On June 13, more than 400 people, mainly from law enforcement and non-profits, gathered for a conference in downtown Oakland’s Marriott Hotel. Outside, a group of angry protesters gave impassioned speeches before trying to enter the hotel. The complex set of issues involved? The conference was organized to discuss tactics for arresting and charging child sex traffickers, but the protesters said that the conference would do nothing but further the state’s harmful impact on the lives of sex workers.
I wasn’t able to attend the conference itself; the Alameda County District Attorney’s office decided at the last minute that press would not be permitted inside. But from the conference’s description and a talk with Casey Bates, head of DA’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit (HEAT), it seemed that the conference was mostly focused on improving efforts to by law enforcement to find people underage people who are having sex for money and prosecute their “traffickers,” a designation not much different than “pimps.”
According to Bates, the HEAT unit has focused on people selling sex on the street and online, and most are from California or nearby states, although he hopes the efforts can expand to people who are trafficked in from other countries.
Under the law, anyone selling sex under 18 years of age is classified as a CSEC- commercially sexually exploited child.
As DA Nancy O’Malley emphasizes on the HEAT unit website, “We have been fighting to shatter the perception of children as prostitutes and criminals undeserving of protection. These young people are victims of child abuse.”
The sex workers rights movement, organized by people in the sex industry who see their work as legitimate, has largely called for decriminalization of prostitution and other forms of sex work since the movement off in the 1960s, with new concerns in the 21st century. Many groups have argued that police increase the violence in the lives of prostitutes, harassing and arresting them while not taking violence against sex workers seriously. The much older anti-trafficking movement, (or, as it was called at the beginning of the 20th century, anti- “white slavery,”) has many proponents who disagree, saying all prostitution involves some form of coercion. The two movements have a long history of conflict, and on June 13, this dynamic was thrust into the public eye.
Policing the problem
This conference was described as “comprehensive event designed to enhance the capacity of law enforcement and practitioners to combat commercial sex trafficking of children (CSEC).”
“Of course we support refuges, housing, and other services for these children,” said Rachel West, an organizer with US Prostitutes Collective. “Why aren’t the police focused on that instead of spending hours on the net looking for women, or going out on the street doing street sweeps?”
But US Prostitutes Collective, part of the International Prostitutes Collective, which has been campaigning for decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, didn’t organize last week’s protest. This time it was Occupy Patriarchy, an Occupy Oakland affiliated group.
Occupy Oakland has not been shy about calling out police behaviors, from infamous incidents like the tear gas-heavy offensive on the Occupy Oakland camp last fall to shootings of local teenagers. The HEAT Conference, which was organized by the DA’s office and played host to law enforcement from across the country, was no exception.
“Whose inside this conference?” said one demonstrator who spoke during a 20-minute speak-out in front of the hotel that afternoon. “61 official speakers are law enforcement agents, DA workers, or politicians with anti-sex worker reputations. 39 speakers are individuals or representatives of non-profits. The vast majority of these work directly with law enforcement or politicians to criminalize sex workers. Where is the voice of the sex workers?”
"What we find disturbing as anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians is these police who, to sex workers, are oppressing us,” Clarissa McFaye, one of the demonstrators, told me in an interview. “We know that police are a very violent, fearsome presence in the lives of all sex workers, and we feel the only way that we can abolish child trafficking and exploitative forms of labor, which is all labor in actuality, is to abolish the police state.”
“They think working to enforce criminalization isn't going to help child victims of sexual slavery. We know they exist, but we don’t feel this is a solution. We don’t think enhancing the ability to arrest people is a solution,” said McFaye.
“We really appreciate a lot of the effort that some of the non profits are doing,” McFaye continued, “We want to talk to them and form a sense of camaraderie with them and tell them that we don’t need the cops. We don’t want them. They’re bad for us.”
Sex workers rights groups have long spoken out about police treatment of prostitutes. Stories of police harassing sex workers, going through with sexual acts while undercover before making prostitution arrests, and demanding sex in exchange for letting an arrest slide are fairly common. As McFaye told me, “they’re condoning child trafficking because they make deals with pimps.”
“Not to mention that hella cops are tricks,” she added.
Pimps and traffickers, children and minors
The HEAT Unit’s website lists 237 charges and 160 convictions made by the unit between 2006 and 2011. The statistics include trafficking as defined by California Penal Code Section 236.1, California’s Human Trafficking Statute. But they also include charges and convictions for pimping and pandering, sexual assault, kidnapping, and burglary, and the website specifies that “these statistics do not differentiate between child and adult victims, though the majority of HEAT victims are minors.”
The anti-trafficking statute defines a human trafficker as “Any person who deprives or violates the personal liberty of another with the intent to effect or maintain a felony violation of ” one of several anti-pimping, pandering, and solicitation Penal Code violations.
This includes Penal Code section 266 which defines a pimp as someone who, knowing another person has commercial sex, “lives or derives support or maintenance in whole or in part from the earnings or proceeds of the person's prostitution.”
But for Bates, “The way a pimp-prostitute relationship works is the pimp takes 100 percent of the cash.”
I brought up the pimp question with Cyd Nova, harm reduction services coordinator at San Francisco’s for sex workers-by sex workers health clinic, the St. James Infirmary.
“I know a lot of street-based sex workers who are totally independent,” said Nova. “Some do split their money with pimps or managers.”
Nova also said pimping’s legal definition can often have questionable consequences. “Legally that would be most peoples partners, children, friends.”
“I have met sex workers who have had their partners charged under pimping codes, which was not their relationship with that person," Nova told me.
Many “pimping” relationships fall somewhere in between “peoples partners, children, and friends” and “the pimp takes 100 percent of the cash.” Sex workers, a criminalized class, often experience violence from both pimps and clients- but fear for their own consequenes if they report the crimes. I asked Bates his opinion on granting immunity from prostitution charges or a person who comes forward to report all too common violations committed against sex workers like rape, assault and theft.
“We do this all the time in the context of other types of crime that we work with. If it’s a murder, we may be willing to negotiate with our witness to determine whether or not is appropriate to give immunity for the person to testify against this other person, in exchange they won’t be prosecuted for the crime that they committed.”
But Nova said that striking that deal can be a major problem.
“One thing that is an issue for people forced into the industry is they are unable to receive services until they agree to testify against their trafficker. This doesn’t work for the majority of people, and it’s a major issue when you’re talking about services for trafficking victims,” he said.
At the St. James Infirmary, “We have people who have been in situations where they feel that they wanted to leave, but are not willing to bring criminal charges against the person,” he continued.
Nova also described a distinction between the terms “child” and “minor.”
“People have choices in how they use their bodies, and that includes youth. We are living in a world where sometimes people have to choose options that are not ideal,” he said.
McFaye painted a similar picture, saying that “sex work is a form of work that all genders do sex work can make a lot more money than other options.”
“It allows me to do my political work as well as work a few times a week, instead of working at McDonalds. When I was 17 years old I tried to get a job, couldn’t find anything but shitty house cleaning jobs. Then some sex workers I knew showed me the ropes, and my life’s been a lot better ever since,” she said.
I described a similar situation, in which a minor chooses prostitution to make desperately needed money or escape an abusive situation, to Bates. “There are going to be people that make that claim," he responded. "There’s no doubt about it. Part of the phenomenon is that a lot of people that are being abused, when they’re being abused, don’t even realize that they’re being abused. That’s a big issue,” said Bates. “People have made the claim, they did what they had to do in a difficult circumstance, and they don’t really see themselves as being a victim of crime. And what I’m suggesting is, that’s not uncommon, it’s part of the victimology actually."
He added, “I’m speaking specifically to people that are being trafficked. What you described doesn’t sound as much like a trafficking situation.”
But the law doesn’t allow for that kind of nuance.
“That is a clear distinction that we want to draw. This is focused on commercial sexual exploitation of children,” Bates said. “When you become 18, you’re given a set of rights and you’re treated differently under the law.”
The HEAT Unit's model is unique, and if the conference has its intended consequences, it may be replicated throughout the country.
For minors that the HEAT unit identifies as CSEC, “The goal is to try to stabilize them, to figure out what services they need, what situation they came from and figure out how we can get that child back on track,” Bates told me.
“Sometimes, that requires that we detain them for a period of time so we can figure out what services are necessary. That’s somewhat controversial, because some people say that’s not appropriate. We believe that it’s in the interest of these girls initially, to figure out what’s necessary. That to turn them back on the street means to turn your back on them, period.”
Many sex workers' rights groups, however, argue for antoher solution entirely- decriminalization of prostitution. Part of the argument for decriminalization is that sex workers would feel more comfortable coming to police with reports that they are their colleagues had been victims of crimes like rape, assault or theft.
As Nova said, “California is currently using anti-trafficking federal funds to target all sex workers. They say, if we arrest a bunch of sex workers, some of them are going to be trafficked. This has not proven to be very effective, whereas decriminalization would result in people, who are in coercive work situations, feeling more comfortable coming forward and asking for help.
“They need an evaluation of what kind of practices are going on and what results they’re turning out,” Nova said. “A study where they have conversations with people who have been arrested and detained and talk about what their life was like, what was detrimental and what was beneficial.”
For some of the more anarchist-leaning protesters, however, the police should play no role in the solution.
“What we think would help is if we as sex workers come together is if we come together and combat this exploitation," McFaye told me.
I asked if there was anything the police could do.
“No,” said McFaye. “They can turn in their badges. That’s what they could do.”
When the sex workers' rights movement took off in the '60s, they joined the debate that had been going on surrounding prostitution and policing for a century. The movement continues- and on Wednesday, a distinctly anti-capitalist side of it made noise. These groups may be piping up more, as the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act, which would increase funding and resources for policing sex traffickers, goes to the ballot this November.