Where our Carceral Approach to Sex Trafficking Leads Us


Kenny Allen, Op-Ed Contributor

Early in 2019, the police charged Robert Kraft, billionaire and owner of the Patriots, with two counts of soliciting sex as the result of a sting operation targeting spas and massage parlors. Orchids of Asia Day Spa, the spa in question, offered massages and, for an extra fee, sexual acts. Before they had even issued a warrant for Kraft’s arrest, the police had a press conference to announce the success of their operation. They had secretly installed cameras in spas all over the area that recorded the sex acts being paid for. Courts later ruled the footage inadmissible, and charges against Kraft were dropped earlier this year.

But the story was much different for the women who worked at Orchids of Asia. Shen Mingbi, one of the massage therapists Kraft patronized, was sentenced to one year of probation, which required her to do 100 hours of community service as well as submit HIV and STD tests to the state of Florida. In addition to that, she had to pay more than $30,000 in fines and fees. Before her guilty plea, the police took her phone, seized her passport and froze her bank account.

A sting like this does nothing to keep anybody safe, but the police understand that they can manipulate the media to sustain the institution. In the press conference, the chief of police said that “our concern in this investigation centers around the possibility of victims of human trafficking,” yet the alleged victims of this trafficking aren’t even mentioned for the rest of the interview. But that’s not a contradiction or oversight; it’s exactly what the police aim to accomplish with this kind of operation. The police are invested in the facade that they’re the ones who can stop sex trafficking. Because of that, they often engage in high-profile stings, such as the one involving Robert Kraft, to maintain that image, retain public support and justify their ever-growing budgets. To them, it doesn’t matter that the charges against Kraft were eventually dropped. That news made a much smaller splash than the announcement that a celebrity had been caught in a “sex trafficking” ring. In the end, Mingbi’s fate was just collateral damage in a political project.

By leveraging our moral convictions against sexual abuse, police successfully manipulate us into doing their work for them. Mainstream discourse about sex trafficking assumes that it can be stopped using the “see something, say something” model, and police will often work with the media to help everyday people be able to spot the signs of it. The implication of this is that if we see something amiss, according to the warning signs authorities have given us, we should get the police involved to solve the issue.

We know that instead of protecting people from sexual violence, police officers are frequently perpetrators and facilitators of it. The sexual assault officers commit is often completely legal, too. As Anne Gray Fischer explains in The Boston Review “in prostitution-related misdemeanor policing, undercover police routinely entrap women into engaging in sexual acts to gain ‘evidence’ that they are doing sex work.”Lying about one’s identity to convince someone to have sex is a form of coercion, but this practice is integral to the way police approach sex work. Sex workers also frequently report that officers will threaten to arrest them if they don’t perform sexual favors. One study in Washington DC found that roughly one in six sex workers reported “being asked to provide sexual favors or services to police officers.” For sex workers, it’s clear that the police don’t provide safety; they’re a threat to it.

Even the successes of the carceral approach should be considered failures. When the police arrest a trafficker or a pimp, they’ve done nothing to solve the problems survivors actually face. After that arrest, the survivor is still subject to the forces that got them into a painful situation in the first place. We live in a country where one in five children grow up in poverty, one in every three for Black and Indigenous children. This structure of deprivation leaves many people desperate for the resources that pimps say they can provide, such as housing and food. Instead of building up a carceral system that hurts the people it purports to protect, the state has to invest in people before a problem happens.

We have to give up on the idea that sex trafficking is just a conspiratorial crime that a watchful eye can stop. The truth is even worse: these survivors have been failed by a system that denies them security and only pays attention after they’ve been exploited.

If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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