In a bit of brutal irony, Alaska’s sex trafficking laws seem to be used primarily against sex workers rather than to protect them.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons
Five months ago, the UN’s Human Rights Committee issued its fourth periodic review of the situation in the United States. Among other things, they cited ongoing concern about “cases of trafficking of persons… and criminalization of victims on prostitution-related charges.” I can’t blame them. Denying prostitutes, and people profiled as prostitutes, access to protection under the law is practically an American tradition. Robert Hansen, Alaska’s famous sex worker serial killer, had multiple victims escape and go to the police, sometimes still in his handcuffs. They were laughed at and threatened with arrest while he continued killing for years. When I was an eighteen-year-old stripper, I was raped, and the cops said, “What are you wearing? You’re just mad that he didn’t pay you—we should charge you with making a false report.” One even added, “You look familiar, have I seen you in jail?”
These memories came flooding back when another sex worker I know in Anchorage (I’ll call her Sarah) recently showed me an email she’d received:
Not at all. It's not hatred, Sarah. I do not hate you, I dislike your kind. This is my town now, you prostitutes are done here. This is your last trip, you got it? The other sluts are done too...and so are the drug dealers and other bad people. The only way you will be allowed to operate here again is if you pay me a percentage of what you make. It's either that or find another town sweet thing, because if you come here again without paying the tax, I promise you that you will be arrested and thrown in jail....not to mention you will lose everything you come up here with. Got it? Now if you want to work in this town again, I want you to pay $1000.00 dollars by tomorrow morning. And let's be honest, that's a small percentage for what you make here. At three hundred an hour, it will only take you 3 and a quarters hours to pay that tax. Either pay or leave and never come back. If you want to keep working here, you will tell me the hotel your staying at and I will give you a drop zone. To be made by midnight tonight. The 1000 covers you and [a friend] . And for your next visit I will personally make sure that you go about your business uninterrupted. Business as usual. What say you?
A quick google search revealed that the sender, a man I’ll call Gary, seemed to have committed the crime of extortion—a class B felony under Alaska state law. He also seemed to be attempting to commit felony sex trafficking in the third degree (receiving or agreeing to receive money from prostitution) under Alaska state law.
Unfortunately, before he tried to extort Sarah, Gary asked her to book a duo, writing: Welcome back, how much for an hour with you and [a friend]? I'm looking for some three person action.
That makes her potentially guilty of second-degree felony sex trafficking, which is when someone “procures or solicits a patron for a prostitute." In a bit of brutal irony, Alaska’s sex trafficking laws seem to be used primarily against sex workers rather than to protect them. The first two people to be charged with sex trafficking under Alaska state law were alleged prostitutes who were charged with prostitution of themselves in the same case they were charged with trafficking. Since then there've been a total of four people charged with trafficking and only one of them was not allegedly a prostitute. In 2012 and 2013, the state of Alaska didn’t charge anyone with prostitution without also charging them with sex trafficking or alleging that they were a victim of sex trafficking.
Our sex worker’s rights group knew that the Anchorage Police Department had made sex trafficking a priority, so we were hopeful that they would offer Sarah immunity and go after the bad guy, who it turned out had emailed similar threats to another sex worker. We printed the emails with Sarah’s name redacted and brought them to a meeting with the cops where Maxine Doogan—a labor organizer with the Erotic Service Providers Union—took the lead in trying to get them to process our report.
Sergeant Lacey of the vice unit explained that anybody could make a report, and that she always tells sex workers to just come forward and say what happened. People can even report anonymously online, although they can't report sexual assaults anonymously, and anonymous reports are not likely to be investigated. “Our unbiased policing policy doesn’t identify groups specifically, because everybody has a right to unbiased policing regardless of your outlook or your experience or your job or whatever it is, and as a matter of fact, through the years we’ve prosecuted people for sexually assaulting, um, sex workers,” said Captain Bill Miller.
Sergeant Lacey maintained that no one could be arrested for simply being a sex worker (although at least one person mentioned being arrested by APD for saying they were an escort), but she agreed that Sarah would have “some exposure” under the sex trafficking laws if she came forward as the victim.
Finally, after about an hour, Captain Miller agreed to take the report. “I’ll take a report from anybody,” he said. “Be happy to take a report and send it to Fairbanks, but I’ll be honest with you: the more information that we have, and the more information that we can corroborate through the report, the better the courts are gonna look at this. We’ll be more than happy to take a report. In fact that’s one of the things in our policy is that we’ll take a report from anyone, anywhere. The catch comes in how we can use the information in that report, um, to hold parties responsible. So what we can do with this? I’ll be more than happy, I’ll personally take this report.”
The cops refused to ask the local prosecutor for immunity for the victim, but they said we could always make an appointment and go talk to a prosecutor ourselves. Just a few hours later, in the courthouse, we ran into Adam Alexander, an assistant attorney general and special prosecutor for sex trafficking and prostitution charges for the state of Alaska, and he invited us back to his office. Mr. Alexander was sympathetic to our plight, but explained that Alaska law only allows one particular kind of blanket immunity that he wouldn’t be able to give our victim. Plus, he didn’t even know if the emails we showed him were real. (He declined to be interviewed on the record.) He did suggest that if we had a report to make of sex trafficking, we should call Sergeant Mike Ingram, the man in charge of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit that focuses on sex trafficking and prostitution investigations.
I called Sergeant Ingram. He did not have time to meet with our group of sex workers to perhaps develop a relationship that would allow us to report crimes, nor did he want to take an account about an incident that had already been reported to another law enforcement agency. “You seem to have some issues with the system,” he said. “You need to trust the system. If you have something to report, call 911.”
The very next day, August 20, Captain Miller emailed a report number to Maxine:
The report number I am forwarding to Fairbanks PD is 14-34330. It will be a couple of days until the report makes its way through the process of being filed and when it does I’ll move it along to them.
If you do happen to talk to one of their detectives please give them this report number and have him/her contact me.
When Maxine called the Fairbanks Police Department eight days later, they still had not received the report from Anchorage. In the meantime, we’d heard from three more women who’d received emails from the same Gary, and learned that there was a police officer in Alaska with the same first and last name as that on the emails.
Later that day, Sarah received another email, this time with a threat: Bitch I told you not to come back here unless you pay the tax....I'll see you soon. With my badge and cuffs.
“Do you think he knows my real name?” Sarah asked me. “Does he know how to find me? What do I do if he shows up here? Do you think I have any recourse if I get arrested for not paying him a thousand dollars?” I didn’t have any answers.
Since the police report was apparently lost somewhere between the Anchorage and Fairbanks Police Departments, we decided to report the new email directly to the Alaska Bureau of Investigations, which was where it seemed like it belonged in the first place.
A new sex trafficking law has Alaska's law enforcement apparatus going after sex workers. Photo by the author
The month before, we had met with the Fairbanks women’s shelter director, who seemed to be one of those rare professionals capable of understanding that some women choose to be prostitutes. They’d sounded potentially helpful, so I called and asked if one of their advocates could go with us. They kindly offered to host the meeting and invited an investigator they work with.
Sergeant Bruce—his full name is Lee Bruce, and no, he didn’t get teased in school—was much friendlier than the other officers we’d spoken with. He fully understood the victim’s reluctance to come forward and risk prosecution and said he would talk to the district attorney about immunity. Without the victim and her computer, he said, this was what was called an “unreportable report.”
“What do you think needs to happen for sex workers to be able to access protection from law enforcement?” I asked him.
“Well from law enforcement it comes from the legislature,” he explained. “We’re dictated what we do and what we’re able to do through the legislature, through the statutes of the state." Basically, he was punting.
Kat, another one of our board members, tried to get to the heart of the matter by reminding Sergeant Bruce that the victim is a human being: Equal protection under the law becomes meaningless if victims of crime do not feel safe coming to the [police]. I’m glad to hear you say that you see sex trafficking and prostitution in their totality, because it’s a very complex issue. Every single person involved is a human being, and human beings come with some pretty complex dynamics. This is a woman who is fearful of coming forward to seek redress under law because the way she earns her living is illegal. It’s not at all an uncommon scenario for people who are outlaws or live outside the law. The greatest thing that our organization is concerned with is how do we change that so that people like this can come forward and say, ‘I’m being harmed.’”
“Like I said before, the best route is going through our legislatures,” Sergeant Bruce responded.
He seemed unable to say “sex work” or “the sex industry.” Instead, like other Alaskan law enforcement officers, he called it only “the sex-trafficking trade.”
“Why do you keep inserting the trafficking thing?” I asked him.
“Sex trafficking, you know, that involves a lot of prostitution and what have you,” he said. “Women get in bad situations with prostitution, you know, because prostitution is illegal and that makes it easy to take advantage of women in those situations. So that’s why I keep talking about trafficking.” (Although research shows that about half of underage sex trafficking victims are boys, Sergeant Bruce, like most officers, likes to focus on the women.)
It really boggles the mind. Even this sergeant seems to understand that prostitution laws cause sex trafficking. But instead of decriminalizing prostitution, the state made it more criminal by turning many things sex workers do to stay safe (like sharing hotel rooms and screening potential customers) into felony sex trafficking crimes. In effect, these laws have created an open season on Alaskan sex workers for violent criminals looking to target people with no recourse or access to protection under the law.
A few days later I got an email from Sergeant Bruce: the district attorney’s office would not be able to offer any immunity without the victim first coming forward and handing her computer over to the Technical Crimes Unit.
The creepy, unexpected thing is that Gary stopped his constant emailing of two women immediately after our conversation with Sergeant Bruce. No one’s heard from him since. Now I wonder: Did he find out about our police report? Did he get my name off of it? Does he know where I live?
Terra is a writer and retired sex worker in Alaska whose name has been changed.
The Community United for Safety and Protection, a group of current and former Alaskan sex workers, sex trafficking victims, and allies, knows that the beginning of the answer to situations like this is to nullify unjust laws via a court challenge. They are in need of legal help to really start the process of bringing safety and protection to their community. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help.