Collateral damage

How policies to combat sex trafficking can victimize sex workers

Kym Cutter, like many working mothers, supports her family and has a fulfilling career. Except in Cutter’s job, police show up at her door looking for sex traffickers.

In April 2017, Cutter returned home from grocery shopping to find two men in her yard. They were trying to get into the side door, she said. She confronted them, and the plainclothes cops handed her a copy of an old online ad for "tantric bodywork." There was a photo of her in a bikini.

The 50-year-old has a diverse work history. She's been a massage therapist, a preschool and kindergarten teacher, a pastry chef. She founded a nonprofit, alternative, mobile healthcare clinic and participates in a clinic on the Navajo Nation as an herbalist, nutritionist and body worker.

And for the better part of the last two decades, she's been a career sex worker. For her, that career is about love and caring. Some of her clients are disabled and elderly, including a 97-year-old man who hires her to cuddle with him.

"I love my job," she said. "I was born to be a whore."

Cutter is one of roughly 100 women who were investigated by Tucson Police Department officers, as part of a three-year-old task force known as SAATURN (Southern Arizona Anti-Trafficking Unified Response Network).

Although law enforcement do bust traffickers, enforcement efforts and policies directed at stopping trafficking also target autonomous sex workers and even push them into situations where they become trafficking victims.

Who is arrested through SAATURN

In October 2015, SAATURN was formed with a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Justice, split between TPD and behavioral-health services provider CODAC Health, Recovery & Wellness. It was a three-year grant to address human trafficking in Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties.

SAATURN's mission included two points: providing comprehensive services to trafficking victims by identifying and addressing their needs for safety, security and healing; and proactively investigate, identify, apprehend and prosecute those engaged in human trafficking.

Trafficking is defined as a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person who performs such an act is under 18 years old. Consensual sex work is often lumped in with sex trafficking when it comes to law enforcement tactics, public policy, media coverage and social perception. Sometimes autonomous sex workers may find themselves in situations where they're being coerced, and per the definition of trafficking, that makes them victims. It's common that underage sex workers are runaways who don't have another means of survival. Anyone who pays them for a sex act could be considered a trafficker.

The sex industry is a varied spectrum of underground and often illegal acts, but one thing is clear: There's little evidence to support the narrative that children are being snatched from their suburban homes and sold into the sex trade, locally or nationwide.

Pima County Public Defense Services, who defend roughly 70 percent of all felonies in the county, saw 18 defendants, from the beginning of 2016 to present, resulting in 50 charges for crimes relating to the sex industry, from felony prostitution to sex trafficking. Out of the 50 charges, 12 had to do with child sex trafficking.

Deputy County Attorney Tracy Miller said she doesn't see a lot of trafficking cases, but even fewer felony prostitution cases. She said if someone facing felony prostitution charges shows signs of being trafficked, the charges against them will be dropped.

Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman says the sex industry consists of both consensual sex workers who advocate for legalization and another group of people who are exploited to varying degrees.

He says most victims in sex trafficking cases are women; many are women of color and those who come from vulnerable economic backgrounds. Some are consensual sex workers in abusive relationships; others are pressured into it by friends, family and boyfriends, sometimes through physical abuse or drugs. Some are teenagers, and some are immigrants. Pimps are usually considered traffickers.

"I'm not sure the problem has changed much, but calling them sex traffickers as opposed to pimps sends a very different message and mobilizes a very different political base," Feinman said. "So you can mobilize around tougher laws and harsher sentencings and more police and more money for law enforcement by anti-sex-trafficking efforts much more successfully than looking at the problem with a nuance that I think it deserves."

He says the term "pimping" calls to mind women of color being coerced to stand on the street corner by men of color while "trafficking" calls to mind a different type of victim, whose narrative gets a very different political reaction.

"This idea of blond-haired, blue-eyed 8-year-olds, middle-American girls being kidnapped by  swarthy, dark men in the middle of the night and used as prostitutes and trafficked to other states in the country, is not a fact," he said. "There's no evidence of that."

Through a public records request, the Tucson Weekly accessed a spreadsheet of all SAATURN investigations in the three years since the beginning of the grant and found 10 people who were convicted of trafficking and related crimes.

Out of 516 investigations, some involving multiple suspects, 23 people were categorized as arrested for trafficking. Tucson Weekly analyzed police reports and city, county and federal court records and found that of those 23 suspects, 14 were charged with trafficking and other sex crimes. Two cases, involving three suspects, didn't have enough information to determine the outcome.

Tucson Police Department Supervisor of the Street Crimes Interdiction Unit Benjamin Frie, who oversees TPD's SAATURN investigations, said it's possible that investigations not marked as trafficking arrests resulted in trafficking charges, but he doesn't believe so. He also said there have been two trafficking arrests since the last time Tucson Weekly requested the spreadsheet, in mid-September.

Of the 14 suspected traffickers, 10 people were convicted or took plea deals, three have ongoing court cases and one committed suicide after being released on bail.

There were 13 victims associated with those cases, although police reports reveal that more women in the sex trade were connected to the suspects. Ten of the 13 victims were female and three were male. Eight were underage, eight were white and four were people of color.

Two cases resemble the mainstream narrative of a kidnapped female forced to commit commercial sex acts against her will. The rest of the cases vary widely.

In one case, a drunk, 71-year-old registered sex-offender in a wheelchair persistently and crudely offered a 14-year-old girl money for sexual favors at a bus stop. He tried to touch her but she was able to move out of his reach. In another case, a man offered to pay three 15-year-old boys and one girl to commit sex acts in front of him.

Some of the cases involve runaways, like the youngest victim, a 13-year-old girl who was raped, beaten and told she would be put on a street corner. In other cases, the women consider the trafficker their friend or boyfriend.

SAATURN's work resulted in more than trafficking arrests. They had 253 arrests, which include offenses like prohibited possession of a firearm, narcotics charges and felony warrants. As well, a substantial number of arrests were of women being looked into as possible trafficking victims.

The spreadsheet indicates 52 misdemeanor arrests related to prostitution or not having an escort license, essentially a lesser charge to prostitution. The Tucson Weekly wasn't able to obtain each of these police records before this story went to print, but they did confirm at least 26 women investigated were charged in Tucson City Court with a no-escort-license and/or prostitution charge. While all those court cases fell within SAATURN's timespan, it's not clear in all the cases that the charges resulted from SAATURN activity.

Arresting the would-be victims

The arrest numbers from SAATURN's spreadsheet show that autonomous sex workers were swept up in the search for traffickers.

"In the process of trying to get a pimp in the parking lot, we were effectively arresting these women," Sgt. Frie said.

Some of these investigations started with an undercover cop setting up a meeting with a woman they found in an online ad, usually Backpage—the adult classifieds website shut down earlier this year by the federal government after prosecutors filed charges that its owners were facilitating prostitution, money laundering and participating in a criminal conspiracy.

When the woman shows up at the meeting, she's arrested. If she has no warrants or drugs on her, she may be cited and released at the scene. Police might also confiscate her cell phone and any abundance of cash she has on her.

If she has a man with her, they are arrested and investigated to see if they could be considered a trafficker. If she is found to be a trafficking victim, she won't typically be charged.

Deputy City Attorney Alan Merritt says a first charge for no escort license typically leads to a $300 fine. A second charge, or a first-time prostitution charge, can vary in penalties, but participation in a diversion program is often offered.

The diversion program typically costs $275 for a seven-and-a-half hour class. The program for a prostitution charge, which unlike no-escort-license is a criminal offense, can be more rigorous but is offered at no cost. When someone completes the diversion program, their charges are dropped. But Merritt said the fact they had contact with police will likely still come up in a background check, as will the charges.

Refusing diversion on prostitution charges usually results in 15 days in jail, a $438 fine plus state surcharges, and one year of unsupervised probation, according to Merritt. On top of the fine, the defendant would be responsible to pay jail fees, which are $325 for the first day and about $100 each consecutive day, though judges rarely order a defendant pay the entire fee.

Diversion is not typically offered on a second prostitution offense. A conviction usually has a penalty of 30 days in jail, $987 in fines and up to three years of probation. Merritt says in some cases, like if someone receives food stamps, there may be a substantial reduction in fines.

Merritt said he sees a steady stream of arraignments for no escort license, but prostitution cases are a little more rare. He said the no-license charges often come from the type of TPD setups previously described. Prostitution charges are more likely to come from agreeing to an act of prostitution, which a sex worker may do with an undercover cop before being arrested.

"Our effort is to, of course, discourage breaking the law," Merritt says. "But also, we're working with social services...and trying to steer these, primarily women, away from the sex trade as a way to survive."

Of course, many women who are doing sex work don't have much money or another way to make a living. Sex worker advocates say stacking them with fines and charges that show up on background checks for employment and housing only makes it harder for them to leave the sex industry if or when they want to.

The Tucson Weekly found two Pima County Superior Court cases related to SAATURN arrests that resulted in women getting felony prostitution charges.

In one, an undercover cop set up a meeting with a 23-year-old woman of color who had a Backpage ad. When they met, he exposed himself, let her touch his penis and undress in front of him before arresting her. She told detectives later that she had been a prostitute since she was 16 and previously fled a pimp who beat her.

Operating out of an apartment explicitly for sex work, she was charged with "attempting to keep or maintain a house of prostitution." She got three years of probation that came with $65 in monthly probation fees, on top of $480 in attorney fees and other assessments. The courts said she would pay 10 percent of her income toward fines once she was employed.

After not being able to comply with all her probation requirements, failing to report to her probation officer and drug tests and then failing a drug test, she was sentenced to 180 days in jail.

The Department of Justice, which disperses the grant, directed TPD in February to stop conducting operations that start with the intention of arresting the sex provider, Frie said. The DOJ also forbid them from using the grant for demand suppression or arresting buyers, also referred to as "Johns." The spreadsheet indicates that no Johns or sex workers were arrested through SAATURN since that order.

The truth about sex trafficking

The people convicted of trafficking don't fit the common narrative. Three people convicted of trafficking, from SAATURN investigations, were young women. They were working with a pimp, engaging in sex work and recruited another woman. Frie says many victim advocate groups believe in "the pure-bred victim," where victimhood is clear-cut and unchanging. That is not the lifestyle arch he often sees.

"Women are some of the most active recruiters of other prostitutes, but they're still being prostitutes," he said. "Maybe they're giving money back to a pimp. Well, now they're not just a victim though, are they? They're a victim and an offender at the same time."

Although the numbers of trafficking victims found through court records related to SAATURN are relatively low, CODAC, the grant's behavioral-health services provider, says their advocates have engaged with 115 trafficking survivors through SAATURN, over the three years of the grant.

Of those, 105 were female and 10 were male; 23 were underage. Nearly all of them, 99, were sex-trafficked. Five were labor trafficked, nine were both and two were children or family of trafficking victims.

Law enforcement statistics show modest sex trafficking arrests nationwide. In 2016, 881 people were arrested for sex trafficking, according to FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program—or about 1 percent of the suspected sex-offenders that year.

One thing Frie knows about sex trafficking numbers: "Nobody has good numbers. You're talking about people, and everybody interprets things differently."

Frie said since heading this taskforce, he's realized that trafficking is not as black-and-white as he originally thought. He recognizes that not all sex work is the same and there are no easy answers.

"I know that prostitution is the world's oldest profession," he said. "I know that it's not going anywhere. And I know there's a lot of women that engage in it of their own free will."

Frie said he can't advocate for legalization because of the terms of the grant but that some type of legalization may be part of the bigger solution. He says if it were ever legalized, he'd like to see the people engaging in it to show they're independent and free of coercion—financial freedom, freedom of movement, access to their own funds and their own place.

Although the grant period ended in September, TPD had left-over funds and got an extension until March 31, 2019. They're not reapplying for the grant because of staffing issues and the difficulty in putting efforts toward what Frie calls a "very niche type of investigation."

Frie says they're currently going back through the spreadsheet and reaching out to people who previously told them to go away, asking again if they need help.

How to save victims without creating more

I grabbed a coffee with Cutter on April 11, a year after she came home to police casing her house and on the same day the U.S. House and Senate each passed the bipartisan legislation, FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act).

The legislation holds websites responsible for what users put on the platform, allowing states and individuals to sue sites they believe are enabling sex trafficking. SESTA/FOSTA conflates trafficking with all sex work and could cover almost any sex-related online forum. FOSTA says website owners who run a service "to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person" can spend up to 10 years in prison.

SESTA/FOSTA came on the heels of Backpage's closure. Through online advertising, sex workers have a safer way to find and vet clients. Rather than get into a stranger's car off the street, sex workers could ask potential clients for references. They had an opportunity to give a friend a client's number and tell the friend when and where they would be working.

Cutter says losing that resource is like going to your job and having the building be shut down with no notice.

"It's hand-to-mouth for a lot of people," she said. "The more marginalized people are going to be pushed onto the streets."

Shutting down Backpage and sites like it disproportionately affects more marginalized sex workers, who have no safety net to fall back on. It forced the most vulnerable into more dangerous situations, including pushing some autonomous sex workers to the very pimps these policies are supposed to save them from.

When SESTA/FOSTA passed, sex worker advocates said it would lead to the deaths of women and trans folks.

Raquel Risley, a 29-year-old transwoman, called the shutdown "savage." She'd been finding clients on Backpage, where she could talk with them first and set up a meeting somewhere safe. When Backpage closed, she was forced to the streets, where she was sexually assaulted.

"A lot of girls had to hit the streets," she said. "I'm just trying to survive."

Risley grew up in foster care from the time she was 8 and came out as transgender at 15. At 18, she was sent to a men's prison for forging checks. As a six-and-a-half-foot trans woman, she would have already faced employment barriers because of discrimination against trans people, but with her police record, finding other work seemed impossible. So she gave up.

Risley says losing Backpage and the other adult-classifieds sites that closed in response to SESTA/FOSTA affected women like her, but it also made it harder for police to find trafficking victims. Even Sgt. Frie, who doesn't condone Backpage, said the website gave police a place to start looking for people being trafficked.

Risley thinks the key to helping victims and sex workers who want something different but lack options is offering more resources and safe spaces rather than funding law enforcement tactics that arrest sex workers and Johns.

"We could think that the police had our back and actually protect us like they're supposed to," she said. "The money that they're using to arrest us, they could use to help us."

click to enlarge Collateral damage
Danyelle Khmara
Activist and former sex worker Juliana Piccillo, during a vigil for International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, on Dec. 17, 2017: “When we’re harmed, we’re told it’s part of our job description.”

Local activist and former sex worker Juliana Piccillo says stings scare Johns and make them resistant to being screened by sex workers. If a sex worker has fewer clients calling, they're more likely to cut corners on safety or not screen at all. Also, with online advertising, sex workers don't need pimps.  

Piccillo says people are often coerced into the sex industry by poverty, addiction and mental health issues, adding that many anti-sex-trafficking measures traumatize the lives of consensual sex workers. Criminal records jeopardize much of their lives, such as housing, jobs and child custody.

"It's as coercive as any other kind of work that people have to do because they're poor," she said. "It takes millions of dollars to look for a boogie man in the bushes, when you've got men and women who need services. Give the money to them to start the lives they want to have."

CODAC offers a number of services through SAATURN for people who have experienced trafficking.

Their services include group and individual counseling and therapy, medical care, psychiatric care, substance-abuse treatment, housing and shelter, transportation and legal aid. Through SAATURN, CODAC helped 43 people who identified with being sex trafficked with basic needs such as clothing, food toiletries, medical care, eye care and prescription medication, according to CODAC spokesperson Kristine Hall.

CODAC also assisted two people with rental assistance, three with services at residential treatment programs and two with bus tickets to reunite with family. CODAC isn't tracking how many people took advantage of counseling and therapy services. Hall also said CODAC can help people find job opportunities despite having criminal convictions.

Risley said she wishes CODAC had more resources. She says she went there several times and had trouble accessing their services. Other sex workers, who may have at times found themselves in situations that could fall under the definition of being trafficked, don't trust organizations like CODAC.

Another byproduct of lumping consensual sex work with trafficking is that many sex workers are leery of trusting an organization they feel labels them as victims and disavows their profession. They also find it hard to trust CODAC because the organization works with police as part of SAATURN, and police arrest sex workers.

Sex work is work

click to enlarge Collateral damage
Danyelle Khmara
Ramona: “One minimum wage job is usually not enough. That’s always been true for me. And that’s just why I do sex work. It’s not some juicy story. It’s just another way to help me survive.”

Ramona, a 25-year-old trans woman of color and sex worker who asked to remain anonymous in this article, says criminalizing the trade makes so many violent situations possible. And demonizing the sex trade as a whole perpetuates a stigma that sex workers lives don't matter.

When Ramona talks to people about what she does, she has to explain that sex work is not synonymous with sex trafficking.

"Some of those people literally will outright say they believe there's no difference between prostitution and sex trafficking," she said. "They believe there's no such thing as consensual prostitution."

She says the stigma transfers to clients, with people viewing them as if they're the "scum of the scum" who are participating in violence against women and should have their names smeared. She says that stigma and the illegality of prostitution plays out by scaring away decent clientele.

"So on our end, that means that so many more of the people who contact us are just these crazy-ass dudes who don't give a fuck about their reputation, don't give a fuck about the threat of arrest," she said.

Ramona usually has a second job, working for minimum wage. This income has never been enough to get by.

She says most of the trans women she knows have done sex work at some point. As a teen, she hung out at an LGBT homeless youth center, where she first started meeting sex workers.

"Everyone also has this shared experience of poverty," she said. "2018, you know, one minimum wage job is usually not enough. That's always been true for me. And that's just why I do sex work. It's not some juicy story. It's just another way to help me survive."

What Ramona and other sex worker advocates ultimately want is total decriminalization of consensual sex work so sex workers can openly build communities and safety networks to screen clients, have formal security and command better pay. It would diversify their market and maybe even attract some female clientele, which Ramona wouldn't mind at all.

Ramona says decriminalizing is important but along with it, the sex work industry needs to be destigmatized.

"Imagine if hiring a sex worker wasn't just something that skeevy men do," she said. "Imagine if it was just something you did when you're lonely or whatever and you want companionship. That would probably attract a lot more decent people. I wanna only have decent people."