Voices of Alaska: More support needed for victims of sex trafficking

  • By Terra Burns
  • Tuesday, November 17, 2015 5:02pm
  • Opinion

Although we were disappointed earlier this year when the first lady refused to meet with our group, which is made up of current and former sex workers and sex trafficking victims, we were glad to read in her September 9th letter to the editor, that she cares about us. We’d like to tell you about some of the challenges we’ve faced recently here in Alaska, which have little to do with how we define our worth.

Last year a woman dialed 911 in Anchorage and reported that she had been a victim of sex trafficking. When the Alaska Bureau of Investigations’ Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with her they didn’t do so by calling her and setting up a time to talk in a respectful manner as one would hope that they do with crime victims. Instead they travelled to where she was working as an independent escort and an officer posed as a customer to book an appointment with her and meet her in a sexual context. Then the officers placed her in handcuffs, threatened her with felony charges, and told her nobody would be able to “actually” love her as she was. In response to an Office of Professional Standards complaint about this incident, the Department of Public Safety explained that this is a common “strategy of building rapport” with victims.

However, this “strategy” has since prevented other victims from coming forward. In July we contacted the Department of Public Safety’s Terry Vrabec to see if a victim could make a report without being followed up with in a threatening or sexual manner. He said that it would be impossible to make a report even to another officer without the SCIU following up.

In research done at UAF in 2014, about a quarter of people with recent experience in Alaska’s sex trade reported being sexually assaulted by a police officer. Of the small subset of research participants who had been victims of force, fraud, or coercion within the sex industry, sixty percent reported being sexually assaulted by a police officer.

In addition to difficulties reporting crimes (you can read more about that here: www.vice.com/read/alaska-declares-open-season-on-sex-workers-922) and police misconduct, people in Alaska’s sex trade are now at risk of being charged with trafficking themselves. After Alaska’s new sex trafficking laws, which broadly redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, were passed in 2012, everyone to be charged in 2012 and 2013 with sex trafficking was a sex worker who was charged with prostitution of themselves in the very same case they were charged with trafficking.

In one case, Fairbanks police acting in an undercover capacity contacted a young woman in her hotel room. When she refused repeatedly to agree to perform a sex act for money, insisting that she was only selling her time, officers arrested her. She was charged with sex trafficking in the fourth degree (behavior that “institutes or aids” prostitution). Sex trafficking is a barrier crime in our state, and women who are charged with sex trafficking of themselves face discrimination in housing and employment that can leave them trapped in the sex trade and make them vulnerable to exploitation.

People in Alaska’s sex trade also have trouble accessing public services such as shelter. We have been told that we are the wrong kind of victims or that there is no space available when there obviously is. In recent research, only a small subset of participants had sought shelter, but of those who had 83% had been turned away. Of the small number of people who had been victims of force, fraud, or coercion within the sex industry and sought shelter, 100% had been turned away (often as minors). This reflects recent research by the Urban Institute which found that among youth trading sex for survival in New York City, the large majority had been kicked out of or fled abusive home situations and then been turned away from shelter before engaging in survival sex.

We share Ms. Walker’s concerns for youth being victimized in the sex industry, especially because at least one of our members has been a youth who was victimized in the industry. However, no research has ever found 13 to be the average age of entry into prostitution – in fact, this claim has been thoroughly debunked by the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/06/11/the-dubious-claim-that-on-average-girls-first-become-victims-of-sex-trafficking-at-13-years-old/. Recent research at UAF found 19 to be the average age of entry among people in Alaska’s sex trade.

Additionally, we have had the Special Crimes Investigative Unit at the Alaska State Troopers for 22 months now who state that their main purpose is to “locate and rescue juvenile victims that are being forced to work as prostitutes.” The SCIU has, however, has failed to charge a single person with trafficking a person under 18 in that 22 months.

We hope that Alaskans care enough to move beyond abstract concerns regarding our self-worth and help us create an Alaska where a victim can report a crime, like sex trafficking, without police following up in a threatening or sexual manner or charging them with trafficking themself.

 

Terra Burns, Kat McElroy, Maxine Doogan, and Doreen Blue are members of Community United for Safety and Protection, a group advocating for safety and protection of all people in Alaska’s sex trade.

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