D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada (D) join the Politics Hour crew in the studio.
A new landmark study by the Urban Institute explores the economics of the sex industry in Washington, D.C., and seven other major cities. It paints a complex portrait of a local underground economy worth at least $100 million a year. Kojo talks with the study’s lead author and local advocates.
- Bradley Myles Executive Director and CEO, The Polaris Project
- Cyndee Clay Executive Director, HIPS
- Meredith Dank Lead Researcher, "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities"; Senior Research Associate, Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a local underground economy worth more than $100 million a year here in Washington. But debates about prostitution and the commercial sex industry are almost always heavy on anecdotes and light on hard data. It's a business that almost, by definition, operates in the shadows, takes place on dark streets, suburban massage parlors and residential houses. Last week, the Urban Institute released a landmark study on Washington and seven other cities around the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt provides new insights into the oldest profession. Researchers spoke to a broad range of people from sex workers to pimps, law enforcement and convicted sex traffickers. What emerged was a complex portrait of regional underground economies. Joining us to discuss that is Meredith Dank. She is senior research associate with Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. She was lead researcher on the new report.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's called, "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities." Meredith Dank, thank you for joining us.
MS. MEREDITH DANKThank you for having me.
NNAMDII should mention that for the remainder of this hour, we will be discussing material that many people would consider inappropriate for children. So, you know what you have to do. Meredith, you estimated that Washington sex industry was worth $103 million in 2007. How did you arrive at that number? Why is it important?
DANKSo there were various ways we arrived at that number. So we decided to focus on a total of eight cities across the country, Washington, D.C. being one of them. And we took a top-down and bottom-up approach. So, essentially, the top-down approach was comparing it to other illicit economies, particularly the drugs and weapons economies. And that was using official data sets that measure drugs and weapons.
DANKAnd then as far as measuring the underground commercial sex economy, we need to do what we call a bottom-up approach and that is collect our own data around that. So we went and interviewed not only law enforcement, but went into federal and state prisons and interviewed convicted pimps and traffickers, and also interviewed sex workers.
NNAMDIHow does that compare with the other data you mentioned earlier where people can literally count guns and weapons as they pass through the law enforcement process. How does that work if you're trying to count incidents of prostitution?
DANKSee, we're not trying to count incidents. It's not a prevalence study. This is specifically a study looking at the size of the economy, so how much money is being made. So we had -- we made no attempt to actually estimate the number of individuals who are involved and engaged in the underground commercial sex economy.
NNAMDIHow does Washington, therefore, compare to the rest of the country in terms of the underground economy?
DANKSo we ended up estimating seven of the eight cities. And Washington was one of five cities that decreased over that five-year period. Only two cities increased -- the underground commercial sex economy increased. And that was Seattle and Atlanta. So D.C. was kind of trended the same as the other cities. And anecdotally what he heard from -- particularly from pimps in D.C. was that it was because of the economic downturn particularly around 2006, 2007. So it kind of forced them to reduce their, quote, "price point" as it is called.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number to call. Our guest is Meredith Dank. She was lead researcher on a new report from the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute called, "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities." 800-433-8850. How should local jurisdictions balance their interest in public safety and public health and quality of life when it comes to prostitution?
NNAMDIDo you think society's attitudes about prostitution has changed in recent years? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Meredith Dank, you interviewed hundreds of people for this report. And one member of law enforcement likened this industry to an iceberg. You see some of the activity at the surface, but you don't see the huge industry lurking just beneath the surface.
NNAMDIOne take away from this report is whether it really is a huge iceberg. Give us a sense of scale here.
DANKSo I think -- it is difficult, and I want to stress that our study was a first attempt at trying to estimate the size of the underground commercial sex economy. That doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement. But we ideally wanted to create a model that other people could essentially feed data into. So when we were trying to figure out how to estimate the size, the first step.
DANKYou know, because it is an underground economy, getting access to individuals who could provide us with information to be able to do the estimate and also understand the structure was very difficult. So going through the criminal justice system at that time was really our best option to be able to do this.
DANKBut we wanted to make sure that we got perspectives from many actors within the underground commercial sex economy, which is also why we interviewed sex workers because I think oftentimes there's a conflation that happens between sex trafficking and sex workers. We wanted to make sure we got as many perspectives as possible.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast, we will be talking with activists who work with and who advocate for sex workers. We'd also talk with the CEO of the Polaris Project with aims to fight human trafficking to get its take on this report. But I'd like you to talk briefly about the cultural and legal environment around this issue right now here in the U.S. On the one hand, we've seen the rise of groups like Polaris, which have highlighted the links that do exist between trafficking and sex work. On the other hand, we also have a recognition that some women and men choose to work in this industry. Is that a difficult needle to thread?
DANKI think that's where a lot of the conflation happens as far -- and that's what makes it so complicated. People like to -- when they talk about sex work, when they talk about trafficking, often put it in a black and white kind spectrum. But I believe there's a lot of gray area there that's often not spoken about. And these are the push and pull factors that bring people into the underground commercial sex economy, where oftentimes it could be economic based, it could be perhaps that person's forced, coerced and frauded into it.
DANKSo there's various reasons why and how people get involved in it. And I think as a result, it's become even more complicated, trying to figure out exactly what to do and how to address this issue.
NNAMDIThe only part of this economy we ever really see openly is in public in street-based sex work. But a side of the economy that seems to be most directly linked to human trafficking and other illegal networks are much harder to see, much harder to prosecute. Law enforcement has had major difficulties stamping out massage parlors and brothels, which actually do have links to organized criminal networks but are mostly ran by and mostly serve immigrant communities. How does that make it more difficult?
DANKAccording to law enforcement that we interviewed, because these Latino brothels, these erotic Asian massage parlors do have a more organized element, it requires a lot more resources and manpower to be able to figure out how to dismantle them and see exactly who the actors are, why they're engaged in this. What we found is that, particularly with the massage parlors, according to law enforcement, these women are being smuggled into the U.S. from China, from Korea.
DANKThey're paying huge smuggling debts. And as a way to pay off those debts, they are engaging in commercial sex acts within these massage parlors. So law enforcement has difficulty in determining is this a form of sex work prostitution, is this trafficking, where is the overlap, where are the links. And the same goes with the Latino brothels as well.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, the number again 800-433-8850. Here is Darby (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Darby, you're on the air, go ahead please.
DARBYGood morning. My question/comment was why we have the Justice Department funding such a large study on this side of the economy and not looking at issues of human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials and our government officials and individuals involved in the sex trade. A consistent theme has emerged from all grassroots research on this topic. And why aren't we looking at that situation more carefully?
NNAMDIWe certainly will be looking at it more carefully later in this broadcast. But if you're asking why the study did not look at that more carefully, Meredith Dank?
DANKWe actually did look at it. We didn't make it a huge focus of the study because that wasn't what the purpose. Basically, when the Department of Justice issued the solicitation, they were looking at the size and scope, but not law enforcement's reaction. However, we do have several pieces throughout the report that talks about the policing, particularly in the sex worker (unintelligible) and how actually the policing of sex workers does cause a lot harm.
DANKAnd one of -- we do not, as part of our recommendations, say that increasing policing of sex workers is a good thing. So it is a small part of the report. There's definitely more room for more research in that area. But it wasn't what the ultimate solicitation and focus of the report supposed to be.
NNAMDIAnd, Darby, we'll also have more about the police relationship in the later part of our broadcast. We'll hear a comment from D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. But, Meredith, one of the more interesting ideas raised here that the decision to get into the sex trade is not always a story of coercion. You found that many women, young girls, got involved by their own initiative or they were encouraged to do so by family, by friends.
NNAMDIYou also found that there were legitimate businesses that operate side by side with those illegal businesses. Talk about that.
DANKSo I think one of the findings that confirm some of what the myth or anecdotes that are out there and debunk some of the myths was that, in some cases, these young women and girls actually would go to classmates of theirs or other people within the neighborhood and ask them to assist them in engaging in the commercial sex market. It was something that maybe they had a curiosity about or that they had seen or already engaged in.
DANKAnd law enforcement actually confirmed that that was one of many pathways into the underground commercial sex economy. As far as legal businesses go, several of the pimps that we spoke with said that it's like any business. I mean, that was one of our major findings is that they do view this as a business, in some cases a small business. And with any business that you're going to operate, you're going to want to look for partnerships with other businesses to reduce your overhead, to get good deals.
DANKAnd so, you know, one pimp in particular had spoken about having a business or having a relationship with a motel that didn't put him on the registry or any of the girls that are working for him on a registry. That way if law enforcement came in and asks to see the registry, they technically weren't registered. And so this was the kind of the partnership that he created with that legal business.
NNAMDIOn to Christina (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Christina, you're on the air, go ahead please.
CHRISTINAYes, good morning. I actually just wanted to keep going with the law enforcement topic and then just delve a little deeper into their reaction to this, to the study, their cooperation level with the study and the perception of the issue in D.C. itself. Do they see it as, you know, a primary issue that they're combating? Or is this more of those -- is this one of the issue that they can only allocate so many resources when they have it available?
CHRISTINAAnd then, you know, additionally, are there any regional initiatives, a task force, law enforcement specific that they're a part of, that they're trying to gain more momentum to combat the issue?
DANKSo as far as there is a -- there is a D.C. task force that often works within the D.C. metro, specifically on trafficking. As far as police presence, from what we heard with the interviews with sex workers in the D.C. area is that through constant policing and police presence, some of the harm of that is that the sex work gets pushed out into some of the more the isolated regions, which creates a more dangerous environment for them.
DANKWhere the training and perhaps Brad or Cyndee can talk a little bit more about that is the training to be able to identify when somebody is a potential victim of human trafficking or not. And so, how -- to what extent that's happening currently here in D.C., that's probably something they could probably speak more about.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Brad and Cyndee are Bradley Myles and Cyndee Clay. They'll be joining us very shortly. But talk about the kinds of prostitution that exists. We talked about street prostitution. We talked about the kind of prostitution that exists in massage parlors. To what extent does the intimate now also play a role in prostitution?
DANKSo prior to the advent of the internet and the increase in the use of the internet, street prostitution was the main way to recruit, market, to basically -- well, that's how the underground commercial sex economy operated. Early 2000 is when that started moving slowly onto the internet, and now it's kind of bifurcated the market to some degree, where there's still street prostitution that exists.
DANKBut the internet has allowed individuals to have a wider net that they can cast by going into other areas, posting ads in other areas, by recruiting other employees in the cases of pimps. This is one way that they recruit other people. So the internet kind of works as a way of not only remaining in your hometown or in a region, but being able to go much farther out.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on this latest study, providing some new insights into the underground sex economy. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. Do you think sex work has inherently exploited it? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the underground sex economy. Meredith Dank is still with us. She's senior research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute and recently the lead researcher on the new report, "Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major U.S. Cities." Joining us in studio now is Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS.
NNAMDIThat's a D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes to help rights and dignity of sex workers. Cyndee Clay, thank you for joining us.
MS. CYNDEE CLAYThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Bradley Myles. He is executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project. That's a global nonprofit that fights against human trafficking. Bradley Myles, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRADLEY MYLESHow you doing, Kojo?
NNAMDIDoing well. Cyndee Clay, HIPS does outreach and provides direct support for sex workers here in the District. According to this report, there are really three different categories of sex work here, street and internet work, massage parlors and brothels. What was your take on the report? Does it describe the landscape that you see day in, day out?
CLAYWell, at HIPS we have been working for the past 20 years here in D.C. to move people from a state of vulnerability to a state of self-sufficiency. And so we tend to look at the industry in slightly different ways and that's more -- it's less about how people are working or where they're working. But it's, you know, potentially the reasons that they're going into the sex trade, the circumstances that they find for themselves within the sex trade and then how much self-sufficiency, how much criminalization, how much violence.
CLAYYou know, what are the -- what are their options and, you know, how much self-determination do they have in these situations. And because of that, HIPS tends to work with people who work on the streets. We work with people who work indoors. We work with people who work only on the internet. We work with people who work for pimps or who work independently or who kind of work in a -- some kind of like blurred line between the two.
CLAYAnd so, while we have different experiences with the people that we work with here in D.C. than potentially were focused in the report, I think that there are some interesting parallels that we can draw, but also some issues that we have with the conclusions that were drawn.
NNAMDIWe'll talk about those issues in a second. But, Brad, certain parts of the underground sex economy are clearly exploited. Even this report provides some hard data underscoring that there are strong links between human trafficking networks and segments of the sex trade in some cities. But it also highlights a lot of gray areas. What's your take on the report?
MYLESYeah, there is that gray area there. And I think it's important to acknowledge it and to not only speak in black and white terms. I think that when you're looking at instances of children being found or exploited into the sex trade by pimps, if you look at instances of people using force and violence and threats to keep people in the sex trade in some of the networks that are described in the report, those clearly exists.
MYLESAnd we're serving those clients who are from those networks. But the sex trade is a very heterogeneous and diverse place. And I think what the report is trying to do is to capture all the different experiences and not lump it into one single bucket or paint an overly black and white picture.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think sex work is inherently exploitative or not? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. How should local jurisdictions balance their interests in public safety, public health and quality of life when it comes to the issue of prostitution? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDICyndee, we don't want to set this up as a false debate. Brad's organization is dedicated to ending exploitation and human trafficking within the sex industry and other industries. You reject the idea that all sex work is exploitative. But you do not deny that these harrowing stories, some of them are real, or that human trafficking is a problem, do you?
CLAYNo, we don't deny that at all. I think that the important part for us to remember is as we've gone through our work, and, again, we're serving between, you know, 100 to 150 sex workers a week, potentially, both at our drop-in centers and through our work on the streets at night. And what we really learned was, as an organization, that, you know, when we met people who experienced violence or they were in these very coercive circumstances.
CLAYAnd then we would also meet people who weren't being coerced and were not in necessarily these, you know, dire circumstances and were on the streets maybe because of circumstance, this was the only way that they could make money to support themselves and their children, maybe this was a choice they made out of, you know, other varieties of potential ways to make money.
CLAYBut the common denominator between all of those individuals were their experience with law enforcement, generally. Their fear of arrest, as one of the main fears that they have. And the fact that because they engaged in sex work they couldn't access resources that I think many of us take for granted. When they experience violence, when they try to reach out for help, when they try to access employment.
CLAYAnd so the way that HIPS approaches the issue really looks at all people, regardless of the kind of work they do or how they got into it, is what do they need and how can we help move them to self-sufficiency? And I think that we're calling for a more nuanced and I think a more realistic approach to addressing the issue here in D.C.
NNAMDISelf-safety, health, compensation, those are the issues you're looking at.
NNAMDIMeredith, does this report and our broader discourse about prostitution conflate or somehow equate all sex work with human trafficking?
DANKFor the report we were very careful about choosing what terminology we wanted to use throughout, so that we could avoid conflation between sex work and sex trafficking, because it is -- there is a distinct difference between the two. And so I think because it's such a large report and, you know, it's only been out for a week. And the opportunity for people to have read it and thoroughly has not really presented itself quite yet.
DANKI think there's the conflation that's happening within the media. And they're taking, particularly the chapters around interview with pimps, and just assuming that the entire report is from that perspective, when we have quite a lengthy chapter from the perspective of sex workers, primarily all who had worked independently at the time of the interview. And so I think that, yes, it's dangerous territory to conflate the two.
DANKAs both Brad and Cyndee pointed out, it's not black and white, and there's a ton of gray area. And the research I've done in the past, particularly with youth in the sex trade, I've seen what that gray area looks like and the reasons why people enter it. And they can move throughout that spectrum. They could end up on one side or the other, but a lot of times remain in the middle. And I think that's really important for people to realize when talking about sex work and sex trafficking within the umbrella of sex work.
NNAMDIIf there is a pimp involved, is it likely, probable that there's some degree of exploitation involved, Cyndee?
DANKWell, I think that just like there's terms that I won't use to describe people who do sex work because I find them potentially offensive and a little, you know, over sensationalized. I don't like to use the word pimp because I think it brings up a cultural stereotype that has a lot of racial connotations, that has a lot of cultural connotations. We tend to look at people for whom sex workers work as managers. And a manager can be abusive.
DANKA manager or an employer can be also a romantic partner. They can be coercive, but they can also be supportive. Right. And I think that if we can move away from the conversation of pimps and really talk about what relationship is between someone who's doing labor, whether they're doing it because they have an emotional relationship, whether they're being coerced. It helps us expand the conversation, outside of sensationalism.
DANKAnd that was on issue we had that we wished that there could have been different terms used in this report to bring us to a better dialog around the issue. Because unless we can talk about pimps and managers in a way that looks at the data and looks at the experiences, you know, we're just going back to old stereotypes.
NNAMDIBradley Myles, once there are managers or procurers involved, do you think there's exploitation necessarily taking place?
MYLESI think from our -- from the folks that we've served, we've certainly heard about dozens of examples of violence and threats and fraud and lies and manipulation. And when I think when you look at the chapter of the interviews on the pimps, the pimps are explicitly talking about the ways that they try to control the people under their control.
MYLESWhether or not they used a lie, whether or not they enforced a quota, whether or not they used certain types of violence. And so for us the federal definition of human trafficking talks about when that third-party controller uses violence or threats or lies to keep someone in the sex trade, that meets the federal definition of human trafficking. And we're seeing those cases in D.C. So for us it's, are the means of control present? And then understanding more what that controlling relationship begins to look like.
NNAMDII know for me, I read way too many Iceberg Slim books. We had Cathy Lanier on the show last week. And we asked her about the sex trade and whether bystanders should call into the police when they witness prostitution. Here's what she had to say.
CHIEF CATHY LANIERProstitution is still illegal. The dynamics of prostitution has changed a lot. A lot of it now is -- what used to be in Washington, D.C. and most major cities, was a lot of street prostitution. It has now gone hi-tech, so a lot of it is done via the internet now. And meeting spaces that are out of the view of the public. But there is still the prostitution that goes on on the street.
CHIEF CATHY LANIERAnd that is still a crime. So we do have units that are looking for two things. Mainly human trafficking. We do have issues with human trafficking in this city. It's not as significant here as it is in some cities. So I would say, yes, call it in because you never know -- just because a person is engaged in prostitution that that is a willing choice by the person engaged in the prostitution.
NNAMDIDo you agree, Cyndee, the police chief's depiction of street prostitution here in D.C.?
CLAYWell, I'm glad to hear that Cathy Lanier is calling, you know, is saying that they're really interested in getting involved in circumstances where people are being coerced. Right. I think that that is somewhere where we should put our resources. At HIPS, what we would rather say is I don't -- we don't think that law enforcement is the correct tool to be our first responders for people who are being coerced. And I think that it's problematic to use it as our only and especially as our first tool.
CLAYBecause many -- even in this report and in studies that HIPS has done, in studies that have happened across the U.S., the Revolving Door, the Move Along report here in D.C. shows that the primary concern, and the way that police are used as first responders and as primarily enforcing prostitution laws, creates a disconnect and a mistrust between police and the people who might need their help. And even in circumstances where people have been horribly trafficked, they still talk about being concerned about letting police know what's really going on with them.
CLAYAnd so if we can change that dialog and we can change the way that we're enforcing prostitution laws or we can change prostitution laws in general, I think we can make a much deeper impact in the way that Cathy Lanier seems to want to.
NNAMDIBradley Myles, someone's being exploited or it is our perception that someone's being exploited. Should the police be involved?
MYLESI think that that's a complicated question. I think that there's many instances where well-trained police have gotten involved in a situation of trafficking and been able to get the person out of the situation. And we've seen that work well. We've also certainly seen instances where the person wasn't viewed as a victim of human trafficking, even though we knew that they were.
MYLESAnd there was a misdiagnosis or a missed opportunity to help somebody and further criminalization of something. So I think that it's important to focus on training, it's important to focus on sensitivity for law enforcement, to understand the nuances of human trafficking. And it's important for reports like this to come out to dissect all the different subpopulations and all the different nuances within the sex trade, so that police can understand all the different types.
MYLESBut for us we've had varied experiences, but we have seen examples where police have been part of the solution and helped a child get away from a pimp, helped someone get out of a situation where they're being raped or they're being tortured. And in that instance we see law enforcement as an important stake holder to engage, but to make sure that they understand how to connect victims to services and how to connect victims to organizations like Polaris and others that work with folks in the sex trade who've been victims of human trafficking.
NNAMDIAnd if they don't understand, which seems to happen in the view of some, all too frequently, we know that there are laws on the books and the police have to enforce those laws. But if we look at the real-world impact of that enforcement, crackdowns can actually force sex workers into very dangerous situations, can they not?
DANKAbsolutely. And that's what we learned about in this report. This is -- and other research that I've done, is that when they do crack down there is a dialog that happens not only between the pimps and the traffickers, as far as law enforcement activity, but also within the sex workers. If they are policing them, they're going to just continue to move further and further out, particularly with the street prostitution, into these more isolated areas.
DANKAnd so that way the clients, you know, kind of can take them even further out where it's a lot more dangerous and a lot more harm can happen. So I think that with increased police policing around sex workers and prostitution, it can cause a lot more issues, if they're not, as Bradley mentioned, well trained to be able to pick out where trafficking is occurring.
NNAMDIHere's Jerry, in Washington, D.C. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYGood afternoon and thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering how you would generate or how you would measure the revenue generated by the upper echelon of the sex trade. Governor Spitzer and the senator from Louisiana that got caught up in sex scandals weren't hiring street walkers. They were hiring high-class call girls that cost $2,000 or $3,000 a night. So how do you…
NNAMDIHow does your study attempt to measure that, Meredith Dank?
DANKWe did interview individuals who were in prison, incarcerated for managing an escort service, who had a high-end escort service. And they're definitely -- the upper prices were in the thousands of dollars. We've also interviewed sex workers who also charge that amount of money. So that's included in part of the estimate, as well. So we definitely did account for that to some degree.
NNAMDIWe got an email from R.J. who says, "Recently the Anti-defamation League released a report on the Metropolitan Police Department's relationship with the LGBT community. The report noted that transgender women of color reported being profiled by MPD officers, who often assume they are sex workers. This means that simply walking while trans in D.C., can lead to a presumption of criminality. Did Meredith's report touch on this issue in D.C.? I'm sure Cyndee has some insight into this as well." Meredith?
DANKWe did interview trans women for this study. They did talk about the whole policing issue, but, again, since that wasn't particularly -- the focus of the study was law enforcement's reaction and policing of this issue, I will say that there the Urban Institute will be releasing a study later this year, specifically around LGBTQ youths' experiences in the commercial sex trade and there'll be extensive coverage, just exactly on that, about how trans individuals are being targeted by police just for walking down the street, as potential sex workers. And it is definitely an issue that we're hearing. Not only here in D.C., but in other cities as well.
NNAMDIR.J. was sure that you had some insight into this, Cyndee. Don't make him wrong.
CLAYNo. Definitely. I do encourage everyone to read both that report and then there's a response to that report that was put out by HIPS and the GLAD and DCTC and GLOVE and the D.C. Center that made some response to that report.
NNAMDIThis is acronym capital of the Earth, as it -- yes.
CLAYI know. We are the acronym capital of world. And again, I think this brings us back to our point. I feel like the ways that our laws are one the books right now, and that might feel like we're doing something about the issue, but the way that police are interacting with the trans gender in D.C., specifically around prostitution laws, is creating many of the problems. And in my opinion it's not just transphobia.
CLAYAnd it's not just racial profiling by police officers, but in large part is the way that they are tasked by our community to enforce prostitution laws that are causing many of these problems that are outlined in the ADL report. And so while we feel that there's definitely a place where law enforcement should involve, when people are coerced or abused or robbed or sexually assaulted, I mean, that's what police are supposed to do, right?
CLAYWe all want those things. We all want access to law enforcement and justice and safety. But because the police are primarily tasked in interacting with these individuals who are at high risk for arrest, enforcing prostitution laws against them, we're getting in the way of doing these other things and letting police really address violent crime and coercion.
NNAMDIBrad, what would be the optimal training for police on this issue, so that they are sophisticated enough to make these distinctions?
MYLESI think that there is some great training out there for police and more police units are being trained across the country. The D.C. police has gone through significant amounts of human trafficking training with the D.C. human trafficking task force. I think the trainings look at what is the definition of human trafficking, what are the general vulnerabilities of people who've been trafficked and why, what are the organizations to partner with for different responses and how to access services.
MYLESAnd then how to be aware of some of these broader dynamics that exist around addressing the sex trade as a whole. And I think also the training touches on what the actual definition is when there's children and when there's forced (word?) coercion happening and how those might play out. So I think there are very concrete things to train the police on. And then how to create a response to connect those people who've been in those situations to services so that they can get a community and grassroots organization working with them, not just the police working with them.
NNAMDIGot an email from Aaron, who says, "I often wonder why HIPS director always likes to talk about choice when it comes to what she calls sex work. After studying the effects of trauma and working with homeless women who have also addiction issues in a graduate program that I'm working through, I have yet to encounter a woman who engages in this industry by healthy choice. I have conversations with men who often grab onto this notion of choice, which negates the horrors of what these women often encounter." Cyndee?
CLAYYou know, I think that this is where the issue begins to get nuanced. And, again, as I said, we're working with, you know, between 100 and 150 sex workers, potentially, in any given week. And I would say that between, you know, that probably the vast majority of the people, the individuals that we serve on a daily basis, are not in sex work by choice. And do not enjoy what they do. And in…
NNAMDIOf course, that counts for a lot of low-wage workers.
CLAYMany low-wage workers, exactly. And in many ways are looking for a way out or looking for assistance. I think the reason that choice becomes important is that what our current laws and the way that we're currently addressing this issue, is actually taking more options away from the people that we work with. And what people coming to us for is people need drug treatment, they need shelter and housing. They need other ways to make money.
CLAYAnd what we do at HIPS on a daily basis is trying to help people heal and help people avoid criminalization and help people get those basic needs and resources. And that's the majority of what HIPS do, but we also feel like we can't have that conversation without putting sex work into context of labor and human rights, because when you're just criminalizing people you're not helping them.
NNAMDIAlmost out of time, Meredith. This report also delves into the underground market for child pornography. Talk about that.
DANKSo initially when we were thinking about what the underground commercial sex economy is comprised of we thought of sex trafficking, anything that falls underneath that umbrella, prostitution and child pornography. We learned pretty early on in the study that child pornography, at least here in the United States, there isn't really much of a commercial aspect to it anymore. So we didn't really go delve into it, but we did continue to interview child pornographers to look specifically at the networks and how they communicate with one another and technology at it's...
NNAMDIMeredith Dank is senior research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Cyndee Clay is executive director of HIPS, and Bradley Myles is executive director and CEO of the Polaris Project. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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