Hawaiian Police Fight For Right To "Have Sex With" (Or In Other Words, Rape) Sex Workers Before Arresting Them

Laws like Hawaii's "police exemption" are yet another example of state-sponsored rape, denying sex workers the right to autonomy over their bodies in the course of their work.

Mar 24, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I've just finished reading "Playing the Whore," by Melissa Gira Grant (I'll be interviewing her here shortly!), and after seeing her at a book event last week, I have sex work on the brain. In particular, I've been thinking a great deal about police violence against sex workers and the treatment of sex workers themselves as criminal objects. When I read this morning that Hawaiian police officers are fighting for the "right" to steal services from sex workers in the course of "investigations," I immediately thought of the issues Grant talks and writes about on a regular basis. 

In a nutshell, Hawaiian police insist that in order to conduct successful evidence-collecting investigations, they need to have sex with sex workers. It's not enough to do what police do in other states; profiling people whom they insist are sex workers, arresting people on intent and any number of other laws structured to criminalize not just sex work but the human beings who perform it. No, Hawaiian police alone (no other state has such a bizarre law) apparently need to complete the transaction in order to consider their work done -- except that they're not completing the transaction, because they're arresting sex workers before paying them. 

This is, of course, theft of services, but it's also sexual exploitation. Sex workers provide an intimate service. They expect, quite reasonably, to be paid for it. They run a daily and constant risk of police violence in the course of their work because of outdated and horrific laws in the US which victimize and revictimize sex workers. Laws like Hawaii's "police exemption" are yet another example of the way law enforcement officers exploit and harass sex workers -- and they're another example of state-sponsored rape, denying sex workers the right to autonomy over their bodies in the course of their work. 

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Photo credit: Magnus Bråth, Flickr.

Grant says that: "...even police violence against sex workers is collapsed into that system, [and] this violence seems inevitable. The stigma and violence faced by sex workers are far greater harms than sex work itself, yet this is illegible to those who only see prostitution as a self-enforcing system of violence." ("Playing the Whore")

Hawaii's police exemption, in light of how sex work is viewed, is especially absurd. Also in "Playing the Whore," Grant discusses the law and act of investigating sex workers: "This is the social act to which the prostitute is reduced: the moment cash is handed to her; the moment she makes an agreement. It's not a coincidence that this is what the law is most concerned with. In most cases, it's not necessary for police to observe a sex act in progress in order to make an arrest...What is illegal in many jurisdictions is 'communication with the purposes of...solicitation' or even, 'loitering with intent to solicit.'"

In other words, there is no reason whatsoever to support a police exemption, even if one generally supports the idea of criminalizing sex work and the people who perform it. The legal framework for harassing sex workers is so comprehensive that police officers can find plenty of reasons to make an arrest long before an actual sex act takes place. The only reason to have a "police exemption" is, bluntly, if you want to allow police to exploit sex workers, which has absolutely nothing to do with conducting criminal investigations. 

Grant notes that to police, sex workers are "always working," and that people in certain race, gender, and social groups are continuously assumed to be sex workers. This already sets up an abusive, exploitative system, one made worse by a legal system that condones and actively supports violence against sex workers. Outside of Hawaii, sexual violence against sex workers from police officers is an ongoing issue, as for example in my home state of California where a police officer raped two sex workers in uniform, using his status as a police officer to threaten them. 

Disgustingly, members of the Hawaiian House insisted that they didn't want to interfere with police work by presuming to know how, where, when, and why police officers might need to rape sex workers in the course of their work. Many seemed highly resistant to the idea that this law might be abusive, essentially allowing police to do whatever they like to sex workers with no punishments, and creating a world in which it is even more difficult for sex workers to report police violence, including sexual assault. 

The social relationship between sex workers and police is already one of deep distrust. Not just simply because sex work is criminalized in the US, as some people might assume. It's also because of the fact that police officers abuse and exploit sex workers, refuse to respond to calls for help including rape reports (the attitude that people who work in the sex industry can't be raped is widespread in law enforcement communities as well as the general public), and maintain an extremely adversarial approach to dealing with sex workers. 

With criminalization also comes the attitude that sex workers are all forced into the industry, all have the same background and history, and all need to be "rescued" from themselves -- and the belief that vigorous law enforcement persecution (no, that is not a typo) is the way to accomplish that goal. Members of society who are opposed to sex work, including, often, anti-sex work "feminists," end up allying with law enforcement and the violence of police culture and the world of criminalization, not understanding that they are writing a blank check for abuse. (Indeed, for those who think that all sex work is rape, one might think that there should be some concerns about the rape of sex workers by police officers, but apparently not.) 

Fixing the legal system's approach to sex work in the US is a complex process, and this law illustrates precisely why: sex workers are not regarded as human beings.

When it comes to successful revisions of sex work legislation, Grant pointed to New Zealand as an example of a country that took a progressive and functional approach, one that was, critically, informed by sex worker input at every step of the way. In addition to helping to shape the law, sex workers also play an active role in the periodic reviews of the law to determine if it's successful and functional, creating a world in which they are playing an active role in making sex work safer, and ending exploitation created as a direct result of criminalization. 

The police in Hawaii won this round, putting sex workers across the state at greater risk. The justification for the continued exemption? Fear that sex workers might conduct "cop checks" on their clients to confirm that they're not law enforcement about to arrest them. Why shouldn't sex workers confirm that their clients are genuine, though, rather than people planning to exploit and criminalize them? Just like someone performing any other kind of work, sex workers are entitled to basic employment protections including the right to screen their clients and get paid for their work -- and given the nature of the work they perform, these rights are especially important.

Sex workers in Hawaii just got a lot less safe, and law enforcement agencies in other states are undoubtedly taking notice.