How anti-prostitution laws may make sex workers less safe

Editor’s note: It is The Denver Post’s policy to quote sources by their real names. The Post made an exception for this story so that sex workers could candidly speak without fear of facing criminal, professional or social consequences. The Colorado sex workers quoted in this story asked to be identified by aliases they either currently use or previously used in both legal and illegal lines of sex work. The Post verified their identities through extensive conversations and multiple in-person meetings.

Mia, a sex worker, had been violated on the job more ways than she could count when, around Christmas 2018, she decided for the first time to report someone.

She was performing a lap dance at a Boulder strip club when a customer aggressively grabbed a part of her body she had clearly stated he was not to touch, she said. Mia told management what happened and asked them to remove the man from the club, and when it did not she went to the police.

The only person punished in the case was Mia. The club fired her, she said, and prosecutors told her “the odds were very slim that I’d win over the jury because they believed my status as a stripper would be enough bias to not have this person convicted.”

The experience confirmed for her a common fear among sex workers: that people who commit crimes against them, including assault, theft, harassment or stalking, won’t face consequences.

“It’s a result of a deeply entrenched, dehumanizing view of sex workers,” said Mia, whose five-year career in sex work includes both legally stripping and selling online content, and illegally selling sex. “People who don’t even engage with sex work perpetuate this idea that we’re less worthy of respect.”

As another Colorado sex worker, Ella West of Adams County, put it: “I feel like I’m not a part of society. I don’t get a voice. No one really cares about sex workers and how things affect us, and we have to walk through the world knowing that people feel that way.”

Those two workers and others interviewed by The Denver Post said they believe the current prohibition of prostitution in Colorado (and the rest of the country except for 10 counties in Nevada) leaves workers vulnerable to physical and economic danger, problems law enforcement officials say anti-prostitution laws are meant to alleviate.

Those laws are the “underpinnings to address additional crimes — notably child prostitution, pimping and human trafficking,” Democratic Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said.

A Denver Post investigation involving more than 25 interviews found broad support for the goal of stopping those predatory crimes. But it also found that criminalizing sex work in the name of preventing exploitation can have the effect of endangering sex workers and driving them to the fringes. There, a host problems — mental health decline, violence, worker-buyer power imbalance, social isolation — can fester and compound.

A system meant to punish exploitation has also helped create profound stigma that discourages legal and illegal sex workers from advocating for their own needs in statehouses, city halls, police departments, courts and media. This is especially true for the poor, people of color and transgender people, academic analyses of crime data show

“That’s the opposite of what these laws should be doing,” said Amanda Finger, executive director of the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. “They’re meant to truly support people who’ve had their rights completely taken away from them.”

“Something is wrong with you”

Sex workers and people who work with them in the legal system and social safety nets told The Post they believe many of the problems imposed upon sex workers trace to a basic, widespread misunderstanding of who they are and why they do what they do.

“There is a common conflation between sex work and human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking,” Finger said. “The idea being that all sex work is inherently exploitative and that all people involved are being trafficked.”

Added Julie Kiehl, who as executive director of the nonprofit Empowerment Program in Denver has worked with sex workers for years, “There’s this idea that anyone involved in sex work desperately does not want to be.”

The truth is muddier. As with a lot of jobs, some people love this one and others hate it.

The hours can be flexible, the money can be good. Some sex workers can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a single night of work. Others work in hopes of making $20 or $40 just to pay for a place to sleep for a night.

Some are forced into the work or do it just to survive. Some say they felt more degraded working low-wage jobs at stores and restaurants than they ever have doing sex work. Some operate in environments they describe as safe and supportive, while others — especially those who work on the street — enjoy neither of those features. Most workers are women, but men, transgender and non-binary people also do sex work and face distinct levels of discrimination and risk.

Overall there’s been little research on the state of sex work in Colorado. Local governments mostly have no idea how many sex workers live in their communities, officials said, meaning policy is crafted off an incomplete understanding of a diverse population.

Many types of work can be considered sex work, including illegal forms such as escorting and street-based prostitution, and legal forms that include stripping and online content creation. But much disagreement exists within and outside the sex work community over what makes someone a sex worker. Legal workers often make a point to separate themselves from illegal workers.

Public opinion is not so nuanced, sex workers said.

“There’s the social perception that if you’re doing sex work something is wrong with you — drug addiction, abusive past,” said Phoenix Calida, an on-and-off sex worker from Michigan and spokesperson for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national advocacy network combatting violence and stigma.

That perception, they said, “has led to a lot of people speaking over sex workers from policy and law enforcement positions.”

Sex workers lamented that they rarely feel heard, even when laws are being crafted that directly affect them. Calida recalled walking the halls of Congress three years ago in a group of sex workers attempting to explain what they saw as unintended consequences — including decreased safety and financial disempowerment — of a pair of bills (now laws) meant to reduce online avenues for sex trafficking.

“We talked to lawmakers and it was literally that thing where they said, ‘Well, we didn’t read (the legislation), but police told us it would help stop sex trafficking.’ A lot of people don’t consider the implications,” Calida said. “They don’t want to be painted as pro-trafficker or pro-pimp or anti-women. Those labels get thrown on you quickly, so I understand why politicians don’t want to talk about it.”

Colorado’s top law enforcement official, Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser, declined to be interviewed about sex work. A spokesman said Weiser “has not examined this issue or taken a position.”

“That’s not a surprise,” West said. “They want to pretend we don’t even exist.”

The Post contacted all 22 elected district attorneys in the state. Three agreed to comment.

McCann said she’d want to have more “community discussions” before deciding how she’d feel about any law changes.

Alexis King, a Democratic district attorney in Jefferson County, said “any community conversation about sex work should not blur the lines between non-exploitative situations and the exploitation and rape of adults and children.”

D.A. John Kellner, a Republican representing the south and east suburbs of Denver, rejected the term “sex work” because he said it normalizes predatory behavior. Decriminalizing prostitution — something many sex workers say would make them safer — “would be the wholesale ratification and government stamp of approval on a practice that leaves only devastation in its wake,” Kellner said.

Far from devastated, some sex workers attest to deriving financial empowerment and schedule flexibility. But when they try to tell their stories they feel shut out, they said in interviews. West pointed to a disincentive to speak up in the first place.

“Saying, ‘Hi, I’m a criminal for a living,’ that’s a scary thing to do,” she said. “The thought of going to my representatives and outing myself is pretty scary. Criminalization helps keep us silent in a lot of ways.”

Sex workers said policymakers and society at large are wrong when they frame the issue in terms of whether or not sex work is “real” work.

Whatever one thinks of prostitution, the more important thing to consider is that prohibition does not stop it from happening, much as anti-abortion or anti-drug laws don’t stop people from pursuing abortion or from using drug, workers said. But it does make them much more vulnerable, they noted.

“You know that if you do get attacked or raped or even killed, that not only are you going to be plastered on the news and called a hooker, but the people who did stuff to you may just walk free,” said Ava V. Marie of Aurora, who does both legal and illegal sex work. “That is very sickening and it’s very scary because it feels like your life doesn’t matter to these people who are supposed to protect and serve.”

Who gets arrested?

Paul Pazen, chief of the Denver Police Department, said he doesn’t want anyone to feel that way.

His force’s mission is to hold exploiters accountable and get safety-net resources to those being exploited, he said. Pazen promised that any sex worker in Denver who reports a crime will not be arrested for prostitution or otherwise have their criminal status be held against them by police.

The city is taking steps to focus more on human trafficking, including at massage parlors, and less on punishing sex workers, he said.

Denver this year ended the requirement that people arrested for buying or selling sex pay $65 to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The city health department found the old policy led to additional criminalization of vulnerable people and was based on debunked assumptions of this population as necessarily more likely to have diseases or less likely to protect against diseases.

But the Denver Police Department’s own data doesn’t always reflect Pazen’s words.

In 2019, 43% of women arrested for sex work in Denver were Black, arrest records show. Black women made up less than 5% of Denver’s population that year, according to city data.

The main Denver hotspots for arrests for sex work — buying and selling — are on Colfax Avenue near the city’s borders with Lakewood on the west and Aurora on the east. Street-based prostitution is common in those areas.

A density map of overall arrests in the city for sex work shows roughly the same “inverted L” shape that highlights where many other forms of disparity such as in education, housing and public health persist. That means people facing arrest related to sex work are frequently the most desperate, the least empowered.

“These are people who are often terrified — Is this the time I’m going to pick up someone who’s going to beat me or hurt me? Is this the time I’m going to be in the alley with someone who’ll stab me?” said Alice Norman, chief public defender in Denver. “They don’t go after the men or women that are escorts. I have seen some stings of those, but those aren’t the people they pick on. I believe so many have to do with people that are poor, people of color, people that are already disadvantaged in many ways.”

Pazen said disparities in arrest rates can be explained in part by the fact that police follow up on complaints from the public. Someone selling sex along Colfax, a busy public roadway with many businesses, is much more likely to be reported than an escort meeting clients at home or in a hotel. Pazen insisted that “disparities do not equal bias” in his ranks, but added “we’ll definitely acknowledge” that societal bias — in this case, the public most often reporting street-based sex workers in Denver — influences police behavior.

The result is higher arrest rates for street-based sex workers — some of the very people who are more likely to be exploited, who Pazen and other law enforcement officials say they want to protect.

“Boom — you’ve got 50 stereotypes”

Kiehl spoke of one woman who came to her nonprofit having recently been sexually assaulted and in need of safe housing.

“Because she does engage in sex work, she said if she tries to report anything as a sexual assault, it turns into an interrogation of her and her character and what she did, what she’s done in the past. She was terrified,” Kiehl said.

Advocacy by sex workers focuses largely on reducing concrete harms created by criminalization, but sex workers and outside experts cited the need for other changes beyond the control of any legislature or police chief.

“There’s your next massive paradigm shift: really helping to strip a label from someone and see that person as a human, first and foremost. A human who needs resources, shelter, who just needs a break, a place to land,” Finger said. “We’re so ready with our labels. You hear, ‘This person is a sex worker.’ Boom — you’ve got 50 stereotypes before you have time to think.”

That stigma is why Mia was hesitant to report her assault. And why Ella West has lied to loved ones about what she does for a living. It’s one reason why many sex workers wary of government regulation tend to favor decriminalization over outright legalization. It’s part of why sex workers didn’t want their real names in this story.

The stigma, combined with the criminalization of sex work, is why Cateleya Winter, who recently retired from a few years doing both legal and illegal sex work, said she was more scared to contact authorities than to just keep driving when someone followed her out of a Denver strip club around 3 a.m. a couple years ago and made all the same turns she did on her way home. She made her way back to the club and a staffer ushered her home safely.

“We have to protect ourselves because no one else will do it,” she said.

Winter said she has seen other dancers stalked after work and worse. She’s known sex workers who’ve been stabbed in clubs and robbed in hotels, she said.

Ava V. Marie, like Winter, is a Black woman and especially loath to contact police. When she meets with clients she does as much screening as possible, she said, but prepares for something to go wrong.

“I always got to be on guard. It’s scary,” she said. “If I check into my hotel and I’m awaiting for a client coming at 6 p.m., by 5 p.m. I’m checking the room, like, if I’m here on this side of the bed, I can reach over and grab this knife, or if I’m over here I can grab this Taser. It’s so crazy.”

Ava doesn’t want to do sex work forever. She’s 22 and said she thinks of quitting in the next decade or so, of starting a family. But, like others in the field, she worries about how this career might dim her prospects for a different one in the future. The fear of being outed is pervasive and damaging to mental health, she said.

The forces that create such fear are numerous and interconnected, Finger said.

“Something that is so clear to me is there are a lot of shelters or a lot of programs that will not support someone who has a history in the commercial sex industry, or actively participating in it,” she said. “As people are maybe thinking of making a different life choice or to exit a situation, it’s really tough to find some good, safe landing places.

“That’s not on the criminalization side. That’s on the safety-net side. That’s on the community organizing side. Having that stigma that it’s both criminalized and just integrated into so many systems, that leaves a lot of people staying on the margins.”

Sourcing & Methodology

Editor’s note: It is The Denver Post’s policy to quote sources by their real names. The Post made an exception for this story so that sex workers could candidly speak without fear of facing criminal, professional or social consequences. The Colorado sex workers quoted in this story asked to be identified by aliases they either currently use or previously used in both legal and illegal lines of sex work. The Post verified their identities through extensive conversations and multiple in-person meetings.

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