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Monica Jones to the UN: US Must Decriminalize Sex Work

The US must recognize that sex workers have human rights, just like everyone else.

Monica Jones (left) sits with a counselor from the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations in Geneva. (Photo: Best Practices Policy Project)

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Nearly two years ago, Monica Jones was walking to meet some friends at a neighborhood bar in Phoenix, Arizona, when she was picked up by an undercover cop and arrested for prostitution during a massive police sweep. Now, she’s in Geneva, Switzerland, taking her case to the United Nations.

The arrest in May 2013 was not the first time the cops had harassed Jones, and she fought back, successfully challenging the charges in court while rising to become an outspoken activist and a widely recognized human rights advocate.

Beating her own charges was not enough for Jones, and now she is using her story to challenge the United States’ prostitution policies on the global stage.

The UN Human Rights Council is preparing its quadrennial review of the US’s human rights record in May, and this week Jones and advocates from across the world are lobbying the council’s member countries on policy recommendations.

For sex worker advocates, Jones’ story is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the US’s position on sex work and a legal framework that allows police to trample over the rights of anyone they perceive as a hustler on the street. In the United States, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming adults and youth, particularly those of color, are commonly profiled, harassed and falsely arrested as sex workers, often for simply walking down the street, according to human rights groups.

In their report to the Human Rights Council, sex worker organizations from across the United States acknowledge that the government has taken some steps to address the problem, but profiling – especially of transgender women of color – remains pervasive across the country.

Jones, who is a Black transgender woman, says that’s exactly what happened when an undercover cop offered her a ride a few blocks from her home. In the mind of a cop searching the streets for prostitutes, a transgender woman walking down the street is not just a woman walking down the street, but a target for arrest.

During her trial, the officer said he singled out Jones because he believed her neighborhood was “known for prostitution” and she was wearing “a black, form- fitting dress,” according to court filings. The cop charged Jones with violating a vague local statute that considers waving at cars or engaging passersby in conversation as evidence of “manifesting” the “intent” to engage in prostitution.

“It bleeds into everyone’s life, these outrageous laws that police use to target trans women, women of color and people who live in poverty,” Jones told Truthout shortly before leaving for Geneva. “If we decriminalize sex work, not only does it stop the harassment of sex workers in general, it stops the wrongful arrest of people living their everyday lives.”

In court, it was Jones’ word against the cops as to who made the first move, and a trial judge found her guilty. Due to a prior prostitution conviction and a punitive state law, Jones was facing 30 days in jail, where she would have missed her college classes – while living in an environment that is notoriously dangerous for transgender women.

Fortunately for Jones, an appeals court declared a mistrial in January and vacated her conviction. The court declined to rule on a legal challenge to Phoenix’s “manifesting prostitution” statute, but sex worker advocates have that law and others like it in their crosshairs as they go to the UN.

“Transgender women of color are just constantly being profiled as sex workers, and police use these anti-sex-work, anti-soliciting and anti-prostitution laws as another tool to really harass these communities,” said J.M. Kirby, who is joining Jones in Geneva on behalf of the Best Practices Policy Project. “They are kind of a way for police to marginalize already-vulnerable communities.”

Arrests are not “Rescues”

Jones was one of hundreds of suspects caught up in police sweeps of poor neighborhoods who were brought to Project ROSE, a controversial “rescue” initiative designed to help women leave the sex trades by giving them a choice between facing criminal charges or entering into a Catholic diversion program. Organizers estimated its success rate to be roughly 30 percent, but repeat offenders were not eligible for diversion and faced criminal charges. Jones had dropped out of Project ROSE in the past and, at the time of her last arrest, was busy protesting the program along with other sex worker activists.

These activists say Project ROSE, which was ostensibly designed to rescue people from abusive pimps and dole out social services, actually resulted in the mass arrest and even imprisonment of people while violating their right to due process. Social workers, they argue, should not use the police to round up clients en masse. (Project ROSE has since indicated that it would no longer use police stings.)

Being arrested can be traumatizing, especially for marginalized people such as transgender women, who are seven times more likely to experience violence when interacting with police than cisgender people. In their report to the UN, US sex workers slam Project ROSE and claim their “greatest fear” is “abuse by law enforcement and state agents.” Police are known to assault sex workers and people perceived as such with physically and sexually violent behaviors, such as genital searches that constitute “torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” according to the report.

A 2012 study of transgender Latina women in Los Angeles, for example, found that 42 percent reported being solicited for sex by cops and 24 percent suffered sexual abuse. Two-thirds reported verbal harassment. Fear of police also prevents people perceived as sex workers from seeking legal recourse for crimes committed against them, as the police routinely dismiss their reports or simply subject them to further abuse.

“As long as the police can target my community using these anti-sex-work laws, we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration,” Jones said.

Kirby said Project ROSE was framed as an anti-sex-trafficking initiative aimed at “rescuing” those forced or coerced into selling sex by others, which is not the experience of every sex worker and certainly not of those simply profiled as such. Jones’ experience with Project ROSE, Kirby said, provides a perfect example of what can go wrong when social workers and police mix up sex trafficking with sex work.

“She was arrested under what was supposed to be an anti-trafficking program and essentially threatened with going to jail and having her life in danger as a transgender woman in jail, [with charges] building up toward a felony conviction,” Kirby said.

What about people who are trafficked into selling sex? In the US, law enforcement and powerful, conservative wings of the anti-trafficking and women’s movements argue that police must be able to intervene in the sex trade to root out sex traffickers and rescue victims. Prostitution must remain illegal, they argue, and police must be provided with resources to rescue exploited women from the sex trades.

The issue came up a year ago at the UN, when the Human Rights Committee (a separate body from the Human Rights Council) was reviewing US obligations to a civil rights treaty. Having already heard from US sex worker activists, the committee questioned the Justice Department’s position that criminalizing sex workers is a good way to fight sex trafficking.

Roy L. Austin, a top official in the Justice Departments Civil Rights Division at the time, suggested to the committee that police must arrest women in the sex trade to track down traffickers.

“This issue is incredibly challenging, because to get those who exploit women, the only tool is to get those women to testify,” Austin said. “[The US] sees those women as victims.”

In response, the UN committee openly wondered how prosecuting people identified as “victims” would produce quality evidence for going after traffickers, and questioned the “double victimization” inherent in the process.

In some parts of the US, suspected victims of sex trafficking, especially minors, can be arrested and questioned for selling sex but not prosecuted, but Kirby told Truthout that it’s naïve to think that people who are constantly harassed by police would want to cooperate with them in the first place. She also questioned why police only arrest people who are trafficked for sex work and not other types of labor, which is widely documented as more widespread.

“They don’t arrest farm workers in order to testify [against traffickers],” Kirby said. “There is a weird sort of patriarchal sentiment that people who may have been trafficked as sex workers are unable to advocate for their own needs.”

What Can the UN Actually Do?

During its last review, the UN Human Rights Council asked the US to clean up its act by working to curb violence against LGBTQ people and recognize that sex workers are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses, but Jones’ delegation is returning to Geneva to argue that the government has only taken baby steps in that direction. With its authority wrapped up in layers of treaty and international law, it’s unclear what actual power the UN has to enforce its human rights decrees against powerful countries like the US, so what’s the point of going there in the first place?

To answer this question, Truthout turned to a group of young activists of color from Chicago that contributed to a UN Committee Against Torture’s recent review of the US. The group, We Charge Genocide, is named after a report documenting racial killings and police brutality against Black people across the United States that was submitted to the UN in 1951 by civil rights activists, despite heavy government repression.

Last October, We Charge Genocide submitted its own report on police killings in Chicago to the UN as national attention heightened around the killing of unarmed Black men. The protests in Ferguson had thrown the issue into the spotlight, but it was already a widely known problem in Chicago, where 23 of the 27 people killed by police in the first half of 2014 were Black.

At first, the young activists didn’t know what to expect.

“We weren’t even sure if they were going to pay any attention to us,” said We Charge Genocide organizer Page May.

But the activists made sure that they did. As US representatives assured the committee that police officers were properly trained to use tasers as nonlethal weapons, the activists rose from their seats in silent protest and hoisted pictures of their friend Dominique Franklin, a 23-year-old who was killed by a police taser last summer. The silent protest continued for 30 minutes, and others in the room joined in solidarity.

The UN anti-torture committee specifically named police violence, harassment and profiling against Black and Latino youth in Chicago in its final remarks on the US torture record, along with concerns over police accountability and the “frequent and recurrent” killings of unarmed Black men.

While We Charge Genocide called this statement a success, the group said it was not their “end goal.” “[The UN is] not going to come here and fix us; they are not going to say a couple of words and suddenly we will be free,” May said.

The UN does, however, have a certain credibility that can impact public opinion back home, where racism is not always acknowledged as a problem, and it was a relief to see the violence that youth of color experience in Chicago get the international attention it deserves, she noted.

“It meant so much to me to see the US government getting yelled at by people who I didn’t expect to think we were legit,” May said.

The protest also meant a lot to the family and friends of Dominique Franklin, she added, and reminded activists of their strength and power. Still, she said, approaching the UN was just “one tool in our toolbox.”

Now, activists can use the UN committee’s torture declaration as leverage when confronting city hall, lawmakers and even the federal government. Monica Jones and her allies hope raising the voices of sex workers at the UN can have a similar impact. A strong recommendation from the Human Rights Council would put global pressure on the US and could be used to lobby Congress, influence policy makers and get other human rights activists on the same page, but that’s only part of the equation.

Empowering sex workers – and people profiled as sex workers – to declare that they have human rights, like anyone else, poses a serious challenge to the narrative of criminalization and stigma in the US.

“When you start speaking out and advocating for these issues, people will start listening,” Jones said. “So, I’m just putting my business out there, so people’s minds can change.”

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