SAN FRANCISCO — A Bay Area scandal involving several police departments shows why criminalization of sex workers encourages abuse and corruption, according to the ESPLER Project.
Maxine Doogan, who leads the group known officially as the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, said that Oakland, Calif., is now on its third police chief in two weeks after an investigation has uncovered that police officers had sex with an underage sex worker in exchange for her not getting arrested. Supervisors looked the other way, reports reveal.
And now the investigation has widened to include three officers in Richmond, four Alameda County sheriff's deputies and a federal officer, Doogan said.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Doogan said. “Anti-prostitution laws corrupt police. Sex workers will tell you this is going on in police departments across the country. We have long called for laws making it illegal for cops to have sexual contact with us under any conditions, but especially as a means to gather evidence of prostitution.
“When police are allowed to act in this duplicitous manner, all public safety has been compromised.”
“It is especially ironic that this happened in Alameda County,” said Norma Jean Almodovar of ISWFACE, known formally as the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education. “They claim to be leaders in fighting human trafficking. Usually that translates into harassing and arresting sex workers.
“But when they did stumble across an underage sex worker seeking help escaping a pimp, the police officer didn’t write her up as a trafficking victim or help her obtain social services, and didn’t charge the pimp,” Almodovar said.
“Instead, he slept with her and passed her on to his pals on the force. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon within law enforcement agencies around the world. Recently, two — now retired — police officers were charged with running prostitution rings. They did so because they believed other cops would protect them.”
Police abuses are an inevitable consequence of the criminalization of sex work. And one of the compelling reasons to decriminalize sex work is to remove this corrupting influence on law enforcement, Doogan said.
The ESPLER Project has long called for the decriminalization of sex work in the U.S.
In March 2015, it filed a groundbreaking court case ESPLERP v. Gascon arguing that California’s anti-prostitution statute, Penal Code 647(b), is unconstitutional. The case is largely based on Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court landmark decision that held that intimate consensual sexual conduct between adults was constitutionally protected.
ESPLER Project in May filed a notice of appeal to the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals after the case was tossed. Doogan, however, is optimistic her group will come out on top.
“We are confident the merits of our case will finally be recognized and we will be granted our basic human rights,” she said.