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Trafficking or Commercial Sex? What Recent Exposés Reveal

Donald Trump’s consensual extra-marital affairs with two adult sex workers – along with his repeated denials, his “fixer’s” accusations and his contempt for popular indignation – has turned what once would have been a sex scandal into just another pathetic media story.

However, the recent revelations about the sexual exploits of entertainer R. Kelley and investment banker Jeffrey Epstein pose a more profound question: Is there a difference between “consensual,” adult sex work and sex trafficking with under-age girls?

A couple of weeks ago, the news media had fun reporting on the latest sex scandal involving an all-American 1 percenter. No, this one didn’t involve Trump or Stormy Daniels but rather Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football franchise.  He reported visited the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, FL, on January 19thand 20th, mere hours before the Patriots’ AFC Championship game.  Most tantalizing, the local police released videos of the alleged sexual engagements between Kraft and women working at the spa.

Jupiter Police Detective Andrew Sharp stated at a press conference, “The video that we obtained, it shows the act that took place. On every gentleman that you have a list of, the act that took place is recorded on that video.” He added, “Does the video contain Mr. Kraft inside receiving the alleged acts? The answer is yes.” Kraft has been charged with two counts of soliciting; he allegedly paid $100 and the police-seized video apparently shows him receiving a hand-job and a blow-job. (The video also apparently shows a male client performing cunnilingus on a masseuse.)

Martin County Sheriff William Snyder claimed that the women working at the spa engaged in sexual acts, averaged eight clients a day, 1,500 men a year, with no days off.  He said that they slept on parlor tables, cooked in the back of the establishment and had no access to transportation.  “I think it is safe to say without hyperbole that this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” Snyder said.  He argued that a sex-trafficking ring ran the spa and that it was part of a $20-million international operation.

The good sheriff was not wrong on some parts of his story.  To date, upwards of 300 men were busted and at least 12 massage parlors on the Treasure Coast of Florida were shut down.  Law enforcement authorities have released hundreds of mugshots and the names of many of those arrested.

Four women were arrested, including the spa’s owner, Hua Zhang. She was charged with deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, keeping and frequenting a house of prostitution and 26 counts of procuring for prostitution. Her bail was set at $528,000.  In a follow-up search of the spa, Jupiter police found $183,000 in bank safety deposit boxes belonging to the owner and an employee.  Authorities also froze the bank accounts of both women.

The scandal captured the attention of headline-craving media, both the conventional print and TV outlets as well as the sports outlets.  Among the 25 initially arrested as of February 22nd, the oldest was 85 years old (born in 1934) and the youngest was 30 (born in 1989).  The media played up the fact that in addition to Kraft, other prominent power-players were busted, including John Childs, the founder of private equity firm J.W. Childs and Associates, as well as John Havens, former CFO of Citigroup.

The Florida Department of Health (DoH) began a secret investigation into the Orchids of Asia Day Spa last July in follow-up to a complaint received by a Martin County, FL, detective that claimed the spa was allegedly facilitating human trafficking.  DoH investigators found that the spa’s trash contained bodily fluids and the women workers appeared to be living in the parlors.

The February busts came in follow-up to a September 2018 raid of the East Spa in Vero Beach, FL, with law enforcement allegedly seeking victims of human trafficking.

Dave Aronberg, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, joined Sharp and Snyder, in claiming that the busts associated with Orchids of Asia Day Spa raid involved sexual trafficking.  He said that law enforcement viewed the women at the spa as “victims of human trafficking, which is modern-day slavery.” He insisted, “Human trafficking is based on force, fraud or coercion.  It is evil in our midst.”

Now, nearly a month since the police busts of those who worked at and frequented the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, questions are beginning to be raised as to whether the bust was really about sex trafficking.  Hallie Lieberman, writing in Deadspin, raised a question that sex workers are considering: “The sting wasn’t in fact about human trafficking at all, it was targeting consensual sex workers.”
Going to the heart of the issue, Lieberman describes her concerns as follow:

I started with two questions whose answers were surprisingly hard to find: How many people have been charged with human trafficking in the recent Florida stings that caught Kraft? And how many victims of human trafficking do police claim to have found?

The answer to the first question, stunningly, is zero. Not a single person has been charged with human trafficking in connection with multiple sex-trafficking stings in towns and cities on the east coast of Florida, including Jupiter, Vero Beach, and Sebastian.

Lieberman quotes Alex Andrews, a sex worker in the Orlando area and an advocate with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, who stated, “Our legislators and law enforcement have been led to believe that sex trafficking is huge in Florida, but studies have shown that because sex trafficking and sex work is being conflated all the time.”  To this end, Lieberman cites revealing FBI crime data about Florida’s very low-level of reported sex trafficking. Going further, she warns: “Andrews said jumping to conclusions without concrete evidence helps feed misleading narratives about the scale of trafficking. “

All sex work is not the same as, nor a form of, “trafficking.” Jeremy Lemur, former NFL staffer and now a spokesperson for Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada, estimated that there are nearly 10,000 illegal massage parlors operating across the country.  He warns, “Because of the illegality of these operations, it’s impossible to know how many women working in these parlors are coerced or working against their will.”

Nevertheless, over the last decade the religious right has effectively collapsed the difference between the two forms of sexual engagement – consensual sex work and trafficking.  During this time, nearly every state has either passed or toughened existing laws concerning what is labeled “human trafficking” for labor (e.g., house cleaning, farm labor and sweatshop manufacturing) and – especially — for sex work (i.e., prostitution), often involving underage juveniles, mostly girls.  Among the venues in which sex trafficking is ostensibly facilitated are “gentlemen’s” or strip clubs, brothels, streetwalking and online advertisements.

In April 2018, Trump signed an act that reconciled the Senate’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTAand the House’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).  The Justice Department conflated trafficking with sex work in its successful effort to close down the website backpage.com.   However, a 2012 report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics notes, “Two percent of prostitution and commercialized vice arrests in 2010 involved a juvenile, a proportion that has averaged between 1% and 2% since at least 1990.”  

The difference between sex work and sex trafficking is becoming an issue in states around the country and in the 2020 presidential election.  Efforts are underway in California, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., to decriminalize sex work among consent adults.  And SenatorsBernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), once a fierce San Francisco prosecutor of sex workers, are calling for the decriminalization of  prostitution.  It’s time to distinguish the two forms of commercial sex and decriminalize sex work.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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