“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt.” - A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
I sometimes feel as though I’m becoming the Eeyore of the sex worker rights movement, the resident wet blanket who reacts to every bit of seemingly good news cheered by other advocates by letting them know exactly why it’s not as good as they think it is. Now, that’s not really true because my overall outlook is that sex worker rights are inevitable; however, there are bound to be a huge number of individual developments between now and then, both good and bad, and I think it’s important to recognize which are which. Take this one, for example:
…In a letter…to Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, said his office would not use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution or loitering for the purpose of prostitution. “Accordingly…the collection and vouchering of condoms as evidence by members of your department…should immediately cease.” Advocates for sex workers have argued that officers’ use of condoms to support their arrests discouraged prostitutes from using condoms, presenting a public health risk. A 2012 report by…Human Rights Watch found that such arrests sowed a fear of carrying condoms among sex workers…the Police Department’s chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said the department agreed that “it is not necessary to seize condoms as evidence of the intent of an individual to engage in prostitution.” But…[he] added: “We do not rule out their evidentiary value when going after pimps and sex traffickers. If there is a bowlful of condoms in a massage parlor, we want our officers to be able to seize them as evidence against the trafficker.” While prosecutors are generally wary of excluding whole categories of evidence, there is a growing consensus that condoms should not be part of prostitution cases that do not involve sex trafficking…Nassau County…prosecutors already reject condoms as evidence, even in more serious cases. “It was very important to me to also extend the ban to traffickers,” said Kathleen M. Rice, the…district attorney. Without it, she said, “traffickers will refuse to hand out condoms to their workers and in fact prohibit their use”…
While advocates were cheering this two weeks ago, my immediate reaction was “In other words, they’re just going to label more cases as ‘trafficking’ now.” That’s already happening all over the country, not just New York; what was once recognized at simple prostitution is now being shoehorned into the “trafficking” narrative so cops can brag about heroically “rescuing” women, prosecutors can score the bigger points inherent in felony convictions and both can steal money and goods from those so accused. Nor does a lack of evidence have any effect; even when sex workers testify that they were not coerced, prosecutors simply discount their testimony as “false consciousness”. Most hookers are not idiots; we can read what is plainly written on the wall. When prosecutors say they will continue to use condoms as evidence of “trafficking” and then demonstrate that they intend to call most if not all sex work “trafficking”, the net effect is no change whatsoever.
And that’s not even the worst of it. This action is a classic political dodge, exactly the same as the one used in San Francisco two months ago; making this a policy rather than a law allows it to be suspended at any time, which will be as soon as the heat is off. Once the media forgets about the issue, the policies will quietly be rescinded as needed. Of course, they don’t even need to do that; both San Francisco and New York still pretend that cops arresting whores is for our “protection” from those evil “traffickers” we’re too weak and childlike to “escape”. Even the Nassau County DA quoted in the story, who might seem sympathetic, refuses to get it; she has aggressively pursued an “end demand” strategy which casts sex workers as the “victims” of evil clients rather than rational actors in a business transaction, and pretends big, bad “traffickers” are forcing workers to do bareback, when it’s actually their personal decision. I predict a lot more district attorneys will make similar announcements this year; it’s an easy way for them to feign concern for us while conducting business as usual and getting the feds to pay for it.
There’s one small glimmer in this gloom: apparently, the American media pay enough attention to Human Rights Watch for its reports to become big news, and that news exerts sufficient PR pressure for governments to at least make a show of changing their policies; besides the condom report, a recent one on the dreadful harm the sex offender registry inflicts upon young people has likewise attracted considerable media attention and may soon result in a few of the braver politicians making displays of concern. But while HRW is officially pro-decriminalization and last month openly called for it in China, the only thing it has so far asked of American “authorities” is a restriction of the sort of evidence they use to harass us; that will be changing soon, and I am told a full report on the injustices inflicted on sex workers in this country is forthcoming (complete with an explicit demand for decriminalization in the US). Media coverage of that might engender a political pretense of looking at decriminalization which would be, as Eeyore put it, “Amusing in a quiet way…but not really helpful”; however, the resulting public discourse would help to shine light on matters the prohibitionists would prefer to remain obscure…and that would be a cause for optimism.