Campaigns to decriminalize sex work are gaining ground, but states like Florida are instead cracking down.
For many years, sex workers in the U.S. struggled in relative obscurity to secure basic rights and protections. Now, the campaign to decriminalize sex work is breaking through. Legislative agendas are finally tackling the issue, including in New York and the District of Columbia. And yet this often-isolated progress is being met with regressive and harmful anti-sex worker bills in the country’s more conservative legislatures.
A set of particularly ill-conceived bills is winding its way through the Florida House and Senate this month, under the ever-misleading frame of anti-“trafficking” legislation. As with many legislative efforts under the guise of fighting trafficking, these bills threaten to make sex workers less safe and more vulnerable to exploitation and increased state violence.
Just like all criminalization, bills like this consistently end up making sex work more dangerous and trafficking more — not less — likely.
The Senate bill proposes the creation of a “Solicitation for Prostitution Registry,” a database that would list the names of people found guilty of the loosely defined crimes of “soliciting, inducing, enticing, or procuring” another to commit “prostitution, lewdness, or assignation.” Supporters of the proposal claim that the registry would only include buyers of sex and pimps. But the sex work community, advocates, and experts know bad legislation when they see it. The registry risks ensnaring sex workers, they point out. And, just like all criminalization of the industry, bills like this consistently end up making sex work more dangerous and trafficking more — not less — likely.
“It doesn’t matter if this claims to target pimps and johns. We know sex workers will end up on that list,” said Alex Andrews, co-founder of SWOP Behind Bars, an organization that provides support for incarcerated sex workers. Andrews, a former sex worker herself, told The Intercept that the bill’s imprecise language reinforces a long history of law enforcement discourse that is unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between consensual sex workers and trafficking victims, between respectful clients and traffickers.
The premise of a public registry is simple: It names and shames with the goal of dissuading buyers of sex or enablers of sex work. There are, however, a host of ways that sex workers have themselves been charged for soliciting others. A person can be accused of soliciting another person into prostitution merely for providing resources or sharing an apartment for work, which workers often do for safety reasons.
Even if the proposed Florida registry managed — despite the precedent and the vague language of the bill — to somehow isolate only pimps and johns, sex workers themselves would nonetheless be made more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Advocates to “end demand” for the sex trade have successfully pushed bills in a handful of locales with the same results: Sex workers are put at risk and trafficking continues. The criminalization of buyers — the so-called Nordic model — still forces sex workers into the shadows. As Jessica Raven, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project and a former sex worker, said at a press conference in February, “In reality, these laws target loved ones, family, landlords, drivers, and other people providing care and service to sex workers.” For undocumented sex workers, even when framed as victims, any brush with law enforcement also means a risk of deportation.
There are plenty of examples of how overly broad anti-trafficking efforts have harmed consenting sex workers, giving us lenses through which to evaluate proposals like Florida’s registry. One recent nationwide example was the equally pernicious Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known collectively as SESTA-FOSTA, which were signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. Under SESTA-FOSTA, websites and online platforms can be held liable for hosting what the law describes as “prostitution.” The law purported to target platforms for trafficking — online websites used for the sex trade — but the sex workers themselves considered these platforms a lifeline. Consenting sex workers were able to use the websites to communicate between themselves, as well as safely find and screen clients. Those avenues are now closed to them: SESTA-FOSTA succeeded in shutting sites down, with a number of platforms closing preemptively in fear of the new law.
Similar examples abound abroad. In both Canada and France, where “end demand” legislation was introduced in 2014 and 2016, respectively, extensive studies found that the laws did more harm than good for sex workers. Hélène Le Bail, a researcher at Sciences Po CERI in Paris, carried out a study involving 691 sex workers and concluded that “end demand” laws have resulted in an “acute increase in socioeconomic vulnerability.” A Canadian study from the University of British Columbia, which interviewed 854 sex workers in the region, found that the “end demand” laws had significantly dissuaded workers from accessing support services. Advocacy groups in opposition to the Florida bills presented these studies, among others, to lawmakers alongside numerous firsthand sex worker testimonies.
“I find it really problematic that no one is listening to experts and no one is listening to sex workers.”
“I find it really problematic that no one is listening to experts and no one is listening to sex workers,” Jill McCracken, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, who has researched the public, political, and legal framing of sex work for over a decade.
While sex workers and their advocates have been all but ignored in the debate over the Florida bill, its supporters have frequently relied on a single study to argue for the registry. The 2011 study claims to show that men who buy sex are more likely to exhibit more dangerous, violent, and coercive behavior toward sex workers. “This study is not an evidence-based view of the sex industry and it does not explain the full impact of ‘end demand’ policies,” McCracken told The Intercept via email. McCracken cited community organizer Christine Hanavan, who testified in front of the Senate that the study was “led by authors who are well known for fabricating and misrepresenting data, discrediting data that does not support their preconceived ideas, and other serious issues in methodology and ethical violations, including within the study cited.”
McCracken said that her own studies have highlighted the dangers of “end demand” policies like the registry. McCracken recently returned from a research trip to New Zealand, where neither consensually selling nor buying sex is criminalized (with certain exceptions), and said that the sex workers she interviewed reported a decrease in violence, particularly violent interactions with police. “Lawmakers here act like they have to pass any legislation with ‘trafficking’ in title,” she said of the American debate. “They don’t. They should pass legislation responsibly.”
The problems with the “Solicitation of Prostitution Registry” are not the only troubling aspects of the legislative package in the Florida Senate and House bills. Another proposal would see operators of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals fined up to $1,000 per day if they do not put employees through training to identify and report instances of trafficking in their establishments. This would force hotel workers, themselves often underpaid and exploited, to act as liaisons for a law-enforcement surveillance system, which has long proven incapable of distinguishing sex workers from trafficking victims.
“This would mean that employees paid minimum wage are forced to do the job of social workers on behalf of law enforcement,” Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications for the campaign Decriminalize Sex Work, told The Intercept. Bailey said that this sort of legislation follows a long history in which “crackdowns on ‘whores’ were ways for police officers to crackdown on poor women.”
These bills, which are likely to become law, were proposed at the same time that Florida law enforcement is in the midst of a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking. The law enforcement push itself is a good example of how these efforts go awry: Numerous trafficking victims have been arrested. In a series of stings and raids on massage parlors profiting from commercial sex, around 300 buyers and a number of women operating the establishments were arrested. In the most high profile of such stings, billionaire New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting. The alleged victims of the sting — the parlor workers — were “rescued” by means of police handcuffs. As Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford wrote in an extensive report on massage parlor raids for The Appeal, “When a massage business shuts down, its workers — trafficked or not — are likely to remain vulnerable.”
For their part, legislators pushing for the “trafficking” bills were not expecting any opposition. “I thought this was a slam dunk, but after hearing all the opposition, it’s a little bit surprising,” state Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orlando, told the News Service of Florida. The registry bill unanimously passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in February and now heads to the appropriations committee, while a hearing on the Florida House version of the bill took place before the criminal justice subcommittee last week. Comments from a number of lawmakers during the House hearing made clear that they had little interest in listening to sex workers — the very community threatened by the bills.
In response to six sex workers who risked public exposure to express their concerns about the proposed legislation, Republican state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who sponsored the bill, said that because selling sex is a crime, she would not work with them. The irony that she would not listen to the very people the bill purportedly aims to keep safe was lost on her. “It is a malevolent assertion,” she said, “for these persons to come up here and try to malign this good bill.”
Correction: April 5, 2019, 4:45 p.m.
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Jill McCracken. She was quoting Christine Hanavan. The story also stated that Robert Kraft was arrested for solicitation, but he was charged with solicitation. The story has been updated.