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FBI Busts Consenting Adults for Having Sex -- Don't They Have Anything Better to Do?

The stories of consensual adult sex workers, who are often the targets of police busts, are missing in all the hysteria about sex trafficking and underage prostitution.

Last summer, a sex worker from San Francisco called a client she found through Craigslist and they made plans to meet in the best hotel of a small Southern town. Shortly after they stepped into the hotel room, police stormed in to join the FBI agent who had posed as the client, and arrested the sex worker as part of a nation-wide sting which targeted venues such as “truck stops, motels and the Internet,” according to an FBI report on Operation Innocence Lost. Operation Innocence Lost focuses on rescuing children forced into sex work, but has arrested hundreds of consensual adult sex workers since its inception in 2003.

“They kept me in the hotel room and tried to interrogate me for more than three hours, but I refused to talk to them,” recalls the sex worker. A year later, after spending approximately $5000 on bail and legal fees, she continues to work as an escort, although she is traumatized from her arrest: 

“Now I feel paranoid and jumpy in ways that might be too extreme. I still have nightmares where FBI and police are chasing me. I just wanted to run and hide and be somewhere safe. I’m generally easygoing, but my emotions have been all over the place.”   

While the FBI’s Operation Innocence Lost is supposed to focus on the exploitation of minors, according to attorney Sienna Baskin from Urban Justice, “in the process [it] arrests hundreds of consensual adult sex workers.” Ms. Broudo has noted various trends in arrests over the last few years, including: police conducting “sweeps” during which they arrest numerous women at a time at stroll districts; false arrests of gay men and transgender women; busts of dungeons; and individuals being arrested for selling sexual services over the Internet.

The stories of consensual adult sex workers, like the aforementioned woman from San Francisco, who was 39 years old and planning on exiting sex work to start her own business at the time of her arrest, are missing from the mainstream media coverage and leads to a low level of public awareness about the consequences of police and FBI “anti-trafficking” and “child rescue” activities.

On September 4, 2010, when Craigslist shut down its “erotic services” category, sex workers suddenly lost access to the most popular online venue for sexual services advertising in the US. Craigslist had given in to the pressure, which had been intensifying since 2008, from seventeen attorneys general—including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Beau Biden of Delaware—and several non-profit groups. The attorneys general and non-profit groups claimed that Craigslist was unable to adequately monitor for child exploitation and sex trafficking activities.

Although the shutdown of Craigslist's "erotic services" is not in and of itself criminalization of sex workers, sex workers and their allies claim that it is another of a string of recent law enforcement actions that further marginalizes adult sex workers while failing to effectively fight child exploitation and trafficking.

Sex workers organizations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Desiree Alliance have been trying to raise awareness about how neither Operation Innocence Lost’s prosecution of sex workers nor the removal of mainstream advertising outlets like Craigslist will actually protect sex workers. In fact, they argue, it further compromises the ability of law enforcement to fight trafficking and child exploitation. 

According to Dr. Michael Goodyear, professor of medicine and feminist ethics at Dalhousie University, “Shutting down the Craigslist ads will only force sexual services advertising to move elsewhere...[to] places such as” Craigslist was the only online sexual services advertising venue that worked with police to monitor its “erotic services” section. Now that the section no longer exists, “it is harder for law enforcement to monitor criminal activities,” says Goodyear.

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