De-Facto Decrim and How It Would Work

An author friend of mine has a series of books primarily set in a fictional city where the police chief, made painfully aware of the problems created by criminalizing sex work, has come up with the solution of having his department operate as though commercial sex work was already decriminalized, even establishing a “special district” where street-based sex workers are able to operate with relative safety.

In fact, such a policy has been in place in the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver for some time, resulting in significant improvements in sex worker safety in those locations. Here in the United States, Democratic candidate for Queens District Attorney Tiffany Cabán has pledged not to prosecute sex workers or their clients if elected – a similar policy of de-facto decriminalization

Such a pragmatic approach is not without precedent, and is rooted in the discretionary authority given to law enforcement. Usually such “selective enforcement” is done on a case-by-case basis – such as when a police officer gives a driver a warning for a minor violation rather than write a ticket – but there are also cases where an organization determines that strict (or any) enforcement of a particular law does not serve the public interest.

I would argue that a local-level policy of de-facto decrim is just such a case, and should be a goal for advocates of sex worker rights to pursue as an interim step towards actual full decriminalization. Such a policy not only assures greater safety for sex workers and those associated with them, but better serves the public by allowing more resources to be dedicated towards addressing acts of violence and other major crimes, including and especially police corruption and abuse.

This raises two general questions:

  1. What exactly would “de-facto decrim” (or DFD) look like?
  2. How would it be implemented?

As mentioned before, DFD could be implemented simply as a standing policy of a municipal police department, as in Victoria and Vancouver. Similarly, a local prosecutor’s office could implement a policy of not pursuing prostitution charges when there is no evidence of violence, coercion or fraud. The only issue here is when police and prosecutors are not in sync, so even if a prosecutor refuses to pursue certain charges, police may continue to make arrests. Both of these agencies may also be hesitant to implement any such policy if local government is not supportive. Ideally, then, a synchrony of these organizations would make sense, but it would still be feasible for DFD to begin with one of these groups implementing it in whole or in part, and the rest establishing concurrent policies and practices later on.

Returning to the first question, the simplest start for DFD would be to institute a moratorium on arrests for prostitution-related charges, whether of sex workers or their clients – a position which the Massachusetts Pirate Party is petitioning the Boston Police Department to implement. On a broader scale, this would mean non-enforcement of any laws against the consensual exchange of sexual services for pay, so long as no violence, coercion or fraud has taken place. A more detailed delineation of how this would be put into practice would include:

  • No arrests, investigations or sting operations against sex workers, their clients or third-party associates regarding any consensual activities between them.
  • Laws against brothel-keeping, which are too often used against sex workers who operate out of a shared space to ensure greater safety, would also not be enforced; in the event of a third party forcing two or more people to provide commercial sex from a given location, charges of false imprisonment and involuntary servitude could and should be employed instead.
  • Laws against “pimping” – already so vaguely worded that any individual who receives money from a sex worker could be arrested – would likewise not be enforced against any third-party facilitator, so long as the sex workers involved have no problem with how said facilitators operate. If there were problems of fraud or abuse, then again the police and prosecutors should enforce other laws to provide recourse for the workers involved.
  • Sex workers, sex work clients and third-party associates would be assured blanket immunity when reporting crimes to police and prosecutors, whether against themselves or another member of the community.
  • Police would work with sex worker organizations to address violence against sex workers, using proven community policing strategies. This would include addressing abuses by police officers, through changes in departmental policies and practices.
  • Complaints from residents about sex work activity would be addressed through conflict resolution involving sex worker organizations and social service agencies, with a goal of finding a resolution which best addresses the needs of all parties involved.
  • Police may establish a “tolerance zone” for street-based sex work, in consultation with sex worker organizations, with officers specifically trained to address the issues faced by sex workers, based on a community policing model. This would also include police providing information on “bad tricks” to sex workers operating in said area.
  • Incall and outcall sex work would likewise be allowed to operate without interference, so long as the activities engaged in are consensual.

Naturally, this is not a complete list, and certainly different localities would address specific needs in their implementation. But the common pattern is that police and other municipal agencies would start from the premise of what sex workers want in order to improve their lives, and resort to arrest only when violence or other abuses have taken place.

Aside from the practical benefits of increasing sex worker safety and well-being – as seen in Victoria and Vancouver – well-executed DFD models would also provide further evidence of the need for actually changing the laws to full decriminalization and the recognition of sex workers’ rights. Thus while it is not a complete solution, it is an applicable step towards developing and implementing more permanent ones in the areas of law, public policy, and community policing practices.

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Taking Sex Workers for a Ride

Here in Boston, there is an organization for homeless and at-risk youth called Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They began in the 1960s as a group of women offering sandwiches and a supportive ear to runaway, throwaway and neglected teens in Boston Common and Harvard Square. Over the decades, they grew into a model organization, with a mobile medical van as part of its street outreach, and the first emergency shelter for homeless youth in the country.

One of the reasons they have been as effective as they are is that they take the time to build rapport with street youth. They don’t impose their will on them; they meet them where they are, or wait for them to come.

That, I have learned, is vastly different from the vision of those who seek to “rescue” people from sex work, especially street-based sex work. Seattle is one example of this, where police don’t simply refrain from arresting street-based sex workers, they take them for a ride to members of the city’s “Organization for Prostitution Survivors,” which touts itself as offering “counseling and advice” to sex workers.

If that’s anything like the “counseling and advice” given by Peter Qualliotine in Seattle’s “john school” program, then sex workers in that city would be wise to steer clear. Qualliotine – an art college dropout whose only qualifications for running such a program is that he worked for prohibitionist fanatic Melissa Farley – attempts to indoctrinate members of his “STOP Exploitation” classes in a noxious hodgepodge of extremist ideology and shame-filled pseudoscience, all wrapped up with a speech reminiscent of an evangelical preacher’s temperance sermon abjuring the faithful to swear off liquor.

Of course, I would expect Peter Qualliotine, Alisa Bernard, and others at OPS to scoff at my description, denouncing me as a “sex trafficking apologist” or member of their mythic “pimp lobby” for daring to question their dogma. Let me pose a couple of important questions for them: If commercial sex is so universally terrible, and if you are offering such beneficial services, why do you need undercover police officers to bring street-based sex workers to you under false pretenses? If you’re so convinced that no one really consents to selling sex, how is using the police to deceive and intimidate women into listening to you any better?

Frankly, I don’t expect an answer from them. But for anyone else reading, think about the use of such disingenuous means to achieve their ends. And remember that this is being done on the taxpayer’s dime.

Stop Singling Out Street-Based Sex Workers

As I write this post, South Australia’s Legislative Council approved a bill to decriminalize prostitution. The next step would be a vote in that state’s House of Assembly. One of the reasons to be optimistic is that every attempt to amend the bill was defeated, including one that would have kept street-based sex work illegal. Similarly, social conservatives in New Zealand have been trying to get a ban on street-based sex work in Christchurch, without considering the various factors behind the problems involved (e.g., loss of public lavatories and other facilities due to earthquake damage).

Too often, moderates propose a “compromise” which excludes streetwalkers from the rights and recourse to be given other sex workers. Escorts and brothel girls? Sure, let them be legal. But not for those who ply their trade on the street. If other sex workers are able to do their business indoors, then so should they – not out in the open like that.

One of the times I heard an acquaintance make such an argument, I couldn’t help pointing out the irony that he’d just bought a hot dog and a soda from a vendor on the street. Yes, we allow folks who might afford a cart to sell food or hats or other goods out in the open, applaud the initiative of kids who offer their services mowing lawns or shoveling snow, and even let our neighbors sell all sorts of items from their yards or garages – but when the same principle is applied to commercial sex, too many of us still take exception.

When moderates separate street-based sex workers from others in their profession, they are helping to perpetuate the twin stigma of whorephobia and whorearchy. It’s bad enough that prohibitionist fanatics exploit their stereotyped image and marginalized status as fodder for propaganda. When they are singled out by appeals to respectability, they open the door to undue restrictions on all sex workers, and the problems that are likely to spill over from that. From banning commercial sex on the street, to restricting where incalls may be located, or that “legitimate” sex workers be registered and subjected to invasive mandatory health checks, legalization schemes never seem to stop at the street corner.

The major objection given to allowing street-based sex work is the “nuisance factor” perceived to be associated with it, especially when it takes place in residential areas. Establishing a commercial zone away from residential ones makes sense, but these are often implemented poorly, with said zones often having their own problems. If local governments want such a scheme to work, then they need to involve sex workers in the process of determining the best site for such a zone, as well as any resources they would need (such as drop-in clinics and help centers, SRO hotels providing short-term rentals, and access to public transportation). Local authorities also need to facilitate dialogue between sex workers and other members of the community, so that all sides may better understand one another’s needs.

The idea of viewing and treating street-based sex work as different from others does nothing to alleviate the risks involved. If anything, removing both legal restrictions and societal stigma is essential to finding ways to remove other obstacles to their health and safety. Decriminalizing the commercial sex industry means decriminalizing it in total, and not merely those we perceive as somehow more acceptable.