Challenging the Abuse of Sex Workers by Law Enforcement Officers
I was almost arrested once.
Well, maybe not almost. It was about 2am one Friday when two policemen took me and my friends, Mark, Chinedu and Binti* into their raggedy van, because we were driving at night and had no school IDs on us. Not to mention that we were obviously “criminals”, “cultists” and “prostitutes”, according to them. I was a gang leader because I had henna tattoos drawn on my hands and I was dressed in my pretty short black-and-white play suit. Binti wore a green sweatshirt and jeans though I have no recollection of while Mark’s and Chinedu’s outfits. I was the tiniest of them. In fact, none of them could be called tiny. But I was the gang leader because of my ‘tattoos’ and short clothes. Plus, I wasn’t crying.
Why were we out so late anyway? It was Mark’s birthday. He’d had a party at the club that was still in full swing but Binti and I had to go home because we had classes the next day. That’s when the good old policemen stopped us. Mark wasn’t put in the van because he had his ID with him and the policemen needed a ‘neutral’ beggar/negotiator. Who else would they threaten with, “we’ll take your friends away o!”
I wasn’t really scared at first. I knew the tipsy policeman just wanted money because we had done nothing wrong -in the eyes of the law – and even if we had, we were in Nigeria and money could make us innocent citizens. But as I sat there and looked into his eyes and the ugly, beaten gun he wielded like his saviour, I got scared. He called me ‘prostitute’ over and over again. He looked at my skinny thighs and called me ‘prostitute’. He complained again and again about how I was dressed and I began to pray that Mark would hurry with negotiating with this lustful idiot’s colleague. I saw something in his eyes that told me I needed to be afraid of what he was imagining he could do to me. I looked at his gun and imagined how much pain it could cause me because I knew that he would have to use that on me before he got what he wanted with me.
This was when it really dawned on me. The stories… the stories were true. Policemen and soldiers more often than not, assault and rape women as they please. But then, I hadn’t heard of any stories of one such policeman or soldier being arrested or convicted. My cousin once told me that a policeman had slapped her butt as she walked past their parked bus, for no reason whatsoever – if there could ever be a reason for harassing someone with such reckless abandon anyway. But she did nothing. Nobody did anything.
I remembered all the stories that night, sitting in the back of the van and listening to the policeman yell. But I smiled at Chinedu when he said I shouldn’t worry. I held Binti’s hands and told her not to cry anymore. Eventually, Mark got the right price to fuel corruption buy their pride and lust, so they let us go.
All across the world, law enforcement officers consistently and shamelessly harass the people they are meant to protect. Prison warders harass prisoners. And for prostitutes/sex workers, it does seem that law enforcement officers reserve a special hatred for them and subject them to so much degradation.
Growing up in Nigeria, I always knew people treated sex workers like dirt. Somehow, the moral codes so prevalent among us dictated that prostitutes deserved whatever ill-treatment and abuse they suffered. But their clients were left alone. It’s 2019 now and things haven’t changed much. Some days ago, one of the country’s popular “comedians” posted a video on his Instagram page where he justified the rape of sex workers, calling it theft of merchandise. Please report this video, we need to get it down.
In Nigeria, as with many parts of the world, we know policemen and correctional officers harass and rape prostitutes. We know. We knew they harassed women generally, but we didn’t expect the happenings of 24th-25th April 2019 in Abuja, the Federal Capital City of Nigeria. We didn’t expect that the Nigerian Police would raid a club and a community at night, pick up 65 women and charge them for clubbing and prostitution. We did not expect it. Naïve, weren’t we?
We didn’t expect that they would ask the women for sex as equivalent to a Five Thousand Naira (about $14) bail sum. We didn’t expect that they would rape these women, when they turned down their offers. We didn’t expect that the very policemen, entrusted with protecting these women, would use sachet water wraps as alternatives for condoms. We didn’t expect that these policemen would be walking free, plotting the next victims to prey on.
But we did know that someone somewhere would blame a woman for something: her clothes, where she is at what time, what she wears, and who she is.
These women are not (all) sex workers, but even if they were sex workers/prostitutes, it would never change the fact that the actions of these policemen and law enforcement officers can never be justified by any reasonable standard. But sex workers face a lot of abuse from those who should enforce the law. The “rationale” excuse is that they’re already ‘giving’ their bodies away, so it’s oaky to have a ‘share’ of the ‘cookie’. Imagine thinking that since they sell sex, they no longer deserve to be treated as human beings. Right? Wrong.
The world now recognises 17th December as the international day to end violence against sex workers, getting its origin from the serial murder of sex workers by the Green River Killer in the US. The harassment of sex workers and the frequency of it may be traced to a moralistic hatred of the work that these people do and the fact that the law, in many jurisdictions, criminalises it.
Under legal systems where prostitution is fully criminalised, police officers exploit sex workers with reckless abandon. In places like Kenya, New York and South Africa, condoms are ‘evidence’ of prostitution and so any woman found with a condom is automatically suspected of being a prostitute and will most likely be arrested. This forces sex workers to choose between risky sex and risking arrest (in the latter, chances of rape are pretty high and so is jail time). The police in Nigeria and other countries demand sexual favours in exchange for release from jail. Need I say that the ‘consent’ given by prostitutes in this situation does not meet the standard of consent required under the law to be a defence to rape. In South Africa, it is reported that the police actively encourage or passively condone inmate sexual abuse of transgender female sex workers assigned to male cells. To make matters worse, these sex workers are denied basic rights when arrested – no food, no blankets for the cold, no calls, no trial. Often times when they can, sex workers try to report these abuses by the police to the police (because, who else really?) but this rarely, if ever, works. It is probably time we begin to ask, who will guard the guardians?
Criminalisation of sex work which is the case in many parts of the world including Russia, Nigeria and most of the US has, sadly, resulted in the invisibility of violence against sex workers to societies-at-large. Prostitutes keep getting arrested and molested, but their clients suffer no similar penalties. One ready example is the Abuja police raid which left only women arrested for clubbing and prostitution. The questions are: is clubbing only a crime when women do it? Are all prostitutes female? Are all women prostitutes?
The criminalisation of sex work creates a chain of other problems- prostitutes being coerced to pay bribes (in cash or with their bodies) to avoid arrest, prostitutes raped by police officers, prostitutes assaulted and/or abused by their pimps or managers and sometimes, even by their clients who know their victims cannot report them. A 2015 study of 1,000 female -cisgender and transgender- sex workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia found that 93% of women surveyed had been the victim of rape in the past year. The study also showed that male sex workers experience lower levels of sexual violence and abuse than the females do.
Partial criminalisation of sex work/prostitution exists in places like the UK where buying and selling of sex is legal but accompanying activities like brothel-keeping or soliciting on the street are illegal. The plot twist here is in the definition of brothel-keeping which the UK laws define as two or more sex workers working together. Two prostitutes cannot therefore work together or from the same apartment, as that would be illegal. The effect is that prostitutes have to work alone, making them more vulnerable to offenders. If they suffer harm while working with a colleague, as Toni Mac (a member of the Sex Worker Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes, UK) speaking at a Ted Talk narrated, they cannot report to the police because they will be seen to have breached the law and accordingly, fined. Tragic, isn’t it? That they are subjected to victim-hood twice over.
Another approach to making laws on prostitution is the Swedish/Nordic Model sometimes called the ‘end-demand approach’, which criminalises the buying of sex. The tragedy with the Swedish/Nordic model is that many people who sell sex are victims of circumstances who do so because they need the money to survive, either because they lack jobs or the skills or qualifications to find a decent job or are immigrants/refugees fleeing impossible situations in their own countries or places of domicile. When their clients are wary of the law, prostitutes are then forced to either lower their prices or seek a pimp’s help (to whom they have to pay a large percentage of their earnings). Since their clients want to remain anonymous to avoid arrest, these prostitutes are forced to go to shady places with strangers, thus endangering their lives. Conversely, sex workers sometimes end up doing more to protect buyers while putting themselves in harm’s way.
The nagging question then is, why sell sex? There are several answers to this: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, drug addiction, illegal and undocumented immigration, and choice.
Some countries have adopted the system of legalising prostitution such as in The Netherlands, Germany, and in the US State of Nevada. In some jurisdictions where prostitution has been legalised, the sex trade industry is highly regulated and state-controlled. There is the requirement for registration and obtention of a license.
The problem, however, is that legalisation does not work for the vast majority of prostitutes. In situations where they get into it due to poverty, addiction, unemployment or illegal immigration statuses, they are unable to undertake the expensive registration for a licence. Many sex workers are left unregistered and thus, they run afoul of the law.
Partial or qualified legalisation of prostitution creates a two-tiered system: legal and illegal work. Prostitutes doing illegal work face the same hurdles as occurs in states with full criminalisation of prostitution. Deep Sigh.
What then do prostitutes want? How can we protect prostitutes from abuse by the state and its officers? Toni Mac suggests that that until poverty rates drop lower and lower and less people are forced into prostitution, the ideal model for states to adopt is to decriminalise prostitution. This involves abolishing laws that criminalise prostitution, such as was done in New Zealand in collaboration with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, through the Prostitution Law Reform. While sex workers have not increased in New Zealand since decriminalisation, a major effect is that violence is reduced when sex workers are not forced to work alone, or in isolated places, or when they live in fear of the police.
Additionally, with decriminalisation, people can work collectively, employers of sex workers are accountable to the state and sex workers’ rights are protected.
What rights do sex workers have? Basic human rights: the right to life; the right to dignity of the human person; the right to own property; the right to freedom against discrimination; and more. Decriminalisation allows sex workers to defend their rights, ensuring that the crimes committed against them by police and others will no longer be hidden. Sex workers are human beings and that’s how they want to be seen: “We want the police to first see the human in us, not just makgosha (sex worker),” said a sex worker from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Until prostitution is fully decriminalised, sex workers have to be seen as humans, first and foremost. Police departments must also train law enforcement officers to treat abuses against sex workers with the same attention and urgency they would give reports by any victim of violence.
What’s our role in all of these? Start with recognising that sex workers are people, entitled to human rights. Stand against any form of abuse against sex workers by the police, and by our friends. Work to tackle poverty, unemployment and drug addiction. Let’s build a better society for everyone.
*Obviously not their true names. Do you know anyone called Binti?