Law enforcement at the federal, state and local level are working together on surveillance, sweeps and campaigns aimed at ending the sex trade. This hostile environment is fueled by abolitionists, anti-trafficking NGO’s and some feminists who push for tough-on-crime legislation and more crackdowns. The result, according to activists, of harsh criminalization is primarily women of color, immigrants and transgender women are either arrested or forced into mandatory diversion programs. With no focus on sex worker rights aggressive stings are increasing, discriminatory business practices are occurring, and on-line communities have been shut down.
While the Super Bowl sex trafficking hype is unfounded - reporters, politicians and law enforcement use it repeatedly as an excuse to increase anti-prostitution policing. “This is New York City and there is no shortage of offenders and with this event [Super Bowl] we are ramping up resources," said NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Favale, the vice department’s enforcement coordinator.
The increase in anti-sex work policing for this year’s Super Bowl resulted in hundreds of adult sex workers being arrested. The NYPD announced that there were 298 prostitution-related arreststhrough Jan. 26. In a separate operation, the FBI announced that they partnered with 50 law enforcement agencies to identify 16 minors, however they did not confirm how many of the 70 teens and adult sex workers had been arrested.
In June, the FBI conducted its annual nationwide prostitution sweep known as Operation Cross Country. Over 500 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, an estimated 10,000 officers, were involved in the week-long sting that identified 168 minors and arrested 281 pimps on various state and federal charges — primarily prostitution related. According to social justice activist Emi Koyama, there were at least 1,000 sex workers who may have been arrested during this sweep. Arrested youth and adults face violent arrests, possible mandatory minimums, felony charges, loss of parental rights and deportation.
People in the sex industry face daily discrimination and have little or no legal basis to complain —leading to more exploitation. A recent example is the termination of the bank accounts of hundreds of adult entertainers, stripping workers of their financial rights.
This past Monday, porn star Teagan Presley arrived home in Las Vegas from yet another whirlwind strip club appearance tour and found a letter from her bank.
Chase was closing her account, which was listed under her legal name, as well as the account of her husband.
When Presley went to the bank in person to ask why, she was told it’s because she’s considered “high risk.”
Some individuals, journalists, and civil rights organizations believe the DOJ is telling banks to be cops as part of their anti-fraud initiative, Operation Choke Point. This initiative, launched in 2013, was supposed investigate banks and businesses that may be considered "high risk" for fraud. Chase denies that the shutting down of these accounts is related to the operation, but there’s evidence that suggests this is a continuation of years of discrimination against poor people and minorities. After just one year, the operation is being referred to as the stop-and-frisk for banks.
“We want no Gestapo or Secret Police,” Truman wrote in his diary, “FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail.”
The FBI’s Operation Cross Country raid peaked with the announcement of the seizure and shut down of SFRedbook.com, MyPinkBook.com, or MyRedBook.com. The FBI’s press release indicates the site was shut down because it was being used to facilitate prostitution and money laundering, while CNN ran a headline that tied the website to the national anti-prostitution sting. Under the guise of fighting child sex trafficking, prostitution and money laundering, the FBI and IRS shut down has put sex worker's health at risk and done nothing to end exploitation.
MyRedBook has a long history of sex worker solidarity and provides a critical connection for thousands of sex workers — including isolated and marginalized people. The community website functioned as a forum to offer advice and support, develop best practices, and was a way to conduct business safely.
"It's like sex workers lost their Yelp," said Bay Area sex worker and activist Siouxsie Q.
Meg Munoz told VICE that MyRedBook was “a huge asset when it came to survivors we knew and were following. It was actually a huge asset in helping us work with a survivor to set up an emergency relocation."
The FBI’s actions have some in the high-tech community wondering why the federal government is targeting sex workers and ignoring the First Amendment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) will be monitoring the case closely; and they've archived prostitution laws, forums, and have provided a sex worker anonymity and privacy guide.
The over-policing of the sex industry is a misguided effort that pushes the most marginalized populations further underground. Criminalization creates a hostile environment for sex workers – it pushes sex workers into an unsafe work environment where they’re unable to screen clients, demand protection or report crimes. To create change, a focus on sex worker rights, gender rights, health policy and decriminalization of drugs and prostitution is essential. Decriminalization is the first step to protecting the safety and rights of sex workers by ensuring that they have full access to health, safety and human rights.