US Sex Workers Respond to Visa & Mastercard Dumping Backpage

Sex workers and people in the sex trade are once again facing the brunt of misguided anti-trafficking efforts. Sex workers and people profiled as such face arrest and incarceration all in the name of “ending trafficking” and now low income people are being denied access to a place where they could advertise. Miss Andrie has written an excellent piece on the situation at Backpage, concluding that, “Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.” Organizations across the United States, including BPPP, have united to publicize the issues in the following press release.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Derek J. Demeri| Atlantic City, NJ | 973.356.4456 | jdemeri20@gmail.com Lindsay Roth | Philadelphia, PA | 443.370.7626 | lindsay@swopusa.org

SEX WORKERS, TRAFFICKING VICTIMS MORE VULNERABLE AS VISA, MASTERCARD CUT TIES TO BACKPAGE.COM

Sex workers and advocates are denouncing a move by Visa and Mastercard to discontinue processing credit card transactions for Adult Services ads on BackPage.com. “This policy effectively disenfranchises thousands of sex workers across the country who do not have access to any other means of online-advertising,” said Lindsay Roth, Board Chair of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. “Those who may have worked independently prior to the policy change may now have to rely on third parties, including traffickers, in order to meet their needs.” “

Risk to violence is multiplied for workers who belong to other marginalized groups,” Derek Demeri of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance said. “This will especially impact women of color, queer youth, transgender women and immigrants who will no longer have access to web-based safety tools like client screening.” Demeri and other advocates report that multiple communities were deeply affected after last year’s closure of MyRedBook.com, a site where sex workers and their customers met and reviewed each other. Advocates say that like MyRedBook, BackPage.com enables people to work independently, reduces their dependence and vulnerability, and allows them to share harm reduction information online. Pushing these workers even further into the shadows cuts them off from social services and makes them more vulnerable to violence and coercion. “These efforts are misguided and will cause significantly more harm to those in the sex trade, including trafficked individuals,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a trafficking survivor who recently co-authored a study in Sacramento that showed 18% of street-based prostitutes interviewed in the last nine months had returned to the streets after the closure of MyRedBook.com.

Many are concerned about the root of the changes that are occurring in the name of “ending trafficking.” “It’s alarming when bank and credit institutions can decide how money obtained legally can be used based on their ideas of morality,” Monica Jones, a national transgender and sex worker activist in Phoenix remarked. Penelope Saunders, the coordinator of the Best Practices Policy Project, shares Ms Jones’ concern. “The general public has been mislead into believing that cracking down on civil liberties is a way of ‘saving’ women from trafficking,” she said, “but once people look more closely at what these so-called anti-trafficking restrictions actually do, they are appalled by the real consequences to low income people and the rights violations that ensue.”

Viable solutions to address human rights violations are well known in the social service sector, but often receive much less media fanfare than hyped stories of sexual exploitation. “If there is a genuine desire to end human trafficking,” Kate D’Adamo of the Sex Workers Project in New York states, ”Then there needs to be a focus on key factors that increase vulnerability to trafficking: access to public services, youth homelessness, and additional employment opportunities.” Opponents of the decision are circulating a sign-on letter amongst sex workers and supporters, in which they ask Visa and MasterCard to “Appeal to reason…” and reconsider their move to stop allowing transactions for Adult Services on BackPage.com. ###

 

Countries Make Recommendations to U.S. at the United Nations

The United States underwent its second round of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Monday, a human rights mechanism at the United Nations meant to hold countries accountable by subjecting them to review at the Human Rights Council. Sex worker rights activists Monica Jones and Derek Demeri were present in Geneva, Switzerland, for the review. They had asked representatives of other countries to raise the issue of sex worker rights with the U.S. during the review. While none of the 117 countries making recommendations specifically discussed sex work, many recommendations about policing and law enforcement cover the rights violations that are committed against sex workers and others profiled as such.

After the session concluded, Jones and Demeri participated in the civil society consultation with the U.S. government delegation to Geneva. They voiced their concerns about rights violations against people involved in sex trade, violence against trans women, particularly trans women of color, and deaths of people incarcerated due to negligence or violence by jail and prison personnel. “I want to know what you are doing to address violence against trans women,” Jones asked the government delegation, noting how poverty, violence, incarceration, and isolation affect trans women uniquely. “We support recommendations to end police brutality, as the violence that sex workers face is most often at the hands of police,” said Demeri. He added that the U.S. government should also take steps to fix its flawed approach to human trafficking, should stop the practice of using condoms as evidence of prostitution, and should uphold the rights of sex workers and related communities including queer youth, trans women, and women living in poverty. You can hear their remarks here:

The advocacy efforts of Jones, Demeri, and others at the United Nations builds on years of work by sex worker rights activists and allies. During the UPR process in 2010, Uruguay called on the United States to end violence against sex workers, and the U.S. government accepted the recommendation. Unfortunately, very little has been done since that time by the federal government to protect sex workers’ rights. The situation has actually deteriorated, as national and local policies and practices harming sex workers, and those profiled as such, increase every year, often under the banner of fighting human trafficking. Next steps for the UPR include encouraging the U.S. government to accept most of the recommendations made by other member countries, and pushing policy makers to support sex worker rights.

U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists Call for U.N. to Hold U.S. Government Accountable

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | May 8, 2015

CONTACTS: Geneva- Monica Jones 602-575-9332, Derek Demeri jdemeri20@gmail.com;

United States- Janet Duran- 973-900-4887, Penelope Saunders- 917-817-0324, penelope.saunders@gmail.com

 

U.S. Sex Worker Rights Activists Call for U.N. to Hold U.S. Government Accountable

U.N. to Review US Government Human Rights Record on May 11th

Geneva–Representatives of U.S.-based sex worker rights organizations are in Geneva, Switzerland, meeting with members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), and advocating for greater human rights protections. The HRC will hold its quadrennial Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the U.S.’ human rights record on May 11th at 9am (3am EST), at the U.N. in Geneva. The UPR is a peer-based review process, through which the human rights record of each member state of the U.N. is subject to scrutiny by fellow governments, which call on other each other to address and end violations of civil, political, economic and social human rights in their own countries.

In advance of the review this year, advocates with Best Practices Policy Project, Desiree Alliance, and Sex Workers Outreach Project-NY submitted a report to the HRC. Written in consultation with sex workers and their allies throughout the country, the report shows that criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers, and those profiled as such, exposes them to rape, extortion, physical violence, harassment, and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Criminalization and stigma can also lead to denial of housing, healthcare, parenting and other reproductive rights, education, incomes, and employment. The report demonstrates that the legal system frequently fails to recognize that sex workers can be victims of violence, and thus denies justice or support to sex workers who seek help.

For Monica Jones, a human rights advocate and transgender woman of color from Phoenix, AZ, the issues she is raising in Geneva have directly impacted her own life. Like many transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, she is threatened by regular harassment by police, who use anti-sex work laws to intimidate and harm members of communities already vulnerable to discrimination. “As long as the police can target my community using these anti-sex work laws,” Ms. Jones notes, “we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration.”

The UPR of the U.S. comes as major uprisings are sweeping the country in response to persistent police violence and murders of people of color. Sex worker communities, particularly those of color, are all too familiar with the rampant profiling, harassment and violence that police carry out throughout the U.S. Sex worker rights advocates in Geneva are in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement and other similar racial justice movements that seek to end police brutality. “We refuse to be silenced when the criminalization and stigmatization of our communities means our voices and existence don’t matter to those who hold power,” said Derek Demeri, a member of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, who is in Geneva. Demeri pointed out that one of the many detrimental effects of stigma and criminalization is increased risk to sex workers’ health and wellbeing. “The U.S. is obligated to uphold the right to health under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet municipalities criminalize possession of condoms, jeopardizing the health of sex workers and other communities and placing them at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,” he said.

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Ill-informed legislation under consideration in Maryland

BREAKING 11:45am, March 25, 2015: We just learned that the Senate Bill has been withdrawn and the hearing cancelled. This is a great victory for human rights!

While lawmakers at the federal level are battling over a largely bad piece of legislation allegedly meant to address human trafficking, a proposal in Maryland to increase criminal penalties related to trafficking and prostitution will have a hearing on March 25. In the name of making human trafficking-related crimes felonies rather than misdemeanors, the Maryland Senate will hear testimony on Senate Bill 904. This is the counterpart to House Bill 241, which had a hearing last month. Aside from the fact that a criminalization approach is not effective in addressing coercion or exploitation, Maryland’s human trafficking law is even more problematic than many others. In 2007 lawmakers essentially amended the state’s pandering laws and renamed them “human trafficking” laws–meaning that human trafficking in Maryland only covers force, fraud and coercion in the sex sector, and trafficking in any other sector is not covered.

The proposed law would make the following, among others, into felony crimes:

  • take or cause another to be taken to any place for prostitution
  • place, cause to be placed, or harbor another in any place for prostitution
  • persuade, induce, entice, or encourage another to be taken to or placed in any place for prostitution

As noted by advocates like Power Inside who are speaking out against these bills (as well as those who have spoken out against similar legislation in other parts of the country) such a law would increase dramatically the criminal penalties associated with important harm reduction practices such as sex workers working together. A friend giving a ride to a sex worker, a boyfriend or a girlfriend acting as a lookout when a sex worker takes a date, or an older sex worker giving advice to a younger sex worker could all be liable for felony crimes under such a law, which would include up to 25 years in jail, a $15,000 fine, and no possibility to expunge the conviction.

If Maryland lawmakers are truly interested in helping people who experience force, fraud or coercion in the course of their work, whether in the sex sector, domestic labor, agricultural sector, or elsewhere, they should revise the law to properly define human trafficking. Even more importantly, they should focus on structural reforms that would make people less vulnerable to exploitation, such as increasing labor protections, raising the minimum wage, ensuring a strong social safety newt, promoting worker organizing among migrants and other vulnerable groups, and removing criminal laws associated with sex work.

Power Inside, Best Practices Policy Project, Sex Worker Project, and other groups are sending the letter below to the Maryland Senate and General Assembly encouraging them to table this bill and reconsider their approach.

TO: The Hon. Bobby Zirkin, Chair, and members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee; Hon. Joseph Vallario, Jr., Chair, and members of the House Judiciary Committee

FROM: The Undersigned Organizations

DATE: March 25, 2015

RE: Opposition to Senate Bill 904 and House Bill 241

As service providers, human rights advocates, and experts working on behalf of victims of human trafficking across the country, we appreciate the zeal with which the Maryland legislature has taken on the fight to end human trafficking. However, we believe strongly that SB 904 and HB241 are misguided and we oppose increasing penalties under subsection (a) of Maryland Criminal Code § 11-303 and urge the committees to release an unfavorable report on each of the respective bills.

Firstly, it is important to recognize that trafficking adults with the use of force, fraud, or coercion is already correctly a felony under MCC § 11-303(b)(2). This is in line with the definition of trafficking used by the federal government, and accepted as a model law by the American Bar Association, the Uniform Laws Commission, the United Nations, and experts in human trafficking. SB 904 and HB 241 are unnecessary to protect adult victims of human trafficking.

As it stands, MCC § 11-303(a) criminalizes activities that fall far beyond the widely accepted definition of human trafficking. If the amendments pass, basic safety techniques that those in the sex trade, including victims of human trafficking, engage in as a means of harm reduction would be considered felony human trafficking. For instance, two trafficking victims driving to and from jobs together would be considered felony human trafficking. This increased criminalization of an overbroad definition of trafficking will inadvertently escalate harm to adult victims of trafficking, as well as homeless and otherwise vulnerable adults involved in prostitution who rely on their peers for basic survival.

The increased penalties of these common harm-reduction activities have far-reaching consequences beyond longer and more costly sentences. Many Maryland residents who enter into prostitution have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of homelessness, health conditions, and survival related behaviors such as trading sex for shelter. As such, they may have lengthy criminal records for crimes that may eventually be expunged or sealed.  Human trafficking is not eligible for sealing or expungement. As such, anyone arrested and convicted under MCC § 11-303 for prostitution-related activities that fall short of the commonly understood definition of human trafficking will face life-long stigma and discrimination when seeking employment, housing, and education. This is especially true when considering that most employers, landlords, and other gate-keepers will not understand the broad range of survival activities that are considered “human trafficking” under Maryland state law. This unfortunate consequence of criminalization forces people to rely on the sex industry, even when seeking to escape it. This problem is only compounded if non-violent trafficking charges are increased to felonies.  Passing this law could wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable, and we are deeply concerned about the implications.

We, the undersigned, oppose SB 904 and HB 241.