Alaska's Prostitution Law Isn't Working

In 2012, the state reclassified sex workers as trafficking victims rather than criminals—but a report says the new language hasn't altered the way they're treated by police.

Prostitution is illegal in Alaska, as it is in all of the United States except for Nevada. But the relationship between law enforcement and sex workers in Alaska has supposedly altered in recent years. In 2012, Alaska passed laws against sex trafficking—the practice of using force to coerce individuals into selling sex. The change reflects a general reconsideration of prostitution laws in many parts of the country and the world. Rather than seeing sex workers as criminals, new theories and laws targeting trafficking present sex workers as victims who need to be rescued from dangerous situations. Those empowered to do the rescuing are, typically, the police.

The new regime does not seem to work quite as it was intended to, though, according to a new report by Tara Burns titled People in Alaska's Sex Trade: Their Lived Experience and Policy Recommendations. Burns, who is pursuing an interdisciplinary masters in social justice at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, surveyed 40 sex workers and interviewed eight.

What Burns found was that, despite the new laws, the role of the police has not changed that much. Alaska's definition of "trafficking" is broad and vague. Federal trafficking laws focus on fraud, coercion, and the exploitation of minors. Alaska's law, on the other hand, defines trafficking more broadly, to include those who work indoors, or who work together. There have been only a handful of trafficking charges since the new law was implemented, and none of them involved force or coercion. Instead, the law has been used against people selling sex (who are said to be trafficking themselves) or against those who own a place of prostitution. "In none of the documents I’ve examined since the law’s inception," Burns says in the report, "has it been used to benefit a victim. "

Police, then, don't seem to be fulfilling a protective function. Instead, the women Burns surveyed and interviewed see the police as a threat. When the sex workers Burns surveyed tried to report a crime against themselves or others to police, they were threatened with arrest a third of the time, and police only actually took reports from them 44 percent of the time. More than a quarter of the women surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted by police; 9 percent said they had been robbed or beaten by officers. One woman provided a harrowing account of officers tearing her underwear off to see if she was trans and slamming her down on a car. She was left with "broken fingertips, broken toes, fractured cheekbone. And they felt perfectly okay with this," she said, "because there was no law to protect me."

It's not just in Alaska that police are reported to be threatening, rather than helping, sex workers. New York City has been experimenting with trafficking courts, which (like the trafficking laws in Alaska) are intended to treat sex workers as victims rather than criminals. However, Audacia Ray, the director of the sex-worker advocacy organization RedUP in New York City, and a former sex worker herself, said that on the ground the supposed change has had little effect. Despite some steps towards reform, police still use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, meaning that women can be targeted for trying to engage in safe sex. Communication about prostitution is also used as evidence, so it’s dangerous for women to negotiate terms clearly before they actually meet clients, which can create volatile situations. There are also accusations of police abusing women, or of police having sex with prostitutes before arresting them. When I asked Ray if police were ever arrested or held accountable for such actions, she said, "I know there are folks who are documenting these cases, but nothing has come of it so far."

Canada has taken even stronger action towards a trafficking model; the recently passed Bill C-36 is intended to target johns and sex traffickers rather than sex workers. Jenn Clamen, a member of Stella, l'amie de Mamie, a Canadian sex workers’ rights organization, said that despite the change, in many respects sex workers themselves are still criminalized. "The new laws are being framed as 'it targets the johns, but not the prostitutes' … but the same law that was used against street prostitutes … was really just reproduced. It is still illegal to sell sex on the street," she told me. In particular, women can still be arrested for prostitution near playgrounds, daycares, and school grounds—a prohibition which could cover a substantial amount of space in dense cities like Montreal. Clamen pointed out also that criminalizing johns makes it, again, difficult for sex workers to communicate with clients beforehand, which can increase risks of violence.

In an interview with journalist Laura Flanders, Sgt. Kathy Lacey, who heads the Anchorage Vice Squad, argues that "anytime a woman is selling her body for sex, it should be illegal: It's degrading and exploitive." At the same time, she says that "arresting is not the best answer … right now it's one of the few tools we have." That seems to reflect law enforcement’s contradictory take on prostitution. On the one hand, it needs to be policed, but on the other, policing is recognized as ineffective. The result in Alaska and elsewhere are police who say that sex workers are not criminals, coupled with actions that treat them as if they are. (Sgt. Lacey could not be reached for comment.)

The women Burns interviewed had a different set of policy recommendations. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to be decriminalized. As the primary threat they faced, 35 percent named police violence; 30 percent said not being able to go to police if they were victims of a crime; 15 percent said arrest or prosecution. And as in other places, Burns told me, criminalization often directly targets "things that are safety measures, things that people do to increase their safety in the industry. Working indoors, working together, they're using screening emails now as evidence in sex trafficking cases … so it's really having a negative impact on the workers."

In Alaska, Burns' report suggests, "trafficking" has changed the language around sex work, but has done little to actually alter the way law enforcement treats women doing sex work. If the goal of prostitution policy is to reduce the harm done to victims, the testimony of many women, in Alaska and elsewhere, suggests that it isn’t working yet.