The Justice Department’s Fake Fight Against Sex Trafficking


As has been the case all along in the war on human trafficking, and only more so under the current administration, a press release announcing victory with the passage of a new law or the unsealing of a criminal indictment will garner far more attention than how the law is used in court. What matters, seemingly over even doing right by people who are trafficked, is the optics. And since the consequences of these laws and crackdowns most harm sex workers, the damage is still largely overlooked by legislators and, certainly, by law enforcement.

It was also two years ago this month that sex worker rights advocates and allied human rights organizations took the government to court over the law that the Justice Department has finally seen fit to use. Their constitutional challenge to Sesta/Fosta drags on still. Meanwhile, one of the organizations that brought the suit, Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars, has been made the subject of an FBI “Situational Information Report,” after a woman was arrested on prostitution charges in 2019 and agents searching her phone found an email from the group. The report from the FBI’s Jacksonville division (and obtained by The New Republic), titled “Listserv Email Containing Screening Tips and Warning about Operation Cross Country for Sex Workers, as of July 2019,” goes on to quote the email alerting sex workers to the possible law enforcement operation. The email also referenced a safety planning sheet, as SWOP Behind Bars described it, “just in case you find yourself trapped in a sting.”

The FBI report goes on to quote SWOP Behind Bars’ other safety tips, like, “If you have a local bad date list, read it before heading out! Even if you don’t remember everything, something might make you double check before you head out with someone.” A “bad date list” is something sex workers have created themselves, in part because law enforcement does not take violence against sex workers seriously. Here, it receives their attention, but only insofar as it is perceived as a sign of criminal activity. (The New Republic asked the Jacksonville FBI division office to authenticate the document, but it did not respond by time of publication.)


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