Last week in a letter to Gov. David Ige, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro wrote that his office was dedicated to “maintain[ing] its focus on prosecuting those who profit from prostitution and has worked with prostituted persons to accomplish this goal.”

Unfortunately, Kaneshiro’s words do not reflect the reality of his office’s action. In January, in an article in Honolulu Civil Beat, Kaneshiro boasted about how his office had increased prosecution of pimps and traffickers.

But the article notes that rather than working with people engaged in sex work to secure these arrests, indictments, and convictions, Kaneshiro’s office contributed to a heavily coercive environment, relying upon the state’s current prostitution statute to “give police the necessary leverage to influence a prostitute to testify against her pimp.”

 In that article, Kaneshiro mulled, “I mean, why would a prostitute decide to be a witness and testify against a pimp if she’s only facing a violation? If she’s facing a crime and if she might do jail time, she might have incentive to cooperate with law enforcement.”

honolulu police car

Coercive actions against prostitution suspects by police officers and prosecutors are ineffective.

The problematic and exploitative nature of this method was further illustrated earlier this month, when police arrested 16 massage parlor workers with fourth-degree sexual assault, a criminal charge punishable both by up to a year in jail and mandatory sex offender registration. More insidious is why the women were arrested for sexual assault, a crime that implies a victim. In this case, the women’s victims were undercover officers from the Honolulu Police Department whom the women either touched or exposed themselves to, after the officers requested a massage.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary said Kaneshiro’s office had charged the women with sexual assault. In fact, the women were arrested for fourth-degree sexual assault by Honolulu police but the prosecutor’s office says it is still reviewing the police reports and will determine whether to charge them and take the cases to trial, or not.

The problem with coercive criminal charging is that it is ineffective. Most sex workers do not have pimps or traffickers, specifically one like the popular culture depiction seen in movies like “Taken.” And this includes young people engaged in sex work. In their extensive survey of over 300 youth engaged in street-based sex work in New York City, John Jay College professors Ric Curtis and Anthony Marcus found that only 14 percent of young women worked for a “pimp.”

Similarly, in their extensive seven-country study, Ko-Lin Chin and James Finckenauer interviewed over 149 Chinese sex workers about their working conditions, entry into sex work, and freedom, including Chinese massage workers in San Francisco and New York City. Chin and Finckenauer found just 1 percent of women had been forced or coerced into sex work while underage, and a similarly small percentage (13 percent) who were not in possession of their travel documents or permitted to freely leave the brothel. (In both cases, none of the women interviewed in San Francisco or New York City fit into either of these categories.)

The popular conceit, that sex workers are lured into the industry as children and then forced to continue sleeping with men until they finally escape, is simply not borne out by empirical evidence. And that means Kaneshiro’s tactics are ultimately not helpful but harmful.

Massage parlor workers may simply have no pimp to “give up.” And instead, when faced with considerable criminal charges, are being forced to name any friend who helped them, whether that person gave them a ride to work or babysat their children.

Finally, coercive criminal charging ultimately damages sex workers’ ability to trust the police. Sex workers may experience physical and sexual violence over the course of their jobs (though for inside workers, these rates tend to be low). And when they do, they seldom go to the police out of fear or past experiences of abuse.

When stories like this one are widely publicized, they further erode sex workers’ ability to see the police as a viable option to turn to for safety. This is especially troubling when applied to the small proportion of sex workers who are prostituted or sexually trafficked. Fearing police and trumped up criminal charges does not encourage these victims to come forward or to work with social service agencies.

Sex worker supportive organizations and anti-trafficking organizations have both called out the dangerous precedent coercive criminal charging ignites. Rather than dialogue with these organizations, Kaneshiro and the HPD continue to do what they believe is in the best interest of sex workers and prostituted people despite the obvious harms the actions cause. Instead, we invite Kaneshiro and the HPD to truly engage with prostituted and sex work-involved people by reaching out to the organizations that represent them and know their needs best.

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