The Florida Story Teetering on the Edge
About a week ago, a sex trafficking story exploded out of Florida. Multiple massage parlors were shut down and numerous people arrested in what was alleged to be a sex trafficking ring. It caught national attention when one of the “johns” turned out to be New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The media filled with horrifying stories about the supposed conditions in the spas:
“It was clear to us that this was a trafficking case because of the circumstances I enumerated: They’re not leaving, they’re there 24 hours a day, the hygiene was minimal at best, just a bathroom,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said. “So we took it upon ourselves to not do what could be the easy way out … and we turned it into a trafficking case.”
Not only did it appear women were living there, he said, but they were cooking on the back steps of the spa and sleeping on the very massage tables where the johns had done their deeds.
There were other worrying signs, Snyder said. The women didn’t have access to transportation, they were moved from location to location and some were averaging as many as eight clients a day. They worked deep into the night with no days off, the sheriff said.
Horrible, right? Except … it’s now looking like none of that was even remotely true.
From the very beginning, people who write about sex work were skeptical of these claims. We were skeptical because the cops took six months to rescue these women from supposed sexual slavery. We were skeptical because these narratives are often spun around racial minorities doing sex work (particularly those of Asian descent). We were skeptical because the prosecutors and police started to quickly distance themselves from the narrative. We were skeptical because the rhetoric — particularly the eight men a day thing — sounded like the same old hysterical narrative that has been building over the last decade.
And we were skeptical because such lurid stories have often turned out to be false. Almost every time the media hypes “sex trafficking ring broken”, the merest due diligence shows that no trafficking charges are brought; only prostitution charges. Elizabeth Nolan Brown has written about the Biggest Sex Trafficking Bust in history, which turned out to involve zero sex trafficking. And she wrote about the K Girls “trafficking” bust in Seattle, which turned out to involve zero sex trafficking.
She’s now come through again. And it’s looking a lot like the Florida busts may not involve any sex trafficking:
No one in this case was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking, forced labor, compelling prostitution, or any other charge that implies force, fraud, or coercion in the arrangement.
Of the workers we know of from police documents (including those who were arrested and those who weren’t), all have official massage therapy licenses in good standing. The Asian-owned massage and spa businesses raided across four counties were also licensed and in good standing with the state of Florida.
Police from Vero Beach said in a press release that one woman had been arrested for human trafficking, and Florida news outlets are still running with that story. But a simple check of county court records shows that this is not the case. Like her colleagues, the woman is charged with engaging in prostitution herself, “deriving support” from prostitution, and “racketeering,” which sounds serious but just means working with others to accomplish something illegal.
All of the women who were arrested in these stings are being charged with prostitution themselves. They’re also facing felony charges for participating in and earning money from each other’s sex work. In this way, police have found a sort of loophole that allows them to bring felony charges against sex workers simply for working together.
It goes on. Most of the men who were serviced at these establishments were not rich men like Kraft who — I guess — we’re supposed to believe wanted to have forced sex with dirty terrified sex slaves. They were mostly middle class guys who got a little “something extra” with their massage. The hidden cameras caught the women servicing not 1500 men a year but maybe two a week. The police have now admitted that the part about “not being allowed to leave” was not really true. And it’s looking like the part about sleeping under their tables is also not true. They found a couple of beds, some personal belongings and a fridge in one of the spas.
And Brown isn’t the only one noticing this. Deadspin notes the same lack of charges for sex trafficking and adds:
Finding reliable data on sex trafficking is difficult, but according to the FBI’s most recent data there were 65 human trafficking incidents reported in Florida in 2017. Fifty-one resulted in “clearances” (which generally means arrests and charges) and zero people were charged with trafficking minors. Florida ranked fourth in number of incidents of human trafficking behind Texas (193), Minnesota (173), and Arizona (92). For comparison, there were 7,940 incidents of rape and 1,057 murders (and non-negligent homicides) in Florida in 2017, according to Norma Jean Almodovar, a sex worker advocate, former sex worker, and former LAPD officer who ran the numbers.
(More data from Norma Jean here. She quotes FBI numbers showing from 2014 to 2017, the FBI reported 1.4 million sexual assaults, 4.5 million domestic violence incidents, 1470 sex trafficking cases and 72 sex trafficking cases involving minors.)
The New York Post, in a rather unfortunately phrased headline:
But it appears Kraft was caught on camera getting services from two women who are not victims of human trafficking: the 45-year-old manager of the spa, Lei Wang, and 58-year-old spa employee Shen Mingbi, also believed to be an operator of the business — both licensed masseuses and Florida residents.
Eric Snyder, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s Office and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and now a high-profile trial lawyer, believes there are glaring issues in the case.
Snyder — who is not involved in the Florida sex-trafficking case and is not representing Kraft — said, “A number of things jump out for me after reading the affidavit. When the police allege that vulnerable women are effectively being held as sex slaves, I would ask why the police didn’t move faster to get these women out of danger?
“Instead the police took several months doing surveillance and, despite already having numerous confessions from customers who were stopped in traffic leaving, plus evidence from inspectors inside the spa, they went to court to obtain the warrant for the video wiretap … The investigators seemed more concerned about obtaining highly embarrassing video footage to shame the customers, rather than acting faster to stop an illegal operation keeping vulnerable women in ‘sexual servitude.’
The post does go on to note that the Florida police are claiming they have video of men in luxury vehicles driving women between spas, that at least one woman claims to have been coerced and that this may be part of a $20 million China-based sex slave ring. So maybe more is coming. But I will remain skeptical until actual charges are brought (I’ll post an update if that happens).
Here’s the thing, though. Let’s put aside whether the allegations are true or not for the moment. It’s now clear that at least some of the women involved were doing this of their own free will. Let’s posit that some may not have been doing so. To me, this illustrates the problem: we now have law enforcement, radical feminists, the media and some conservatives deliberately confounding the two.
And that’s a huge problem if involuntary sexual slavery is something you want to fight. Warren Meyer:
To the extent trafficking exists, it is not enabled by society somehow being soft on prostitution, in fact it is enabled by the opposite. By making prostitution illegal, we give unscrupulous people leverage to abuse those in sex work. Women being abused by men at, say, Wal-Mart have many legal outlets to air their grievances and seek change or compensation — no one talks about trafficking in Wal-Mart greeters. But abused sex workers cannot go to the legal system for redress of abuse because they themselves are treated as criminals in the system. Contributing to this is our restrictionism on immigration. This is why many real trafficking cases revolve around the abuse of immigrant women, because abusers know these victims have not one but two impediments to seeking legal help.
For all the screeching and all the crazy numbers, the actual number of sex slaves liberated every year is small, as noted above. If there were really were teeming masses of sex slaves in this country; if it really were as easy to get a sex slave as it is to order a pizza, then every cop, every FBI agent, every ICE agent, every law enforcement officer at every level needs to be fired immediately. It’s a scandal that only a quarter of the murders in Chicago are cleared. But it’s not a scandal that only one in a thousand purported sex slaves are found?
But let’s put those stubborn facts aside once again. I want to run a little math experiment I like to argue that if you really care about sex trafficking, your first step should be to decriminalize both the sale and purchase of sex*. How many of the women doing sex work do you think are coerced? What percentage? Because no matter what percentage it is, you should see that decriminalization becomes an instant force multiplier. If it’s 50%, then decriminalizing consensual sex work would double the resources available to fight sexual slavery. All those cops lurking in massage parlors and videotaping oral sex would suddenly be on the slave rescue beat. If it’s 20%, decriminalization would quintuple the resources available. If it’s at the more likely end of 2-5%, that means 20-50 times the resources.
(*I’m using that awkward phrasing because “decriminalization” is a word that has been hijacked by activists to mean the Nordic Model, a legal regime where selling sex is legal but purchasing it is illegal. The Nordic Model is a terrible idea that only endangers sex workers further. And politicians — like Kamala Harris — who claim to favor “decriminalization” need to be pushed on precisely what they’re talking about.)
The Florida raids are becoming a textbook cases for how police and prosecutors overstate the problem of sex trafficking in this country. But even if further investigation does show that some of these women were being coerced, that only makes the case for decriminalization even stronger.
Imagine how this would have happened if sex work were decriminalized. The cops would have come in through the front door. They would have spoken to the women there, who wouldn’t be afraid of being busted if they were consenting. They would have tried to assess, as best they could, if anyone was being coerced. The women wouldn’t have been scared of being jailed or having their money taken from them (which is exactly what happened during the bust). The police could have left contact details in case someone was being coerced but was afraid to speak at that precise time. If any of the women working there knew or suspected that one of her co-workers was being coerced, she could have gone to the police without fear of arrest or deportation.
Perfect? No. But light years better than what actually happened. And there’d be no point in running an alleged “$20 million China-based sex trafficking ring” if you could have a $20 million China-based legal business.
That’s what the fight is about. That is why organizations like Amnesty International have endorsed full decriminalization. It’s not about whether sexual slavery is tolerated or not. It’s about creating a legal and social environment where we go after the real evil-doers instead of harassing, taping, robbing, jailing and deporting women whose “crime” consists of willingly giving some sexually frustrated dude a hand job.
Update on February 2: In the comments, there was some debate over the difference between “legalization” and “decriminalization”. Those words mean something slightly different in sex workers rights circles than they do in, say, drug legalization circles. I’ll refer you to Maggie McNeill:
Under [decriminalization] sex work is recognized as a form of work like any other, and therefore not subject to any laws that do not bind other businesses. For example, brothels are regulated by zoning laws and the like rather than subjected to special criminal laws; sex workers are responsible for taxes and covered by workers’ compensation programs, and so forth.
“Legalization”, in sex work circles, refers a system like what they have in parts of Nevada: sex work is legal under some circumstances but is subject to laws and regulations that do not apply to other businesses. I didn’t want the debate to get bogged down in the nomenclature so please read Maggie’s article if there’s any confusion so that we’re all on the same page.