Oakland City Council Takes Stand Against Sex Workers 

In the name of stopping child trafficking, Oakland has endorsed an initiative that further criminalizes adult prostitution — even though San Francisco rejected the same program over fears it would endanger sex workers.

Alexandra Lutnick, researcher with RTI International, found that while California overall is arresting significantly fewer minors for prostitution, Alameda County's rates have stayed the same.

Bert Johnson

Alexandra Lutnick, researcher with RTI International, found that while California overall is arresting significantly fewer minors for prostitution, Alameda County's rates have stayed the same.

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.

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