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The Right to Work

ISSUE:  Spring 2021
Across the US, the decriminalization of sex work has become increasingly popular, provoking intense debates within communities. But what role, if any, will the police play?


This article was produced in partnership with the Fuller Project.

Tamika Spellman grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, the child of a steelworker father and a homemaker mother. Although both of her parents were devoutly religious, when the teenage Spellman—who hadn’t yet begun her gender transition and was still living as a male—impregnated her girlfriend, their main concern was that she wouldn’t finish high school. They offered to help support her child, who was living with his mother, but Spellman’s older brothers also relied on the family to get by, and Spellman hated feeling like a burden. “That’s my kid,” she said. “My parents didn’t raise me to shirk my responsibilities.” 

For a while, Spellman had trouble finding a part-time job—unemployment plagued upstate New York in the 1980s. She moved between low-paying gigs, struggling to make enough money to care for her baby while continuing her schooling, but eventually graduated and began plotting her next move. 

One night, on a whim, Spellman had sex with an older man who gave her some money as he left. That brief, surprise exchange, both exhilarating and casual, revealed what seemed like a practical path to survival, one she was willing to follow without self-judgment. Recalling it, she channels her younger self. “I was like, hmmm,” she said. “Pretty sweet.” 

Spellman didn’t think of herself as entering “the life,” a preconceived idea of sex work that would take over her own, or assuming an identity that would eclipse everything else about her. Sex work was, simply put, work. And in the time since then, Spellman, who is now fifty-four, has supported herself, her son, and, eventually, her widowed mother largely through sex work. She used sex work to pay for college, and, later, for her gender transition. When she had another baby, she began supporting him as well. She stayed close with her parents, despite her mother’s refusal to call Spellman by her chosen name (“I cannot change her,” Spellman told me, “I can only change me.”). Over the past decade, she has become one of Washington, DC’s most visible activists for sex-worker rights. In her work as an advocacy coordinator, and now as head of the department, at Honoring Individual Power & Strength (HIPS), a DC-based harm-reduction organization, she has addressed more politicians and lawmakers than most Americans could likely name, and has been featured in so many news articles that she has often had to take to Twitter, where she is prolific, to tell journalists she needs a break. 

Spellman’s work as an activist is rooted in her conviction that sex work helped her forge her own path—economically and otherwise—but that it remains a profession fraught with unnecessary peril. In 1988, three years after graduating high school, Spellman joined the military, thinking “it would look good on a résumé” and because she wanted the benefits. One night, while out at a bar trying to get some side work—“I knew this particular spot had a thing for military personnel,” she said—she was drugged and raped. At the base, she told her commanding officer what had happened and was dismayed by the response. “All they wanted to know was, did I know anyone else at the base who was gay?” she said. Discharged and far from her family, she felt “completely lost.” Since then, as a sex worker, she has struggled with drug addiction and homelessness, and has been the victim of anti-Black racism and transphobia, losing out on jobs she felt she deserved and enduring discrimination in the jobs she did get; before becoming an activist, Spellman’s only consistent work was in fast food restaurants where, she says, she was relegated to the kitchen with other trans workers. She has transitioned mostly by virtue of her own hard work and connection to a supportive trans community in DC, where she has lived on and off since early adulthood. 

In spite of the risks and alienation that came with it, sex work, at least, was reliable. And for Spellman there has been no more consistent—no more frustrating or more dangerous—source of violence than that from law enforcement. Since she began working, whether on the street or in a hotel or online, the police have been a third party in Spellman’s work. She has been arrested and caught up in a chaotic whirlwind of stings. She has been sexually assaulted or coerced into sexual acts by arresting officers. Once, while in custody, she was raped. “Every time I look up, here they come, putting criminal charges on me, interfering with my life, stopping me from making progress,” she told me. “Every time I took two steps forward, I end up taking seven back.”

Her treatment by the police, when it didn’t take the form of actual violence, was a neglect that recalled her experience in the military. “That was the first time having that door slammed in my face,” she says. “And there’s been a succession of it ever since.”

While Spellman saw sex work as providing a possibility of building a better future for herself and her children, she considered the police the counterforce—arresting, fining, and harassing her into homelessness. Her life as an activist was shaped around this violence, until eventually she determined that she would only feel safe and free to work if the police could no longer arrest her or her clients. It was then that she started campaigning for the full decriminalization—eliminating criminal penalties for both the buyers and the sellers of sex­—of sex work in Washington, DC. For Spellman, who had struggled her whole life to find a way to work safely, the answer was simple. “When you take away the criminality of it, the crime surrounding it ceases to exist,” she said. “You take away all of the ugly that comes with it.”

Marian Hatcher had a family, advanced degrees, and a nearly twenty-year career in finance, working in the accounting department for a dialysis provider, when she fell into sex work, although she hates that term. “It’s not sex and it’s not work,” she told me. “I prefer prostituted person. That’s what’s being done to them; they are being prostituted.”

Her nearly two years as a prostituted person were the bleakest of her life. Hatcher became addicted to crack cocaine and dependent on men who profited by coercing her into performing sexual acts with strangers, a tactic that falls under the legal definition of sex trafficking, keeping her strung out for long stretches. “I was going as long as three weeks without sleeping,” she told me. “I was a captive of the mind.” She became estranged from her three children and lost custody of her youngest daughter. For years, as she put it, Hatcher simply “disappeared.” 

Most of the violence Hatcher experienced during those years was at the hands of johns, some of whom were so brutal that she thought they must have hired prostituted people just to beat them. She was less scared of the police, though she had also, at times, felt threatened by them. “The only time I ever had a nine-millimeter gun put to my head was by a policeman,” she said, recalling a run-in with the police during her time as a prostituted woman. 

Her experiences made her deeply skeptical of the methods most American police used against both prostituted people and johns. Although the solicitation charges against her were almost always dropped, the arrests were dehumanizing, chaotic, and worst of all, in her mind, sexist and unproductive. “It was always the women who were arrested,” she told me. “Men were told to go home to their wives.” Hatcher came to see the police’s haplessness as its own form of abuse. “Prostitution is gender-based violence, primarily against women and girls,” she told me. “The exploiter is the exploiter. Sometimes the exploiter has a badge.”

In 2001, almost two years after leaving her family, Hatcher was living with a boyfriend whom she later identified as her trafficker and sometimes refers to as her pimp, in a basement on the west side of Chicago. The basement was bleak and nearly windowless, with a front room for partying and a back room equipped with a few dingy mattresses. In addition to other rules, Hatcher says, she wasn’t allowed to leave. 

But one day, confident that her addiction, and what Hatcher calls her “trauma bond,” kept her on a short leash, Hatcher’s trafficker sent her to go buy drugs on her own. Unbeknownst to Hatcher, the car she drove had a broken taillight. The police pulled her over in front of her apartment building, where Hatcher tried, and failed, to hide the drugs from view. 

Hatcher was arrested for possession and taken to the Cook County jail, where, because of previous arrests—for possession, criminal trespass, and solicitation—she was given the option of participating in a 120-day program for nonviolent women offenders. She consented. “I could have gone to the penitentiary for three to seven years,” she told me. 

That program changed Hatcher’s life. By the end of it, the fog of addiction began to clear, and she made contact with her family. To her surprise, even her public defender helped her piece her life back together, and she was spared prison time altogether. She connected with other graduates of the program and started volunteering at the sheriff’s office, where she eventually took on a full-time job, joining Lisa Cunningham, a formerly prostituted woman on staff who became “like a sister” to Hatcher. A few years later, they were joined by Brenda Myers-Powell, another formerly prostituted woman who Hatcher credits with teaching her “how to help women.” Convinced both that they could not have achieved freedom and sobriety without police intervention and that the police around the country needed to adopt more humane tactics, Hatcher, Cunningham, and Myers-Powell joined a growing chorus of voices in Cook County pushing for partial decriminalization of prostitution, or the Nordic Model (alternately referred to as the End Demand Model, Equality Model, which is Hatcher’s preferred term, or Abolitionist Model), under which the selling of sex, but not the buying of sex, is decriminalized. 

Hatcher believes that people who are prostituted are only further victimized when they are arrested and jailed for it. But she also believes that the police need access to sellers of sex in order to offer them a way out. The people who buy sex, meanwhile, deserve to be punished. In this scenario, the police play a dual role of savior and enforcer. In Cook County, she says, they “set the bar for how police should treat women around the country.” Describing her arrest today, Hatcher is resolute with gratitude, calling it a “rescue” and the police who pulled her over “angels with handcuffs.” 

Until recently, the conversation around policing sex work in the US has been dominated by two models: legalization, in which sex work is a regulated industry as in parts of Nevada; and prostitution, a crime that can only be mitigated by criminal punishment. Although seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum, both methods give law enforcement a central role. In one, police are responsible for monitoring legal brothels for misdeeds; in another, cops arrest buyers and sellers of sex, whether online or on the streets, in an effort to wipe out the trade altogether. 

In the US, legalized sex work is very rare; most jurisdictions criminalize prostitution, partly guided by the perception of sex work as a social scourge. In American cities, the presence of sex workers is seen as evidence of lawlessness and degradation, with their disappearance serving as proof of a city’s resurgence. In some cities, even the suggestion of sex work has been criminalized; as recently as 2012, police in New York, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco could use the possession of multiple condoms as evidence to support prostitution charges.

Sex work’s notoriety, however, has yielded little consensus on smart policy to address it. And it is the workers themselves, whatever term is used to describe them, who bear the weight of harsh laws and social stigma. Globally, up to three-quarters of sex workers report experiencing violence on the job, with migrant, transgender, and people of color at greater risk. In 2015, nearly 40 percent of sex workers arrested for prostitution in the US were Black; of the forty-one sex workers murdered in the US, more than half were cisgender women or transgender men and women of color. Because sex work is illegal, laws written for victims of domestic abuse or rape often exclude sex workers; New York, for instance, only began considering the inclusion of sex workers in their rape-shield laws, which make sexual history inadmissible, in 2018. 

Not only does much existing law leave sex workers feeling unprotected, many report feeling endangered by law enforcement. In a 2003 study, one-third of New York–based sex workers reported violent encounters with police, with Black trans women being especially likely to have experienced harassment or violence. This has led to a fear of any interaction whatsoever with police, which in turn means that sex workers are unlikely to report crimes perpetrated against them by johns. Such mistrust is underpinned by a disregard for crimes committed against sex workers in general—the Los Angeles Police Department unofficially used the acronym “NHI” (“no human involved”) to describe murders of prostitutes, most of them women of color, which went largely uninvestigated. “This is a very broken, harmful carceral status quo,” Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director of Rights4Girls, a DC-based advocacy group focused on gender-based violence and exploitation against women and girls, told me. “The wrong people are being punished, unjustly criminalized, and unjustly abused at the hands of police, at the hands of the state, at the hands of men.”

In the face of this, sex workers and their advocates felt it was clear that the policy of criminalization of sex work failed sex workers. Long before reforming or defunding police became a mainstream issue in the US, sex workers have tried to reimagine different methods of policing their industry. And, partly owing to the increasing general focus on police violence, they have gained significant ground. In 2019, a handful of Democratic presidential candidates expressed a willingness to reimagine policing sex work; even Kamala Harris, who in her role as California’s attorney general had rejected decriminalization, said in an interview with the website The Root, “We can’t criminalize consensual behavior, as long as no one is harmed.” At last, a larger conversation, on a much broader public platform, was being had with regard to fundamentally changing law enforcement’s approach toward sex work.

But along the way, the movement’s two most progressive factions—one comprised of people like Spellman pushing for full decriminalization, the other of people like Hatcher who advocate for only decriminalizing the selling of sex—came to be at odds with one another. Even while their platforms were frequently conflated in the media, any common ground became a battlefield, and the debate about policing sex work became a bellwether for the debate about the role of police in America. 

Prostitution laws in the US have been historically harsh, the most archaic, such as arresting those with multiple condoms, bordering on cruelly experimental. In December 2018, a report on female sex workers published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that all of the 250 sex workers who participated in the study had interacted with the police at some point in their lives, and that 78 percent had been either harassed or assaulted. 

In 2017, DC councilmember David Grosso, with aide Darby Hickey and others, introduced the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health & Safety Amendment Act, a bill that would decriminalize both the buying and the selling of sex in the District. Their ideas were loosely inspired by New Zealand, which has a similar approach to sex work, though were shaped according to DC-specific concerns as well as the District’s own progressive activism. In addition to removing criminal penalties for buying and selling sex, the amendment sought to revise laws around “pimping” and “brothel keeping” so that, for example, sellers wouldn’t be criminalized for living together. Access to housing and work, particularly acute problems for the District’s sex workers, underpinned the bill. “A lot of the crimes that we have in the city occur just because somebody has been in poverty and are trying to survive,” Grosso told me when we met in his Pennsylvania Avenue office. “On the one hand, we say these folks are engaging in survival sex work and they should be cared for. But on the other hand, we’re not giving them the kind of autonomy and power they should have.” 

Grosso became involved in police-reform issues in the District soon after joining the DC Council in 2013, when he and several other council members helped end a policy of “prostitution-free zones” —a designation DC police could apply temporarily to a neighborhood in order to force groups of two or more people who were “reasonably believed” to be selling sex to leave, and to arrest anyone who didn’t comply. Intended to be part of a greater crackdown on sex work in the city, the policy was both largely ineffective and overly aggressive. Rather than offering access to housing assistance or addiction programs, the policy instead pushed DC sex workers into less visible—and therefore dangerous—corners of the city. In 2014, nine years after the policy was enacted under the Omnibus Public Safety Act, the council repealed it. In testimony before the DC Judiciary Committee, attorneys with the District’s Office of the Attorney General admitted the legislation was vulnerable to constitutional challenge. “We were just taking it off the books so that police couldn’t use it as an excuse to harass people,” Grosso said.

Grosso’s 2017 bill to fully decriminalize sex work in DC never received enough support for a hearing. After its failure, Grosso began focusing on engagement with community groups like HIPS and leaders like Spellman, forming a coalition that put sex workers at its core. Spellman and others began showing up at neighborhood meetings to give testimony about their experiences. They canvassed neighborhoods where sex workers were present but kept a distance, hoping to establish a relationship with residents that wouldn’t rely on police as an intermediary. Most important, the group began connecting the decriminalization of sex work with other activist groups that were focused on police reform, among them the Black Youth Project 100 and No Justice No Pride, a queer- and trans-rights group, both of which expressed strong support for full decriminalization. 

Sex workers have a long history of organizing, both globally and in the US—in 1917, hundreds of sex workers marched in San Francisco to protest brothel closures—and joining critical US movements, from labor rights to LGBTQIA rights. They have had a harder time, however, garnering popular support for their own movement. In DC, with what advocates came to call “decrim,” sex workers seemed to be on the verge of subverting that dynamic. Rather than sidelining their own demands in order to support other movements, they successfully connected increasingly popular platforms such as police reform and trans and LGBTQIA rights to their own platform. “The sex worker advocates coalition has become so savvy,” Grosso said. “They know the number one issue for sex workers is housing. So, they went to budget meetings for increased accessibility to affordable housing.” 

Criminalization of sex work has had an impact on every aspect of Spellman’s life. After two experiences in a prostitution sting, the second of which was particularly traumatic, Spellman, in her words, had tried to “stay small,” avoiding areas at times when she thought the police might be on the lookout for sex workers. At the same time, in order to survive, she had to work. She became smarter and more confident. She started dressing her tall, broad figure in bright colors and wearing a range of long, silky wigs, engaging people in conversations about sex work in an attempt to normalize the work and rally support for her community. 

Eventually she was arrested again. “In DC they were always doing a damn sting operation,” she said. “Snaring girls to take them to jail.” This time, she was in custody for eighteen hours, long enough to derail parts of her life. At the time, she was staying in a motel half an hour outside of DC (since quitting drugs, she avoided staying with friends in the District where she might be tempted, but never had enough steady income to afford her own apartment in DC while paying her and her family’s bills); when she failed to show up to pay for the room, the manager tossed out what was in it and changed the locks. All she had left was what she kept in her car, but because of a couple of outstanding tickets, the car was towed. She’d spent $400 to buy it but needed $1,200 to get it out. “It’s the downward spiral of poverty,” she told me. “I lost thousands of dollars of hair, clothes, shoes, purses, all of my valuables. Paperwork that I could never get back.” Spellman eventually ended up in a homeless shelter for women, most of whom were cisgender, avoiding going back to the all-male shelter where she had been sexually assaulted, an incident she did not report to the police, assuming they wouldn’t help her. “I’m lying there and I’m too scared to move,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to cause a problem. I shouldn’t have to live like that.” 

In 2006, a few years after Hatcher started working at the Cook County Sheriff’s office, the county elected Tom Dart, a prosecutor, as sheriff. In Dart, Hatcher found a willing and open-minded ally in the quest to reform the county’s approach to prostitution. “The sheriff is a visionary,” she told me. “He truly believes that people can change and his policies reflect that.” 

Dart has been lionized for progressive initiatives, including his refusal in 2008 to evict tenants living in foreclosed homes. He has a youthful energy and a casual, long-winded way of talking characterized by an avoidance, whether it is genuine or an affectation, of self-aggrandizement. He uses this same tone when he talks about his department’s adoption of a version of the Nordic Model, as though it happened almost by accident. When he first took the job, he was startled by the pride other precincts took in their prostitution arrest numbers. “Thirteen years ago, when I started this, I knew that didn’t make any sense,” he said. “It started with not wanting to be stupid.”

Dart wasn’t aware of the Nordic Model when he was first elected. His education, partly at the hands of Hatcher and other formerly prostituted people who worked in the office, was gradual. “I’d never even heard about it until about three or four years in,” he told me when we met in his office. “They would go out and make the arrest for prostitution, the woman would come to the police station, they would fill out the paperwork. She would be bonded out and right back on the corner before the officer’s paperwork was done.” 

When the Nordic Model was first introduced in Sweden in 1999, it was a fundamental rethinking of policing. Along with absolving sellers of criminal penalties, the new policy used one of its four pillars—“awareness and education campaigns”—to help transform public opinion and reduce stigma. In the twenty years since Sweden pioneered it, seven other countries, including Norway as well as non-Nordic countries such as Canada, France, and Israel, have followed suit, as have a handful of jurisdictions in the United States.

A 2014 Norwegian government study claimed, among other successes, that the model reduced instances of sex trafficking and violence against sex workers. These claims have been widely challenged, but they’ve also garnered support. The European Parliament, in emphatic backing of the model, cited a reduction of prostitutes working in Sweden compared to neighboring Denmark, where prostitution was, according to the study, occurring at ten times the rate. “The evidence of the effectiveness of the Nordic Model in reducing prostitution and trafficking of women and girls and thereby promoting gender equality is growing all the time,” the motion for a resolution reads. By adopting the policy, member states would be taking “another step on the road to full gender equality throughout the European Union.” 

Supporters of the Nordic Model make no apologies for its long-term goal, which is to eradicate prostitution by eliminating demand. One of the core pieces of data cited by US supporters is a 2018 study funded by Demand Abolition, an American anti-trafficking group founded by Harvard lecturer and former ambassador Swanee Hunt, called “Who Buys Sex?” The report, which surveyed more than eight thousand men online about their sex-buying habits, suggests that if sex work were fully decriminalized, demand would significantly increase. This increase is presented as inherently dangerous. 

But the end-demand ambition, however humanely conceived, has the potential to be brutal in execution. An Amnesty International report, published two years after the Norwegian government study, observes a hardening of stigma against sex workers in Norway, as well as an increase in violence from buyers and a rush among the police to criminalize sex workers in other ways, such as for operating a brothel—often just a home shared by two or more sex workers—or helping another sex worker find a client. “The basis of the Nordic Model is to make it harder for sex workers to do their work in the hopes that they will have no other option but to do something else,” Christa Daring, the executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, told me. “It doesn’t look at the actual realities of people’s lives and what they need to do to survive.” 

Lenient antiprostitution legislation has a hard time gaining traction in the US. But the popularity of the Nordic Model coincided with a growing interest in human trafficking, a crime which, depending on who you ask, is either tangentially or inextricably related to sex work. Although supporters of full decrim, like Spellman, acknowledge that some sex workers are in fact trafficking victims, particularly minors, she sees them as separate issues. Hatcher, however, disagrees, as do other supporters of the Nordic Model. While the decrim movement was attaching itself to broader issues of police misconduct and access to low-income housing, proponents of the Nordic Model, or versions of it, were becoming aligned with the anti-trafficking movement. 

In 2000, when the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was enacted, US law defined trafficking as any type of labor carried out as a result of “force, fraud, or coercion.” Since then, attention to the issue has grown exponentially. Groups that focused on trafficking before the TVPA, and which contributed to its shaping, had greater clarity in their mandate, while other groups, like the Cook County vice unit, emphasized the trafficking angle of their antiprostitution agenda. Countless others, ranging in size and effectiveness, were formed around the issue, jockeying for the growing number of grants and tens of millions of dollars allotted by Congress annually to help fight trafficking. Among the common tactics of the anti-trafficking movement is the use of undercover police to infiltrate prostitution situations in pursuit of trafficking victims. 

Trafficking also became a popular issue among lawmakers and politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who professed a moral imperative to combat blatant exploitation. The TVPA passed with bipartisan support and has benefitted from the same bipartisan support ever since. Donald Trump made fighting trafficking one of the few human rights issues of his presidency. In April 2018, Congress passed with near unanimity a bill called FOSTA/SESTA that holds websites accountable for users who engage in or promote sex trafficking. These days, it is not unusual to see instructions for identifying trafficking victims posted in hotels and airports across the country, as though a crime characterized by its being hidden can, like a fish in a magic-eye poster, be detected with a properly trained gaze. 

But as fighting trafficking became a focus for lawmakers, law enforcement, and NGOs, it also grew into a blunt instrument. Trump used it in his anti-immigration toolbox, insisting incorrectly that closing the southern border would curb trafficking (even while he was denying or postponing visas designated for trafficking victims). In the years since FOSTA/SESTA passed, no conclusive evidence—such as an increase in trafficking arrests and prosecutions, for example—has been presented to demonstrate the law’s effectiveness. That does not mean it won’t prove itself in the long-term—“We don’t measure the prevalence by successful prosecutions,” Vafa said. “If we did, it would be as though no one has ever been raped”—but in the meantime there have been numerous accounts of sex workers unable to use the internet, being forced back into street work. Spellman, who had relied on internet advertising for over ten years, went from earning around $4,000 per month from sex work to making $400. Were it not for a small raise from HIPS, she felt sure she would have been back on the street. “[FOSTA] put me at the point where I’m on the verge of homelessness,” she said.

Critics of human-trafficking campaigns often say that they perpetuate the myth that victims are largely white (data, though incomplete, shows the opposite) and inflate the threat of sex trafficking while ignoring the equally or more present issue of forced labor. Efforts to engage travelers in the magic-eye experiment have led to egregious incidents of racial profiling, including by Cindy McCain, a senator and leading anti-trafficking activist, who, upon seeing a woman carrying a toddler of a different ethnicity in an Arizona airport, reported it to the police. Later, she admitted she was wrong, writing on Twitter: “I apologize if anything else I have said on this matter distracts from ‘if you see something, say something.’”

Over the years, in many circles, trafficking has evolved to become synonymous with sex work. Supporters of full decriminalization reject the conflation. (Spellman thinks that, as a sex worker operating without fear of the police, she would be in a better position to recognize victims and connect them to authorities.) Others embrace it, feeling that only at the intersection of sex work and trafficking can people fully understand sex work as the misogynistic, exploitative crime they know it to be, and not a subject for ridicule or disdain. “People think of human trafficking victims with sympathy because they think they are white,” Hatcher, who is Black, told me. “When they think about prostitution, they think about people of color.” Then, they are too inclined to dismiss the issue. “It is a black and brown problem,” she said. “A continuation of colonialism and chattel slavery, and that can’t be forgotten.” By connecting the two issues, the avenue of escape widens to include women like her. 

Trafficking eliminates the need to talk about choice, much less the need to make choice a talking point. This, more than anything, has made anti-trafficking an effective tool in promoting the Nordic Model. Ask an average American their opinion on sex work and the answer often wobbles on the unstable grounds of morality and fear. Ask the same American about human trafficking, and the answer is likely to be more certain. “They’re in different areas of government. They’ve allied with conservative groups,” Suprihmbé, a Chicago-based sex worker and writer who focuses on sex-worker rights, told me. “A lot of feminists are part of the anti-trafficking movement. Anti-trafficking groups, they’re winning right now.” 

One sweltering July night in 2019, the Cook County vice/human-trafficking unit split into three cars for a prostitution sting that started out like a children’s book. “Ducks are trying to cross Mannheim with chicks,” the lieutenant’s radio crackled from the cup holder. “Can you come help?” 

“Ducks?” he asked into the radio, seriously enough that it could have been a code.

It wasn’t. One of the two officers posing as sex workers had noticed a mother duck and ducklings angling to cross eight lanes of heavy traffic and opted to help. “She’s walking slowly across the road,” the officer said. “From here it looks like a video game.” 

Thirty minutes earlier, while I waited for Sergeant Tim Hannigan, whose car I would be stationed in for the night, the two officers had been sitting at a round table in the Cook County office solemnly brushing on eye makeup and replacing their police uniforms with lacy tank tops. One chose zebra print leggings while the other dressed for the heat in cutoffs. The officer in leggings declined to be interviewed. Now, ducks safe, she resumed pacing in front of a convenience store, looking bored.

I’d been warned that it would be a slow night. “With this heat we’d be lucky if we get any,” Hannigan told me. Instead, over eight hours, with a 7 p.m. break for “lunch” and between affable chitchat about children and baseball, the unit apprehended eleven men attempting to buy sex. 

One by one, the men were handcuffed and taken to the station, where in a back office decorated with a Bible and a Batman figurine, they sat in front of a laptop computer that played a video on the evils of paying for sex. Heartfelt interviews with former sex workers were interspersed with graphic images of syphilitic penises. The men glanced at the screen furtively, as though wondering whether paying attention would exonerate them or prove them guilty. 

In Cook County, Dart has instituted a version of the Nordic Model that places the focus almost entirely on the buyer of sex. Although a Cook County vice officer has the authority to arrest and charge the seller, those arrests have declined radically since Dart took office. Instead, officers most often implore the seller to enroll in drug rehabilitation and job placement programs offered by the sheriff’s office. Significantly, there is no record of the interaction, although the seller’s name might appear in a police report. 

The buyer is usually given a hefty ticket and a video lecture on the dangers, physical and social, of buying sex, and, if he has one, his car is towed. Most of these operations take place during the National Johns Suppression Initiative (formerly the National Day of Johns Arrests), a biannual program so successful in catching men trying to buy sex and garnering positive media coverage that today it takes place, in one form or another, in over one hundred jurisdictions throughout the country. 

The night I was there, an officer explained to each buyer in a practiced, gentle tone why they had been taken to the station and what was going to happen to them. “Girls out there are being trafficked by pimps,” he said, sounding more like a high school guidance counselor than a vice cop. Each of the men signed a pledge promising never to buy sex again. “We’re not arresting you,” the officer said. “But you will get a ticket.” If this came as a relief, it was momentary: The Cook County ordinance fine is a hefty $1,000—“We fine the hell out of them,” Dart told me—most of which funds programs for formerly prostituted women. An additional $1,600 to retrieve a towed car makes soliciting sex on Mannheim Road a prohibitively expensive act. (The night I joined them, the unit was short-staffed, and the men were spared towing.)

Most of the johns that night were construction workers or cab drivers, offering around twenty or twenty-five dollars in exchange for oral sex. One young man, dressed in khakis and wire-rimmed glasses, had an MBA and claimed to be there on a bachelor party–style dare. Another wore a lanyard identifying him as an addiction counselor; he’d been waiting for the bus when he noticed the undercover female officer. Another fearfully handed over his immigration papers to the police, who gave them back, disinterestedly. The unit works with homeland security on certain cases but rejects most requests for immigration status. “That’s not our concern,” Hannigan told me. 

Only one man, drunk to oblivion, tried to argue that he’d done nothing wrong. “It’s better than a criminal charge,” the officer told him, his voice elevated for the first time that night. “You could be going to jail, having your name printed in the paper.” To discourage repeat buyers, under Dart’s predecessor, Michael Sheahan, their names could be made public, a practice Cook County vice officers have since rejected. “I didn’t like that,” Hannigan told me. “It would shame the whole family. What if a kid got teased at school?” If there was a humiliation involved, it was more private. “No one wants to tell their wives why they took thousands of dollars from their account,” the officer said.

Hannigan had been on vice since before Dart adopted his version of the Nordic Model. The transition was difficult for a lot of Cook County police officers, he told me, but those who remained on the force had become true believers. It helped that in recent years their work had been elevated beyond the realm of prostitution into something that sounded much more menacing, and which was much better funded. “Before, we were just grabbing girls off the street,” he said. “We didn’t know whether there was trafficking going on.” Now, he says, they understand the crime and, because of their more nuanced tactics, have access to the community where trafficking might be happening.

Prostitution stings uncover very few trafficking victims compared to the number of people they target—when I spoke to the sheriff in the summer of 2019, he said their annual stings uncover only a few scattered trafficking cases—yet trafficking remains a core rationale when undertaking sting operations. Some, like Dart, consider the rescue of one or two trafficking victims enough to count as success; for others all prostituted people are trafficking victims. 

“I have so much empathy for the girls,” Hannigan said. It was after dusk and he had just hung up the phone with a prostituted woman who he said called him every day from rehab. He’d been trying to get information about her pimp, who he thought he could build a trafficking case against. But the woman had run away from rehab once before and seemed poised to do so again. “They have kids. They have to make money,” he said, shaking his head. Drugs were involved in at least half of the cases. When he saw the girls crying, he said, it made him want to cry. “Would I let my daughter do this?” he said. “Oh, my goodness, no.” When it came to suspected traffickers, though, his voice hardened. “It feels good to lock those jerks up.” 

Both Hatcher and Spellman spend a lot of time alone, working. For hours out of any given day, Spellman drives through DC responding to neighborhood complaints about sex workers, hoping to intervene before they call the police. “You gotta give a little to get a little,” she said. “If giving a little means you wrap a condom up and toss it in the garbage so that you don’t have people calling constantly saying there is condom litter everywhere, well, I think you might want to wrap that condom up and throw it in the garbage.” 

After the updated bill was reintroduced, a DC-based coalition comprising HIPS and other supporters fanned out across the city, attending neighborhood meetings in order to present their case alongside developers pitching new mixed-use apartment buildings and locals complaining about slow trash pick-up. They canvassed gentrified neighborhoods, focusing on Ward 6, overseen by Councilmember Charles Allen, who remained a holdout on the bill. They engaged with key opponents, such as local anti-trafficking groups. They rallied for better investigations into the deaths of sex workers and protested in front of the courthouse when suspected killers went free. When Allen eventually lent his support for a hearing, they celebrated. “It’s really a testament to the hard work on the ground by the sex worker advocates coalition,” Grosso told me. “They really got into his community.” 

Spellman split her days between the HIPS office and various pro-decriminalization events, spending most nights driving through the city looking to diffuse tensions. One day, after talking for an hour in a Whole Foods over coffee, the exorbitant price of which Spellman helped justify by adding around seven packets of sugar, we drove to the nearby courthouse where she was scheduled to give a short speech about the trial of a murdered Black trans sex worker. Another day, we joined Black Youth Project 100 while they canvassed a neighborhood of brightly painted, expensive townhouses. Another early evening, I followed Spellman, dressed to the nines, into a ball memorializing trans people who had been murdered. A group of men sitting on a bench shouted insults at her as she walked by, her long hair swinging in time to her long stride, and Spellman expertly ignored them. “I put in the footwork because I don’t want this to keep happening,” Spellman told me. “What if one of my kids needs this? What if one of my grandchildren needs this? I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Partly owing to health issues, Hatcher often works from the single-level home she shares with her father and a rotating cast of her adult children and their children, in a living room overflowing with toys and decorated with Hatcher’s many awards. “It’s fluid,” she says. “But it’s a big house.” During the national johns stings, she monitors what she wryly calls her “new toy”—bots set up by the sheriff’s office to reply to would-be buyers of sex. Part of her job includes gathering information from twenty to thirty of the more than 140 participating precincts throughout the country, at all hours of the day. “My already messed-up sleep is even worse,” she said. 

“The reach with online stings is much further,” Hatcher told me. Bots, she said, could take in “twenty, thirty times” more potential buyers than conventional sting operations. “It’s exponentially greater reach.” On most days, messages ping between a few dozen would-be clients and bots posing as sex workers. After a couple of exchanges, the artificial intelligence identifies itself. Hatcher is fascinated by the range of reactions. “We get cussed out,” she told me. “We get apologies.” Some claim entrapment, while others act clueless (“Is this a joke?”; “Who gave you my number?”). Most of the time, once they understand they are talking to a police bot and not an actual sex worker, the johns vanish. If one continues, they risk falling into the category of “high frequency” offender, and the sheriff’s office may try to arrest them. During the 2019 Super Bowl, a man was arrested for sending more than three hundred text messages. “We gave him a court date,” Hatcher said. “We don’t normally do that. But I found him again. He was back a couple of months later.” 

In terms of mission and focus, recent years have been a turning point for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Getting johns, whether in stings or with bots, turns out to be relatively easy. “I could get one of my children to put that program together,” Dart said. But he found that catching and fining johns was not on its own terribly effective, both in the newer terrain of anti-trafficking and in the fight against prostitution. The remote corners of the internet have been much harder to police than Mannheim Road. Bots were one way of adapting, but they were only part of the strategy. Dart had been a leader in the crusade against the website Backpage, a classified-advertising website that was shut down by the FBI in part for facilitating prostitution and trafficking; Dart was also a champion of FOSTA/SESTA, the legislation that followed Backpage’s demise. Hatcher, meanwhile, became allied with Swanee Hunt, one of the key ideological and financial forces behind FOSTA, in 2010. “Swanee fell in love with me and I fell in love with her,” Hatcher told me. “I kept opening my mouth and we became buds.” 

The first time I met Hatcher it was in Hunt’s spacious DC apartment. In Hunt, Hatcher found a well-connected, empathetic ally with deep pockets. Hunt, meanwhile, had a partner with the kind of lived experience and advocacy background crucial to shaping any policy on sex work or trafficking. “People who are doing it by choice—and let’s not talk about what their lives have been like—I think it’s probably fifteen percent,” she told me. “Are we going to protect their rights if their selling is the reason that all these people are being trafficked? The answer is no. That’s not how you create public policy.” FOSTA was in large part their victory, but it was only the beginning. Since the dissolution of Backpage, other websites have picked up the slack, often operating outside the US or behind a paywall. Targeting the site had been arduous—“Backpage came after me with everything,” Dart said. Nonetheless, it was a fight worth having. “I knew once I took them out it was going to be a different world,” he said. “And it is.”

The move online deepened the gulf between supporters of the Nordic Model, who generally saw FOSTA as a victory, and supporters of decriminalization, who felt it made sex workers even more vulnerable. Hatcher and Spellman had not met, but they had strong opinions about the movements each represented. To Spellman, Hatcher’s approach imposes a moral preconception onto women, forgetting that autonomy is the foundation of women’s freedom. She likens it to the debate around abortion. “I am personally not on board with abortion,” she said. “But I’m pro-choice because it’s up to that individual to decide for herself what is right.” Hatcher, meanwhile, sees Spellman and other supporters of full decriminalization as “resigned to their own exploitation,” whether they realize it or not. “I want to write them a love letter,” she said. “Forget about what they are trying to promote with this particular decrim law, or whatever. They need to meet somebody that says, ‘Let me help you. We can find another opportunity for you other than selling sex.’” 

In mid-2019, the DC City Council announced that there was enough support behind the decriminalization bill to hold a public hearing—the first on full decriminalization in the country. Anyone interested in the issue was invited to speak for three minutes, and by early October nearly two hundred people, from around the country, had registered to speak. 

At 9:30 on a Thursday morning, a half hour before the hearing was scheduled to begin, flustered aides began trying to usher an overflow of people toward an annexed room on another floor, where the proceedings would be live-streamed on a television. People kept pushing into the main room anyway; eventually the aides gave up. “We’ve moved every chair we can,” David Grosso said into his microphone. By 10 a.m., the room was packed, with people sitting shoulder to shoulder on the floor between rows of seats and others standing against the windows and walls. 

With councilmembers arranged behind a semicircular desk in the front of the room, supporters of the decriminalization bill filled the side to their right, wearing T-shirts with slogans like be nice to sex workers and images of high heels crushing handcuffs. Opponents of the bill took up the rest of the room, with T-shirts and signs reading slavery still exists and full decrim hurts everyone. “I like the ‘housing not handcuffs’ shirt,” a supporter of the bill whispered to a friend. “We were thinking ‘help not handcuffs,’ but that plays into the helpless victim narrative.” 

Immediately, tensions were high. “It’s bullshit survivors have to come here and tell their story, that they have to do this again and again,” one woman said to her neighbor. “But it gets so heated, they want to come.” On the decrim side, having spotted a priest in his cassock among the opposition, one supporter of the bill said—loud and to no one in particular—“The gall of the Catholic Church, when you ran the world’s largest brothel for hundreds of years. The gall.” When a representative from an anti-trafficking movement ventured into the rows of seats among the bill’s supporters offering buttons, she was met with glares and quickly moved on. 

Spellman arrived in jeans, a housing not handcuffs shirt, a curly platinum wig, and black rectangular glasses, more than ready to give her three-minute speech. Having just come from a coalition pep talk, she was grinning; not only was there an outpouring of interest in the bill, but the hearing would be overseen by Councilmember Allen, a crucial new supporter of the measure. “I’m ecstatic,” she told me. “We’re about to make monumental history.” 

Marian Hatcher couldn’t make the hearing because of illness and a prior commitment. But she did write a letter strongly denouncing the bill. “We reject a society that leaves those exploited with hopelessness,” the letter reads, explaining that although they support “the decriminalization of people directly selling sex in prostitution, Sex Buying/Patronizing, Pimping/Procurement, and Brothel Owning MUST remain illegal. That combination of laws is known as the Equality Model.” Addressed to the council, and published online, the letter was cosigned by more than two hundred survivors. 

As the hearing opened, Allen laid out some ground rules: They would be using the term “prostitute” throughout the hearing because it was considered legally accurate, though he explained this in a tone that suggested it wasn’t his preferred term. The room was expected to remain quiet during each testimony. After a confusing retelling of the origin of the word “hooker” by Councilmember Jack Evans, Grosso gave a brief explanation of the bill. Testimony began and lasted until nearly two in the morning. 

Trafficking survivors, some testifying anonymously via audio, spoke out against the bill, while women describing themselves as sex workers adamantly defended Grosso’s ideas. Lawyers and activists from anti-trafficking organizations referenced the End Demand study on buyers to suggest that full decriminalization would lead to an increase in sex tourism and trafficking in the District, while lawyers and activists from sex-worker rights organizations argued that criminalizing buyers and third parties would only lead to further criminalizing sellers, and that depriving sellers of their livelihood would cause them considerable harm. 

Those in favor of the bill compared it to legislation on marijuana, and likened the use of prostitution stings as a way to catch traffickers to outlawing marriage in order to prevent abuse. “We would never approach domestic violence by arresting everyone in relationships and hoping you catch someone being harmed,” one speaker said. Those opposed shook their heads at the notion that, without enforcement in place, underage sex workers would be recognized as trafficking victims. Almost everyone seemed to agree that the sellers should not be arrested and prosecuted, with the exceptions of the Conservative Family Research Center and the priest, who opened his testimony by saying, somberly, “The faith community does not know how we got here,” before likening prostitution to slavery. 

Some testimonies seemed designed to shock. “Pimps would be handing out brochures on street corners!” one said. Researchers weighed in with data-driven arguments. The evidence—from studies conducted in New Zealand and Germany to data about vulnerable communities to comparisons with budgets for homeless shelters—piled up so steadily that, after a while, only the actual, lived experiences of the sex workers or trafficking victims themselves seemed to have real meaning. Dozens of them, of all ages and backgrounds, provided stories full of raw emotion and real fear, as impossible to generalize as they were to argue with. Eventually, people started to object to the reliance on the survivor stories at all. Cyndee Clay, the executive director of HIPS, decried the whole process for retraumatizing victims. “I am saddened and frustrated that we are pitting the experience of some people who face violence because of trafficking against others who have faced violence because of criminalization,” she said. 

Inevitably, the crowd grew weary after hours in the stuffy air of a packed hearing room, slouching under florescent lights, and passion occasionally flipped over to anger. When Bradley Myles, the executive director of the anti-trafficking group Polaris Project, criticized the bill for failing to allot money to survivor programs, a supporter sitting across the room from him shouted, “Then give us some of your money!” “There’s about forty million dollars on that side of the room,” they whispered, referring to budgets of anti-trafficking organizations. “It’s not like they don’t have a platform.” 

Acrimony so divided the room that by the time Hunt, who had testified, approached Spellman at the door to the hearing room, one of the decrim supporters, a pink-haired graduate student in a “Be Nice to Sex Workers” shirt, told me, “I am amazed by Tamika’s ability to talk to people who literally, literally, want her dead.” Others gathered around them, shaking their heads at a meeting that until that moment seemed not just unlikely, but unfathomable. Spellman, who towers over Hunt, turned her head down to the ambassador, listening patiently. Hunt speaks softly, but is commanding, and although no one could hear what they were saying, the meeting drew a small crowd. Hunt’s aides took photos on their cell phones. 

Afterward, Spellman told me she didn’t know much about Hunt herself, although she was aware that Demand Abolition was vehemently opposed to full decriminalization. After talking to the ambassador, she told me in an unsurprised tone, “We actually agree on a lot of things.” It was the priest, approaching the microphone with a Bible, who infuriated her. “It feels like the old way of thinking,” she told me. “It makes me think about how far we’ve come.” 

By the end of 2019, the bill to decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC, was officially dead: Too many people had spoken out against it. And yet the hearing also showed how much the two sides have in common. “I did not hear a difference in the very heartbreaking testimony of both survivors and sex workers,” Vafa, of Rights4Girls, said. “Everyone was talking about the importance of decriminalizing the individuals who are engaged in selling sex.” 

Supporters of the bill were enraged by the fact that, while the bill was a local issue, the opposition included big-budget anti-trafficking organizations that had flown in from across the country, with the intent to counter the voice of the DC coalition. “It’s really interesting that all these national abolitionist organizations spent tens of thousands of dollars to fly people in to argue against this bill that was supported really strongly by locals, and particularly by queer and trans people of color,” Christa Daring, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said. “All of that money could have gone to direct services.” 

A few months later, the antagonism that had kept people in that DC hearing room for more than twelve hours would be muted by a new shared reality: With COVID-19 spreading through the US, public health officials began urging people to change their behavior to prevent contracting and spreading the virus. What they were advising—staying indoors, limiting contact with strangers, wearing a mask—was difficult for most Americans to grasp; for sex workers, it was akin to being fired. It was a test that proponents of neither model had faced before. 

In Cook County, the vice unit suspended its antiprostitution and anti-trafficking operations in streets and hotels. Enrollment in programs like the one that had helped Hatcher was down, as was revenue from the johns’ tickets. A program that sent officers into the jail in the hopes of connecting with female inmates—“We tell them, we’re police, but we are here for you,” Jim Davis, the vice commander, told me in a telephone interview—was halted, in spite of the promise Davis saw in it. “We were getting really positive feedback,” he said. “At one point, they started clapping when we left.” Davis was forthright about the challenges the coronavirus posed for their anti-trafficking and antiprostitution operations, but he declined to answer any questions about the office’s response to the racial-justice protests that shared headlines with the virus.

Hatcher’s health issues kept her at home, and eventually she went on leave to recover from knee surgery. The Cook County team, meanwhile, extended their public health message to include COVID-19, hanging posters and handing out cards that explained the risks of infection in the sex-worker community. But without daily interactions, they had no idea whether their message was getting through to the women they wanted to help, or what was happening to those women. “To find a seller that’s being trafficked, you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to be able to talk with them,” Davis said. 

As the months passed, the sheriff’s office started to ramp up operations again; by the fall of 2020, streets that had emptied of sex workers were now almost back to normal. When I talked to Sheriff Dart on the phone last October, they hadn’t tracked down a single trafficking victim—“If you were to really just objectively lay out what we do, you’d say there’s a trafficking component and then a larger social work component,” he said—but shortly after our call his office sent me a press release about the October 3 arrest of a Chicago man they found through a tip from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is run by Polaris, advising them that “multiple young women were being trafficked.” The man was charged with “promoting prostitution” near a school, which is a Class III felony. One of the two women he was charged with promoting accepted the county’s offer for social services. 

When COVID-19 hit, Spellman saw the women she worked to protect left jobless, looking for a safe place to shelter. Because of her own health problems, she set up a home office for HIPS from the basement of a house for at-risk sex workers that she helped run with a friend and fellow activist, Emmelia Talarico. “There is plenty for me to do,” she told me. “Everything has shifted gears to rapid response.” Women who lived at the house were given whatever they needed to avoid getting COVID-19, and walked through the process of getting health insurance or treatment when it came to that. Spellman resisted the notion that sex workers moved online during COVID. In her experience, sex workers struggled to transition to online work; most of the women Spellman advocated for did not have reliable access to a computer or the internet. “You can only do so much on a cell phone,” Spellman said. “Especially if you don’t have the money to keep the cell phone on.” 

Spellman and Talarico knew how many women had tested positive for COVID—only a couple, they said—and they knew who was still working despite the risks. As the virus surged, they scrambled for ways to secure income so that sex workers didn’t have to meet with clients, applying for grants and crowdfunding. “I don’t think people will give any consideration as to what could happen to sex workers,” Spellman told me over the phone. “People who are bound to these street-based economies will suffer the most.” A few clients had asked Spellman to make an exception and, although it was hard to turn down the income, she was determined not to get sick. 

She missed human contact—“I’m a hugger,” she said. “I’m the big momma in the house, and I can’t even express my love like I normally do”—and she vented online, tweeting at celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Beyoncé, who she felt had abandoned trans people once the pandemic hit. Spellman was furious at what she saw as the hypocrisy of the same deep-pocketed anti-trafficking agencies who had blocked the decrim bill. The Polaris Project in particular elicited deep frustration. “Where is your support now that people are suffering?” she said. “Y’all talk about the work you do in the marginalized communities. Where is your help now that we really need you?” She worried that the progress they had made was gone. 

When racial-justice protests swept through the country over the summer, Spellman, still concerned that her preexisting conditions made her particularly vulnerable to the virus, stayed in. But she celebrated the demonstrators, particularly the trans sex workers of color like herself, who she knew were among them, marching both for Black Lives Matter and the full decriminalization of sex work. 

Spellman let out a long, wistful sigh when I asked her what might be different had the DC Council passed the decriminalization legislation. “We could advocate without fear,” she said. “Our concerns would be at the forefront, people would be able to come out to speak on their behalf.” They could continue to push their movement forward; when we spoke, it was as though all momentum had been lost. “What about the urgency, the fight, the struggle?” she asked. “We had to stop everything to stop the bleeding.” 

Sellers, she imagined, would have an easier time applying for unemployment. Clients could, after some time, establish open and trusting relationships with sex workers. Both would be more inclined to participate in contact tracing, or testing. Instead, with the DC police monitoring the lockdown, sex workers had another reason to fear being caught outside. With decriminalization, Spellman imagines that the hidden movement she has been the public face of for years would finally emerge in full. “If everybody that has fed me information to convey could speak it would be a very powerful movement,” she said. “Not everybody has the strength of character to say, Look, y’all are going to leave me alone and hear my voice at the same time.” 



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