Hawaii’s controversial prostitution entrapment laws have been in the news recently. As reported, Hawaiian law, until a few days ago, had allowed police officers to legally engage in sexual acts with prostitutes as part of their undercover assignments to entrap and arrest those prostitutes. After an uproar on the internet and in the news, lawmakers in Hawaii finally outlawed the practice.
But even entrapment policies as extreme as this are nothing new, asserts activist and author Melinda Chateauvert. Her new book Sex Workers Unite makes the case that sex work should be not only be legal in the United States, but afforded the same rights and protections as other forms of labor.
According to Chateauvert, a very similar set of entrapment policies were in place San Francisco in the 1970s. At the time, police used free rooms provided by local hotels to stage their stings, often arresting the sex workers only after they’d already provided the “agreed to services.” The situation sparked protests against the hotel industry and police department by COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and other advocates of sex worker rights.
"Entrapment is a common police tactic," says Chateauvert. “The US is one of the few industrialized nations to permit police to deliberately entice and entrap law-abiding citizens into committing crimes by setting up decoys and other schemes.”
But the more pervasive problem, she attests, involves police who use arrests or the threats of arrest to coerce prostitutes into performing sexual services.
The unfortunate truth is that sex workers are all too often subjected to illegal, demeaning, and sometimes abusive treatment at the hands of law enforcement. Just days after the Hawaii story rocketed through the news and social media, came another disturbing story of human rights infringement by police against sex workers, this time in California. According to a lawsuit recently filed by a group of 25 strippers, police officers in San Diego reportedly detained the strippers in their club as part of an “inspection” and photographed the women’s tattoos against their will, without a warrant or probable cause. The officers took them to a back room, the claim alleges, and made “arrogant and demeaning comments,” posing them intentionally to “expose body parts.” Many of the women were dressed in lingerie or other revealing garments during the detainment, and some were entirely unclothed. Making the situation worse is the high number of recent misconduct complaints, many sexual in nature, already levied against the San Diego Police Department.
The common thread in these cases is an inherent tension between law enforcement and sex workers based on criminalization laws in the US that very few industrialized nations share. As the situation in Hawaii and the recent behavior of the SDPD make sadly evident, sex workers are too often unfairly targeted in the US. It's not difficult to imagine history repeating itself yet again if legal protections for sex workers aren't put in place.