Sex Workers Have Never Counted on Cops. Let’s Learn From Their Safety Tactics.

The uprisings sparked by a wave of police killings that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Modesto “Desto” Reyes, Rayshard Brooks and so many others have sent mayors and lawmakers scrambling for reforms, as activists lift up longstanding demands to reimagine public safety and end policing into the mainstream. While the slogans “defund” and “abolish the police” may be new to the dominant news cycle, the ideas behind them are rooted in the longstanding movement to abolish prisons developed and led by Black and Brown feminists — including sex workers.

Now, as demands for abolition rise, sex workers — particularly Black transgender women, who are most targeted by police, and also have played prominent leadership roles in sex worker activist movements — are uniquely positioned to provide insight into models of community safety and care without police.

“We learned to be each other’s backbone, to try to be safe in our community because we know we couldn’t turn to the police,” said Tamika Spellman, a sex worker rights activist and policy director at HIPS, a Washington D.C.-based harm reduction group, in an interview.

Sex workers (as well as people who use and/or sell drugs) have always known they can’t rely on police for protection because cops regularly use laws that criminalize prostitution, drug possession, and living outside to harass, coerce, extort and arrest them. Research shows sexual misconduct and sexual assault is endemic among police officers in the United States. A 2017 study based on interviews with 250 women selling sex on the streets of Baltimore found that 71 percent reported “abusive” encounters with police. Police get away with it because the law is currently on their side, and their position as law enforcement officers with powerful unions almost guarantees that they will not be held accountable.

Spellman said police are notorious for extorting money from sex workers in exchange for “protection” from being arrested. However, that protection only extends to the officers who get paid off, and with others, it’s a “crapshoot.” And what about protection from abusive clients and other risks that come with working on the street?

So, sex workers have developed practices for keeping each other safe and providing mutual aid outside the purview of the state, providing models for addressing public health safety without police. Activists say their knowledge and experience should be centered in conversations around defunding the police, redistributing those resources to communities and dismantling police altogether:

“In the face of criminalization and whorephobic violence, sex working people have always sought to create our own systems of support and protection outside of the cops, criminal legal processes and societally accepted channels because most sex workers know those systems will never bring justice and have no interest in listening when harm happens,” said Red S., an organizer with a mutual aid organization for sex workers in Chicago and New York City called Support Ho(s)e, in an email.

Safety in Numbers

People choose to do sex work for different reasons. Some prefer sex work; others use sex work to support themselves as they look for other jobs. Some people trade and sell sexual services because they have few other options for survival, often because they face discrimination when attempting to access steady employment, health care and housing due to their gender, race or sexual orientation. Black transgender women and trans women of color in particular face discrimination as well as high rates of violence and police harassment. Many are also leaders in the movement to decriminalize sex work and improve the lives for people surviving in street economies without involving the police, who largely exist to interrupt those lives and put people in jail.

“Black trans women, namely Black trans sex working women and femmes, have been leading direct support work and setting examples for how to show up for young queer people who find themselves houseless because of family violence, drug-using people who need harm reduction resources, and all people in the sex trades,” Red S. said. “They’ve kept our politics real and anchored in material support and action.”

One such woman is Spellman, whose organization provides harm reduction support, safer sex supplies, peer support and a number of other resources for people who sell sex and/or use drugs. In the early 1990s, Spellman was shot and robbed at a bus stop while working. Most of her money was in her bra, not the handbag taken by the muggers. She feared they would realize this and come back after running off, so her first instinct was to run to where other sex workers were gathered on the street.

“I ran back to where I knew there was safety in numbers,” Spellman said.

The police did show up, but they were not helpful.

“When I got shot, that was just it, I got shot, the police were there, they did their report, but I never heard anything else about it,” Spellman said, adding that years later the police did contact her about a previous arrest but not the shooting. “So, to me, since I survived it, it wasn’t a priority.”

Spellman said that, in her experience, the police do not prevent harm and violence against marginalized people. Instead, they respond after incidents occur, and because they are trained to arrest and jail people (itself an act of violence) rather than mitigate or de-escalate conflict, they often make the situation worse.

“We have to be preventive on our own, because they are not doing anything as far as prevention,” Spellman said. “Police are after the fact. They have no skills at mitigating protentional harm.”

After the shooting, Spellman only worked in well-lit areas on a main street, where she and other sex workers had a system for mitigating the risks of their work and keeping each other safe. After all, they couldn’t rely on the police, who could arrest or extort money from them and did not care about their safety in the first place.

“We would never be on the same side of the street, we would be on opposite sides where we have a good angle to see who you are getting in the car with, what type of car, get the tag and good description of who you left with,” Spellman said. “If you didn’t come back, or something was to have happened, th[en] you could be able to help to stop it from happening again.”

None of this is new. For decades — and probably centuries and millennia — sex workers have helped each other screen clients, warned each other about abusive clients and lived together. Red. S said all of these are common harm-reduction measures. After the 1968 Stonewall Riots, Marsha P. Johnson and other members of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) created a shelter and social space for trans sex workers and LGBT street youth, and many other mutual aid and support projects have followed in the years since.

The Support Ho(s)e collective and plenty of others, along with bail funds that help people get out of jail, raise money online and off to support current and formerly incarcerated sex workers. Red S. said Support Ho(s)e collective also provides members with “capacity” and mental health check-ins, peer support and political education. And then there is another, crucial form of mutual aid: childcare.

“Sex workers, historically, have been a part of establishing powerful networks of care — especially childcare, because state-based ‘support’ programs automatically label sex working parents as unfit caregivers because of their hustles or their perceived habits,” Red S. said. “Many sex workers have learned not to trust racist, classist government structures but rather trust in each other.”

Decriminalize Survival, Defund and Abolish Police

When activists talk about abolishing the police — a longstanding proposal that has gained a lot of momentum amid the national uprising in the wake of Floyd’s murder — naysayers and those who feel protected by the cops immediately bring up violent crime.

Like others who have firsthand experience with police, Spellman knows that cops do not spend most of their time on the beat stopping rape and murder. This reality is especially clear for people of color and especially for Black people, who are much, much more likely than white people to be stopped, pulled over and searched by police. As a result, lower-income people of color and particularly Black people are disproportionately arrested for nonviolent code violations like loitering and drug possession and forced into a criminal legal system grounded in punishment and mass incarceration.

“They are not guarding population, they are guarding property — the things — and those things do not carry the value that life does, but they don’t value the lives they are supposed to be protecting,” Spellman said.

Spellman’s words echo a recent New York Times op-ed by abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba:

The first thing to point out is that police officers don’t do what you think they do. They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues. We’ve been taught to think they “catch the bad guys; they chase the bank robbers; they find the serial killers,” said Alex Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, in an interview with Jacobin. But this is “a big myth,” he said. “The vast majority of police officers make one felony arrest a year. If they make two, they’re cop of the month.”

We can’t simply change their job descriptions to focus on the worst of the worst criminals. That’s not what they are set up to do.

Second, a “safe” world is not one in which the police keep black and other marginalized people in check through threats of arrest, incarceration, violence and death.

For this reason, organizers say we must repeal laws that criminalize people for trying to survive, or simply for how they live their lives and what they look like. This includes all ordinances that criminalize people involved in the sex trades, drug trades and street economies. Decriminalization is one plank of the platform developed by #8toAbolition, a group of abolitionist organizers who have gained national attention as anti-police protests spread across the country.

Besides decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, cities must also repeal local ordinances that criminalize the occupation of public spaces to protect people experiencing homelessness, according to #8toAbolition. Cities should also decriminalize all misdemeanor offenses that pull vulnerable people into the criminal legal system. Currently, people accused of minor offenses account for 80 percent of criminal court dockets and fill jails when they cannot pay bail and fines and fees.

Activists say that police should never be deployed when people call to complain about homelessness, drug sales and prostitution, not to mention a disagreement with another human being in a public place. However, decriminalization is just a first step, according to Je’Kendria Trahan, the executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), a group that is working in coalition with HIPS and Spellman to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C.

“Just because there is going to be a law that says sex work is decriminalized does not mean that the police are going to be necessarily leaving sex workers alone,” Trahan told Truthout.

Organizers like Spellman and Trahan are already hard at work making their communities healthy and safer, and they are doing it by centering the needs and dignity of people who are criminalized and targeted by police. For example, HIPS provides harm reduction supplies and resources for drug users, as well as access to addiction treatments for those who want to stop using drugs, in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. This is a far cry from the war-on-drugs approach of arresting people and forcing them into rehab, with all the time, fines and fees that drug courts demand. CASS is addressing gendered violence by holding anti-harassment trainings with service industry workers and workshops for men on building healthy masculinities.

“[Police] are not peace officers, they violate the law often, we have to really look at what we’re calling them and what they actually do to have an understanding that we don’t have to have them to have peace and safety,” Spellman said.

What we do need, Spellman said, is full employment and good-paying jobs. Housing should be a guaranteed human right, and everyone should be able to access quality health care — including mental health care. Many harmful encounters with police could be avoided if quality mental health care and appropriate crisis intervention was available, Spellman said. That’s why abolitionist activists and scholars say we must defund and dismantle the police, and repurpose the vast resources poured into policing and jails and prisons to schools, health care, social services and initiatives that transform societal conditions contributing to violence and harm.

“But we do not have those things, and we’re having our rights and our protections stripped away and giving [police] rights and protections to harm the populace they are supposed to be guarding,” Spellman said.

The sex trade itself is a prime example of how police and state intervention fail to prevent violence and create new violence. Police argue that prostitution must remain illegal so cops can “rescue” people from sex trafficking, which involves forcing or coercing someone to perform sexual labor and is categorically different from sex work. However, the right wing conflates trafficking and sex work by sensationalizing sex trafficking and exaggerating its prevalence, and working with law enforcement on initiatives that harm sex workers and trafficking victims alike. Anti-trafficking raids often result in consensual sex workers being harassed, arrested and forced to work in riskier environments, even when no sex trafficking victims are found.

“Sex workers have been fetishized by the policing industry in this country for at least a century — particularly Black and immigrant sex workers,” Red S. said. “Of course, sex working people are going to have something to say about the violence of ‘rescue’ and white saviorism wrapped up in criminalization.”

For sex workers who can afford it, one of the safest places to connect with clients is online, where workers can screen clients remotely. However, under intense pressure from law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups, Congress passed laws in 2018 that effectively shut down easily accessible websites used by sex workers. Critics and activists predicted this would force more people to find work on the street like Spellman did in the early 1990s, where they are at greater risk of violence, arrest and exploitation. Preliminary research suggests this is exactly what is happening, and now some progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren are reconsidering the legislation and say they are open to decriminalization instead.

When it comes to the police, people who have experienced police violence and criminalization have a clearer view than even the most open-minded policymakers and politicians. They also know a lot about building health and safety without the police, because they are already doing so in order to care for each other and survive.

“The change is coming. It’s not going to take a backseat or a back burner this time,” Spellman said.