Risky Business: Chicago’s sex workers face the threat of violence and arrest on the job

photo by Flickr user Christine Kaelin

photo by Flickr user Christine Kaelin


Sex work is an inherently risky industry, with those involved facing dangers both physical–violence, STDs, pregnancy–and legal. Recently, though, work has gotten even more dangerous for those who sell sex on websites like Craigslist, thanks to a coordinated effort by federal and state law enforcement known as Operation Cross Country. Just last week, FBI and state police arrested more than 570 suspects on prostitution-related charges in stings across the country–44 in the Chicago area.

As part of the federal Innocence Lost National Initiative launched in 2003 to combat child prostitution, Operation Cross Country ostensibly targets child traffickers. The vast majority of those apprehended so far, however, have been consenting adults, including all 44 of the Chicago arrests. In light of this fact, the operation has come under criticism from sex worker advocacy groups like the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP). According to Jane Brazen, a member of SWOP-Chicago, “We feel it is targeting adult sex workers because the stings are based on Craigslist arrests. Child traffickers don’t post on Craigslist…Tactics to end the very real atrocity of trafficking, especially in children, shouldn’t have to include the arrest of adult sex workers, especially not in such large, large numbers.”

For some sex workers, the heightened risk of arrest is enough to make them reconsider their choice of profession. It was a major factor in “Jake’s” recent decision to stop doing sex work and focus on running his (non-sex-related) small business. “I didn’t feel like the risk was worth what I could get paid,” he explains. “Police action is becoming a really coordinated effort.”

Jake, who began doing sex work shortly after he moved to Hyde Park in January 2007, used to find most of his clients through Craigslist. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, so I started looking online and researching employment in the adult entertainment industry,” he says, mentioning that he had been intrigued by the idea of becoming a sex worker since college. “I was curious about it, and I thought the only way I could really find out what it was like was to try it myself.” Though he held day jobs at retain businesses in Hyde Park, Jake also earned money by giving men erotic massages and facilitating their fetishes. “I found out I have beautiful feet–they’ve made me a lot of money,” he says, pointing out his perfect arches. Jake later moved to the North Side, where he and his roommate, a professional female dominatrix, set up an informal BDSM dungeon to further accommodate his clients’ kinks.

“As far as sex workers go, I’m kind of a lightweight,” Jake admits. “I mostly just did massage gigs and sometimes a hand-job to finish it off.” In the eyes of the law, though, even this much contact is a crime. An individual’s first two prostitution offenses qualify as municipal or state misdemeanors, with a conviction usually leading to a term of probation, while the third such charge can be upgraded to a felony. Regarding the possibility of arrest, Jake says, “There are certain types of strategies–how you talk, what you talk about–ways to avoid the police…but it’s never 100 percent guaranteed.”

For Jake, a male sex worker working independently and indoors, police action may have seemed a more pressing threat than that posed by his clients. “I’ve been in a few sketchy situations, but I never felt like I was in real danger,” he says. For others, though, the greatest danger actually comes from customers: they are the most frequent perpetrators of violence against sex workers, according to a 2002 report by the Center for Impact Research. This fact is a major concern for the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (PART), a network of nonprofits, government agencies, and “survivors of prostitution” that seeks to create options for women who have been or are currently involved in the sex trade. “When people think about the sex trade they only think about quote-unquote ‘prostitutes’–they only think about these women in a negative light, and the johns and customers are invisible, without any reproach or consequence for their actions,” says Daria Mueller, senior policy analyst for Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinates PART. “It’s these individuals who are driving the demand for the sex trade, and we’re trying to create accountability for these individuals.” To this end, PART formulated and advocated for the Predator Accountability Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of those harmed by involvement in the sex trade. With its passage in 2006, sex workers can now prosecute individuals who recruited them to the industry or caused or threatened them with bodily harm.

Other sex worker advocates, however, see the biggest problem not so much in the demand for sex as in the criminalization of sex work. “Under current prostitution laws, sex workers face real barriers to reporting the violence against them,” says Jane Brazen of SWOP-Chicago. She points to the case of a sex worker in Philadelphia who was raped at gunpoint by four men and later filed charges of sexual assault and assault. Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni dismissed these charges, ruling it “theft of services” instead. “When sex workers face that kind of dismissal (at best) and arrest (at worst), it’s incredibly difficult to report violence,” says Brazen. “Clients and others can get away with hurting sex workers because they know sex workers can’t go to the cops.”

photo by Flickr user Jaume d'Urgell

photo by Flickr user Jaume d'Urgell

Nationally and in its Chicago branch, SWOP advocates for the decriminalization of sex work. Spokesperson Serpent Libertine distinguishes this from legalization, which she characterizes as “when the government becomes the pimp.” “Sex workers have to register with the FBI; they’re told where they can work, and they have to give a substantial cut to the brothel.” Decriminalization, on the other hand, is simply the removal of laws that make selling and buying sex a crime. SWOP was involved in getting a decriminalization measure known as Prop K on the ballot in San Francisco last November; it won an impressive 41 percent of the vote. “Right now, we in Chicago are not equipped, nor is Chicago really ready for such a measure,” concedes Brazen.

Jake agrees. “I think championing the acceptance of sex work is a really noble thing, but we have a long way to go. I think ultimately it has to happen. Eventually it’ll become just another lifestyle-related thing.” That is certainly the hope of Serpent Libertine, who decries the stigma that continues to surround sex work: “Sex workers are one of the last groups that people think it’s okay to discriminate against–they say, it’s your choice. Well, for some people it’s a choice, and for some people it’s not.”

The question of how to improve the lives of sex workers hinges greatly on the socioeconomic situation of the worker in question. For Jake, a college graduate from a middle-class family, sex work is a different matter than it is for a street-based prostitute. “I’ve definitely been really, really broke before, but I never got to that position,” he says of the streets. “It’s pretty wildly different…There’s so much more agency in what you do when you do things online. There’s a big difference in everything from life situations to willingness to do things to risks from police and violence.”

For many, this means that the distinction between choice and necessity is less than clear. According to a May 2008 survey of 100 young female sex workers by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and DePaul University College of Law, 70 percent of respondents said they had been recruited to the sex trade, with 56 percent having become involved by age 16 or younger. Though most of these women were not actually forced into sex work, the question of agency is murky at such a young age. According to Mueller, “The vast majority of individuals who are involved didn’t grow up thinking this is what they wanted to do with their lives.” Once they enter the industry, though, it can be difficult to leave: “There are physical issues in terms of being afraid of violence, or they may not feel like they have family or friends or programs or services they could turn to if they wanted to get out…There’s also psychological and emotional factors that keep women tied to the sex trade–the lack of the sort of feeling of self-worth–as well as socioeconomic issues that women face.”

The criminal justice system rarely takes such factors into account. For this reason, Mueller is skeptical of the effectiveness of Operation Cross Country: “These women probably started when they were minors–they probably don’t have a great deal of sort of free will and other options for leaving,” she says of the adults caught in the sting. “They’re just sort of arrested and kind of dumped into the same system with the same consequences as pimps and traffickers.” Moreover, female sex workers in general face highly inequitable treatment from law enforcement, comprising more than 75 percent of arrests for prostitution-related offenses.

Mueller would rather see these women receive support services to help them leave the sex trade. “We’re trying to create the option to go into programs where they can get substance abuse treatment, case management, family reunification services, trauma counseling, job-training and placement–all the things a person might need if they’re at a point where they’re at the door of the criminal justice system.”

Not all sex workers are victims, however, as members of SWOP are quick to point out. “We treat sex work as a legitimate occupation,” says Brazen. “Of course, not everyone wants to do that kind of work, but treating all sex workers as passive victims who need to be rescued completely robs them of their own voices and agency.” This is an attitude somewhat at odds with Mueller’s, who maintains, “I do believe there is a sort of inherent harm in the sex trade.”

Regardless of whether you view sex work as demeaning or empowering–whether you support its decriminalization or its abolition–one thing is for sure: it will be a long time before either the demand or the stigma around the sex trade is dispelled. “Way more people do it than you think,” insists Jake. “Probably at least one of your friends you’d never suspect is doing it.” He derides the idea that prostitution is more unethical than a “real” job: “If you think sex work is somehow unclean, think about your own job–think about all the injustice that had to happen for you to receive that paycheck,” he says, citing the evils committed by corporations where many are employed. “With sex work, you know exactly where your money is coming from.”

Though Jake would like to see prostitution decriminalized, he points out that “secrecy is part of the product.” “Stigmas in certain cases serve the need of fantasies. To that extent, laws don’t really matter.” Ultimately, it is probably the secrecy and taboo surrounding sex and its sale that contribute most to the dangerous nature of sex work. “So many of my jobs would never happen if my clients were in relationships that were healthy and open,” says Jake. “A lot of that work would just dry up if Americans’ communication skills about sex were a little better.”