Wednesday, July 29, 1998
Cops, Prostitutes Can Ally Against CrimeYOU DON'T HAVE to have a heart of gold to know that police officers -- even those who abuse their power -- have ordinary human needs. Prostitution laws create a situation in which a corrupt act, such as Manhattan police officers letting a brothel stay open in exchange for sex, looks more humane to some people than the punitive norm.
We should stop assuming that arrests, corruption and abuse are the only possible options when police officers and prostitutes are thrown together. In countries where prostitutes are not automatically viewed as criminals, constructive officers have an opportunity to treat prostitutes as allies rather than as adversaries, and corrupt officers cannot assume prostitutes will be easy victims.
For instance, last month, in Geneva, during the 12th World AIDS Conference, it was noted at a mini-conference about prostitution that in Papua New Guinea, sex workers who were being harassed and raped by police officers decided to report the abuses to the officers' wives. In Hungary, a prostitution crackdown in Csongrad County meant that local prostitutes (who prefer that patrons use condoms) were selling unsafe sex just to pay their fines and stay out of jail. "Any act of policing" that makes it harder for sex workers to prevent HIV transmission was condemned, and those present called for programs to educate police officers about enlightened practices. In some countries, these programs are pioneered by prostitutes.
In South Africa, Shane Petzer, director of the International Network of Sex Work Projects, cites the participation of prostitutes in local community police forums in five different police precincts in Cape Town. These forums exist to help communities "become trusting of local police services," says Petzer, who sees no reason why prostitutes, along with property owners, community groups and other concerned citizens, shouldn't help to set policing priorities. It's the logic of democracy that, "if sex workers in a precinct organize themselves, they have a right to send a representative to a local police forum," says Petzer. When the Cape Town organization began its work, Petzer found that "a lot of Cape Town sex workers experienced rape and abuse, policemen were being paid off, and sex workers were being blackmailed."
Prostitutes who were crime victims "weren't afforded the services other citizens expect" from their own precincts. "These problems still occur," says Petzer. "But now, sex workers in a number of precincts meet on a monthly or quarterly basis with local police officers who are elected by the community forum to act as liaison officers."
In Sydney, Australia, a small group of liaison officers from the Kings Cross Patrol is dedicated not to arresting prostitutes but to providing police services. Earlier this year, at a training session with the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sydney, one SWOP member -- dressed for the occasion in explicitly sexy gear -- explained to a police officer: "Just like you wear a uniform when you're at work -- this is my uniform when I'm at work. Now imagine it's three in the morning, and I've come to you to report that somebody has sexually assaulted me." Petzer wants police departments all over the world to realize that "if you engage positively with people in the sex industry, they can become allies in crime prevention."
The United States is one of the few western countries in which prostitution itself is a crime. In Canada, while it's against the law to "communicate in public" for the purpose of prostitution, it's not a crime to buy or sell sex. But, last week, the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver reported that police officers have been recording the license plate numbers of vehicles seen driving through "known prostitution strolls" and sending out letters on police stationery warning drivers to stay away from these areas -- even when there's "no indication that the drivers spoke to any prostitutes" while passing through. Even in countries with more liberal prostitution laws, there's an urge to regulate consensual sex and persecute adults who just look like they're guilty of breaking the rules. Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of "The Sex Contract," points out that sex "is organized in every culture in the world. Every culture has rules about who you can and cannot sleep with." And how, and under what circumstances.
Prostitution is one of the oldest methods of organizing sexual behavior, one of the most basic ways in which we human beings try to impose order on our desires. Most prostitutes want orderly work lives and are suspicious of unknown competitors who may disrupt that order by ignoring the local rules or creating a buyer's market.
Officers entering a brothel to make arrests don't usually bring order into a prostitute's life. An arrest often creates frightening anarchy and physical danger. Prostitutes go to great lengths to avoid having mayhem in their lives. Is it possible that human beings forbid sex for the same reasons that we sell it, that we simply disagree about how to "organize" the sex urge? Those who reflexively view prostitutes as rule-breakers or criminals are taking the simple view of human sexuality and, unfortunately, of their own fellow humans.
Tracy Quan, a member of the International Network of Sex Work Projects, writes about issues of concern to the sex industry.
Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.
Created: August 4, 1998|
Last modified: September 13, 1998
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