In 2010, Molly was visiting Alaska as a sex worker. She met a client in a hotel room and gave him a massage, then began to touch his genitals. At that moment—after sexual contact had begun—police burst into the room and arrested her. “I thought I was going to be kidnapped at first,” she told me by phone. “I thought this is the moment where you get kidnapped or killed.” Even worse, the sting was filmed and broadcast on Alaska State Troopers, a National Geographic series. Though they blurred Molly’s face, she appeared on TV without her consent.
In the media, sexual contact between sex workers and the police is portrayed as strictly forbidden. In a famous scene from The Wire, for example, a police sting is abandoned after a sex worker cynically reveals that one of the detectives climaxed. In reality, though, as Molly (whose name has been changed due to fear of public stigma) discovered, police across the country are legally allowed to engage in various kinds of sexual contact with people under investigation. Exact laws and practices vary from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but a 2015 report in the New Republic found that police in Arkansas, and across the U.S. generally, may fondle women’s breasts or get sensual massages before arrest.
While nearly every state bans sexual intercourse during undercover prostitution stings, in Michigan and Alaska it’s still legal for a police officer to have sex with a sex worker before arrest. The state legislature in Michigan is working on a bill this year to end the practice. And sex worker advocacy organization Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) has introduced legislation to has introduced legislation to ban sexual contact and sexual penetration in Alaska as well.
The co-founders of CUSP—writer and researcher Tara Burns and prostitute and activist Maxine Doogan—explain that allowing police to have sexual contact with sex workers is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it’s traumatic for the women involved. Police claim they are trying to help trafficked women coerced into the sex industry, but by engaging in sex acts under false pretenses, they are violating the women’s consent, victimizing them in the name of saving them.
“I honestly didn’t get raped by a cop,” Molly says. “But the fact that I did something I wouldn’t have consented to for free was pretty gross and weird.” Another woman interviewed by CUSP said that during a sting, the cop “reached over and grabbed my boobs and he touched my crotch … and then boom—arrested.” She so embarrassed and upset by the ordeal that she took a plea deal rather than mount a defense against the charges—an example of how sexual trauma during an arrest may violate the right to due process.
“If you’re working, you always fear that client who’s going to kill you or kidnap you or something. … [I]t turns out that my most scary experience ever working was from a cop.”
The fact that police can initiate sexual contact under false pretenses, or even have sex with sex workers, also creates deep distrust in the sex worker community, which is a “barrier to public safety,” Doogan says.
“We have a culture in Alaska of sex workers who have experienced sexual assault by police or who know people who have experienced sexual assault by police,” says Burns, “and that’s been going on for many years. That makes people feel like law enforcement is not there to protect them, like law enforcement is just there to take advantage of them.”
Doogan and Burns pointed to the case of Anthony Rollins, an Alaskan police officer convicted of multiple rapes who also frequently coerced sex workers into having intercourse, according to one CUSP interviewee.
When sex workers or trafficking victims see the police threatening or taking advantage of them, they are unlikely to report serious crimes, like an attack or assault. This is an especially pernicious problem in Alaska, where the rate of rape is more than twice the national average, and child sexual assault is six times more prevalent. When police violate consent to arrest sex workers—or coerce them into blowjobs in exchange for not sending them to jail— they are contributing to a culture of sexual violence, not fighting it.
After CUSP brought this problem to the Alaskan legislature, Democrats Berta Gardner in the Senate and Matt Claman in the House introduced legislation to make it illegal for police to have sexual contact with suspects, just as it is illegal for police to have sexual contact with those in custody.
The police lobby has stalled the bills. They argue that cops need to engage in some sexual contact in order to make prostitution arrests. When officers set up stings, Anchorage Police Department Deputy Chief Sean Case told the Alaska Dispatch News, sex workers “ask one simple question: ‘Touch my breast.'” If it is a misdemeanor for police to have sexual contact with sex workers, Case concluded, “we have absolutely no way of getting involved in that type of arrest.”
Burns says that her research into charging documents suggests that officers sometimes arrest sex workers simply for asking “touch my breast,” and current Alaska law allows far more than fondling. In one case, a court upheld an arrest even though a policeman had received a handjob. In another, the Alaska Supreme Court said it was illegal to fire a state trooper who had sex with a domestic violence victim after arresting her husband. Police who oppose more restrictive laws argue that departmental regulations and expectations prevent unwarranted sexual contact. But at least in some cases, that influence is clearly inadequate.
Moreover, if police need to violate sexual consent to obtain convictions, maybe those convictions are not worth obtaining. The justification for prostitution laws is generally that sex workers are exploited and must be arrested to be rescued. But, as Molly says, police stings can feel like exploitation in themselves. “If you’re working, you always fear that client who’s going to kill you or kidnap you or something. I was more afraid of that than I was of the cops. And it turns out that my most scary experience ever working was from a cop.”
CUSP co-founder Doogan says the fact that police engage in sexual contact with sex workers during arrests highlights the futility and cruelty of criminalizing sex work. Police, she says, could be investigating sexual assaults or trying to protect the public, but stings are “much more sexy. You get up in a room with a pretty girl on the taxpayer dime and say that you’re rescuing someone, when in fact you just arrested her.” Allowing sexual contact or penetration with suspects can create perverse incentives, leading police to prioritize stings of consenting sex workers rather than doing investigative work to help women who are trafficked or who are simply the victims of sexual assault.
Sexual contact between police and suspects creates serious potential for abuse with little crime prevention upside. CUSP hopes that, despite police lobbying, legislators will end the practice when they take up the issue again in 2018.