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The Problem With Sex Workers and Law Enforcement Body Cameras

Recording arrests is supposed to help both alleged criminals and the police. Yet workers say the footage could lead to more exploitation.

The Problem With Sex Workers and Law Enforcement Body Cameras
[Police: LukaTDB via Shutterstock]

In the video, the young woman is sitting on a double bed under the yellow light of a hotel room. A policeman is recording her with a body camera as he explains that he’s part of Bellingham, Washington’s VICE team. He shows her printouts of the sex ads she’s allegedly posted to Backpage.com and explains that the man she had arranged to meet at the hotel was an undercover cop. She grabs at her forehead and looks like she might cry.

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The video was put on YouTube in November after it was released through a public records request. It was uploaded by a user with the handle “Police Video Requests” and more than 85,000 total views. In the clip, the officer recites the woman’s full name. Her face is also clearly visible.

It is cases like this that make sex worker advocates worry as pressure mounts for police departments across the country to institute body cameras in the wake of the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Advocacy for cameras goes right to the top, as President Obama requested $263 million last month for this new technology and related training.

Of course, police body cameras don’t just affect sex workers. Few people want their arrest video ending up on YouTube—but sex workers have special reason for concern, thanks to the unique stigma of their profession. As Jem, the founder of the sex worker activist site Everyday Whorephobia wrote in a blog post, “Outing means losing your job.”

“Outing means never being able to work in your chosen non-sex work career again,” she continued, “Outing means being shouted at by strangers in the street, shaking with fear every time the phone rings, waking up to abusive emails as a matter of course.”

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Sex workers also have good reason to fear for their safety as a result of these videos being made public: They already face a high risk of violence—one small-scale study found that 82% had been physically assaulted and 68% had been raped while on the job—and being unwittingly outed could increase that. As the author of the book Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy, and Politics explains, “A common theme amongst qualitative research with male clients is how those that ‘fall in love’ with the sex workers can cause problems of obsession, stalking, jealousy, and even violence.” And if a sex worker’s birth name is made public, it might be possible to find her home address.


Technology has done a lot to make sex work safer: online ads allow workers to arrange dates from the safety of their own homes, gather databases of information on dangerous johns, and easily alert a trusted friend to where they are and who they’re with at any given moment. There’s even a self-described “coparazzi” sex worker who takes videos of police to document abuse. Such is the double-edged sword of most innovation.

Naming and shaming, though, has a long history in sex work policing. Police departments have routinely published sex worker photos in local newspapers. But digital distribution of images adds a new twist. Late last year, according to Vice, the Flint, Michigan, police department warned that it would publish to Facebook the photo of anyone suspected of selling or buying sex, regardless of whether they were convicted.

“I can’t help but wonder what would have been done with the footage had such a camera been rolling at the time of my arrest,” says Maggie McNeill, who was caught in a sex work sting in 2005. The 48-year-old runs the blog The Honest Courtesan. “The potential for shaming is staggering, especially given that sex workers are very often nude or nearly so when the police spring the trap—I was.”

McNeill, who retired from sex work eight years ago, was naked and giving an undercover cop a body massage when a team of more than a dozen officers barged into the room to arrest her. “It’s well-known among sex workers that cops get off on stings, even when they don’t actually rape or sexually assault the victim,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons stings so often employ such huge mobs of cops—15 in my case—when two or three would do.” McNeill argues, “The mentality in play is like a low-level version of a gang rape, a group of thugs bonding over sexual humiliation of a woman.”

Given her experience, she believes that body-cam footage will be misused. “I have absolutely no doubt that particularly juicy video clips will end up in cops’ private collections to be traded between them, even if some authority decides that such clips will not be publicly released,” she says.

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It doesn’t have to end this way, though. One suggestion, from Maxine Doogan of the Erotic Service Providers Union, is to limit police ability to edit their footage. “They should not be able to access the media they collect in any way. That should be reserved for some other citizen third-party volunteer group,” she says.


Still, concerns remain. Audacia Ray, founder and executive director of the sex work activist organization Red Umbrella Project, is worried about body cameras being “used as a tool to shame people who are being arrested for prostitution related offenses,” she says. “There is already a lot of shame built into the way these arrests are conducted.” For example, “police often make sexual or degrading comments at women as they are arresting them,” she says. That sort of thing doesn’t exactly create confidence among sex workers in how the footage would be used.

As is clear from the YouTube video mentioned above, it isn’t just police officers that could use the footage for shaming purposes. “We have strong concerns about what malicious third-party content producers might do with records of police encounters,” said Matt Kellegrew, the lead staff attorney for Red Light Legal, which provides legal services for sex workers, in an email. “My worst fear is some type of sex-worker-shaming-meets-Cops-style slander/shock videos popping up.”

For their part, police don’t seem happy about the public distribution of body camera footage. The team of cops behind Washington state video were “ticked off” that it ended up on YouTube, according to Lt. Mike Johnston of the Bellingham Police Department. He said they would never intentionally out sex workers: “We want to protect their identity, because our goal is to get them out of that business so they don’t have to do that anymore.” In the future, he’s told officers to tilt their cameras toward the floor or ceiling in similar situations. When asked which groups of people in particular deserve such protections, he said, “There’s no cut and dry.”

When Lt. Johnston explained the officer’s reasoning for turning on his camera in the first place, it again highlighted the mutual distrust between sex workers and law enforcement: “The officers, for their own protection, felt like they wanted to have evidence in case the sex workers decided to accuse them of some impropriety,” he said. “In case of some type of allegation down the road, because it’s not like that’s never happened, where somebody gets arrested and they say, ‘Oh hey, that officer came onto me.’”

One potential benefit to body cameras, at least in theory, is that they could prevent police abuse—protect the alleged criminals as well as police from false accusations. Advocates are skeptical McNeill points out that the camera records the public, not the officer. She adds, “As long as the cops have the power to turn the cameras off or decide whether footage is released, it’s difficult to see what is to be accomplished here.” Ray agrees, saying she hasn’t heard of any cases of body cameras being used to support statements made by someone arrested for prostitution. Put the body cameras on sex workers, they say, and it might be a different story.

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