As the sex industry is targeted across the US, activists say new ‘anti-trafficking’ operations in California are imprisoning vulnerable women
The 37-year-old Sacramento woman says she can’t escape memories of policemen following her down the street or questioning her choice of clothing, scolding her for being outside, threatening her, grabbing her, forcing her into their car, and searching her.
Willia is a survivor of abuse and sexual exploitation.
But because she has also been a sex worker, she says police have only ever treated her as a criminal.
In the California capital, law enforcement agencies have ramped up their focus on women like Willia in recent months, sex workers and activists told the Guardian.
Under the guise of “anti-trafficking” efforts, police practices in northern California and a new federal law have broadly affected adult sex workers both online and in the streets.
The result, activists say, is a risk of increased violence and suffering for the very women whom lawmakers say they are rescuing.
There have been two such anti-“human trafficking” sting operations in Sacramento this year, most recently in August, in which female officers pose as prostitutes. Prosecutors hailed the stings as targeting predatory men, and 16 men were arrested for soliciting.
The stings are not, however, catching traffickers, and critics say theyhave only put workers in the industry at greater risk.
In the same timeframe as the recent stings, police also arrested 25 women for “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” or “disorderly conduct” for prostitution. Spokespeople for the police and prosecutor insisted the women’s arrests were separate from the stings, even though some happened on the same day and location.
A majority of the arrested women were black and Hispanic. Many had “general delivery” listed as their address, which often means they are homeless, the Sacramento News and Review noted. Four of the women were only 18 or 19 years old.
Proponents of the stings said they were geared to “ending demand”, meaning stopping men who might buy sex from a trafficking victim.
But Alix Lutnick, a researcher with RTI International and expert on trafficking, said that there is growing recognition that john stings don’t actually help victims – and can instead lead to their arrest. “What we hear from people who are selling sex is that these type of ‘end demand’ initiatives end up resulting in more harms for the very people we are purportedly trying to protect.”
The crackdown, in a state that presents itself as a progressive leader in social justice and women’s rights, has come at a time in which sex work is being aggressively criminalized across the US.
“Who are you serving and who are you protecting?” said Willia, who asked to use only her first name, recalling her arrests for prostitution and experiences with the police. “It’s like I was in the slavery days, like I had no say about anything. I literally had no rights.”
Sex workers are often most vulnerable to abuse, mistreatment and arrest when they try to pick up clients in the streets. In recent years, coordinated campaigns against online platforms for the sex industry have made this the only viable option for some women.
In California, a pivotal moment came in the summer of 2014, when the FBI suddenly took control of MyRedBook.com, a popular website where sex workers had posted escort ads and other services. The operators of the site were accused of money laundering and charged with using the internet to facilitate prostitution.
The shutdown immediately wiped away a main source of income for sex workers while eliminating a platform that enabled them to screen clients, negotiate rates, and find work they felt was safe. Some immediately rushed outside, desperate for work.
“I was out on the streets that same night,” said Monroe, 26, who previously did sex work in northern California and had relied on Redbook. “All of us girls were out walking the streets, and we didn’t make nothing.”
It was an emergency situation, and activists formed a Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (Swop) to organize and assist those in crisis.
“Who is going to help us?” said Kristen DiAngelo, a Swop Sacramento co-founder who long worked in the sex trade and is a survivor of trafficking. “There are no services.”
DiAngelo’s group later conducted a survey of 44 local sex workers to understand how they had relied on Redbook to find work. The findings were alarming. Nearly 20% of the workers said they began selling sex on the street as a direct result of losing business after the website closure. What’s more, every sex worker who transitioned to street work responded that they had been subsequently raped, arrested or both.
With criminal records, they had few other options for work and nowhere to turn for help.
Monroe said it felt relatively safer to book clients online: “You know who was calling or who you were gonna see, and there’s always that trace back to who killed you.” On the streets, it was much more of a gamble, she said: “If you’re in the car, you don’t know.”
Many in DiAngelo’s survey said they depended on sex work to pay for necessities, such as housing, food and taking care of their children. The website termination simply led them to engage in riskier business and accept lower pay.
Some workers found alternative websites for ads, but those options were also soon erased as US officials dramatically expanded their battle against online platforms for sex work.
Democrats in California have spearheaded the fight. The US senator Kamala Harris, a rising star in the party, fought for the shutdown of Backpage.com, a site similar to Redbook, when she was the state’s top prosecutor.
Then this year, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta), a bipartisan bill with the stated goal of curbing trafficking by making websites directly liable for illegal activity that occurs on their platforms. Fosta led to the shutdown of the remaining popular websites that allowed for adult sex work, including Craigslist personals.
An Associated Press investigation found that in Sacramento, there were only three street prostitution arrests during a five-month period in 2017, but that number increased to 15 this year in the same timeframe.
For one woman caught up in the arrests, police cited as evidence that she was wearing a “lace bralette”, “shorts” and “flip flops” and was carrying four “unused condoms”.
Despite the “trafficking” label, the stings have led to no trafficking charges. The Sacramento police sergeant Vance Chandler told the Guardian the stings were about punishing “males who were trying to pick up prostitutes”. He added: “Human trafficking may not necessarily be what their objective was.”
Monroe, who asked to use her nickname, said she was forced to do sex work by an abusive man who threatened her. But she faced a drawn-out prosecution that she said made it nearly impossible for her to escape him. She said she had quotas to meet to pay the man pimping her and missed court dates as a result.
In 2014, one undercover officer pretending to be looking for prostitutes found Monroe on the street. The officer wrote in his report that he approached her by saying: “You have a nice looking pair of titties.” He subsequently took her into his car and issued a citation.
“There should be other things offered than jail,” said Monroe, noting that court fees, hearings, and her arrest record prevented her from leaving the streets.
In 2016, Monroe met a potential client online who asked her to meet at his motel room in a suburb east of San Francisco. When she asked him if he was a policeman, he texted back: “lol..im not the po-po.”
When she showed up later that evening, police were waiting to arrest her. Monroe, who was visibly pregnant at the time, said she was handcuffed behind her back and taken to jail.
‘That feeling of drowning’
A single arrest can have life-altering consequences, creating obstacles to accessing jobs, housing and services.
Willia, who has at least five prostitution offenses on her record, said police would repeatedly question her for simply walking down Stockton Boulevard, a street where sex work and arrests are common.
One hot summer day years ago when she was walking to the store, she said police questioned her for wearing short shorts and said if they saw her again on the street, they’d arrest her.
“You mean to tell me that if I’m coming from my house and I need to get to the store, I can’t walk down Stockton Boulevard? That’s bullshit,” she said, recounting the agonizing feeling of police controlling her every movement in her own neighborhood. “That rage that came in me, I can’t describe it … There’s a sickness in my stomach, knowing … nothing can be done.”
Willia said police never cared when she was a victim of violence from clients or pimps and never offered support.
On a recent afternoon at a Swop house in Sacramento, Willia and DiAngelo were both in tears recounting police harassment and the lasting anxiety it created for them. “It’s some kind of insanity. You’re game for everybody to do what the fuck they want with you, and nobody hears you,” said DiAngelo. “It’s that feeling of how you’re just drowning.”
When survivors of violence and abuse seek services and government aid, they often face a string of obstacles if they’ve also been involved in the sex trade, said DiAngelo.
Alaniah, a Sacramento woman who has done sex work and also has been a victim of trafficking and domestic violence, recently worked with DiAngelo to try to get services and support from the district attorney’s office. They described a nightmarish process.
“The only thing you got to protect you is the police department, and if you can’t get that, what do you do?” said Alaniah, who has struggled with homelessness. “Who can I run to besides Ms Kristen [DiAngelo]? She’s the only one.”
After she talked to law enforcement about a man who abused her, she expected support, including housing services, so she wouldn’t have to live on the streets.
But even though she and DiAngelo made repeated calls to victims’ advocates in the prosecutor’s office, they received nothing for months, they said. “How do you expect me to get ahead if I can’t get a roof over my head?” said Alaniah.
DiAngelo eventually helped Monroe get charges dismissed this year by convincing prosecutors that she was a victim. But Monroe’s struggle to get steady legal work has continued. One job rejection letter for a US government position listed her criminal record in detail, saying hiring her would “pose an unacceptable risk to public health [and] safety”.
“It makes me feel like I’m a walking disease,” she said.
“You’re branded for life,” said DiAngelo, adding of Monroe’s job struggles, “This is a survivor of human trafficking. This is what our society does.”
The Sacramento district attorney declined an interview request, but said in a lengthy statement that sex workers “should have their previous victimization acknowledged and that trauma should be accounted for”. Prosecutors provide alternatives to incarceration and offer programs, added Paul Durenberger, assistant chief deputy district attorney, saying the “priority is victim and community safety”.
“We are trying to hold abusers accountable while at the same time create pathways for hope in people impacted by these abuses,” he said, adding that the stings were focused on “sex buyers”.
Sgt Chandler noted that prostitution remains illegal: “There are established laws and one piece of what we do is enforce law.”
Asked about Willia’s arrests, Durenberger noted that prosecutors repeatedly declined to file charges against her. But he refused to say whether the office would pursue charges against the 25 women recently arrested.
Willia said she felt abandoned: “I don’t want no sympathy. I don’t want no sorrow. I need some help.”