United States' Anti-Trafficking Sting mocks Sex Workers while Backpage Lawsuit Heats Up

North America and Caribbean Regional Correspondent

In March 2007, Polk County Police Department engaged in 'Operation March Madness' a sting resulting in the arrests of 104 people, including 38 sex workers, 51 clients and 14 for related charges. Polk county has a reputation for large scale stings to get media attention. In the same county Operation 'Trick or Treat' arrested 95 sex workers and clients on Christmas Eve 2015. It came under criticism for the targeted ridiculing of transgender people by the Sheriff by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

This year's sweep continued the pattern of publishing personal details of arrestees prior to conviction for any crime. The Polk County Police Department parodied a basketball scoreboard with an image with all the mugshots of the arrestees and a score board at the bottom detailing the amount 'locked up', 'free' and the number of charged felonies and misdemeanors. In a press conference Sheriff Judd commented on those arrested in the sting: “What you’re seeing here is not a star basketball team. These are a lot of losers, and they’re losers in the sense that they were trying to take advantage of people and take advantage of the law and they all ended up fouled out.”

A major proponent of the stings: Florida Abolitionist, a faith based anti-trafficking group, said “Polk County is increasing the risk associated with purchasing sex. This deterrent is a big step in the fight against human trafficking. Without buyers, traffickers will be put out of business. We pray that day will come soon!”

SWOP Behind Bars co-founder Alex Andrews has provided support to women arrested through these stings and to clients of Florida Abolitionist who feel like their needs are not met by the organisation. In her experience these stings create harm: “The Police Dept and Florida Abolitionist need to have a more nuanced understanding of the difference between sex work and trafficking. Being put in a crisis situation (by being incarcerated) is not helpful in helping someone exit sex work or leave their exploiters. We need voluntary harm reduction services, not services people are forced into through law enforcement.”

Florida Abolitionist is the complaining party in current lawsuit against Backpage – A classifieds website used by many sex workers to post advertisements. Backpage has faced years of legal battles and criminal cases in response to accusations of children being advertised for sex on their website. In October of 2016 Chief Executive Officer Carl Ferrer was arrested on charges of pimping a minor and conspiracy. While those charges were dismissed by a judge, and the Supreme Court turned down a case brought against the company, in January Backpage took down the Adult services section of their website citing unconstitutional governmental censorship.

Legal Momentum, the law firm representing Florida Abolitionist and a Jane Doe holds Backpage responsible for a sexual assault experienced after connecting with someone on the website. "The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time. Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover," said Carol Robles-Román, the President and CEO of Legal Momentum and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Sex worker advocates within Florida speak of the importance of online platforms for reducing the risk to sex workers, who say that criminalising online advertising will not make the industry go away. Andrews voiced concern about the real life effects of what she says is a moral war on the sex industry: “After workers stopped being able to use Backpage the first time (after Mastercard and Visa both withdrew ability to process credit cards from the site) it put a lot of people in danger. People still needed to work and a lot of girls went back onto the street. A couple of girls died, we don't take that lightly.”