Easier reporting could reduce violence against sex workers

Names of victims adorned the walls at a commemoration of the Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on Dec. 17, 2016 in Anchorage. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

To honor the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers last weekend, a group of advocates gathered in Anchorage. They said one way to reduce violence is to make information sharing safer, especially with law enforcement.

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December 17 marked the 15th anniversary of the capture of the Green River Killer, a serial murderer who targeted sex workers in Washington state.

“He confessed to killing dozens of sex workers,” sex worker advocate Terra Burns said. Burns helped coordinate the gathering. “He said he could kill as many of us as he wanted because nobody cares.”

Burns is with Community United for Safety and Protection, an organization that lobbies to change laws about the sex industry in Alaska.

An Alaska serial killer, Robert Hansen, also targeted sex workers and was convicted of killing 17 women in 1984. Burns said there have been 11 unsolved cases of murdered or missing sex workers in Alaska since the mid-90s.

Sex worker and advocate Maxine Doogan said they are easy targets for crime and discrimination because their profession is criminalized. They don’t feel like they can report things like rape or assault to police because then they could be at risk for prosecution themselves, she said. This means information about unsolved cases may not be getting back to law enforcement. Police may not hear about crimes that are happening now, which could lead to more violence in the future, she noted.

“Oftentimes those types of perpetrators are going to start out with rape, with robbery,” Doogan said. “And that’s why it’s important for people in the sex trade to have a path to come forward and make those reports before that perpetrator goes on and commits those more horrendous crimes.”

Part of that path was built in SB 91, the criminal justice reform bill that was signed in July. One portion of the new law says people can’t be prosecuted for prostitution if they report being victims or witnesses of violent crimes, including sex trafficking, assault and robbery.

According to Anchorage Municipal Prosecutor Seneca Theno, it’s unclear how that provision of the state statute applies to the state’s largest city. In some cases, municipal codes can supersede state laws.

“I can’t tell you whether right now, today, it applies to us or not,” Theno said during a phone interview. “I’ve heard some legal arguments as to how it would. I’ve heard some legal arguments as to how it wouldn’t. So we’ve researched the issue. We continue to research the issue.”

Theno said ultimately it would have to be decided in court, but she doesn’t think it will come to that because the city is not focused on charging people with prostitution.

The number of prostitution cases in Anchorage has dropped from 152 in 2009 to just two this year. Theno said that’s primarily because of a philosophical shift; law enforcement and prosecutors are looking for potential traffickers instead.

“We’re telling APD, focus on the trafficking,” Theno said. “Don’t spend your resources doing prostitution stings down on Spenard.”

Advocates Burns and Doogan said the best way to improve safety for sex workers is to decriminalize the sex industry altogether. It’s a view which is shared by Amnesty International and the British medical journal Lancet. Studies in Lancet show that the criminalization of the industry increases workers’ risk of HIV infection, violence and abuse.

Other international organizations disagree, saying decriminalizing the sex industry in places like Germany has led to more sex trafficking and increased victimization of women of color.