Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of 'Rescuing' Sex Workers


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The Outta My Way, I’m Walking Here Issue

Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of 'Rescuing' Sex Workers

In New York State's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, prostitutes might be called victims, but they're still arrested, still handcuffed, and still held in cages.

"Once they get you, they are always going to get you," Love* told me this November at a greasy spoon in the Bronx. "The sad thing is that nobody ever stands up there and fights them."

Love is a 48-year-old black woman. She has high cheekbones, and her full lips smirk easily, especially when she hears something dumb. For several years, Love did sex work in Hunts Point, the Bronx red-light district made famous by the HBO documentary Hookers at the Point. Needing rent money, and sick of welfare's bureaucracy, Love went out one night with a friend hoping to make some cash. They took precautions: Love's friend kept an eye on her from the next block and wrote down the license-plate numbers of cars that picked her up. That night Love made $400.


Police arrested her repeatedly, but she kept working. She liked the money, and she had a daughter to support.

In 2009, however, Love was raped while working. The attack left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. With the help of social services organizations, Love quit sex work and started taking classes to become a surgical technician.

But she kept in touch with some of her Hunts Point friends, especially Sandra,* whom she considered a second mother. Then, this summer, Sandra stopped answering her phone. Fearing the worst, Love decided to track her down.

In Hunts Point, the two friends caught up, hanging out on the corner of Edgewater Road and Lafayette Avenue. When a car circled the block several times, Love assumed it was an acquaintance. She waved.

"Hop in," the man in the car demanded. "I've got thirty dollars for a blowjob."

"OK, officer, have a nice day," Love shot back. As she walked away, the man shouted, "You must be a cop. You're calling me a cop."

Love forgot the man, until, as she walked back to the train station, three police officers swarmed her. They arrested Love for prostitution.

Love sat handcuffed in a sweltering, pitch-dark police van. For two hours, police drove around Hunts Point, looking for enough "bodies" to justify a trip back to Central Booking. Confused and furious, Love spent the night in a cell—missing a day of classes. The whole process took 24 hours.


The court system Love found herself in this year was supposed to be different from the one she'd dealt with during her previous prostitution arrests.

New York State's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) are the first of their kind in the nation. Launched with great fanfare in September 2013, these courts redefined prostitutes as trafficking victims rather than criminals.

"Human trafficking is… a form of modern-day slavery that we simply cannot tolerate in a civilized society," Judge Jonathan Lippman, the court's creator, said at a press conference announcing the formation of the special courts. "We now recognize that the vast majority of individuals charged with prostitution offenses are commercially exploited or at risk of exploitation. By offering vital services instead of punishment to these defendants, the Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative will act to transform and save lives—and, in turn, enable law enforcement to identify, investigate, and punish the traffickers."

Prostitutes might be called victims, but they're still arrested, still handcuffed, and still held in cages.

Despite the claims of reformers like Judge Lippman, HTICs are as controlling as any other court. Prostitutes might be called victims, but they're still arrested, still handcuffed, and still held in cages. The only difference is that they're now in a system that doesn't distinguish between workers and trafficked people. To the courts, anyone who's been arrested for sex work is raw material, incapable of making his or her own choices. Those like Love, who did sex work out of financial necessity, before leaving of her own volition, might as well not exist.


At HTICs, district attorneys offer most defendants the option of attending six sessions with intervention programs. If they complete the sessions, they are eligible for an ACD (Adjournment for Contemplation of Dismissal). If they're not rearrested for six months their original charges are dismissed. This could be a blessing for those on their first arrest.

But Love had many arrests behind her.

"The prosecution figured that because she had prior prostitution convictions, she must be guilty this time too," Zoe Root, the dedicated HTIC attorney for the Bronx Defenders, the office that represented Love at trial, told me. The prosecutor was unwilling to make Love an offer of anything less than a plea to the top charge and seven days of sessions with Bronx Community Solutions.

Love was baffled. "I've been working in the medical field for over ten years," she told me. "Due to circumstances and a bad relationship, I ended up in the street. But I just completed school. I've completed programs you're offering… I'm forty-fucking-eight years old. I don't have a drug habit. What the fuck are you offering me?" She would take her case to trial.

* Name has been changed.

I visited HTICs in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn HTIC is held in the Brooklyn Criminal Court at 120 Schermerhorn Street, in the same room where judges see those charged with domestic violence. Alleged prostitutes sit next to men accused of punching their wives.


The Bronx's airy courthouse sees a half-hour-long line of defendants each morning. Outside the HTIC courtroom, a middle-aged black woman screamed into her cell phone: "This is ball-busting shit. Why do I got to go to classes and shit? Do they want me to tell my life story?"

Looking at those charged, one might assume there were nearly no white prostitutes working in New York. Though they make up only 16 percent of the population of Brooklyn, black women represent 65 percent of the Brooklyn HTIC's defendants, according to a study done by sex-workers-advocacy group RedUP. In Brooklyn, there's a sizable minority of Asian immigrants who need Mandarin interpreters. But inside the Bronx courthouse, the only white faces are cops, judges, or lawyers.

The Bronx courtroom is tiny. When I entered, Judge Shari Michels called me to the front. She seemed nervous about the press. In 2013, the New York Daily News lambasted her for telling a child-molesting cop to send a letter to his victim.

When I asked Judge Michels how she differentiated sex workers and trafficking victims, she accused me of asking a loaded question. "No little girl dreams of being a sex worker," she pronounced, loud enough for defendants to overhear. She then added that most sex workers had been molested.

The courts processed defendants with a mechanical briskness. If it's a new case, the judge asks the DA what their offer is. The DA recommends a service provider and a number of sessions. While the women are in services, they need to keep returning to the court, for check-ins designed to make sure that women are attending their sessions. Judge John Hecht, of the Brooklyn HTIC, wished each woman luck, while Judge Michels seemed to expect a performance of gratitude.


If a woman has been rearrested before she completes her sessions, the judge tacks on yet more sessions.

The judge never asked the defendants if they were trafficked.

According to Jillian Modzeleski, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, clients are already treated as criminals by the court. So they're understandably reluctant to open up to lawyers they meet for the first time at their arraignments. This makes it difficult for lawyers to tell which of their clients are sex workers and which have been trafficked.

A trafficking victim is defined as someone who performs labor coerced by force, debt bondage, or fraud. According to the International Labor Organization, 21 million people are victims of forced labor—mostly in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic work. Trafficked workers pick strawberries and build skyscrapers. In Thailand, slaves work shrimp boats, with captains murdering them as punishment, then throwing their bodies into the sea.

Of these 21 million, 4.5 million are forced to work in the sex industry.

A trafficking victim might be a migrant saddled with an ever-mounting debt to smugglers, or a woman forced to do sex work and turn over earnings to an abusive partner. Many are rape victims by another name.

Attorney Kate Mogulescu, also with the Criminal Defense Practice, told me: "Our clients coming through [HTICs] face a vast range of needs—so much so that the question of whether or not they have been trafficked often assumes less importance."


One sex worker told me: "I don't want to go to jail. I just want to get this over with. I don't want to stand here being humiliated."

Courts do not provide emergency housing—something anyone escaping a trafficker would presumably need. There are only the same shelters that house battered women and the homeless. Nor do courts offer monetary support, or even protection from a trafficker.

In the Bronx I saw one trans Latina, arrested on misdemeanor drug charges, who had been referred to sex-trafficking court because of previous prostitution convictions. She'd already done extensive services for substance abuse, which saved her from homelessness. Despite this, the DA insisted she plead guilty to a misdemeanor to resolve the case—the same bargain he'd offer if she hadn't done any services at all.

One sex worker told me: "I don't want to go to jail. I just want to get this over with. I don't want to stand here being humiliated."

But Mogulescu insisted that the courts wear down clients who maintain their innocence, by adjourning for months on end. Eventually, clients take the court-mandated services out of frustration.
And that's if they're lucky enough to be free.

If a defendant has previous drug charges, she may spend weeks in jail, waiting for an overburdened agency to "evaluate" her. Though she's being held on prostitution charges, to get services DAs often recommend months in an inpatient drug-treatment program that differs little from prison.


While someone on her first arrest usually gets released after ten hours with a desk-appearance ticket, the judge often holds that person on bail if she has a criminal history. For the impoverished women public defenders represent, even $250 of bail is enough to keep them locked away on brutal Rikers Island.

Since one can wait months or years for a trial, bail forces the poor to enter a plea bargain, just to have a date on which they'll be released.

Since Love lived in eastern Brooklyn, she had to wake up at 5 AM to get to each of her five court appointments on time.

At the pre-trial hearings, Love had become increasingly confused. Undercover officers are supposed to wear a recording device in order to have proof that solicitation took place. Since Love never solicited anyone, the police department had no recording to present. Yet Judge Michels would not throw out the case. It would be Love's word against a cops.

Love decided to testify. She spoke about the kidnapping and rape she had survived while working and her PTSD, which was devastating enough to put her on disability. She spoke about how she cared for Sandra, about how they just stood against a car, chatting like old friends.

But when the undercover cop took the stand, Love began to panic. She'd never seen this guy in her life. His story was filled with inconsistencies, but the prosecutor later said this only proved he was honest.


The stranger on the stand testified that at 3:30 PM, on the same block as Hunts Point Riverside Park and Valencia Bakery, Love offered him a $20 blowjob.

For $30, he said, she'd fuck him in the street.

"Rescue—my ass," Love laughed, later, when I asked her if she felt the police had saved her. "Drug dealers, prostitutes, illegals… we are an easy paycheck for them. We look good for them. That's what we are to them."

Mogulescu held a similar opinion: "I do not believe that the officers making these arrests have bought into the rescue narrative at all."

Police are violent in general, and violent specifically to women they think are sex workers. According to a 2012 study by the Young Women's Empowerment Project for young people who have sold sex, a third of all reported abuse came at the hands of the police. Sources told me officers had called women "sluts," groped them during arrests, even made jerking-off motions with their batons in court. In the Brooklyn HTIC, RedUP saw a black woman who claimed to have been beaten so savagely by police that she landed in the hospital.

Undercover officers tricked women into their cars by offering rides and then hauled them off to jail.

"They got to make their quota at the end of month," said Lucy,* 19, whom police arrested after she accepted a man's offer of $100 for "hanging out"—not, she emphasized to me, having sex. During the arrest, police accused her of smoking crack.


Women who HTICs hope will find legal employment are yanked back into jail by police who assume that once someone is a prostitute, she's a prostitute for life. Police arrest women they've profiled on sight.

"My clients rarely—if ever—tell me that their interaction with the police was good or helpful," said Abigail Swenstein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project. "Rather, I hear quite often that clients have been verbally abused by the officers involved in their arrest. On multiple occasions, my clients have reported inappropriate sexual conduct by an officer. Trust is never really fostered." Other lawyers echoed these allegations of sexual abuse.

Police took special advantage of sex workers with addiction issues. "If you're one of those girls who's begging, crying, and doesn't want to go to jail," Love told me, some officers will offer freedom in exchange for sex. But it's always, said Love, "a deal with the Devil." Afterward, cops will keep shaking you down—for information, easy arrests, or more sex.

What would otherwise be called rape at gunpoint is, because the victims are sex workers, given the euphemism "sexual favors."

Police do not have to witness someone offering to exchange sex for money in order to arrest her on a prostitution-related charge. The suspicion of loitering with the intent to commit prostitution gives police the right to arrest someone for waving at people of the opposite gender, standing outside in a neighborhood known for prostitution, or, until recently, carrying condoms. Love told me that new officers frequently arrest young women who are not working but just walking to Hunts Point Riverside Park.


Racial profiling is epidemic. African Americans make up 94 percent of those in Brooklyn charged with "loitering for the purposes of prostitution."

Police depositions contain blank spaces to describe a woman's clothing. Police arrested one woman for pairing a peacoat with jeans that "outlined her legs." If they can't find a scantily clad woman, they invent one. Cops arrested one of Modzeleski's clients on claims she was waving while wearing a low-cut top and miniskirt. But the woman's attorney found her in a jacket and pants at her arraignment. The case was dismissed after the attorney presented photos, but the cop suffered no consequences for lying.

Racial profiling is epidemic. African Americans make up 94 percent of those in Brooklyn charged with "loitering for the purposes of prostitution."

Trans women of color are disproportionately profiled as prostitutes—and treated with unique cruelty during their arrests. In 2011, a trans woman named Ryhannah Combs was arrested for loitering for the purpose of prostitution while running errands. An officer lied on the report to say she was carrying nine condoms even though she was carrying none. Rather than putting her in a cell, police chained her to a wall near an elevator for "an extended period of time." Combs later settled a lawsuit with the city.

In the back of the Brooklyn courtroom, a group of trans women of color, obviously friends, sat together. One woman wore her hair coiffed like Jayne Mansfield's. She curled a string of pearls around one finger, saying that, because of fear of arrest, she doesn't even go outside alone.


When I told the group I was looking for stories about police profiling trans women, one woman replied, "That's us."

* Name has been changed.

During my observations of HTICs, the courts mandated five days of services for most defendants. The nonprofits that offer services vary. Some, like the Urban Justice Center, have deep ties to sex-worker communities. Others serve certain ethnic groups. Still others have their roots in a virulently anti-sex-worker strain of feminism.

Providers hold yoga classes and offer art therapy or group therapy. Social workers help clients sort issues with immigration, housing, or child care. There are few statistics on what happens after clients complete their mandate.

Women I spoke with described these social workers as kind and helpful. But the services they provide are available without having to go through the trauma of arrest.

I interviewed the heads of two service providers: Jimmy Lee, director of the Christian Restore NYC, and Judge Judy Kluger, the director of the feminist Sanctuary for Families (and one of the main architects of the HTICs).

In addition to counseling sessions, Sanctuary offers pro bono legal help, and Restore provides a safe house for 11 women. These services alone have no doubt improved many lives. But both Kluger and Lee believe that while the sex industry is violent against women, police are not. Restore, which sees raids as essential, even partners with the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Both believe sexual abuse by police is the exception. Both believe the system holds abusive cops accountable.

"I think, like any vast bureaucracy with a legal recourse to violence, there are abuses, and sometimes they are horrible," Lee told me. "But similar to the police, I feel like ICE, FBI, law enforcement, and the court system do and can play a very good and beneficial role in our society. And they're often led by people with a lot of honor and integrity."

Women I spoke with described these social workers as kind and helpful. But the services they provide are available without having to go through the trauma of arrest.

Both Lee and Kluger support Sweden's "Nordic model," which criminalizes clients and managers but not sex workers themselves. Its goal is to "end demand." Swedish sex workers condemn the Nordic model as deeply stigmatizing. Sex workers' landlords, drivers, and even fellow sex workers risk being charged with pimping. Fewer clients means poorer workers, who are less able to negotiate for their safety.

This wouldn't give anti-trafficking advocates pause.

Kluger told me that sex work is inherently degrading—not something anyone could freely choose. She doesn't buy the articles whose writers say they paid for college by working as escorts. She claims sex workers have sex with 30 people a day and calls Amsterdam's red-light district the "saddest sight [she's] ever seen."


To Lee and Kluger, the willing sex worker is either fictional or self-deluding. They prefer the term "prostituted woman."

According to Kluger, the HTICs are decriminalizing prostitution in the court system, despite the arrests and incarcerations that underpin the courts. Her perception of sex workers comes from the women who have stood before her bench. To her, they seem "comatose," emotionless, controlled by traffickers and pimps. To validate their emotions, Lee and Kluger both rely on long-discredited statistics that are mantras in the anti-trafficking world: "70 percent of trafficking is sex trafficking"; "the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old."

When asked, neither could cite their sources.

But even if you believed all prostitutes were raped and trafficked women, the way police treat them makes about as much sense as arresting battered wives.

In 2009, the Sex Workers Project released a report on the sort of brothel raid anti-trafficking advocates like Nicholas Kristof support. "These raids are ugly and horrible," one trafficking victim told SWP. "Being afraid never goes away." One trafficked woman said police pistol-whipped her. Others were handcuffed, threatened, or hauled off in skimpy work clothes.

When in November 2014 the New York Times profiled the Queens HTIC, the author summarized the feelings of more than a dozen Chinese migrants in court: "They did not feel like trafficking victims, but victims of the police."


On November 1, I returned to the Bronx courtroom to hear Love's verdict. She'd been deeply shaken by the undercover officer but promised to talk to me later, when she was "less tired and less pained." Before the lawyers began speaking, Judge Michels called me to the bench. She told me nervously that journalists filter things through a prism and sometimes very ordinary things are blown up.

In her closing remarks, Love's lawyer stated that the prosecution had no evidence she had solicited the undercover cop. She talked about the big raid the police had planned that day, with ten officers, four cars. They had been out for five hours with no arrests. To them, Love was just a body to fill the prisoner van.

The prosecutor began his statement: "'I can give you a blowjob for twenty. If you want to fuck it's thirty. We can do it on the street,'" he said, mocking Love. He ridiculed her PTSD and kept describing her blond hair and gold shirt. He doubted why Love would be in an area where she neither lived nor worked. He said her previous prostitution arrests undermined her credibility, while police would have no reason to lie. He even denied she felt humiliated. He called the case a simple one. "It's fitting," he drawled. "The crime of prostitution has few elements. Two people. Money."

Love stared at the prosecutor, her face a mask of anger. Tears gathered below her eyes. She wouldn't let them fall.

In the name of helping women, the anti-trafficking movement has endorsed surveillance.

The 19th century saw the rise of a pious, middle-class feminism, devoted to the moral uplift of the poor. By ministering to prostitutes, middle-class women got both respectable jobs and the frisson of proximity to vice. But as Northwestern University professor Ellen Carol DuBois has written:

The catch was that the prostitutes had to agree that they were victims. The "white slavery" interpretation of prostitution—that prostitutes had been forced into the business—allowed feminists to see themselves as rescuers of slaves. But if the prostitutes were not contrite… they lost their claim to the aid and sympathy of the reformers.

Those reformers are the grandmothers of today's anti-trafficking movement. But the pity many anti-trafficking advocates feel for sex workers is not conducive to respect. Sex workers and trafficked people remain projects, not equals—to be forced into help they didn't ask for by the threat of police violence. Their hearts ache for these women. They won't listen to them speak.

In the name of helping women, the anti-trafficking movement has endorsed surveillance. They've shuttered websites where sex workers advertise or organize. They support brothel raids, police, and NGOs that have chucked overseas prostitutes into sweatshops. They have created a false dichotomy: weeping victims and the rare "Happy Hookers" who pair their white privilege with Louboutins.

They have denied the existence of women like Love.

When Love heard the not-guilty verdict, she waited until she'd left the courtroom to fall into her lawyer's arms.

When I met Love the next week, in a Bronx diner with her lawyers, the pain of the trial had faded from her face. In a bright red dress and rhinestone-studded necktie, she looked strong and rested, ready to start her internship as a surgical technician.

"Almost everyone who is charged with prostitution enters a plea bargain, but you chose to fight the charge. Why?" I asked Love.

"Because it wasn't… not this time. Nuh-uh," she said, pausing.

"When will prostitution be legal?" Love asked, sipping the last of her soda. "These are petty crimes. It's a waste of taxpayers' money. It's a waste of manpower. It's just a freaking waste."

For more on sex work, check out the infographic "Fuckonomics: Sex Work by the Numbers" by Haisam Hussein, which also appears in the January issue of VICE.