Surveilling the Sex Trade


By Cody Fenwick

Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Photo by Massimo Catarinella, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced that his city is launching a program called CEASE Boston (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation) in an effort to reduce the demand for sex work. CEASE Boston is supported by a non-profit advocacy group called Demand Abolition and is part of an 11-city network across the United States.

Selling sex is illegal in Massachusetts, punishable by up to one year in prison. Buying sex may be punished more severely, with up to two and half years in prison. However, in many recent years, female arrests have far outnumbered male arrests on prostitution charges.

“CEASE Boston will target the men who are buying sex on the streets, and quietly using the internet to solicit sex,” said the Mayor’s office in a press release. “The program aims to reduce online demand activity by 20 percent, as well as street level activity by 80 percent, over the next two years.”

Audrey Morissey, formerly in the sex industry herself, spoke at the new conference announcing the initiative. Demand Abolition reported Morissey told the crowd: “I was brought into the commercial sex industry as a teenage girl… This is not a life that women and girls choose. This is violence against women and children, and we’re tired of buyers being let off the hook.”

Targeting buyers of sex rather than sellers is not a new approach. In 1999, Sweden decriminalized the selling of sex, while preserving laws against buying sex. Though this approach has gained some momentum, it has many detractors.

Police targeting of the sex industry, whether they are going after buyers or sellers, affects the behavior of sex workers. Some experts believe that the more police monitor the selling of sex, the more dangerous sex work becomes. Those who sell sex on the street may end up in more dangerous areas while avoiding police and they might feel they have to quickly negotiate terms with potential clients to avoid getting caught.

BTR spoke with Cecilia Benoit, a professor of Sociology at the University of Victoria and a scientist at the Center for Addictions Research. Recently, Benoit and a team of researchers conducted a large study of individuals with ties to the sex industry in six different cities across Canada.

Of the sex workers she interviewed, “[h]alf of them feel the police actually make them feel safer, despite these laws that we have. Others feel they make it a little less safe.”

When sex workers are afraid of police, they have less protection if an encounter with a client turns violent. Benoit explains, “If they have been victimized, they are less likely to [report it to police] because they don’t want the police to find out what they’ve been up to.”

Criminalizing commercial sex also “reduces the informal monitoring that takes place in the industry.” Other clients can help prevent aggression against sex workers if they see violence in the industry, but they are far more reluctant to come forward and report such violence if doing so implicates them in illegal activity.

Benoit also worries about the effect criminalizing the buying of sex has on the group of potential clients. For instance, Demand Abolition claims that, in their survey of men in Boston who buy sex, these men were more likely than others to engage in other criminal behaviors.

But Benoit argues that when buying sex is criminalized, this may push well-intentioned potential clients out for fear of participating in an illegal activity. It is then no surprise that criminals would be disproportionately represented among sex work clients. If buying sex were not illegal, sex workers might have a wider variety of potential clients and would have more freedom to be selective.

“In our study,” Benoit explained, “the majority of [sex workers] said they enjoyed their work, they didn’t feel exploited, they felt they had a fair amount of control.”

“But there’s still a minority of people who feel exploited,” she adds.

Benoit elaborated that it is misleading to think of the sex industry in binary categories of those who are sex workers and those who are coercively trafficked. Rather, there’s a spectrum of satisfaction and levels of autonomy that people in the sex industry experience, from entirely free to completely exploited.

Demand Abolition, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, appears to believe otherwise. In their promotional video for the launch of CEASE Boston, one speaker asserts, “We have to help the ones who don’t think they need help. This is not a life that someone chooses.”

Jacob, a male sex worker in Boston who solicits clients exclusively online, agreed to speak with BTR, but requested that his real name not be used. He shared his concerns about the illegality of his work.

“More than half of the time I’m paranoid [that a potential client could be undercover law enforcement],” he says.

In his discussions with other sex workers, Jacob says he has come to believe that his risk of being targeted by police is minimal. But he is still left in a vulnerable position, unsure whether he can rely on the police if he’s ever threatened on a job. “I think the police make my work more dangerous,” he says.

The criminality of his work also cuts him off from important resources. “It would be very helpful if [sex work] was legalized,” he explains, “because it would be much easier to meet other sex workers and create networks through which we could identify if people attempting to become clients were safe people.”

Potential clients, Benoit asserts, have to be especially cautious about sharing information online, which means sex workers have little information to go on before a meet. Jacob echoes this point, telling BTR that though he doesn’t think it was likely a police officer would pretend to be a potential client online, he has little doubt that they pose as sex workers online.

“Right now, the police are our enemy and they could, and should, be our friends,” Jacob says.

All parties involved may genuinely want to improve the lives of those in the sex industry, but they have very different ideas about how to achieve that end. Part of the difficulty is determining who really is in the industry against their will and who exercise some autonomy.

“These people are not seen as parts of communities, embedded in social structures, who are making the best choice for themselves, given the situation they are in,” Benoit states. “Criminalizing the buying [of sex] does not really change [the sex worker’s] economic and social situation.”

For now, the government of Boston disagrees as it endeavors to shine a light on this oft-ignored aspect of urban life. As Mayor Walsh’s said, “We will be looking in our streets and we will be looking online. We’ll be measuring purchasing trends and patterns of behavior. We will leave no stone unturned when It comes to eliminating sex trafficking in the city of Boston.”