Originally posted 10/23/2018
An Open Letter from Sex Worker Outreach Project – Baltimore
Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) – Baltimore is the local chapter of the national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities. Our work in Baltimore includes presentations, outreach, and events to advocate for sex workers. We are an entirely volunteer-run chapter, made up of current and former sex workers and allies. We are increasingly troubled by the City of Baltimore, and specifically the Baltimore Police Department, (BPD) to funnel street-level sex workers into the criminal justice system and/or coercive services that rely on threats of arrest or incarceration.
The criminalization of the sex industry exacerbates violence and exploitation against marginalized sex workers, severs them from vital systems of support, and pushes instances of sex trafficking further underground, which puts their lives at greater risk for violence. We support sex workers’ fight for the full decriminalization of selling sexual services and buying them as well as policies that protect the health and safety of all people in the sex industry.
Sex workers should feel safe in reporting abuse inflicted on them and their communities without fear of retribution by law enforcement and with immunity from prosecution for engaging in their work. We stand in solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement by rejecting labor exploitation and calling for the recognition of the basic human rights of all people in the sex trade.
We are opposed to community meetings that attempt to pressure sex workers into proximity with law enforcement, who are most likely to be the victimizers of sex workers either through direct violence or through the larger institutions of criminalization. Meaningful engagement with sex worker communities means providing safe spaces for sex workers to provide feedback, without fear of incarceration.
We are deeply troubled by action plans that rely on law enforcement and other forms of coercion as solutions to the “problems of sex work.” Treating sex workers and drug users as “problems” rather than members of the community further stigmatizes and creates violence against them.
Pouring scarce public dollars into the budget of the Baltimore Police Department to enforce prostitution laws is a waste of resources and leads to unconstitutional initiatives like the “Dear John” letter campaigns; which encourage racial profiling and surveillance of suspected sex workers and clients. In addition, community-based organizations that enhance or participate in criminalization of sex workers or the diversion from sex work by utilizing threats of arrest are equally culpable in the trauma and harm caused by criminal justice system.
As an organization that advocates human rights of people engaged in sex work and is informed by harm reduction principles, we suggest that Baltimore City cease the practice of broadly profiling and surveilling individuals who are not yet suspects of a crime; dismantle any and all enforcement strategies that force or coerce sex workers to interact with programs or services that they would not otherwise access; redirect wasteful law enforcement dollars to voluntary, non-policing strategies such as harm reduction, housing first, and universal healthcare; and cease pressuring sex workers and drug users into potentially violent encounters with law enforcement. These measures reinforce that sex workers are people first and as such, will allow these individuals to engage with services and providers without fear of criminalization.
The BPD is under a federal consent decree due to unconstitutional policing, there are current action plans in the city that specifically encourage the kind of racial and gender discrimination that instigated the Justice Department investigation. Profiling individuals as sex workers, clients, and/or drug users will invariably lead to higher incarceration rates among populations already vulnerable to violence, and will further disenfranchise these communities.
We the undersigned demand that Baltimore City take the voices of sex workers seriously and work to truly implement community-led harm reduction models.
Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
The Human Trafficking Prevention Project, University of Baltimore School of Law
The Gender Violence Clinic, University of Maryland Frances King Carey School of Law
Open Justice Baltimore