I have met a couple hundred men who tried to hire a police officer to perform sexual services for them. I haven’t felt like giving space to them as I identify more with the sex workers than the johns. I am glad that my city has changed the name of the crime of soliciting a prostitute to Sexual Exploitation. I would prefer we go even further, given the current state of the so-called market, or human trafficking trade, and call it Economic Rape.
I am not opposed to the policies in countries like Finland where it is legal for both parties to contract directly for sexual services in exchange for pay, even if I personally think it would be both creepy and sad to pay a person for sex, especially someone young, poor and vulnerable. I agree with Finland’s policy to continue to criminalize pimping as well, because at the very least, the sex worker deserves 100% of the pay for any kind of touch. And where sex work is legal, it is much easier for workers to reach out for help the same way other workers can.
Sex work has not been decriminalized or legalized in my area, but sex workers are no longer arrested and prosecuted. In parts of the country where they are still arrested, they are at risk for being harassed and exploited by law enforcement, and often have to provide services without pay to avoid jail and fines, while remaining virtually enslaved and getting no protection from their pimps. It is a very hard trade to break out of, if someone else is sending you out to touch 25 or 30 guys a day and raking in that money. They don’t want you to get away. Sound exaggerated? According to local police, that is the average expectation for “jobs in a day” among the trafficked kids they now work to rescue.
When I have interpreted for the john’s class, a member of the vice squad comes in and routinely gives statistics: 85% of area sex workers are under 18 years old; 99% of these minors are pimped out, sometimes by family members in a long, tragic lifetime of abuse and exploitation. Approximately 1% of the US population has ever gone to a prostitute, but people who do try to normalize their behavior just like those who engage in domestic violence. At the end of the workshop, the city brings in a psychologist who tries to convince the johns that this trade is bad for them as well as for the sex workers, so they should care.
But do they care? I have only met one who said it was upsetting to hear about the sex workers during class. That he didn’t realize they were mostly so young, and that they didn’t get to keep the money. He mostly talked about the money. Because he was a poor immigrant, and he could identify with doing a job and then getting shorted on pay. He could identify with some middleman sending him out on a job and then keeping most of the money. The rest of it he couldn’t fathom, because he was raised to think of “those women” as other. I saw him cringe each time a speaker suggested the sex workers “could be your mother, your sister, your daughter”.
The typical guy I meet on these cases is lonely. And lonely means isolated. Lonely means out of social network. Lonely means apart. They don’t have friends here. They are sleeping on some uncle’s couch and there is no chance to starting a family, so they can’t really date in the traditional sense of finding someone to set up a home with. They don’t even have papers to be in the US, and any day some random guy at the bus stop could ask them for the time – in their language – and then ask where they are from and then arrest them, because oops, that was an ICE agent, stupid.
So what does any of this have to do with sex work? Nothing. God gave them two hands, as the old saying goes, and they should know how to self-soothe. Yes, they live with a lot of people in a small space, but that is what the shower is for. Take care of your own business. But somehow there is an underlying loneliness and a deep well of isolation that makes these men reach out for a sex worker. Perhaps we should have compassion for them, because they are suffering, yet I cannot overlook the fact that they exhibit zero regard for the person whose body they plan to enter. A person whose work situation is much harsher and inescapable even than their own.
The typical guy I interpret for makes a big deal about how this random girl came up to him. She came up to him! And she smiled. Not a lot of people smile at poor immigrant workers with a backpack on. And she seemed friendly. And she seemed nice. And she talked to him. She talked to him in a friendly way! Then she asked if he wanted a date, and he was just blown away. What a dream come true. Then comes the hard part to stomach.
She tells him she is just fifteen, but that is not a problem. Is it? Girls get married at 12 and 13 in his village. It’s not that weird. Is it? Then she tells him she will have sex with him. It used to be around 50 dollars maybe two decades ago, but it is down to 25 or so in our new economy with lots of homeless and lots of addicts. So he says some version of full frontal and she says 35 dollars and he says 25 dollars instead and they agree to the price and the act, and he is so happy for that moment. He tells her to get into his truck. He is a stranger in a strange land seeking comfort from a stranger. It’s not that bad, is it? And he will be touched. Wow! Is this really happening?
No, it is not. Because four cops in uniform show up as he grabs her elbow to steer her to his truck and they start talking about Miranda and how he has the right to remain silent, and how anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law, and he has the right to a lawyer, but wouldn’t he rather just do this the nice way, and admit that he was about to go off and have sex for pay – with someone who literally just told him that she is underage, so this is not just sexual exploitation, my friend, but commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Oh, and now all of a sudden he doesn’t know English after he just negotiated over “the f word” with a purported 15-year-old? Okay, dude. Let’s go down to the station.
I have heard defense attorneys argue during trials that these sting operations are unethical and racist. That they target poor men and immigrants. Why isn’t the city going after the high-end call girls?!? Then the prosecutors put the young cop on the stand. The one who has agreed to be in danger. To be groped. Yes, they are groped routinely. To be talked to in horrible ways. And then having the relief, the safety, of other cops showing up and protecting her. And she testifies about human trafficking. And she testifies that the city is doing its best to protect the youngest and most vulnerable “street” sex workers, because they are the ones at the highest risk of harm. There is no entrapment. Whoever approaches them and agrees to exchange sex for money will be arrested across the board. Most guys say no, thanks. For the others, prosecution is appropriate.