So did Patriots owner Robert Kraft knowingly procure the services of a ruthless ring of human-traffickers, or not? If you've read much about his recent solicitation charges, you’d probably think there could be no question. NFL fans aren't often asked to focus so intently on labor violations, especially not those pertaining to immigrants in the sex industry, and, as in football, it can be hard to spot blown coverage without a little specialized education. Florida law enforcement has fed the press a slew of salacious details and unproven claims that reporters have been all too willing to repeat verbatim, without further investigation or any analysis.
We've been told that hygiene at the massage parlors was “minimal,” and workers saw “about 1,500 men a year, with no days off” for “graphic” and “unprotected” sex. This conjures a vivid picture of dirty, desperate women practically chained to beds as a steady stream of men live out their most degrading and pornographic fantasies—an image wildly out of step with the description of what actually happened during Kraft’s session, as captured by hidden cameras. It’s also inconsistent with police attempts to use the presence of condoms as evidence against the spa owners; an arrested manager was seen purchasing condoms, and there was “luggage full” of them at one location, according to The New York Times. It even contradicts the report from the local health inspector that kicked off the investigation. Her concern related to people possibly living at the location, not a hygienically unsafe environment. (Presumably if the spa were squalid, the inspector would have initiated its closure as she would with any other workplace.)
These sensationalized, inaccurate portrayals tend to stick in the mind, not only because they’re so compelling but because they’re familiar. They’ve been pushed relentlessly for years by law enforcement and faith-based groups devoted to eradicating sex work, and now, as noted by journalist Melissa Gira Grant, the President also enlists the specter of duct-taped, sexually exploited women as an argument for his border wall.
Because of the unusual amount of attention the Florida arrests have received—thanks not only to Kraft's involvement, but to the charges against billionaire Republican donor John Childs and former Citigroup exec John Havens—uncritical coverage stands to inflict more damage than usual. Credulous reporting, however well-intentioned, does a great disservice to an audience largely unfamiliar with the finer points of sex worker rights and real anti-trafficking advocacy; it fuses prostitution to forced labor, and furthers the lie that endangered workers are better aided by raids and arrest than by the practical, comprehensive provision of resources. Here’s a better, more informed way to receive the recent news.
Pay attention to the charges. Though state attorney Dave Aronberg and Martin County Sheriff William Snyder are still hammering the narrative of “human trafficking,” only one human trafficking charge has been brought: against a woman also accused of engaging in prostitution herself. According to a Thursday press release from the Vero Beach Police Department, after six months of investigation there are only two “confirmed” victims. Snyder told the Times, “I don’t believe [the women] were told they were going to work in massage parlors,” a disconcertingly equivocal statement from someone who’s been working on the case for months. Snyder also said that only one woman was still in contact with the police and that the others refused to talk—yet he maintained the effort had been “a rescue operation.” Judging by the charges, it’s a fairly routine prostitution bust.
Look for the workers’ voices. For almost a week, we’ve heard only from police and never from the alleged victims. Without statements from the women in question or the lawyers representing them, we can’t obtain meaningful information about the working conditions in the location Kraft visited (or anywhere else). Nor can we know if women were “lured” into the work through promises of a very different job or if they knew what they’d be doing in advance, if they were held as captives or if they engaged with their surrounding community as much or as little as they cared to. Unfortunately, these details may never come to light. Now that police and immigration authorities are involved, the women are highly incentivized to choose a “victim” status over that of intentional lawbreaker. Because the work is criminalized, they have no third option. Police Chief David Currey said as much on the day the news broke: "some of them may tell us they're OK, but they're not… even though we may have charges on some of them, we'd rather them be victims." (At least five women so far have been charged with prostitution.)
Think critically about law enforcement’s tactics. Police installed hidden cameras in the Jupiter massage parlor Kraft visited by fabricating a bomb threat. Officers also visited the spas undercover as paying clients to receive massages from women who allegedly offered them more intimate contact. The public is being asked to believe, then, that police sincerely regarded these women as “sex slaves,” yet didn’t hesitate to give them the traumatizing impression that their workplace, which may have doubled as their home, might be bombed. Police also had no moral or ethical qualms about receiving massages from these “malnourished” victims while undercover. Given the high-profile nature of the case, it’s entirely plausible that the hidden-camera footage will one day be made public, thereby outing women who were allegedly forced into having the sex caught on film—but police haven’t seemed worried about that, either.
This is an outrageous and wholly unnecessary degree of surveillance if the motivating concern is labor violations. As sex-worker rights activist Kate D’adamo observed, “There was no need to do a six month John sting. There is no need to touch anyone in a trafficking investigation.” The presence or absence of trafficking is not predicated on the presence or absence of commercial sex. Nothing about the conduct of the cops indicates knowledge of the best practices devised by trafficking survivors and service providers, which suggests, again, that this was a typical prostitution bust undertaken without serious consideration of what trafficked workers actually need. When images of the “care package” workers were said to receive hit Twitter, sex workers online were quick to note that police included an (English language) Christian pamphlet among the toiletries—a detail that attests to the ineptitude and cluelessness of those handling the case.
“It’s very safe to say without any hyperbole that this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” Sheriff Snyder said on Thursday, with maximum hyperbole. If it takes the police six months to locate two actual victims, we’ll be waiting a very long time for them to get to that totally real, non-exaggerated iceberg. Perhaps by then we'll be willing to have the "real conversation about human trafficking" that Aronberg claimed to be so desperate for in a press conference on Monday, though it's unlikely that police and prosecutors will ever be the ones to start it.
Charlotte Shane (@CharoShane) is a writer in New York.
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