear being penalized, traffickers step in to the fill the vacuum with women who aren’t doing the work by choice.

If such findings are true, then spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a ten-month undercover investigation (as Seattle law enforcement did) makes no sense. It will only make it more dangerous for sex workers and allow violent clients (who prey on non-prostitutes as well) to operate with impunity. Sex workers are like canaries in the coal mine when it comes to violent predators: they are often the first to spot such men but they can’t raise an alarm for fear of being arrested themselves. That’s one reason why Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, among other groups, call for the decriminalization of sex work.

Now back to the issue of whether we’re really dealing with trafficking in this case. The court documents include no affidavits or victim statements from the women themselves. According to sex work advocates, law enforcement did mention one woman who said her family in South Korea was in debt bondage and that if she didn’t do sex work and pay off their debt, her family might be hurt. If that’s true, such coercion shouldn’t be permitted, here or in South Korea. But I can’t help but wonder about the element of coercion involved in obtaining the statement of an illegal immigrant who knows she may be jailed or deported unless she depicts herself as a trafficking victim.

According to the court documents, the South Korean women who sold sex in the Seattle area paid their own way to travel there “on their own volition.” That doesn’t sound like they were being transported against their will. There is also no evidence that these women were being forced to stay in the apartments or forced to sell sex. Indeed, the instructions on the TRB site says explicitly that “No means NO. Regardless of your particular expectations, what is offered is completely up to the provider.” The website goes on to say, “Providers are encourage to report continued boundary testing by any client.”

Sex work advocates acknowledge that some of the South Korean sex workers might have been exploited. “These women are trying to keep a low profile and they’re isolated,” Sly says. “Those are ripe instances of abuse.”

She adds that in a world in which Seattle-area sex workers felt safe to go to law enforcement (without fear of being arrested themselves), they might have approached local police about their concerns. And that brings up yet another argument for decriminalizing sex work. In countries where prostitution is legal (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand), sex work advocates feel comfortable working with law enforcement to target traffickers and abusive clients. As a result, working conditions for sex workers are much safer and there are lower levels of violence against all women.

If the American public wants to spend scarce taxpayer dollars to entrap and arrest people for promoting adult prostitution, that’s one thing. But it’s disingenuous for law enforcement to wrap what they’re doing in the guise of sex slavery when that may not be what’s going on here at all.

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

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