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Sex work, though a reasonable means of making an income, is one of the most stigmatized careers in the US. Everyone seems to have a hate-on for sex workers, from conservatives inflamed at the very idea of anyone having sex ever, to liberals infused with the "rescue" mentality, convinced that sex workers need to be saved from themselves.
And then you have the people who claim they want to pray for sex workers, and file a public records request to access personal information about strippers. Engineer David Allen Van Fleet of Tacoma, Washington says that all he wants to do is bring on a little godliness in Washington State, but for that, he needs the information kept on file at country clerks' offices, courtesy of the requirement that adult entertainers register and receive a license.
The registration requirement is already absurd, and dangerous for sex workers; because people like strippers are viewed as easy prey, a database of personal information including legal names, birthdates, addresses, and contact information is an inherent problem. This issue has come up in recent months not just in regards to this case, but in the context of the SAVE Act, which would create a database of adult service providers in theory only accessible to state attorneys general, but also potentially to others who might want to get to the information within.
The problem with forcing people to register for licenses with a county agency is that anyone can access the documentation, under a freedom of information request. Clerks are required to turn the information over unless a court injunction prohibits it, which is precisely what happened in this case, as the clerk notified the subjects of Van Fleet's records request and they sued, demanding that the records be withheld. A judge ruled in their favor, and the result has been a firestorm of arguments over whether sex workers deserve privacy and safety versus how open FOIA requests should be.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason asks why strippers should be registered with the state in the first place:
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson told CBS it wasn't her office's job "to interpret what the requester’s intentions might be." And that's legit. That's a key part of government transparency, in fact, that random administrators can't subjectively block public records requests. There's just no reason these women's identities should be a matter of public record in the first place. There's no reason city or county or state governments need a stripper database.
Her point is important, because it highlights the stigma that surrounds sex workers, and the assumption that it's necessary, or even important, to meticulously track them. Very few careers require registration, and in the cases of those that do, the goal is usually to protect the public: attorneys need licenses to prevent charlatans from duping people who need legal assistance; physicians must be licensed to ensure that medical practitioners don't harm patients; cab drivers need licenses indicating that they know how to operate a vehicle safely. Licensing sex workers isn't about protecting members of the public to ensure that when they retain the services of a highly-skilled person, they're assured that the individual they're hiring has been trained and is experienced. It's about shaming sex workers for being in the industry in the first place, by forcing them to undergo a humiliating barrier to working legally.
"Embarrassed strippers not exempt from open records," opines The Times Tribune, arguing that:
But public officials in this state don’t get to play favorites under the Public Records Act. As Auditor Julie Anderson recognized, the law clearly obligates public agencies to release business licenses to citizens who ask for them. It doesn’t matter if you think the citizen is annoying or that he might do something irritating with the license information.
The paper goes on to illustrate that it fundamentally doesn't understand the unique risks facing sex workers. The issue isn't that some strippers might find it "irritating" to be prayed for because of their given choice of occupation. Rather, it has to do with concerns about having their public life melded with their private one, and with worries that someone with personally identifying information could stalk them, out them to other people in their lives, harass them, or even assault them.
These are all legitimate fears, given that sexual assault is a very real and common problem for sex workers; sex workers are 43% more likely to be raped than other women, and 13% more likely to experience sexual assault (these statistics were drawn from a study on violence against women, which is why they don't include data from male sex workers, and the study doesn't provide detailed drill-down information on trans sex workers, who experience even higher rates of abuse). This happens both on and off the job, with sex workers commonly being identified by predators; and with good reason, because police officers do not take reports of violence and sexual assault from sex workers seriously.
Having your private information made public, in other words, is a very big deal. It's not like being a cosmetologist, cab driver, or bail bondsman, as the Times suggests, because the risks associated with these careers are fundamentally different. For one thing, most people practice them under their own names or under known and established pseudonyms clearly linked to their real names; they don't need to work secretly due to concerns about stigma or prejudicial treatment. No one takes the children of cosmetologists away because they cut hair, or rapes bail bondspeople because they financially back people seeking bail.
It also doesn't have anything to do with embarrassment. Sex workers have nothing to be ashamed of -- their concerns are about social stigma and fear of reprisals. Being outed as a stripper can result in being profiled as a target for abuse, but it can also result in retaliatory firing if a sex worker is employed elsewhere too, it can result in having child custody rights questioned, and it can result in being exiled by a community.
Jonathan Peters explored the situation for the Columbia Journalism Review, looking specifically at the implications for media interested in making records requests. His response was at least a bit more nuanced than the Times -- he acknowledged that in this instance, "public interest" wasn't necessarily clearly served by providing access to license records for adult entertainers in Washington.
Government records contain all manner of personal information that citizens are required to disclose under certain circumstances: data related to births, deaths, marriages, arrests, and so on—even family dynamics, financial status, and health condition, and contact information. Not all of that is publicly accessible, because there’s a public interest in personal privacy, expressed in laws prohibiting government disclosures of certain personal information and (sometimes) in privacy exemptions to public records laws themselves.
Social Security numbers, for example, are public records -- but we can't just file to ask for them, because otherwise, we would expose people to the risk of identity theft and violation of privacy. In this instance, the situation may not be as obvious as it would be with a Social Security number, but the net point is the same: If the sharing of a government record would expose someone to risk, should it be released? The strippers, and the judge who sided with them, argued "no."
Strippers and other sex workers deserve the right to privacy as inherent to everyone, but especially because of the nature of their work. Any protective measures that limit the risk of being subjected to violence, sexual assault, or exploitation should be used, including but not limited to not releasing identifying information to the public on demand -- or, better yet, not maintaining such information in the first place.
Lest you think this is an isolated incident, the same thing happened last year, in this case when a man with a criminal record attempted to obtain sex worker records, from prison. The fact that Washington sex workers have had to go to court over this issue twice highlights the fact that the state doesn't have the best interests of its residents in mind: It's too wrapped up in trying to shame sex workers and make their careers unsafe.