Sex Workers More Worried About Cops Than Dangerous Johns

The National Blacklist is a website designed to protect sex workers against dangerous customers, but its users are more worried about police

(Photos: Dreamstime, Photo Illustration: Vocativ)
Oct 23, 2015 at 1:41 PM ET

The logo for National Blacklist is modeled after bright-yellow crime scene tape—in bold, black letters, it screams, “BLACKLIST.” It’s fitting: In post after post on the site, which features more than 140,000 entries, sex workers describe encounters with dangerous men. “Beware, do not go, violent rapist,” reads one characteristically succinct item. It’s accompanied by the phone number and street address of the guy in question. Another reads, “Robbed me of my services, play no pay.”

These are just the types of messages you would expect to see on an online network designed for sex workers to warn each another about “bad customers.” But Vocativ’s search of the site’s database reveals that there is at least one thing more concerning to National Blacklist’s users than violent johns: the police. As the sex workers who Vocativ spoke with make clear, it isn’t just arrest that they fear when it comes to cops.

“What we worry about when we deal with undercover cops is that they’re either going to pimp us, solicit us, force us to give them free ‘samples’ or arrest us and destroy our lives,” says Norma Jean Almodovar, 64, a retired sex worker.

Vocativ used our technology to analyze the site, which allows sex workers to post for free but requires a subscription to search the database. We found far more mentions of cops than the dangers typically associated with sex work. On average, an estimated 12 percent of complaints are about police, 4 percent are about violence and 3 percent mention pimps. Many of the posts about police officers are simply an attempt to alert fellow sex workers to stay away and avoid arrest. They include phone numbers suspected or known to be linked to law enforcement along with messages like, “sounds like a cop,” “Cop Vibe–possible set up” and “pig alert.”

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The majority of National Blacklist posts address other issues entirely—things like time-wasters, stalkers and thieves. But it’s remarkable that sex workers using a resource describing itself as the “world’s largest bad client database and escort safety tool” seem more concerned about warning each other about police officers than the dangers from which law enforcement is ostensibly meant to protect them.

This is the reality of a criminalized sex trade, says Carrie, a sex worker from Los Angeles, where 10.4 percent of posts mention police and 4.2 percent talk about violence. Carrie says she lives in constant fear of being arrested.

“It terrifies me all the time,” explains the 55-year-old, whose escorting profile describes her as “a small petite adult beauty.” She does screen her clients, but her main worry is about the police. “That’s a way, way, way bigger concern than creepy guys,” she says. “Way bigger.”

In her more than seven years escorting online, she has never encountered a violent customer, thanks in part to careful screening practices. She uses a similar client-vetting site called VerifyHim, which boasts more than 9,000 members and promises to verify customers’ identities and search criminal records. Carrie also talks to potential clients first by phone and then has them call from the corner outside of her apartment, so that she can peek out of her window and get a good look at them first. Sure, there have been guys who refused to pay or were pushy about trying to have sex with her without a condom, but that’s the worst she’s experienced.

She has been arrested, however. Five years ago, she was caught in a prostitution sting. It was December in Los Angeles, Carrie was wearing a thin dress, and she says the arresting officers drove her around for a while in the police cruiser with all of the windows down. “So that I’d be very cold,” she explains. Then she spent three nights in a chilly holding cell, barely capable of eating or sleeping. Meanwhile, her cat at home went without food or water. (The LAPD said it was unable to respond to a request for comment by press time.) “I have post-traumatic stress from that,” she says of the experience.

“It terrifies me all the time. That’s a way, way, way bigger concern than creepy guys. Way bigger.” — Carrie, a sex worker from Los Angeles

There is research legitimizing these women’s concerns. A 2002 study in Chicago found that 24 percent of street-based female sex workers who said they were raped identified a police officer as the perpetrator, and one-fifth of other forms of sexual violence against these women were attributed to police. A study by the Sex Worker’s Project of the Urban Justice Center found that 16 percent of indoor sex workers surveyed reported having been “involved in sexual situations with the police,” and 14 percent reported experiencing police violence. Vocativ’s analysis found that more than 7 percent of posts mentioning violence also mention police (it’s entirely unclear what percentage of these are discussing police violence as opposed to reporting violence to the police).

“Whether it is fear of imprisonment, which can have devastating effects on the individual, the individual’s family and livelihood, or fear of being abused by the police, these fears have led to an environment where sex workers feel unsafe,” says a representative from the Atlanta chapter of SWOP who asked to remain anonymous. “Both of these are legitimate fears and concerns [that] most of the sex workers we have dealt with, have expressed.” In Atlanta, 16.2 percent of posts mention cops compared to 2.8 percent that deal with violence in general.

The intense focus on avoiding police doesn’t come as much of surprise to Lt. Jim Fitzgerald of the Seattle Police Department—although he’s quick to say that you won’t find any allegations of police abusing sex workers in his department. “It’s a little disconcerting that they’re more concerned with identifying us than sharing information [with each other] about people that may be harming them,” says Fitzgerald, commander of the city’s Vice and High-Risk Victims Unit. “A lot of times, the women don’t identify as victims, they really don’t,” says Fitzgerald. He allows that some, a “small percentage,” might not be victims—but he believes that most need help, especially the ones who work the main strip in Seattle. “Every time we contact them, they’re addicted to either heroin or meth,” he says. “These aren’t your high-priced escorts or anything, so they are the ones that are a lot of the time victimized.”

This brings up a distinction about the demographic reflected on National Blacklist: these are sex workers with access to the Internet. They also tend to be “indoor” as opposed to “street-based” workers, according to Danny Cruz, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). It appears that indoor workers as a whole account for the vast majority of the sex trade in the U.S. Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University who has studied sex work extensively, says that there are no hard numbers on the matter. It’s popularly estimated that street-based sex work amounts to around 10 to 20 percent of the sex trade in America, however, and Weitzer says this number is likely “in the ballpark” of accuracy.

“What we worry about when we deal with undercover cops is that they’re either going to pimp us, solicit us, force us to give them free ‘samples’ or arrest us and destroy our lives.” — Norma Jean Almodovar, 64, a retired sex worker

Research has shown that street-based sex workers tend to encounter greater violence. “Yes, they meet a lot more of the dangerous guys, the creepier guys, the ones that want to harm them,” says Cruz. They are also arrested much more frequently than indoor workers. One study looked at 2005 FBI data on sex work arrests and found that only 10.7 percent “took place in locations that would normally be associated with off-street workers,” and the authors suggested that this was likely an over-estimate of arrests of indoor workers. Clearly, this doesn’t stop the indoor sex workers of National Blacklist from worrying about police.

That might in part be because the ramifications of a prostitution arrest are often worse than the accompanying fine or time behind bars. Almodovar has an unusual perspective on this: She was a traffic cop with the LAPD for 10 years before she left the force in 1982 and became an escort. “What people don’t understand is that once you’ve been arrested for prostitution, as opposed to anything else, that is a stigma that will stick to you for the rest of your life,” she says. Almodovar would know: In 1983, she was arrested for pandering while she says she was trying to facilitate a friend’s fantasy of being an escort. “It destroyed my life, because I became unemployable,” she says.

It seems that sex worker fears about police persist even when the consequences of arrest are downgraded. Vocativ found that Seattle has one of the higher ratios of complaints about violence compared to police: Overall, 6.6 percent of posts mention violence versus 22.3 percent that refer to law enforcement. (In the past year that ratio is less dramatic, while remaining significant: an estimated 3.6 percent of posts mention violence compared to 8 percent that mention cops.) Interestingly, though, the city’s police department has adopted a relatively progressive response to sex work. “Our approach has been for years now that these are exploited people and its rare that we ever book any of these women into jail when we arrest them,” says Lt. Fitzgerald. Typically, they arrest sex workers and connect them to non-governmental outreach workers—but they are still arrested, charged and entered into the criminal justice system.

Seattle is currently looking into a pre-charging diversion program, though, and Fitzgerald says they focus their efforts on targeting demand rather than supply. Many argue that targeting clients is actually harmful to sex workers, though. A study in Vancouver, Canada found that a de-emphasis on arresting providers while continuing to arrest customers meant that sex workers “had to rush screening clients and were displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex.”

Some argue—or imply, in the case of Amnesty International’s resolution to develop a policy supporting the decriminalization of consensual sex work—that decriminalization better protects sex workers from violence, because it allows them to report dangerous customers to police without fear of being arrested. Weitzer notes that in places like New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized, “sex workers have much better relations with the police.” Indeed, a government study found that 70 percent of sex workers said that after decriminalization they were more likely to report violence to police.

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This goes to show that laws around sex work have a real impact on sex workers’ safety. But it also underscores that there is a real risk of dangerous customers. The Sex Worker’s Project study mentioned earlier found that 46 percent of indoor sex workers had been forced by a client to do something they didn’t want to do, and 42 percent said they had been “threatened or beaten for being a sex worker.” The workplace homicide rate for female sex workers has been estimated to be 204 per 100,000. As the website for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers puts it, “This constitutes a higher occupational mortality rate than any other group of women ever studied.”

“We do hear [these stories], we do take them to heart,” says Cruz of SWOP Los Angeles. “The people that I work with, they are always on the lookout for ways to protect themselves.” His chapter is currently developing a self-defense class for people working in the sex trade—so, clearly, it’s a real concern. But Cruz says that you can at least protect yourself from a dangerous john. “I know self-defense, I have an escape route, I have all these tools I can use to keep myself safe,” he says.

It’s not so with the police. “When I go see a new client, it’s in the back of my head, ‘OK, what would I do if this is a cop? You can’t exactly run, what am I gonna do?’”

*To estimate mentions of police, Vocativ searched National Blacklist for posts containing a range of terms like “cops,” “police” and “pig.” For talk of violence, we looked for words like, “rape,” “abusive” and “violent.” For pimps, we searched for words like “pimp” and “pimped.”