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Florida Sex Workers Demand Decriminalization After Massive Raids

The role of police is at the heart of the debate over decriminalization of sex work.

The role of police is at the heart of the debate over decriminalization of sex work.

Florida lawmakers want to do something about sex trafficking in the wake of high-profile raids on massage parlors across south Florida that led to 300 prostitution-related arrests in February. So, last week, a community organizer and two activists working in the sex trade showed up to a criminal justice committee hearing on a controversial anti-sex-trafficking bill and asked lawmakers to make sweeping changes to the legislation, which they say could further the criminalization of sex workers and do little to combat trafficking.

“Sex work does not equate to human trafficking,” said Kristen Cain, a sex worker and one of the activists who spoke during the public comment period of the hearing in the Florida House of Representatives last week. “Conflating the two is dangerous for both victims of human trafficking and sex workers. Listen to sex workers. We are here to help you.”

Sex workers are best positioned to identify victims of trafficking who are coerced into selling sexual services, the three activists told lawmakers, but fear of arrest can prevent them from making reports. They argued that criminalizing sex workers under anti-prostitution laws actually creates more space for trafficking and makes the entire sex trade more dangerous to begin with.

“Decriminalizing sex work does not mean decriminalizing human trafficking, exploitation, or violence,” victims advocate Christine Hanavan, one of the activists who spoke at the hearing, told the lawmakers. Hanavan, who works as a community organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project Behind Bars in Orlando, added that decriminalizing sex work “means increased safety, access to social services, and the ability to leave the sex industry if people choose to without a criminal record forever standing in the way.”

Despite emotional testimony from Cain and another activist who consensually sells sex for a living, the lawmakers did not move to decriminalize sex work in Florida. Instead, they advanced a bill that would expand a statewide human trafficking council and require the hospitality industry to train employees to watch for signs of human trafficking. Activists like Cain say the legislation could have harmful consequences for sex workers and encourage the profiling of women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and gender-nonconforming people as sex workers and trafficking victims.

Heather Fitzenhagen, the Republican who sponsored the bill, responded to the activists’ criticisms by declaring that she would not work with the sex workers in the future. “A consensual sex worker, a.k.a a prostitute, is committing a crime,” Fitzenhagen told the committee.

The tense exchange in the Florida legislature comes as rights for consensual sex workers and efforts to stop sex trafficking — two categorically different issues that are often intertwined in political debates over the sex trade — are splashing across the headlines nationwide, thanks to high-profile scandals and political efforts to either decriminalize sex work or crack down on trafficking. The topic is even popping up in the presidential race, where support for decriminalization has become a litmus test for progressive Democrats.

As Truthout has reported, many sex workers consider decriminalization a matter of survival, particularly for those who are already marginalized due to factors like race, income, immigration status or gender presentation.

Cain apparently changed her profile name on Twitter to call out the stigmatizing remark that Fitzenhagen made at the hearing:

Human Trafficking Investigation Leads to High-Profile Raids

Sex work involves consenting adults and can range from a legal strip tease to a criminalized massage or sex act, depending on local laws. In contrast, human trafficking involves forced or coerced labor. Sex trafficking victims make up the minority of those forced to work globally, but they often receive the most attention from anti-trafficking groups, which are known to use startling tales and images of enslaved young girls to raise large amounts of money.

While sex work and trafficking are very different, the line between them can sometimes appear blurry in real life because vulnerable people may engage in sex work in order to survive. People who are poor and marginalized (often due to their race, immigration status and/or gender presentation) may see sex work as their best option for employment. Laws against prostitution create an underground economy and have bred distrust between police and people working in the sex trades for centuries.

The February police sting on 10 message parlors and day spas in south Florida was the result of a months-long undercover operation and resulted in solicitation charges against several prominent men, including Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots football team. Kraft has denied the charges and is seeking to have undercover video evidence against him thrown out.

Martin Country Sheriff William Snyder and other cops have loudly framed the high-profile raids as part of an anti-human-trafficking operation, telling media outlets that immigrants from China appeared to be living in at least some of busted spas and parlors. However, police have so far been unable to bring any charges under Florida’s human trafficking statute, according to reports and a review of jailhouse records. One spa owner does face various prostitution and racketeering charges and could face decades in prison.

Police have released little information about the massage therapists they say are trafficking victims due to ongoing investigations. Local reports suggest at least 12 alleged spa employees were arrested and jailed at least initially, and it’s unclear whether those who were incarcerated are among the “victims” allegedly held in “sexual servitude.” Two “cooperating victims” are reportedly staying in “shelters.” A spokesperson for Snyder’s office did not immediately respond to an email inquiry.

The owner of the spa that Kraft attended was recently released from jail after a judge reduced her bond, and Kraft’s lawyers are lashing out at Snyder and the police, calling them liars.

Sex Worker Rights Advocates Clash With Anti-Trafficking Movement

The resulting media frenzy is once again pitting sex worker rights activists against the conservative wing of the anti-trafficking movement, which broadly seeks to end or contain the sex trade by targeting men who buy sex for arrest, prosecution and public embarrassment. This is known as the “end demand model” or the “Nordic model.” Sex worker and human rights groups have long argued against it, saying that criminalizing clients makes sex work riskier, and sex workers still get caught up in law enforcement raids.

Proponents of the “end demand” model argue that sex trafficking has become more prevalent in countries that have decriminalized or legalized prostitution, and criminalizing at least the buyers of sexual services allows police and anti-trafficking groups to intervene. By conflating the sex trades with “modern day slavery” that exploits young women and girls, anti-trafficking groups are able to raise massive budgets and sway lawmakers to their side.

Meanwhile, critics of the “end demand” model say claims of widespread sex trafficking are often overblown. Several investigations by Truthout have found that anti-trafficking groups in the so-called “rescue industry” have fabricated sensational tales of sex slavery, lack fiscal transparency and often do not count sex workers or sex trafficking victims among their leadership. In the past, some in the movement have been accused of exploiting sex workers and trafficking victims in the media and coercing them into uncompensated labor — an element of human trafficking itself.

“Victims, they go from being trafficked to a trafficking rescue that continues to exploit them — it’s incredibly troubling that they do that,” Hanavan told Truthout in an interview.

Hanavan, who has worked in shelters for women, added that police often arrest and incarcerate both sex workers and suspected trafficking victims in prostitution raids, a highly traumatizing experience that cops may attempt to paint as an anti-trafficking “rescue” operation when the media starts asking questions.

“It’s a very simple matter to Google images of Florida sheriff’s deputies and police officers leading victims away in handcuffs,” Hanavan said.

Debates Over the Role of the Police

Judging by comments made by lawmakers at the committee hearing, the anti-trafficking movement and its allies in law enforcement have the ear of the Florida legislature, where bills based on the “end demand” framework are advancing in both chambers.

Hanavan said lawmakers were more receptive to lobbying efforts by sex workers in the Florida Senate, and lawmakers in both chambers agreed to drop language in companion anti-trafficking bills that would have created a public registry of people found guilty of prostitution-related offenses, but not of human trafficking crimes.

Sex worker advocates are still concerned about other parts of the legislation supported by law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups, including language that would require hotels to train certain employees to spot and report suspected human trafficking victims to hotlines and the police.

While this would give consensual sex workers more reason to worry about snitches at hotels, sex worker advocates say training and awareness efforts on the “signs of human trafficking” can be dangerously inaccurate and result in profiling and harassment of people who have nothing to do with the sex trade, including immigrants, multiracial families, queer and trans people, neurodivergent people and single women traveling alone.

“We want to make sure that things are done with input from the people that are actually impacted,” Hanavan said.

The Fight for Decriminalization Continues

Hanavan, Cain and other activists are pushing lawmakers to amend the legislation to decriminalize sex work and give sex workers and trafficking victims leadership roles in the state’s efforts to combat sex trafficking, but their proposals have yet to gain real traction. When it comes to decriminalization, the debate is not actually about the lines between consensual sex work and trafficking, it’s about the role of police.

In a recent op-ed, even Snyder was showing interest in decriminalization, at least to an extent. Decriminalization, he wrote, would give police more discretion, lessen penalties for consensual sex work, and ensure that sex trafficking victims are not made criminals as well. However, he warns that full decriminalization or legalization of prostitution would eliminate the ability of police to investigate and bust sex traffickers and is therefore not the answer.

Sex workers argue police often do more harm than good.

“People in the sex industry say over and over again that they’re afraid of the police,” Hanavan told lawmakers at the hearing last week. “They can’t trust the police. The police aren’t helping. They are more afraid of police than the traffickers and predators. We need to listen.”

Even if we ignore the historic relationship between prostitutes and police, it’s easy to see why sex workers and advocates like Hanavan are concerned. After entertainer Stormy Daniels accused the vice squad in Columbus, Ohio, of targeting her because of her dispute with President Trump over alleged hush money payments, vice squad officer Andrew Mitchell was charged with kidnapping and forcing two women to have sex with him under threat of arrest. He also faces a grand jury for killing a young mother while attempting to make a prostitution arrest.

Last week, prosecutors announced that women living in Mitchell’s rental properties traded sex for free or reduced rent under pressure from Mitchell, according to The Appeal. If the allegations are true, then a police officer whose duty was to enforce laws criminalizing sex work is a sex trafficker himself. The vice squad was disbanded last month.

Back in Florida, Snyder has told reporters that he has been unable to file human trafficking charges in the massage parlor cases because trafficking is difficult to prove, particularly when the alleged “victims” refuse to cooperate with police.

“Whether lawmakers want to admit it or not, [sex workers] are the experts on reducing trafficking and violence in the sex industry, along with other issues that affect them,” Hanavan said.

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