sex work

A Government Database for People Who Pay for Sex Is a Terrible, Dangerous Idea

A set of bills pass this month in Florida that, if they become law, will build a “Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database."

by Samantha Cole
May 10 2019, 2:30pm

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A set of bills passed the Florida House and Senate earlier this month that would build a database of people convicted for soliciting sex, and which sex workers and advocates say will ruin lives and put them at more risk.

Senate Bill 540 and House Bill 851, when signed into law, will set up a database that includes anyone convicted of “soliciting, inducing, enticing, or procuring another to commit prostitution, lewdness, or assignation,” according to the Senate's bill, which was drafted by Democratic senator Lauren Book. The “Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database” would filter everyone convicted of soliciting sex into one database. According to a spokesperson for Book, it would include already-public information from clerk of court including full legal names, date of birth, a mugshot, and the offense committed.

The database is aimed at clients, but advocates say it will harm sex workers and trafficking survivors by making it more difficult to screen for dangerous clients and increasing the probability of police stings and violence.

“Upon the person’s conviction, the clerk of the court shall forward the criminal history record of the convicted person to the Department of Law Enforcement for inclusion in the database,” the bill states.

“It becomes impossible to tell the difference between somebody who is scared and somebody who is scary.”

Publicly shaming clients for soliciting sex, and attempting to reduce demand for sex work, will only make it harder for workers to screen for bad dates, experts told me. Screening dates usually involves giving a provider personal information—something clients might be less willing to do if they’re worried about ending up on a database.

“When you make clients afraid, it becomes harder to screen out predators,” Kaytlin Bailey, communications director for advocacy group Decriminalize Sex Work told me in a phone call. “It becomes impossible to tell the difference between somebody who is scared and somebody who is scary.”

Now that the bills have passed, they’re headed for Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s desk to be signed into law. I’ve reached out to co-sponsor Florida Republican Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, and DeSantis, and will update if I hear back.

Like the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which passed last year and immediately started hurting sex workers, this bill is written under the guise of combating human trafficking.

“When we curb the demand for the illegal sale and purchase of sex, we will also curb the profitability of human trafficking,” Book said in a press release. In a statement sent to me via email, Book said that the goal of the database is “to curb the demand for paid sex, and therefore impact the supply.” She said that the database will also be studied by Florida’s state research arm, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, for three years, to determine its effectiveness in curbing human trafficking.

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“We don’t want to create the type of issue we saw with the well-intentioned elimination of Backpage, which only forced trafficking deeper into the shadows,” Book said. “So if it doesn’t work, the database will cease to exist.”

But activists, harm reductionists, and years of research into policies that aim to end demand for sex work say otherwise. Studies show that sex offender registries can increase recidivism and cause more harm than good.

Even though the bill is allegedly aimed at stopping sex trafficking, its opponents—several of them survivors of trafficking or abuse themselves—say that this will be catastrophic for people working in the consensual sex trade, especially those already engaging in survival sex: to procure a place to sleep, food, or safety. Several studies have shown that criminalizing sex work increases violence and health risks for workers.

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“The causal relationship couldn’t be clearer: When you increase criminalization, you increase violence against sex workers,” Bailey said. “This is true whether you’re talking about criminalizing sex workers themselves or criminalizing clients. Everywhere we’ve see end-demand policies enacted, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, you see violence increase against sex workers. Because it diminishes our negotiating power.”

Under sex work criminalization laws, sex workers working or living together for safety can be charged with solicitation. Because the database will include anyone convicted of soliciting sex, sex workers will likely end up on this list alongside clients—effectively revealing their personal information to predators via government public records, leaving them even more vulnerable than before.

"If the representatives aren’t listening to the people the laws are going to affect, what are they doing in that position"

According to all of the sex workers and activists I spoke to about this bill, trying to lower demand by publicly shaming clients is not going to stop sex work, but it will make it more dangerous. Some of the repercussions for lowered demand within an already criminalized industry include being more likely to work longer, more dangerous hours; being more likely to be pressured into acts they don’t want (like being bullied into not using a condom); taking on clients they are uneasy about, or unable to properly screen; and being pushed back into homelessness, substance abuse, or abusive relationships with partners or managers out of need.

Alex Andrews, lead organizer at advocacy organization Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, told me in a phone call that to see this bill pushed through to the detriment of already-marginalized communities is deeply disheartening.

“It’s frustrating because these things are impacting our community big time,” she said. “They’re very harm-causing, they displace a lot of workers, they mess up lives.... to add a registry to it makes it even worse.”

Some of the legislators working on this bill have made it clear that they aren’t interested in hearing feedback from sex workers. In a Florida subcommittee hearing in March on bills that would require hotel staff to be trained to profile women who might be trafficked, database bill co-sponsor Fitzenhagen told the committee, “In case it was lost on you, a consensual sex worker, AKA a prostitute, is committing a crime. It is not my intent to work with them moving forward."

Kristen Cain, a sex worker and activist at SWOP Tampa Bay who testified at the March hearing, said that she and other sex workers have presented their concerns to legislators, but they don’t seem to be listening.

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“I already have friends that are attacked and assaulted during sessions—they can’t go to the police and say, ‘I was assaulted and need some help,’ because all of their info is entered into public record,” she told me in a phone call. “This makes it even harder to say, 'hey I was assaulted,' because not only is it public record, but it goes on a database specifically for this.”

Cain told me she expects the bills to be signed into law by DeSantis, whose voting record includes making it more difficult for ex-felons to vote, and arming school teachers instead of implementing sensible gun law reform.

“To be honest with you, if the representatives aren’t listening to the people the laws are going to affect, what are they doing in that position,” Cain said.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.