Decriminalizing the world’s oldest profession
In the living room of Renea Walker, a resident of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, I meet six former prostitutes who meet here on a regular basis. They tell me they’ve been arrested for prostitution too many times to count, and they’re even willing to laugh about it with me. That’s despite the fact that that they’ve faced serious problems related to their sex work, including drug addiction.
I sought them out because they’re part of the speakers bureau of the “End Demand Illinois” campaign, which has tried changing how enforcement and even community members deal with prostitution. Started in 2009, End Demand asks that johns — and not so much the prostitutes — become the law’s targets. Supporters argue people who buy sex need to be held accountable.
The women will take the message anywhere, and they’ve had a audiences with a Jewish temple congregation, groups of at-risk girls, and others who’ve been willing to listen to suggestions on how to help sex workers.
“If we can influence, any older, younger, LGBTQrst,” Walker laughed. “If we can say something that will deter their thinking or stop them from letting someone else influence to lead them down this path, that’s why today we’re not ashamed.”
Women released from Illinois state prison with sex offenses are likely to be rearrested. In fact, it happens with them more than any other group of offenders. End Demand is working to make johns, pimps and traffickers more accountable, but it’s also sought to protect the interests of sex workers. One tactic to do that is to stop treating prostitution as a felony. Right now, if a sex worker is hit with two misdemeanor charges related to prostitution in Illinois, the second charge is upgraded to a felony. Illinois is just one of a handful of states that does this.
“We’re talking about just shutting that down. If you would see the court building, these women are just revolving doors. Just revolving doors. They get out one month. Next month they’re back in,” said Barbara Echols, a former prostitute.
End Demand has main advocate and driver in The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. CAASE policy director Lynne Johnson said the felony upgrade should be nixed.
“Women who have been able to leave prostitution and have a felony record are prevented from getting good jobs. From access to benefits and housing,” Johnson said. “It really forecloses a lot of possibilities that they may have to improve their lives. So it’s taking a huge toll on individual people.”
Solicitation itself does not qualify for a felony upgrade, but buying sex could be a felony under "patronizing a prostitute." But Johnson has research suggesting that buyers of sex are almost never charged.
End Demand has had some success in its campaign. Chicago prostitution arrests are down and it’s gotten three laws passed: first, minors are no longer charged with prostitution; second, lawmakers expanded the definition of sex trafficking; and lastly, prostitutes who can prove they were trafficked can get their own convictions vacated.
“End Demand Illinois wants to take a very holistic approach to this problem,” Johnson said. “We don’t think there’s any one right answer or any one approach that’s going to solve it. I think it has to come from multiple directions. But I do strongly object to the notion that buying sex is a normal, acceptable activity. Because what you’re doing is you’re buying a human body.”
But not everything’s gone the way End Demand and CAASE wanted.
Last fall The Chicago Reporter investigative magazine analyzed data from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. The magazine found that prostitution-related felonies are being levied almost exclusively against sex workers — not sex traffickers.
And there have been problems implementing the law meant to protect juveniles. It’s designed to penalize the commercial sexual exploitation of children with Illinois’ human trafficking law and federal law. The Chicago Reporter, though, found only three prostitution patrons under that new law have ever been charged with a felony.
The Chicago Police Department and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office were unavailable for this story. But Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who’s gotten attention for trying to reduce the demand for prostitution, is willing to say that there have been challenges. In particular, it’s been hard to convict sex traffickers.
“We’ve had to a lot more work than we should, frankly,” Dart said. “Because we feel that there should be more of these cases made but it’s a pretty high bar they set for that, so it’s been tricky. Because the victims of them are so terrified that it’s tricky sometimes to get them to come forward. Sometimes they don’t make the greatest witnesses because of their fear.”
Dart’s work doesn’t always involve the End Demand campaign, but his office did create a response team of prostitution survivors. That team connects sex workers with support services, should they choose to use them.
End Demand does have its skeptics, though, including Rachel Lovell, a researcher at Case Western University. She once worked at DePaul University in Chicago, and she co-authored a paper that criticized End Demand Illinois. It argued that stiffer penalties against johns actually end up hurting female sex workers.
“The philosophy and the overarching theme of the End Demand movement is that all women in prostitution are victims,” Lovell said. “Many of the sex worker activist organizations denounce that by saying some women are trafficked. Some women are choosing this out of a few limited circumstances that they have. And some women very purposely choose to do this out of other options we think would be better.”
Lovell argues it’s important to distinguish between the different ways one can be a sex worker. The former prostitutes who meet at Renee Walker’s Englewood home were involved in what’s called “the open circuit.” Lovell said workers in that part of the trade are more likely to face victimization. On the other hand, Lovell said, there are escorts, who take referrals.
“This is a very complex market,” she said. “And just to say if we increase penalties for men they will just stop buying, I think it’s just too simplistic of an argument to make.”
But Lovell does agree with the End Demand campaign on one thing: Prostitution as a felony should be abolished.
Meanwhile, no one is benefitting from one of the new laws, namely the one that would vacate sentences for sex workers who prove they were trafficked. Attorneys say they’re now reviewing one particular case they hope will meet the threshold.
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