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The Dangers of Sex Work in Alaska: Is the State Helping or Hurting Sex Workers?

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Photo by Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons Licensing.

December 17 is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. This day was first recognized in 2003, following the conviction of Washington’s Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway. Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder; his victims were all women, most alleged prostitutes. Years after his conviction, Ridgway claimed to have more than 70 victims.

Alaska has its own connection with violence against sex workers: Robert Hanson. Though only charged with the murder of four, and the kidnapping of one, Hanson has confessed to or been linked with as many as 17 murders. The number of people he has confessed to raping is almost double that. Although not all of his victims were sex workers, Hanson found them ideal targets.

On December 13, in a small Universalist Unitarian Church on the east side of Anchorage, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current sex workers and their allies, held an event to discuss what it is like to work in the sex industry in Alaska. Their message was clear: despite recently introduced laws that ostensibly allow law enforcement to better aid and protect sex workers, sex workers feel no safer.

Alaska’s Laws

In September 2012, House Bill 359 was signed into law. Designed to allow for swifter handling of sex trafficking cases, to increase the penalty for sex trafficking, and to remove from victims the label of prostitute, the bill ultimately resulted in a complex intersection of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking, as defined at the federal level, requires the presence of “the use of force, fraud, or coercion, or conduct involving persons under the age of 18.” At a state level, the definition of sex trafficking includes forcing someone into prostitution, but also promoting sex travel, owning and managing a place of prostitution, and “conduct that institutes, aids, or facilitates a prostitution enterprise” — no force, fraud, coercion, or underage victim required. Technically, prostitutes can be charged with trafficking themselves.

In June 2013, Senate Bill 22 was signed into law. In part, this bill allows for the collection of private communications in sex trafficking cases, prohibits probation and parole officers from sexual relationships with the offenders they are aiding, and removed the statute of limitations from sex trafficking cases.

Laws such as these are intended to increase the tools law enforcement has available to them when fighting the violence that occurs within the sex industry. Sergeant Kathy Lacey, the head of the Anchorage Police Department Vice Squad and the officer who oversees all prostitution arrests in Anchorage, believes that law enforcement is capable of rescuing victims from bad situations. But rescue does mean arrest. And bad situations are open to interpretation.

In a 2014 documentary about sex work in Alaska made for teleSUR, Lacey said, “Arresting is not the best answer. […] We really don’t want to punish [victims], but we want to remove them from that situation. And the tools that we have to remove them from that situation are to arrest them….”

While there are certainly people within the sex industry who want to get out and need help getting out, this is not a scenario that applies to every sex worker. One member of CUSP, Maxine Doogan, began the December 13 talk by stating that she has worked as a prostitute for 24 years and hopes to work as one for 24 more. Despite people like Doogan who choose sex work, Lacey insists that “…anytime that a woman is selling her body for sex, it should be illegal. It’s very degrading and exploitative. And we should quit calling it prostitution. We should call it what it is, which is sexual exploitation.”

The media has been largely complicit in this rescue narrative. In August of this year, an Anchorage woman named Amber Batts was arrested and accused of sex trafficking crimes. KTUU described her operation, which provided space and tools for prostitutes to conduct business in return for a portion of workers’ earnings, as a “ring,” and reported that she owned, sold, and trafficked sex workers. Batts read like an exploitative individual, one who we should be thankful can no longer victimize unfortunates.

Yet there were “Support Amber Batt” buttons available at the CUSP talk.

So what’s going on? According to CUSP, Alaska’s laws are not as positive as they might seem.

Sex Traffickers or Safe Sex Workers?

Karen Carpenter of Soldotna was one of the first people to be charged with sex trafficking after House Bill 359 became law. Carpenter ran Gifted Hands Massage in Kenai with two employees, 19-year-old Adison Murrieta and 20-year-old Jonah Lange, and advertised online as an erotic massage therapist. She was convicted of 6 counts of felony sex trafficking, including running a place of prostitution and accepting proceeds from prostitution. Though originally charged with inducing someone under 20 to engage in prostitution, and inducing someone over 20 to engage in prostitution, those charges were dismissed.

Batts was charged with 8 counts of felony sex trafficking, including running an enterprise, procuring customers, and offering travel for sex. She has also been charged with inducement.

According to CUSP member and graduate student Terra Burns’ research, there is no proof that House Bill 359 has been used to help a single victim of sex trafficking. Rather, because of the discrepancy between federal and state definitions of sex trafficking, Burns holds that the state is criminalizing many of the techniques that sex workers use to keep themselves safe. This includes sharing space, sharing information, and dictating the manner in which they conduct their business. Sharing space means that prostitutes know that they always have somewhere safe to take a client and that they do not have to resort to potentially dangerous “outcalls,” or meeting a client in an unknown and unsecured space. Sharing information means that, if prostitutes have had bad experiences with clients, they can share those clients’ information so that no one else is hurt. Dictating one’s business means that prostitutes have ability to negotiate, that they can employ people to help with screening and booking clients. From this perspective, both Carpenter and Batts may have simply been trying to manage good, safe businesses.

The Reality of Harsher Penalties

In order to help individuals in the sex industry, law enforcement must arrest them. Charges follow arrest. Due to House Bill 359, prostitutes can now be charged with felonies instead of misdemeanors. This brings with it all the usual restrictions and stigma: felons are often unable to travel abroad; they cannot apply for federal or state grants, SSI, food aid, and the like; finding employment and housing is difficult; parental rights are diminished. Additionally, because Alaska is a barrier crime state and sex trafficking is a permanent barrier crime, it can be even harder to find employment post-sentence.

CUSP wants to know how this helps sex workers. By contributing to complicating sex workers’ exits of the sex industry and by threatening them with arrest for staying within the industry, the state is robbing prostitutes of their chances at financial independence. Burns said that she believes the state is actually one of the most prolific traffickers, as it forces people to stay in the industry, regardless of their goals and desires: if prostitutes are convicted of sex trafficking, thus becoming felons, they may not be able to find a job other than sex work.

Nowhere for Victims to Turn

In situations where sex workers approached law enforcement because they were victims or witnesses of a crime while at work, Burns’ study reveals that police took less than half of their reports, threatened one third of them with arrest, and arrested 6 percent. Of victims or witnesses of crimes who labeled themselves “manipulated or coerced,” 80 percent attempted to report a crime. The police took only 20 percent of their reports, arrested 20 percent, and threatened to arrest 60 percent. 74 percent of respondents in Burns’ study indicated that they did not bother reporting a crime because of fears of exposing themselves and others, because of the specter of arrest, and because they did not believe that law enforcement would try to help them.

Burns asked study participants what they consider to be their primary threat and more than a third answered that it was violence and coercion at the hands of police officers. Startlingly, participants in Burns’ study reported high rates of sexual assault by police, and high rates of being robbed and beaten by police.

Regarding instances of sexual misconduct by police officers, Sergeant Lacey has stated that such behavior by law enforcement is “very disturbing” and that the department “cannot abide it,” but that it “is just going to happen.”

Sex workers are often targets of violence because they are marginalized, demonized, and made invisible by the communities in which they live. Furthermore, if sex workers do not feel that they can safely approach law enforcement, they will continue to be the targets of violent crimes, because perpetrators know that they are likely to get away with them. This ultimately erodes the effectiveness of laws like House Bill 359 that are designed to combat sex trafficking, because trafficking victims are unlikely to take the risk of reporting their situation.

Where We Are

CUSP is calling for a reexamination of Alaska’s sex trafficking laws. Sex trafficking is a heinous crime, but the state’s current definition of sex trafficking is so broad as to have limited real meaning. Moreover, House Bill 359 has inadvertently increased the likelihood that sex workers will experience violence. CUSP would like to see the law repealed and a new law constructed, one that takes into account the voices and experiences of the people most likely to be affected by it. Sex workers in Burns’ study believe that the state would be better able to address force, fraud, and coercion within the sex industry by shoring up laws such as domestic violence and labor laws.

More controversially, CUSP believes that prostitution in Alaska should be decriminalized. Decriminalization would, they hold, allow for sex workers and sex trafficking victims to safely ask for police aid without the fear of being arrested and doubly victimized. It would also allow prostitutes to access all the services, resources, and protections available to less-stigmatized taxpayers and victims.

If the intent of laws like House Bill 359 is to help people that work in or are forced into working in dangerous situations, all aspects of those situations must be examined. It is obvious that there are serious lapses in police conduct when working with individuals involved in prostitution and sex trafficking cases. There must be more effective management of interactions between police and alleged sex workers and sex trafficking victims. Sex industry workers should not feel that they are at significant risk for assault from the people employed to protect and help them. And sex industry workers should not feel powerless when reporting themselves as victims or witnesses of crimes. That they do feel powerless points to an egregious failure by lawmakers and law enforcement.

Julien Jolivette is a queer, transgender, lifelong Alaskan who might have a problem with adjectives. They graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage in 2010 with a BS in Anthropology. Though they told themself that they were done with school, Julien is considering taking the big graduate school plunge, focusing on social justice issues and community development.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Poverty and vulnerability are the reasons people enter into trading sex for money, setting themselves up for being exploited. Because a person gets used to it over time, or comes to believe it is the only way to pay the rent and eat, does not make the situation less exploitive. This multi-billion dollar “industry” would have us all believe it’s just business. The statistics don’t show that. When a 13 yr old girl gets turned out by her mother to satisfy customers, later dances in a strip bar, and trades sex for money, she never really had a chance. It only looks like any kind of life if you don’t see.

  2. Pam, you should get to know some of us and check out some of the research that’s been done with sex workers. We might not live up to your stereotypes. 😉

  3. Actually, I came to an understanding of the situation because I have seen the research. About 10 years ago I heard testimony at an Anchorage Assembly meeting from several public and private social service agencies, and from trafficked individuals who were advocating that Fantasies on 5th not be allowed to expand their license. As a result, I wanted to know more about the issue. So, I attended a comprehensive workshop in Spokane WA, sponsored by several public and private social service agencies, the Salvation Army, and the DOJ, among others. I then went to Minneapolis to meet with a person who was director of a nationwide anti-trafficking non-profit “Adults Saving Kids”. Phyllis Beatty provide me with much information based upon 20 years of research and helping victims.More recently, I attended a forum of the World Affairs Council that included satellite hook-up with 4 Alaskan communities, led by Sgt Lacy and Robin Bronen. What I stated in my first comment is absolutely valid, and tells a strong truth.

What do you think?