Last October, Waterbury Police Department conducted a “prostitution sting” and arrested 10 individuals. Each of these people has had their names and photos released to the public and been criminalized in the name of safety.
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Sex workers are not the cause of violence in our communities and arresting them does not solve the real problem: lack of resources. Rather, arresting and harassing sex workers and other under-resourced groups, like people experiencing homelessness or those who use drugs, is violence itself.
Police departments across Connecticut should use their power of discretion and choose to not arrest sex workers.
As a state, we should not only move toward decriminalization of sex work, we should also be investing in the things that sex workers and other under-resourced people need, like access to quality and trauma-informed healthcare and housing. Meeting the basic needs of our most marginalized and vulnerable populations will decrease the kinds of violence that sex workers experience and in turn make all of our communities safer and healthier.
Sex work refers to a broad and diverse range of legal, semi-legal, and criminalized work that includes virtual sex work, street hustling, dancing, the porn industry, escort services, and more. People do sex work for many reasons. As with any other job, it is at its core just that: a way to earn money. As someone who has been committed to working with system-impacted people, academically and professionally, it is clear that how we treat sex workers is indicative of who we believe is worthy of living a safe life.
Sex work is not an inherently violent experience. However, many individuals who do sex work, especially for survival, experience multiple marginalizations and vulnerabilities. The circumstances in which sex work is often done can be ripe for the types of violence we should be concerned about: poverty, sexual and domestic violence, racism, transphobia, inaccessible healthcare and housing, and more. Sometimes this violence occurs at the hands of individuals – like clients and police officers– but most of this violence is systemic and degrades Connecticut’s wellbeing as a whole.
Arresting does not solve the “problem” of sex work, because sex work itself is not the problem. Instead, criminalizing sex work means that we turn people who are simply trying to survive into criminals.
Beatrice Codianni, founding Director of Sex Workers Allies Network, a program of the Connecticut Harm Reduction Alliance, says you can never arrest away sex work, or drug use. “It goes a lot deeper than just throwing someone in jail and expecting them to come out ‘fixed.’ Actually, it’s horrible because people lose their families, they lose their children, they lose their housing if they have housing. If it’s in the paper, a potential landlord or current landlord will give them a problem.”
When Connecticut police choose to arrest sex workers and other under-resourced populations, they become the source of violence and exacerbate an already precarious social and economic situation.
Probably unbeknownst to the Waterbury Police Department, and many other police departments across Connecticut, police stings of sex workers are part of an oppressive historical practice, often done to make way for urban renewal projects and to garner extra votes from concerned community members before an election. When we look at the criminalization of sex work, we must understand it as a way of punishing and disappearing people who are seen as unwanted.
It doesn’t have to be that way. SWAN has worked closely with New Haven police chiefs since 2016 to successfully stop sex work arrests. It can go further than that; in order to bolster public safety, police departments throughout Connecticut can follow suit and stop the practice of prostitution stings and move towards total decriminalization of sex work to ensure that no one in Connecticut ever becomes criminalized for the non-violent work they do in order to survive.
Instead, the arrests of sex workers continue to degrade our state’s social and economic health and increase the marginalization that sex workers experience. Especially given the shortage of police officers, arresting sex workers is an unnecessary cost and burden on our criminal legal system.
For the individual, not only is being arrested for sex work traumatizing and degrading, it can result in additional financial and social costs like having a criminal record, the strain of legal fees, and losing access to formal employment opportunities and housing.
Some may argue that police could be helpful because they would be able to direct sex workers to appropriate social services after arresting them. While some police officers make referrals, this is not an effective or trauma-informed way to get peoples’ basic needs met.
Also, because sex work is criminalized, the criminal legal system, including the police, can never be a truly safe option for sex workers to get help, even though this group is vulnerable to victimization. If someone is arrested for doing stigmatized work that allows them to survive, then it is incredibly unlikely that that person will turn to the police for help if they’ve been assaulted, trafficked, or a victim of any other type of violence or crime.
Importantly, police officers are often the source of violence for many sex workers. Just last year New Haven Police Officer Gary Gamarra used his power as a police officer to harass and rape several women who’ve done sex work.
For months, SWAN worked diligently and intentionally with the survivors to set up communication between them and New Haven Police Department’s Internal Affairs. The survivors were understandably afraid of retaliation and not hopeful of the outcomes; their bravery in coming forward and telling their story cannot be understated. While the New Haven Police Department has since decertified Gamarra, it doesn’t change the inherent power dynamics between police officers and sex workers.
Sex workers and other under-resourced people are not the scourge of our society. They are just as deserving of economic, social, and physical safety as anyone else. If we were to center and address the needs of sex workers in our policy and public safety goals, amongst other marginalized populations, we would be building towards a truly safe Connecticut.
To start, we would be prioritizing access to quality housing and inclusive healthcare to ensure basic needs; enact harm reduction practices to better our collective health, and “diminish police violence by reducing contact between the public and the police.”
The issues that plague sex workers, and in turn the rest of Connecticut, are systemic issues and systemic issues require systemic solutions. That starts with police departments in Connecticut using their power of discretion to not criminalize sex workers, and other under-resourced people, who are simply trying to survive the best way they can.
Nanee Sajeev of Trumbull is an Anti-Violence Advocate and member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.