For Victims, Volunteers, a Movement Towards Safer Sex Work

Popular depictions of prostitutes are often an Aileen Wuornos-type—the profanity-spewing and hardened woman with the swagger of a prizefighter—or another Jane Doe—a helpless victim who has been coerced or sold into prostitution.

But this isn’t the case for many women.

“Of all the jobs I ever had in my entire life—I liked two of them—I liked being a librarian, and I liked being an escort,” said Maggie McNeill, a former New Orleans call girl and brothel manager. “And of the two, I made a hell of a lot more money being an escort than I did as a librarian.”

Left by her first husband with $90,000 in debt on a roughly $20,000 annual salary, McNeill said she voluntarily chose to go into stripping and escorting to combat her financial troubles.

Though she eventually got out of the industry by marrying her favorite client, McNeill remains an activist for sex workers and is an advocate for the decriminalization of voluntary sex work.

Black and white depictions of prostitutes result in two drastically different perspectives about sex work, making it harder for officials to create policies that both protect those who voluntarily go into the industry, and help those who are being trafficked.

Passed in 2000, The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides a legal definition of sex trafficking. According to this legal definition, for sex workers to be considered sex trafficking victims, the sex services provided should be influenced by either coercion or deception. But for minors the coercion or fraud requirement is not needed, and any person who facilitates sex work by a minor is considered a trafficker.

In 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed the Illinois Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, which allows victims of sex trafficking — people recruited or coerced into sexual exploitation — to clear their records of prostitution convictions.

While previous efforts to address prostitution-related crimes largely targeted sex workers, law enforcement agencies have begun to shift their attention to the clients, also known as johns.

In 2012, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart spearheaded a movement toward harsher punishment of johns. Covering a 10-day period and involving 20 U.S. law enforcement agencies in eight states, the second “National Day of Johns Arrests,” resulted in the arrests of over 300 sex buyers.

But the question remains whether punishing johns will actually improve the problem of sex trafficking in Illinois.

“When you’re criminalizing the clients involved in prostitution, you are also indirectly criminalizing the provider as well because it makes their work more difficult,” said Ron Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University who specializes in American policies and law enforcement on prostitution and sex trafficking. “I think it’s a naive thing to think that you can criminalize one party and not affect the other party involved in a transaction like this.”

As of 2010, 62,668 people in the U.S. had been arrested for prostitution-related crimes; 47,000 of these were identified as potential sex trafficking victims, according to the office of the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” also released in 2010.

When looking at those numbers, it’s easy to feel that arresting pimps is a proper solution. Data from the University of Illinois at Chicago reveals that an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 girls and women in Chicago are victims of commercial sexual exploitation annually. In 2010, the Department of Justice identified Chicago as one of the top 10 American cities with the highest number of sex trafficking incidents.

This focus on trafficking victims is well represented in Chicago. For example, The Chicago Alliance Against Sex Exploitation (CAASE), a local nonprofit law firm that represents victims of sexual exploitation, works to educate people about the large overlap between prostitution and sex trafficking in Chicago.

The organization identifies violence as being inherent to prostitution, and argues that, along with street prostitution, indoor venues such as strip clubs and escort agencies contribute to the issue of trafficking in the city.

Still, there are no conclusive statistics on the number of voluntary sex workers in Chicago. Weitzer argues that it’s troublesome for activists and policymakers to rely on inconclusive numbers, especially when other areas of labor trafficking are not receiving as much media and governmental attention as sex trafficking.

“Clearly sex trafficking is an important social problem but we don’t know what the magnitude of it is,” said Weitzer. “The international labor trafficking organization claims that there are 11 times more labor trafficking victims in the world than sex trafficking victims. Yet those victims of labor trafficking get very little media attention.”

With Nevada the only state in the country to legalize prostitution, some have suggested that Illinois should adopt the same complete legalization of prostitution in some areas.

According to the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Chicago (SWOP), an organization promoting human rights for sex workers through education, advocacy and support, more could be done in Illinois to simultaneously regulate prostitution and combat cases of trafficking, without denying any individual his or her choice to work in the sex industry.

“Increasing penalties on buyers of sex amounts to driving the industry further underground,” according to a SWOP representative. “Decriminalization will reduce the waste of valuable economic and legal resources that go into prosecuting consensual sex between adults. Instead, law enforcement could spend their limited resources on cases involving human trafficking and sex with minors.”

Redefining Sex Work

For Norma Jean Almodovar, a former traffic control officer in the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department and a former call girl, her time as a sex worker was “the best financial and moral decision ever.”

Almodovar is the founder of the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education, a non-profit space for sex workers to express themselves through words and art, and educates people on common misconceptions surrounding prostitution.

“We want decriminalization of sex work for consenting adults, and when commercial sex work is decriminalized it can free up police resources to use on of people who are really victims of sex trafficking,” said Almodovar, who is also the author of “Cops, Hos, Preachers and Politics: Commercial Sex Scandals in America.”

She added: “To say that prostitutes are economically coerced and to say that that’s a reason to ban their profession, then you’re going to have to ban everyone else’s profession.”

William, the head of an escort agency in Chicago who refused to give his last name, argued that the public tends to generalize sex workers. He says that while people often imagine that sex workers use their money only for designer clothing and drugs, a majority of sex workers use their earnings to support their families or college education.

“Our society is very, very rigorous in judging strippers and escorts,” said William, the escort service head. “You’re talking about girls who don’t do anything but try to afford themselves an opportunity of living. We’re not taking or stealing anything from anybody.”

Contrary to public opinion, the types of commercialized sex services are hard to generalize under one sweeping label of prostitution.

CAASE notes that one of the more widely accepted differentiators of sex work is whether the transaction is provided indoors or outdoors. Sexual massage services that take place in a parlor can be considered as indoor sex work while those who work on the street are considered to be in the outdoors sex business.

But regardless of the type of sex work, many activists are calling for a complete decriminalization of all kinds of sex work.

Catherine Longkumer, a staff attorney for the Attorneys Tendering Legal Aid to Survivors of Sex Trafficking (A.T.L.A.S.S.T) project, agreed that not all acts of commercial sex work should or could be considered sex trafficking.

Noting that there is a clear problem of trafficking in Chicago, Longkumer said that while both federal and state laws targeting pimps and johns are already in place, an increase in the enforcement of existing laws would help trafficking victims even more.

“We need to see an increase use of enforcement of the laws that are on the books—not just in Cook County, but in other communities,” said Longkumer, whose project is part of the legal aid society of Metropolitan Family Services, an organization that provides legal services for sex and labor trafficking victims in the greater Chicago area. “We need to increase training of how to work with victims across the board so that we’re continuing to properly identify who is the victim and who is a criminal.”

Though many voluntary sex workers advocate decriminalization of sex work, Longkumer remains skeptical about the effects decriminalization could have on trafficking.

“Additional research is required to determine whether or not complete decriminalization of sex work actually decreases instances of human trafficking,” Longkumer said.

A Step Forward for Victims Of Sex Trafficking

Barb Brents, a sociology professorat the University of Nevada and co-author of the book “The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland,” uses a different method when examining the commercial sex industry. Instead of taking a criminologist’s approach, Brents has taken what she describes as a “political economy lens” to study sex in market culture.

“The sex industry is huge and sex sells,” Brents said. “It’s about asking micro level questions that look at the role it plays in the economy. What is it like to work in the sex industry relative to other industries, all the way to asking macro level questions about its connections with the economy and the role prostitution plays in the development of countries are some questions you ask while taking this approach.”

For Brents, better policy means allowing individuals to sell sex and regulating these transactions so sex workers find themselves in a safe labor environment.

“Many problems with prostitution arise because it is driven underground and women with no resources have no recourse to ask somebody for help,” said Brents. “They are trapped in a world of other people working below and against the law so they end up giving up the whole idea.”

To combat this sense of isolation, a new Illinois Senate bill addressing human trafficking was introduced Feb. 14. Senate Bill 3558 would provide human and sex trafficking victims with services from a fund called “Specialized Services for Survivors of Human Trafficking Fund,” allocated by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

These proposed specialized services for sex trafficking victims include providing safe houses, drop-in centers, counseling and community based programs that offer trafficking victims housing and living options.

Among the bill’s efforts are means to punish clients and pimps through felony convictions and fines. According to the bill, promoting prostitution by profiting from compelling a person to become a prostitute, arranging a situation so that a person may practice prostitution –  or by any other means – would be considered a Class 4 felony and punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine.

Former sex workers like Almodovar say increasing resources for true trafficking victims is a positive start, but prosecuting pimps and johns is still a setback.

According to current Illinois state law, pimping refers to “any person who receives any money, property, token, object, or article or anything of value from a prostitute, not for a lawful consideration, knowing it was earned in whole or in part from the practice of prostitution, commits pimping,” and is considered a Class A misdemeanor, resulting in up to one year in jail.

Although laws both on the federal and state level about sex work aim to identify and support trafficking victims, they still tend to group all forms of sex work into a larger umbrella of trafficking.

“I think focusing on clear cases of abuse, deception and coercion is a right way to direct scare resources,” Weitzer said.

McNeill, the former New Orleans call girl and brothel manager, agreed.

“When the feds say they’ve arrested 150 pimps, it’s not 150 guys named Leroy in purple suits with rhinestone glasses—that’s what the public pictures, but that’s not what it is,” she explained. She said that in the absence of violence and coercion, a pimp could be nothing more than an agent to the sex worker, much like an agent for an actor.

People like McNeill and Weitzer believe that sex workers need the labor rights that they are denied in all states but Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some areas. Experts and former sex workers also agree that law enforcement agents need to be more accessible to sex workers.

“If our police forces are retrained to deal with prostitution in a more collaborative way with victims, more victims will no longer fear reporting cases of sexual victimization,” said Weitzer.

With the relationship between law enforcement and sex workers being predominantly antagonistic, Weitzer says it will take time for sex workers and sex trafficking victims to gain confidence in the police.

“To deal with something that a lot of individuals are willing to pay for,” Weitzer said, “really urges us to think of alternatives outside the box.”

The following video, produced by Nesa Mangal and Allison Shapiro, contains graphic language and depictions:

Naib Mian and Bethany Ao contributed to this story

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