Recent articles and law enforcement statements detailing raids and arrests of massage parlor workers in Brooklyn consistently conflate sex work and trafficking, a practice which characterizes the policing of sex work in New York City. For example, in AMNY, District Attorney Ken Thompson contrasts the “good” citizens who make complaints against the bad sex workers, celebrating the arrest of 15 “employees” of massage parlors on prostitution charges. He then says that “victims” will be screened for special programs.
Trafficking is a serious crime encompassing exploitation and violence, and deserves a more thoughtful presentation. Simply put, not all trafficking is into the sex industry, and not all involvement in the sex trade is through force or fraud, and the conflation hinders anti-trafficking efforts and harms survivors and sex workers.
At the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, we provide free legal and social services to people who work in the sex industry, including victims of human trafficking. We see firsthand the human rights abuses sex workers and victims of trafficking face and how the conflation of trafficking and prostitution leads to further criminalization and arrest of survivors and sex workers.
Conflating trafficking and prostitution contributes to significant challenges to anti-trafficking efforts. Confusion around what exploitation looks like makes it harder to identify, and harder for victims to realize that they have options to escape. Law enforcement use community concerns about human trafficking to justify raids and arrests of sex workers and survivors themselves, then send mixed messages shaming those arrested.
We know that stigma is a primary reason many sex workers are afraid to seek help and support when they are victimized, including when they are trafficked. The reliance on arrests and raids ignores the fact that they are not an effective way of identifying trafficking survivors, and are more likely to lead to arrest and incarceration than support or escape.
Conflation diverts resources better spent on community outreach and direct services outside of the criminal justice system. Especially for those who fear criminalization because of participation in the sex trade, creating non-law enforcement mechanisms which connect to support services is essential. The conflation of trafficking and prostitution also blinds us to the rampant issues of exploitation in domestic work, restaurant labor, and other industries, which deserve just as much attention and rigorous support. Trafficking victims simply deserve better.
In a climate where we are questioning NYPD tactics of broken-windows policing and aggressive use of force, we should question law enforcement treatment of sex workers, too. We should look for new ways in which different communities can co-exist in neighborhoods where changing demographics and economic strife may lead to tensions. Community dialogues, active engagement and outreach would foster long-term solutions for everyone, not knee-jerk reactions which seek to exclude the already-marginalized.