On November 19, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held a press conference to announce an important development. This time, he was not celebrating a major drug bust or outlining a new departmental policy. Rather, he gathered local reporters to tell the public that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) was cracking down on sex work. 

“We’re here to announce the results of a two week-long sting operation aimed at people soliciting prostitutes in several areas in Baltimore City,” Harrison announced, as mugshots of arrestees and their names appeared on a screen behind him.

Nineteen men, ages 26 to 78, were arrested for attempting to solicit sex from undercover officers during the month of November. Fourteen of these were from South Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood.

Harrison indicated that the sting was a response to citizen complaints: “One of the most common complaints we get from residents in certain parts of the city is to do something about the prostitution in their neighborhoods,” he said.  

The mugshots and full names of the 19 men, appeared in news reports the next day.

The Sting Operation

The presser was an unexpected one for Baltimore City, where annually more than 300 homicides and endless scandal tend to occupy headlines. Although the exchange of sex for money is illegal in Maryland—as it is in the rest of the country, outside of a few counties in Nevada—police have significant discretion around how they handle the issue. Before Harrison, BPD leadership had not announced any significant crackdowns on prostitution within the city since the zero tolerance era of the 2000s. And if prostitution is a priority of the Harrison administration, it was not included in his Crime Reduction Strategy, released in June. 

Harrison even seemed to anticipate some criticism of this initiative.

“Contrary to what some would suggest, prostitution is not a victimless crime. It has a significantly negative effect on the quality of life of neighborhoods where its taking place and tends to attract other illegal activities, including drug dealing and violence,” Harrison said. “It also often leads to violence against women who are sometimes forced to work as prostitutes.”

None of the 19 men in the story were identified as pimps, traffickers, or repeat violent offenders. Maryland Judiciary Case Search records indicate that all but three of the men were arrested for solicitation alone, with many first-time offenses. Otherwise, the sting produced one second degree assault charge, two drug possession charges, and a public urination charge. Many of the cases have already been settled, with probation before judgement and a $200 fine.

Harrison clarified that “only enforcement action was taken against the men” during this recent bust. The implication was that sex workers themselves were not the target, as the arrests resulted from undercover police officers posing as sex workers. However, Open Baltimore records indicate that, outside of this sting, Harrison’s administration has mostly arrested women for prostitution-related charges. (BPD did not respond to questions about this operation or the department’s goals around policing sex work.)

Arrests for prostitution during and since the sting / Courtesy Open Baltimore

The sting announced on November 19  employed an “End Demand” approach to combating prostitution. As described in a 2012 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report, “End Demand” criminalizes the purchase but not the selling of commercial sex. Some law enforcement experts and anti-trafficking advocacy groups consider it to be a more successful approach than arresting sex workers. Harrison used two of the End Demand methods outlined in the NIJ report: a “reverse sting” and “shaming.” 

Harrison’s publicized crackdown on street prostitution is in line with his recent deployment of dedicated patrol and SWAT officers at busy intersections where young window washers—or “squeegee kids”—solicit money. In both situations, Harrison has used police powers to respond to complaints about the intrusive signs of poverty in “certain parts of the city,” as he has stated. Both actions employ low-level misdemeanor arrests (or the threat of them) to ease the discomfort of residents and commuters. 

Yet, whereas the “squeegee kids” issue has been a fevered topic in Baltimore media for years, prostitution seems to be the Commissioner’s own personal bête noire. A look back at Harrison’s career before he came to Baltimore reveals a focus on policing sex work, as well as a tendency to blur the lines between consensual, adult sex work and sex trafficking. 

By law, trafficking victims are abducted, coerced, and/or misled into labor. Anyone under the age of 18 who engages in sex work is also considered trafficked. Trafficking laws are distinct from laws against prostitution. 

Harrison and Sex Work in New Orleans

Harrison’s perspective on sex work, as shared in the recent press conference, would have been familiar to residents of New Orleans. Before Harrison took over BPD in January, he served nearly 27 years with the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), including the last five as Superintendent. In that role and other leadership positions, Harrison oversaw several prostitution stings focused on sex workers and/or customers. He often spoken about prostitution as contributing to crime and social decay.

Harrison’s professional biography includes a note on the subject of sex work: “Under his watch, the Seventh District experienced crime reductions in 2012 and 2013. He helped craft and testified in favor of legislation to enable better enforcement of prostitution and solicitation, which was a major problem in the district,” his bio reads.

A moralistic attitude towards sex work has pervaded some of the ways that Harrison, an expressly religion man (seen speaking in preacher-like tones before a church audience in this 2017 clip), and other New Orleans officials discussed this issue. Harrison’s stance on sex work in New Orleans was sometimes controversial. In January 2018, NOPD made national news for a mass raid on eight strip clubs in the French Quarter, in partnership with state agencies. The clubs were shut down one month before Mardi Gras.

At the time, Harrison said that the raids were part of an ongoing “anti-trafficking” operation designed to protect women. Yet, as The Appeal reported, no trafficking victims or perpetrators were caught in the sting. Instead, police described the type of sex crimes as one might see at any strip club, such as simulated sex, exposed nipples, and “lewd acts.”

Dancers, who were working legally in the clubs, led protests around the closure of their places of business and drew attention to mistreatment by police. In response, Harrison doubled down, criticizing the “party atmosphere” on Bourbon Street, contrasting the clubs to “legitimate” businesses, and arguing that prostitution helps “erode the fabric of society.” Despite the lack of evidence, Harrison continued to insist that trafficking was happening inside of the clubs after the raid. 

Ironically, a few months before the raid, one of the raided club’s owners had notified a state agency about a suspected trafficker on his staff that he fired. NOPD reportedly never followed up. Activists argued that Harrison’s sting operation—like most stings targeting sex workers—would mean the community would be less likely to report trafficking in the future, making people less safe.

Baltimore Police and Sex Workers

At different times in his career, Harrison has suggested that sex workers are victims in need of rescuing by police. But sex workers in Baltimore have reported that police can be as dangerous to them as clients—and sometimes the police are the clients.

Two studies from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published earlier this year looked at the effects of BPD interactions on sex workers’ health and safety. One study examined the experiences and conditions of sex workers; the other surveyed the attitudes and practices of BPD officers.

The first study collected data between 2016-2017 from 250 street-based, cisgender female sex workers (FSW) in Baltimore. About 78 percent reported having had abusive interactions with police; for 41 percent, this happened at least weekly; for 48 percent, this abuse constituted sexual harassment or assault. About 23 percent reported having been pressured by police to exchange sex for no arrest; and about 17 percent reported having police officers as clients. 

In the last few years, there have been more media stories about Baltimore police officers having sex with, assaulting, or trafficking sex workers as there have been stories about successful local trafficking busts. 

The 2016 Department of Justice (DOJ) report on BPD disclosed a case involving a BPD officer coercing sex in exchange for money or immunity from arrest, as well as other abusive gender-based practices, such as strip searches. Beat cofounder Baynard Wood’s 2016 reporting for the Guardian reviewed “hours of taped interviews with current or former sex workers submitted to the DoJ” that included similar stories. Some of those interviews can be heard in The Marc Steiner Show’s “Voices of the DOJ Report & The Intersections Of Race, Gender, Sexuality and Policing.”

Jacqueline Robarge, Founder and Director of Power Inside, an outreach and harm reduction program for women, confirms that police abuse is a serious and underreported issue among sex workers. In 2018, Robarge helped get a law passed in Maryland making it illegal for law enforcement officers to have sex with anyone in their custody. At that time, a number of cases around the country were spotlighting the loophole in state laws that did not already outlaw this practice.

Robarge says that there are police officers that are known among sex workers to be repeat offenders. She wonders why the recent “high profile” federal crackdowns on BPD corruption left out the exploitation of sex workers from their charges. 

Earlier this year, Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board (CRB) heard details from a complaint against police, in which an officer procured sex for money before arresting the sex worker. According to the CRB agenda, the sexual act was left out of the officer’s report. If this complaint is true, the officer broke the 2018 law on sex with detainees and prisoners. According to meeting notes, CRB members voted to investigate this case. The CRB has not responded to requests for an update on this case.

Robarge says that the CRB requested her help with addressing cases like this one, noting that it wasn’t their first. She gave a presentation on the subject during the February CRB meeting.

In January 2019, the Hopkins School of Public Health completed another study examining BPD attitudes and practices towards female sex workers (FSWs). This study was conducted primarily through ride-alongs with 64 patrol and Vice officers (86 percent male) and interviews with leadership. The officers knew they were being observed, so the results presumably show BPD on its best behavior. 

Still, with some exceptions, the researchers overheard negative and dehumanizing language used to describe FSWs. Most of the officers did not care about FSW’s “rights as individuals or collective wellbeing,” the study reported. Some officers blamed FSWs for putting themselves in situations that led to victimization: “After they get messed with, they call us and report it! Can you believe that? And we have to deal with it,” one female officer said. The study points out that sex workers are generally afraid to report abusers, rapists, and traffickers in the community for fear of arrest, which makes them especially vulnerable to serial rapists and murderers. 

One conclusion of the Hopkins study is that BPD is not working for everyone in the city equally. Officers described the “intense pressure from community associations and residents” to rid their communities of prostitutes, particularly in “gentrifying neighborhoods.” A 2017 story in Baltimore City Paper illustrated the role neighborhood associations and businesses have in drumming up opposition to sex workers, who are then targeted by police.

The officers in the Hopkins study expressed the outlook of complaining residents as their own: “I know they need help and they aren’t hurting anyone,” one officer stated, “but you don’t want to see that in your neighborhood you know?” Another officer reported that he “doesn’t really get any complaints if [sex workers are] kept in the ‘seedier’ areas.’” Researchers pointed out that police took “no action” to displace FSWs in “marginalized neighborhoods,” and also explained how “move along” tactics increase the vulnerability of sex workers, isolating them from each other and their community-based resources. 

Another conclusion of the Hopkins study was that police use sex workers as informants in ways that can be harmful and foster a “climate of vulnerability.” Sex workers become especially useful to police when there is an increase in violent crime in one area, the report explains, highlighting “the coercive nature of police relationships with FSWs.”

Neill Franklin, a former BPD commander and founder of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), describes how sex workers are casualties of the war on drugs. He explains how other charges, like drug or gun possession, are used to coerce possible information on homicides or robberies from sex workers.

“We put [sex workers] in harm’s way, making them work off their charges,” Franklin says. “This has been going on in policing for a very long time, applying pressure on sex workers to get information for crimes.” 

Instead of getting sex workers help if they need it, Franklin says, “we use our criminal justice system to victimize them all over again.”

Baltimore City law allows police to detain sex workers and others on the street without even evidence of an exchange of sex for money. One city ordinance punishes “remaining, standing, loitering, or wandering about at any public place,” if police determine one is doing so for the purpose of prostitution. The Hopkins researchers concluded their study by advocating for “shifting police culture away from viewing the vulnerability of FSW as a resource to be exploited and towards viewing it as a harm to be reduced.” 

In 2016, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was initiated to divert people arrested for prostutition pre-booking into community-based services. Not everyone is accepted, and only prostitution charges are diverted, but it can provide an alternative to incarceration.  LEAD bills itself as a “harm reduction” model. 

Multiple sources interviewed for this article describe how LEAD holds the threat of rearrest over participants that may struggle to comply with strict requirements, including drug testing, attendance, and no longer engaging in sex work. Robarge describes LEAD as an extension of the “long arm of the criminal justice system.”

Trafficking, Survival, and Consent

The rhetoric around policing prostitution tends to swing between viewing sex workers as criminals, responsible for social ills, and viewing them as victims of exploitative men—and this has been Commissioner Harrison’s outlook over the years. 

Christa Daring, Executive Director of the national Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and founder of SWOP-Baltimore, refers to this as the “viminal space”—the “victim/criminal” space that denies agency or complexity to sex workers.

“I am not a victim. I do not need to be saved.” says G.G., a female sex worker that works out of her home in Baltimore. “It’s a very practical, economical choice.” G.G. started doing sex work in her early 20s, when she was in college and having to work two healthcare jobs to pay for it. 

“Trafficking, no matter how you cut it, is wrong,“ G.G. says. “But trafficking is not the same as people engaged in consensual sex work.” 

In the last decade, it has been increasingly common to hear policy makers, police leaders, and media reports conflate or confuse sex work with trafficking. After the 2018 NOPD crackdown on strip clubs under Harrison’s watch, Louisiana ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard stated, “prostitution in and of itself is sex trafficking,” a statement that is incorrect on many levels, including from a legal perspective. Harrison has been more careful not to generalize in his statements but still often blurs the line. 

“Trafficking” becomes a loose and mutable term when applied to sex work. A 2015 raid on strip clubs in downtown Baltimore was reported by some local outlets as an anti-trafficking sting; the same raid was reported by the Baltimore Sun as simply a gang bust.

That sex work is not always a safe or desirable profession for everyone complicates public understandings of consent and trafficking. Daring describes a category of “survivalist” sex workers: “Sex work can provide really necessary sustenance for people who otherwise are not going to have access to employment.”

Daring, who is gender non-binary, speaks of the “rampant job discrimination” against trans individuals, people of color, disabled people, immigrants, substance users, women with children, people with criminal records, and LGBT and other youth, who often turn to sex work after leaving abusive homes. There are often considerable intersections among these groups that drive people into sex work and keep them there. That people can be “forced” into survivalist sex work by social conditions is a level of coercion that law enforcement is not prepared to address.

G.G. can “definitely sympathize” with the concerns of residents about sex work happening in front of their homes. She attends neighborhood meetings and tries to meet these residents halfway: “Some of these folks never stop to think, why are these people selling sex out here as opposed to in their homes? It’s because of the criminalized nature of this work,” she says.

The sometimes challenging and dependent conditions of the lives of survivalist sex workers can contribute to simplistic “trafficking” labels, especially when there are third party beneficiaries involved, such as “pimps.” Even though Maryland law distinguishes between “pimps” that facilitate adult consensual prostitution and traffickers, law enforcement doesn’t always parse the differences.

“[A pimp] is a consensual, negotiating relationship, as anyone would have, with any manager of theirs,”G.G. explains. 

SWOP seeks to reframe sex work as traditionally understood labor. 

“‘Sex work’ is a very political term, because we are saying, ‘We are doing work,’” Daring says. “We don’t ask McDonald’s employees if they are empowered by their job or if they choose they to do that job.”

“It’s like any other job,” G.G. says. “I have good days, and I have bad days. When clients short me of my money, when clients sexually assault me, I wish there were labor conditions in place where I could complain. But I can’t. So those bad days are a result of policies.”

Anti-Trafficking in Action

The U.S. invests enormous resources in fighting trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. In 2018, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan authorized nearly $10 million in state resources towards this issue. 

The powerful hold trafficking narratives have over public consciousness was evident on December 3, when Baltimore Mayor Jack Young warned the public about a “white van” that was seen to be abducting women and “selling body parts.” Young learned about the supposed van on Facebook, so his account wasn’t taken seriously or validated by law enforcement. Still, his scenario speaks to the hysteria and misinformation surrounding trafficking concerns.

One consequence of the anti-trafficking movement has been increased criminalization of all sex work. In April 2018, Congress passed a dual law known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). It led to the shutdown of Backpage, Craigslist personals, and other sites for advertising sex. 

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people working outside that were previously working inside after the closure of Backpage,” Daring says. “Not because they want to, but because they don’t have any other advertising options.” 

Sex workers also lost a tool for screening clients. Human rights groups fought aggressively against the passage of these laws for these reasons. Even many law enforcement agencies opposed the law. Backpage was one tool they used to catch traffickers. To date, the law’s passage has not resulted in increased sex trafficking arrests. 

“This is the only thing that law enforcement and I have ever agreed on,” Daring says. “If you get rid of these websites, how are we going to know who’s out there?” 

When it comes to adults, G.G. insists, “trafficking is an identification that sex workers have to make themselves because of all of the nuances.” Daring describes a “spectrum of coercion,” from “I have to work to eat and support my kids” to a “boyfriend scenario,” in which romantic partners extract money from sex workers, to “I was abducted and forced to do this.”

In 2017, Baltimore City Councilperson for District 8 Kristerfer Burnett created a task force to organize around trafficking at the local level. 

“The most difficult part of doing this work is the very thin line between trafficking and [non-coercive] sex work,” Burnett says. “The more you use law enforcement as a tool to crack down on sex work, you can put those folks in very precarious positions.”

Burnett also acknowledges that trafficked victims are unlikely to leave their situation without a “viable alternative.” While he is encouraged by the task force’s increased coordination, he admits that the state is still figuring out how to provide even enough beds for victims.

Multiple sources interviewed for this article report that trafficked individuals in Baltimore usually end up incarcerated. This includes minors. Although prostitution charges are usually dropped against victims, other charges persist, such as robbery or drug possession committed under coercion. A study released earlier this year, from the University of Baltimore, showed how commonly trafficking victims are imprisoned and how difficult it can be for them to ever expunge such charges.

Legalization and Decriminalization

Photo by Robin Marquis

One interesting finding in the Johns Hopkins BPD study was that some of the participating BPD officers expressed wanting to see prostitution legalized.

“Don’t tie my name to this but they just need to decriminalize it,” one male officer responded. “If it was decriminalized, and I don’t know what kind of [employment] benefits they would have or what that would look like, maybe you can figure that out, but then they could get the help they need.”

Franklin, who founded LEAP to organize former law enforcement around anti-drug prohibition and other reform efforts, explains that criminalization breeds trafficking: “By prohibiting consensual adult behavior, you created the environment for children, women, and others to be victimized by these people.” 

The movement towards lifting criminal penalties around consensual adult sex work has been growing in the U.S., which is still far behind most of the Americas and Europe. (The U.S. already regulates some legal sex work, such as dancing and pornography.) Most models of legalization around the world regulate when and how sex work can operate. Countries such as Norway, Germany, and Canada enforce the “End Demand” model, which only criminalizes the purchase of sex, as Harrison enforced last month. 

“All of the reasons that people think that sex work is their only option don’t disappear [under End Demand],” G.G. explains. End Demand also endangers sex workers by giving buyers “much more power” over negotiations, including demanding secrecy around identity and location for fear of a solicatation arrest.

In 2017, City Councilperson Burnett sought to introduce a bill in Baltimore with an End Demand-type model but he pulled the bill after meeting with SWOP leaders. 

“It was clear that it would do more harm than good,” Burnett says. “I had the votes. It would’ve passed. But the perspective they brought was incredibly helpful.”

Many human rights organizations—including Amnesty International and the United Nations World Health Organization—advocate instead for full decriminalization of the adult consensual sex trade. Decriminalization would make it easier for sex workers to work from home, without facing the risk of eviction, as well as to leave the trade if they choose, on their own terms. 

“If sex work is the type of work that you’re doing just for right now, so you can use that money to have a stable home or possibly an education, criminalization makes that really hard,” G.G. says.

Decriminalization would also give sex workers the chance to openly share their stories, participate in civil leadership, and advocate publicly for the needs of their community. As most of the industrialized world marches towards some form of reduced penalties around sex work, Baltimore seems to be headed in the other direction, for now.

“The bottom line is that prostitution is a crime that we take very seriously here at the Baltimore Police Department,” Harrison said at the recent press conference. “And we will conduct sting operations like this one whenever and wherever necessary.”

On December 17, SWOP will be leading a multi-cultural celebration of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.