Sex workers—and sex-trafficked women—continue to be victimized by the justice system despite efforts to change how they’re treated by law enforcement and the courts. That makes a TCR columnist wonder whether we’re really serious about giving them the protection and support they need.
I recently read about an experiment conducted with Capuchin monkeys in captivity at Yale-New Haven Hospital that offers some intriguing lessons about the relationship between sex and crime.
Under the experiment, monkeys who performed specific tasks at researchers’ behest received silver chips that could be exchanged for a favorite fruit or toy. The experiment was designed to see if monkeys could be taught the value of money, but in the process they received a lesson in crime control.
Aware that the chips could vanish while they slept, the Capuchin monkeys began to hide them. But female monkeys learned an additional lesson. At risk of having their chips taken by stronger males, they actually began offering chips—“protection money”—to the strongest males.
It didn’t take long for the theft, robbery and protection rackets emerging from the experiment to be infused with another element.
The males began offering the female Capuchins their hard-earned chips to have sex, and the females soon realized that it was far easier to make money “selling” sex then it was to complete tasks for researchers.
They quit performing tricks for humans and got paid by the “tricks” in captivity with them.
The mix of sex, money and crime gets more complicated when it comes to humans. In his book, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,
Gayle Rubin writes that “sex law incorporates a very strong prohibition against mixing sex and money, except via marriage.”
Consequently, outside of animal enclosures, legions of police are devoted towards hunting women down who dare to exchange sex for money on a commercial basis.
In my youth, I saw many women on the strip get questioned, frisked and hauled off by police officers for violating the criminal justice system’s catchall crime of “loitering;” but in reality they were targeted as suspected prostitutes.
The local news often had stories about sex workers peddling their wares on the streets, and purportedly reducing the quality of life for the rest of the citizenry.
Yet even when prostitution moved from street corners to websites, sex workers continued to be persecuted.
This is a strange thing for me to see when the city I was raised in now has licensed shops where marijuana can be sold legally, and the county works to make the lives of heroin addicts easier.
There was a time when the culture seemed to be shifting—at least to the extent that female sex workers were coming to be seen as victims of both the criminal justice system and patriarchy: their male clients were sent home after trying to purchase sex, but the women were sent to jail.
Many reformers argued that laws against prostitution restricted freedom and autonomy, and decriminalization or regulation of this activity was a better strategy than continuing to fund Vice Squads and incarcerate (primarily poor) women for selling their bodies for money.
The arguments eventually succeeded in convincing enough people to change the status quo. But in a way that should concern anyone who looks at it closely
The “whores” who had been demonized by society were considered victims of sex trafficking—not of the criminal justice system. Prostitutes need to be protected. So they needed to be arrested just the same.
These bait-and-switch reforms can be seen in cities that claim to be progressive.
In Seattle, for instance, women are still being arrested and jailed for the “crime” of prostitution, even though the punishment is more lenient based on the view that these women are considered “victims” by those tasked with prosecuting and sentencing them.
In earlier eras, “fallen women” were saved by progressives who implemented policies to confine the fallen for purposes of domestication. The contemporary version of this involves incarcerating women to provide them with drug treatment and other skills that will enable them to escape sex trafficking.
But the underlying concept is that the criminal justice system is serving these women’s best interests.
A closer look makes clear that’s not happening.
Social workers are not gaining primacy over police officers; shelters are not supplanting jails; and criminal records are not being expunged to reintegrate the women into society and thereby help them avoid future sex trafficking.
Pseudo-reformers claim that victims of sex trafficking have a unique status that warrants a restorative and rehabilitative approach. But jails and prisons are not therapeutic communities.
In fact, I have no doubt that imprisoned victims of sex trafficking know that a retributive ethos lies at the heart of their present misery, notwithstanding benevolent evocations by prosecutors, judges, and apologists with doctoral degrees in criminology.
Still, while watching the news recently, I learned that throughout the Seattle International Airport, travelers will now see signs informing them how to identify and report suspected sex trafficking.
This marketing campaign has been brought to you by those who never had a problem with sending poor women to the pokey for selling their bodies. It never ceases to amaze me how the criminal justice system adapts when hypocrisy, bias and inequity make it problematic to continue a practice while maintaining legitimacy.
I know how this game works from firsthand experience.
I used to be a super-predator. My youth did not mitigate my culpability for committing adult-like crimes. Then, developments in psychology made the super-predator evolve into a less wicked being with a greater capacity for reform.
However, as with sex workers, that’s not what happens when the criminal justice system’s machinery swings into gear.
Records are not being expunged or sealed as a matter of course when youths turn 18, even though research tells us that crimes committed by juveniles generally reflect transient immaturity rather than irreparable corruption.
Juvenile detention centers are not being remodeled into therapeutic communities.
All that has changed is the quantum of punishment—not the response to crime or the personnel devoted to prevention.
So it is with sex workers as well.
Nevertheless, there are some ancillary benefits for women ensnared in the criminal justice system. By conflating all prostitution with sex trafficking, female defendants can use this as a means to obtain mercy.
If you are caught selling drugs, explain during trial or at sentencing that you were strung out by a sex trafficker long ago as a means of control—and now you must peddle narcotics to support the habit that was foisted upon you. Magically, you will transform from an avaricious, heartless drug pusher into a victim worthy of a reduced sentence and drug treatment.
If you assaulted some man in a domestic violence incident, explain that your actions were a product of the trauma induced by years of being trafficked for sex. With this plot twist, you will now be seen to have experienced trauma worthy of judicial recognition.
I could go on concocting mitigating arguments based on the present-day sex trafficking meme. It is a gift that can keep on giving.
I have a lot of empathy for women caught in these situations. It makes sense for any woman facing jail or prison time to use sex trafficking as a proxy for all of their criminal misdeeds.
A traumatic childhood defined by physical and sexual abuse, and abandonment and neglect, has not shielded women from draconian sentencing guidelines. Nor has childhood poverty, a criminogenic environment, and schools that aren’t conducive to learning made these women any less “wicked” to prosecutors, judges, and society once they have been arrested.
The rules of the game require that officials maintain the fiction that our crimes are the result of conscious, willful choice rather than systemic inequalities.
So, with no other options available to persuade justice officials to recognize their humanity, women who can reinvent themselves as sex trafficking victims might find mercy from a system that is all too often merciless.
Take a lesson from the Capuchin monkeys.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He is currently petitioning for release from the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Readers who wish to support him are invited to sign up here.