By Gassoh Goba
As an organization fighting for the human and civil rights of people in the sex trade, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) – Baltimore fully supports Marilyn Mosby and her office’s decision to stop prosecuting drug possession, prostitution and other crimes during this state of emergency. Over 30 prosecutors across this nation listened to organizations who advocate for criminalized people and understand the unique risks this pandemic poses for our communities. Reducing the constant churn of people throughout our criminal justice system is in accordance with the CDC suggestion to practice social distancing and will aid in containing the spread of COVID-19.
Such decarceration efforts by prosecutors nation-wide reinforce how cruel and inhumane it is to criminalize and incarcerate people who are consensually selling sex. These prosecutorial bans are in alignment with sex workers and harm reductionists demands before the pandemic – the decarceration of people in the sex trade. Banning prosecution of prostitution does not mean that sex and labor trafficking are no longer risks to public safety; it means our leaders are putting humanity first in the face of a pandemic while maintaining a tough stance on violent, exploitative crime. We urge Governor Hogan to act on Mosby’s suggestions to develop and issue decarceral guidelines for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to follow.
For years, SWOP Baltimore has worked alongside other community based organizations run by people who are impacted by the criminalization of prostitution, drug use and homelessness. We know that criminalization and structural violence poses a greater public safety threat to people selling sex in Baltimore City – not the act of selling sex itself. Such conflations erase the lived experience and bodily autonomy of those who engage in sex work for economic security and hide the structural violences that often coerce people into sex work. Criminalization of sex work violates peoples human rights, creating an environment for human trafficking and labor exploitation. It dissuades people selling sex – who may often witness sex trafficking – from reporting violence to police officers because of police violence, misconduct or arrest.
In 2018, Johns Hopkins University released a study on street-based sex work that showed 33% of participants had been financially or sexually extorted by Baltimore City police officers. Another study released by Johns Hopkins University on transgender sex workers, showed that 62% of participants had been sexually or physically assaulted by Baltimore City police officers. Sex workers have routinely been harmed by those who claim to protect and serve the community. Banning the prosecution of prostitution deincentivizes law enforcement from arresting people selling sex; which could aid in rebuilding trust and combatting sex trafficking if the measure is maintained beyond this state of emergency.
We know that criminalization of sex work reinforces whorephobia and informs clients, police officers and other community members to act violently, with impunity, against people selling sex. Sex workers are often afraid to report violent crime because our criminal justice system fails to see them as victims of abuse not because of internalized shame of sex work or self-blame. The 2016 Department of Justice Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department found that law enforcement systematically under-investigated reports of sexual assault made by transgender people and sex workers. Perpetuating anti-sex worker stigma and upholding criminalization of sex work would limit sex workers human rights and is reckless in the midst of a pandemic where access to social and medical services is paramount.
Community stories are being shared daily highlighting how COVID-19 has severely impacted people in the sex industry. Sex workers are facing income uncertainty, like many others in the gig economy, and may not qualify for government relief during this pandemic. This would further economically shaft sex workers who are differently abled, undocumented, poor, of color or from the LGBTQIA community. Mutual aid and collective care are vital ways sex workers and allies are showing up, reducing the harms that come with loss of income, contracting COVID-19 and it allows us to support each other during this state of emergency. If you are interested in helping sex workers during this pandemic, here is a mutual aid fund put together by local sex workers.
This was written in response to Natasha Guynes’s piece “Opinion: Baltimore State’s Attorney Mosby’s Policy Misses the Mark”