Vice Among Vice Cops

When the solution is worse than the problem.

WaPo (“Police crackdowns on illicit massage businesses pose harms to the women they aim to help“):

Police descended on three massage businesses along a stretch of Georgia highway, part of what they described was a broader campaign against the illicit sex industry in Coweta County. An investigator said the goal had been to root out “human trafficking and child exploitation.”

While authorities said they found no evidence of human trafficking at the three spas, undercover officers engaged in sex acts with some of their workers, then arrested them, according to police reports and county court records describing the June 2019 raids that The Washington Post obtained through a public records request. In one encounter, a sheriff’s deputy repeatedly grabbed a woman while she masturbated him, the documents say, while another undercover officer paid $200 and received oral sex.

Police charged eight female spa workers with prostitution, according to local media outlets, which posted photos of their mug shots on the evening news.

In their efforts to rein in illicit massage businesses across the country, police sometimes rely on sting operations in which undercover officers engage in sex acts with spa workers, according to law enforcement experts and police records reviewed by The Post. While such tactics are generally permitted by law, policymakers are beginning to propose new limits on physical contact by police, which they say serves to dehumanize — and potentially traumatize — the very women the raids are purportedly meant to help. The spa owners and operators targeted by law enforcement, experts said, often go unpunished.

The incidents in Coweta County “stand out as both egregious and probably fairly typical,” said Erin Albright, an anti-trafficking expert who trains law enforcement agents on how to reform their policies to better support victims.

“I do not believe for a second that whatever the state’s interest might be justifies investigators getting naked and having the worker engage in physical contact of any sort,” she said.

Toby Nix, an investigator for the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that it is not agency policy or practice to take part “in any illegal or immoral activity.” However, in some circumstances, he said, “a serious attempt to engage in criminal activity must take place before an arrest can be made.” He declined to answer questions about the agency’s policies regarding physical contact in police operations, whether any officers violated those policies or if any trafficking charges were filed.

It is unclear exactly how often police engage in sex acts during these operations because no organization tracks them. In two recent examples, Department of Homeland Security agents allegedly engaged in sex acts with suspected trafficking victims in Arizona and a private investigator in Horry County, S.C., working on behalf of local officials, engaged in sexual encounters as part of an undercover investigation into massage businesses, according to media reports.

Such incidents are probably much more common than reported, said Shea Rhodes, co-founder of Villanova University’s Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, because “the very people who would report it are the most vulnerable,” she said.

Paige Hughes, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of DHS, said the conduct of a “limited number” of agents in the Arizona case “was not consistent with” the agency’s policy and had been referred to its office of professional responsibility for action.

A significant percentage of these officers are objectively bad human beings, abusing their authority and enjoying their power over these women. But the nature of these laws and the requirement to prove their elements makes enforcement via sting operations problematic on their face.

The assumption contained in the WaPo headline, that the purpose of these laws is to protect sex workers, is almost certainly false. While there has been an increased effort to clamp down on human trafficking,* we’ve had anti-prostitution laws since time immemorial. There are good reasons for that since it’s inherently exploitative and ripe for abuse, but it ultimately comes down to a sense that it’s demeaning to women and harmful to society as a whole.

It’s hard to see how sending cops in to partake in the exploitation and then humiliate the women by arresting them and plastering their images in the media does anything to correct the problem.

__________

*I’m required to take annual “training” on the issue for reasons that remain unclear.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Police
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Make it legal and regulate it.

    There are good reasons for that since it’s inherently exploitative and ripe for abuse, but it ultimately comes down to a sense that it’s demeaning to women and harmful to society as a whole.

    I sold my body for over 35 years and never once felt demeaned. It certainly wasn’t harmful to society. My arthritic bone spurred body tells me it was harmful to me, but society was OK with my doing it. I was even allowed to join a union. I got paid well, had good health insurance, and retired with a pension.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: So, I have two daughters, two stepdaughters, and a stepson. The oldest stepdaughter is about to graduate Temple with a finance degree and already has a cushy white collar job with a major bank. One down. I hope the other four finish college and land fulfilling, well-paid jobs.

    Still, if my stepson wound up being a union carpenter or a day laborer, jobs for which he is even less well-suited than I would have been, I’ll have an entirely different reaction to it than if any of the girls wound up sucking off strangers for a living.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    we’ve had anti-prostitution laws since time immemorial. There are good reasons for that since it’s inherently exploitative and ripe for abuse, but it ultimately comes down to a sense that it’s demeaning to women and harmful to society as a whole.

    It’s hard to see how sending cops in to partake in the exploitation and then humiliate the women by arresting them and plastering their images in the media does anything to correct the problem.

    Indeed. If the problem is that it’s exploitative and ripe for abuse, why do we target the women for arrest and prosecution? Shouldn’t we go after the johns? The people who do the exploiting and abusing.

    And entrapment by law enforcement is problematic generally, not just wrt/ prostitution.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Decriminalize actions between consenting adults and focus on pimps. The current laws victimize the victim.

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The problem with regulation is that it inevitably includes licensing, which means that the choice a person makes, that is frowned upon by society, will follow them throughout their lives, even if they only pursued prostitution as a job for a few months. The alternative of working w/o a license leaves him/her subject to prosecution.

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  5. mattbernius says:

    Without a doubt this should be decriminalized. And I expect it will within my lifetime. Especially with the rise of services like OnlyFans leading towards the normalization of other forms of sex work (especially during the pandemic).

    I honestly see no social benefit from policing (including the weird ways that it has become criminalized and it’s tie to “human trafficking.” Side note, Matt Gaetz is an absolute sleaze and should be prosecuted for any crimes he committed. But, I am with Radley Balko and others in saying that the idea that what he did constituted “human trafficking” is absurd or shows how to term has been expanded and criminalized to the point of losing meaning).

    To that point…

    Decriminalize actions between consenting adults and focus on pimps.

    One of the aspects of decriminalization is that it helps eliminate the need for pimps (as they are in part in place to “protect” sex-workers from the State and the vulnerabilities of being in an illegal practice).

    I do think @Sleeping Dog’s point about licensing and the creation of public records is a really interesting point. It also gets to issues around the “right to be forgotten.” That said, in the current system, an arrest would have exactly the same impact.

    @James Joyner:

    I’ll have an entirely different reaction to it than if any of the girls wound up sucking off strangers for a living.

    Sure. And I can imagine any number of other jobs (that don’t involve sex work) that you’d probably have the a pretty negative reaction to if the girls chose to take them up.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    We need to stop accepting the language the police and other officials use. Because if we accept their statements that the purpose of these raids is to discourage prostitution and protect women, then they are the stupidest bozos ever to hold government officials. They protect the women from trafficking by having sex with them, arresting them for it, making them spend a few nights in jail and thereby giving them a criminal record making it difficult ever to hold a well paying job? And, by the way, they don’t arrest or fine the owners and managers of the businesses? C’mon, even expressing puzzlement about this is ridiculous. Of course this is not what these raids are intended for.

    If instead you look at them as a way to keep the lowest people on the rung in line while solidifying the power relationships and hierarchy above, it makes perfect sense.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    Still, if my stepson wound up being a union carpenter or a day laborer, jobs for which he is even less well-suited than I would have been, I’ll have an entirely different reaction to it than if any of the girls wound up sucking off strangers for a living.

    There are male prostitutes too, you know. In fact, with all the opportunities people have these days, one of your daughters might become a male prostitute!

    Let’s just say that one of the kids does go into prostitution — not out of desperation because they’re a drug addict or something, but because they aren’t great at other jobs, and realize that they can make a lot more than minimum wage as a medium to high end escort and they find it less demeaning than flipping burgers (just trying to take the other frequently linked issues off the table). What working conditions do you want your son or daughter to have?

    Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to.

    We’re not going to be able to get rid of prostitution, we can just drive it underground so we don’t see it as often in our nice neighborhoods if we don’t look for it. And the abuses underground are far worse. Much like the abuses of illegal immigrant laborers, except worse.

    Legalize and regulate. Maybe look to the Canada model as a starting point.

    I’d leave sting operations, but just have them be surprise regulator inspections, no sex involved — social worker shows up to make sure the workers aren’t being threatened, make sure they have had any medical tests required, etc.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    I do think @Sleeping Dog’s point about licensing and the creation of public records is a really interesting point. It also gets to issues around the “right to be forgotten.” That said, in the current system, an arrest would have exactly the same impact.

    Meanwhile, things like OnlyFans are very public.

    I don’t have a solution other than to question if licensing is necessary at all. We would at least want carve-outs to public records laws.

  9. JKB says:

    we’ve had anti-prostitution laws since time immemorial. There are good reasons for that

    This is not strictly true. The state’s regulation of marriage, children and sexual matters, matters of the conscience is quite recent. These use to be matters for the church. Even statutory (popular) laws are recent inventions.

    Now this is a very interesting matter, and were it borne in mind by our modem legislators they would escape a good deal of unintelligent legislation; that is, the distinction between a sin and a crime. A sin is against the church, or against one’s conscience; matter, therefore, for the priest, or one’s spiritual adviser. A crime is an offense against other men; that is, against the state, in which all are concerned. Under the intelligent legislation of the twelfth century all matters which were sins, which concerned the conscience, were left to the church to prevent or punish. For the same reason usury was matter for the priest — because it was regarded under the doctrines of the Bible as a sin. This notion prevailed down to the early legislation of the colony of Massachusetts, though doubtless many things which were then considered sins would now be regarded as crimes, such as bigamy, for instance. The distinction is, nevertheless, a valid one, and we shall have occasion frequently to refer to it. We shall find that the defect of much of our modem legislation — prohibition laws, for instance — is that they attempt to treat as crimes, as offenses against the state, matters which are merely sins, offenses against the conscience or the individual who commits them.

    –Popular Law-making: A Study of the Origin, History, and Present Tendencies of Law-making by Statute, Frederic Jesup Stimson (1910)

    But popular lawmaking and state regulation of “sin” is now the norm. And a century ago, in several US cities, what we now call ‘dating’ would have put the girl/woman in violation of the anti-prostitution laws that prohibited a woman from having a meal in a public place with a man to whom was unrelated, even more if he paid. Vice cops would stake out restaurants instead of going to seedy massage parlors. Many sexual acts are still illegal and one should be careful about what you admit to have done in the throes of passion , especially under oath during divorce proceedings.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Female adulterers were stoned to death in biblical times. I’d submit that at the point where a death sentence can be imposed, the distinction between religion and government is specious. See English heretic burnings, Salem witch trials, modern day Saudi Arabia, Iran. . . When religion has the power of life or death over individuals, that religion is government. You know, kind of like the way evangelical Christians want to use government to enforce their religious views?

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius:

    I can imagine any number of other jobs (that don’t involve sex work) that you’d probably have the a pretty negative reaction to if the girls chose to take them up.

    Sure. But prostitute is near the bottom of that hierarchy.

    The libertarian in me says we should allow people to make their own choices and only regulate negative externalities. But the stigma attached to sex workers, and especially prostitutes, is enormous and permanent.

  12. Kurtz says:

    @Gustopher: @mattbernius:

    There are male prostitutes too, you know. In fact, with all the opportunities people have these days, one of your daughters might become a male prostitute!

    I laughed at this, because I pictured James’s facial expression the moment he found out about his daughter’s career choice. And it looked exactly like his profile pic.

    Meanwhile, things like OnlyFans are very public.

    From what I can tell, this is only sort of true. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of amateur sex workers that have been able to keep their gig private.

    An NY Post reporter outed a first responder who moonlighted on OF. IIRC she had successfully kept it quiet for a long while until a newspaper decided to do some hard-hitting journalism. She got canceled by her day job.

    Back in the 90s/00s, a lot of the porn sites were amateur, ma ‘n’ pa outfits or semi-pro photographers who paid hourly for models. I’m aware of a site in the former category that is still around. Most of the models were close friends of the couple. All of them enjoyed what they were doing. Or at least they seemed to be having fun.

    But one of the friends who posed and attended the parties was found out by family, and she stopped modeling. But I think they all lived in a ruralish area in the South. Do with what you will.

    I raised the second example for another reason. One of the issues back then was copyright enforcement. From what I understand, OnlyFans is pretty aggressive about protecting the rights of the performers on their site. I don’t know if it’s full service or minimal guidance, but it seems that they do a decent job of getting pirated material taken down. But a scaled company has a better shot at control than an independent model.

    It also seems infinitely better for the performer because s/he can decide exactly what kind of content to produce without the pressure from studios or a creepy dude with a Canon. It also seems like creators get a better share than they would from a camsite. Then again, I know one popular model who said she makes quite a bit on Pornhub royalties from self-produced content. So it’s hard to say.

    The sheer number of unique genitals on the internet is astounding, and at some point it won’t matter anymore. Some professional performers have even held “fuck a fan” contests, which is some form of prostitution.

    So I think Bernius is right. It’s getting normalized rapidly. And it’s long overdue. I suspect the first artist who dragged their whole tribe to proudly show off the cave drawing of a bison quickly transitioned to erotica. Historically every new form of media is almost immediately used to depict sex.

    Hell, Adam and Eve initially ran around naked like And:

    You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.

    –Ezekiel 16:17

    Holden Caulfield’s story got banned for less. Bunch of phonies.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Everyone who takes a dollar to perform a job is a prostitute. You, me, we’ve all done things we didn’t much enjoy in order to make a dollar. Puritans attach stigma to certain types of work, elitists attach stigma to certain types of work, and those stigma change over time.

    In my life I’ve been a whole range of things that earned the contempt of puritans and/or elitists , and also done jobs celebrated by both. And the whole time I was exactly the same guy. At one point I simultaneously held one of the very lowest status jobs, (cleaning homes) and a high status job, (newspaper restaurant columnist). I was both weak and powerful, pitied and feared, laughed at and laughed with. I didn’t think less of myself for cleaning toilets, and I didn’t think more of myself for trashing some lousy restaurant in 800 words. What other people thought of me, the various stigma they attached, and the praise they lavished, was and is irrelevant to me. I remain: me.

    The fact that I was a felon (though not convicted) has made less trouble for me than the fact that I think ‘trigger warnings’ are pointless. My atheism has gone from being so stigmatized that when Congress passed the civil rights legislation, the House excluded one category specifically from any employment protection: atheists. And now we atheists get to parade around in public waving our atheist flags. (A question mark on a field of gray.)

    Stigma schmigma as my Jewish grandmother might say. Speaking of stigma that waxes and wanes.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I don’t think we disagree. At least as early as 2007 (“Legalizing Prostitution“) and 2008 (“How Whorable is Prostitution?“), I wrote lengthy posts making the argument that prostitution should be legal and is arguably less exploitative than some other jobs. But what should be and what is are two different things. Chris Rock’s admonition that “As a father, you have only one job to do: Keep your daughter off the pole!” is damned near universal.

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  15. steve says:

    I dont know James. Banker vs prostitute. I suspect prostitutes are probably on average more ethical and deserving of respect (I am sure she is the exception) , but then she could have been a lawyer so there is that! (I am officially a Temp professor or something BTW. Le the know if she needs her grades fixed.)

    Steve

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  16. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    prostitute is near the bottom of that hierarchy.

    Telemarketer? An entire industry that depends on taking advantage of the elderly.
    Republican politician?
    Importer of goods made by child labor?
    Whoever set up the Donald Trump website to trick people into making recurring donations?
    A staff worker at InfoWars? Not directly involved in the grift, but enabling it.

    As a rule of thumb, prostitutes don’t prey on anyone. In and of itself, sex work is pretty neutral on the spectrum of good and evil careers.

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  17. flat earth luddite says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Exactly so. The pimps, madams, business owners and johns are all of the monied, successful class. Law enforcement rarely goes after the higher-ups when the low hanging, bottom rung employees can be scooped up. Power protects money. If you doubt this, look to the prison population. For every cartel big-wig, we have a million minions locked up.

  18. Hal_10000 says:

    we’ve had anti-prostitution laws since time immemorial. There are good reasons for that since it’s inherently exploitative and ripe for abuse, but it ultimately comes down to a sense that it’s demeaning to women and harmful to society as a whole.

    I would dispute this. Most of the anti-prostitution laws we have came from the white slavery panic of the late 19th century. For may societies, it had not occurred to them to even try to outlaw prostitution because outlawing is inherently destructive and abusive. It turns cops into panty police who judge sexual encounters. It enables the rape, abuse and robbery of sex workers. It makes many of the problems associated with the industry far worse. The FOSTA law that was passed a few years ago led directly to the deaths of sex workers. At some point, you have to think that’s the point.

    I would note that this incident isn’t even remotely atypical. Police have learned that they can call any sex work “trafficking” and get away with it. It’s only when someone looks later that you find out there were no trafficking charges whatsoever. The same thing happened with the Robert Kraft case. We were told these were trafficked women being exploited ten times a day. And it was all lies. All of it. It was a handful of middle-aged women giving a happy ending or three a week (which didn’t stop the cops from investigating for six months). The same thing happens every day.

    If you support the War on Whores, you support this. All of it. You can’t separate the outlawing of sex work from the ability of police to rob, exploit and rape sex workers. That’s what happens.

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  19. mattbernius says:

    @Hal_10000 glad to see you popped in on this one. This is a space you are much better versed in (and I’ve been learning a lot from following folks you’ve been amplifying on Twitter).

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Hal_10000: @JKB: I tend to use “time immemorial” in its more limited sense of “outside living memory” rather than in the sense of “before recorded history.”

  21. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @JKB:

    This is not strictly true. The state’s regulation of marriage, children and sexual matters, matters of the conscience is quite recent. These use to be matters for the church. Even statutory (popular) laws are recent inventions.

    False. Marriage as a civil matter predates religious, and especially Christian involvement, by millennia. Marriage didn’t even become a Catholic sacrament until the 13th century, and of course Protestants didn’t even exist for a few centuries more. For most of our time on this planet marriage has been about securing wealth and status across generations and thus has been far more important to civil than religious powers.

    It’s why I laugh at people defending “traditional” marriage. Oh if they only knew what qualifies as “traditional.”

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  22. Kurtz says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:

    For most of our time on this planet marriage has been about securing wealth and status across generations and thus has been far more important to civil than religious powers.

    It’s why I laugh at people defending “traditional” marriage. Oh if they only knew what qualifies as “traditional.”

    Wait, you’re telling me that all those marriages between royal families in the middle ages weren’t about love and a moral code?

    Wow.

    It’s funny because all the hand-wringing about BLM’s criticism of the nuclear family is similarly ahistorical.