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Want to eradicate the sex trade in Kensington, Mayor Parker? Arrest the people buying sex.

Published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 18th, 2024 by Shea Rhodes, Mary DeFusco, and Ann Marie Jones.

As experts in sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and systems of prostitution, we disagree with Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s recent decision to empower the Philadelphia police to make arrests for prostitution in Kensington.

People in prostitution should not be arrested or charged with prostitution offenses. The practice of prosecuting people in prostitution perpetuates a harmful ideology that they are criminals, rather than people who are being exploited.

Traffickers and sex buyers perpetuate sexual exploitation and keep the commercial sex trade alive. Police should arrest them instead.

Parker’s decision will also create additional barriers for victims attempting to exit “the life” of sexual exploitation. Criminal convictions serve as an additional hurdle for survivors to seek meaningful employment, housing opportunities, immigration opportunities, federal student loans, and more.

In 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner directed prosecutors not to charge people with prostitution if they have fewer than three prostitution convictions. This policy did not restrict prosecution for other prostitution-related offenses, like buying sex and sex trafficking.

Other solutions have proven to be far more effective. In 2009, there was a clear understanding among professionals in Philadelphia that the justice system was failing people in prostitution, so we developed a problem-solving court. The Project Dawn Court, which launched in 2010, connected women with the trauma services necessary to begin their healing journey out of exploitation.

The Project Dawn Court was designed for defendants with a history of prostitution and drug offenses. Unfortunately, however, individuals must come in contact with the criminal justice system through an arrest to receive the potential benefits of the program.

People in prostitution should not be forced to engage with the criminal justice system to receive these services and benefits, and, more importantly, Philadelphians should not be arrested or charged for selling sex.

To fully combat commercial sexual exploitation in Philadelphia, authorities must recognize the victimization of those exploited in the commercial sex trade. The “choice” to commit the “crime” of selling sex is often rooted in a place of economic insecurity, addiction, and other vulnerable situations.

Victims of trafficking may use substances to cope with or dissociate from their reality. A 2014 report found that more than 84% of exploited women used drugs, alcohol, or both during their exploitation — anecdotally, we see that those numbers hold true a decade later. Substance use disorder is often exploited by traffickers who manipulate victims into trafficking in exchange for promised substances.

Any “choice” made under these circumstances is no choice at all.

On the other hand, sex buyers always have the choice to not purchase sex, and to refuse to further the exploitation of an already vulnerable population. While the city’s Police-Assisted Diversion program does provide resources and services to people in prostitution, the program operates pre-arrest. Mayor Parker’s plan for Kensington involves the police warning people about future enforcement, and later arresting these individuals if they do not engage with addiction and housing services. This leaves little room for Police-Assisted Diversion and other beneficial services to help before involving sexually exploited people in the criminal justice system.

Arrest and threat of prosecution are not the answer. Charging individuals with prostitution does nothing to eradicate the sex trade.

Yet, Mayor Parker’s plan does not include or address the demand for prostitution. We are disappointed in Mayor Parker’s decision, as it is a step backward in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation.

The police conduct in Kensington is an attempt to force victims of commercial sexual exploitation into the criminal justice system. Police resources should be used instead to target individuals who drive the market: sex buyers.

Arresting sex buyers who seek to exploit vulnerable populations will reduce the demand for commercial sexual exploitation.

We advocate for the Equality Model. The four pillars of this model are: decriminalizing the person in prostitution, criminalizing sex buyers, educating the public about the inherent harms of prostitution, and providing robust and funded exit services for people in prostitution.

Combatting commercial sexual exploitation requires an effort to identify and support victims, not arrest them. We encourage and hope Mayor Parker and law enforcement will use their power to seek justice for victims, rather than perpetuate their criminalization.


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