San Antonio’s War on Street-Level Sex Workers

    On a late August afternoon, a woman with shoulder-length brown hair asked a passing driver on the west side of San Antonio, Texas for a ride. They had driven for just one block, passing clap-board houses wrapped by wire fences, when a police officer stopped them and searched the car.

    In the span of 15 minutes, she went from standing near a taqueria to being hit with prostitution charges—one of which was a felony and carries up to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. 

    “He wanted head and I said I would do it. We never exchanged any money but he offered twenty,” Alicia, a 30-year-old Latina whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) officer, according to the arrest report.

    The man requesting a blowjob was a plain-clothes cop in an operation “investigating suspected prostitution activity in the area,” as the police report described—an area that’s almost-entirely Latinx. As an undercover agent, he “contacts suspected prostitutes,” while the officer who eventually arrested Alicia “monitor[s] his activities.

    Alicia seems to have been one of the first victims of SAPD’s renewed crackdown on street-level sex workers, which began a few months after the spring 2018 deplatforming of major sites used by sex workers to safely find and screen their clients.

    Beginning in August 2018 and continuing through at least June 2019, SAPD arrested more people per month on prostitution-related loitering charges than they had in the years since October 2015, according to SAPD arrest data obtained by Filter. The arrests disproportionately involved San Antonians of color. 

    SAPD’s press office did not respond to Filter‘s requests for comment.

    “I thought you guys [Vice Unit] had already gone [in] for the day,” Alicia reportedly said. “I shouldn’t have come out yet.” 

     

    The SESTA/FOSTA Disaster Comes to Texas

    In April 2018, President Donald Trump signed into law SESTA/FOSTA, a now-infamous set of bipartisan bills branded as the latest policy tool to fight sex trafficking—in fact, the legislation has had the opposite effect in some places—by making online platforms liable for the “promotion or facilitation” of paid sex. 

    Just days before the laws’ enactment, Backpage.com—a popular site used by sex workers to advertise their services and vet potential clients—was shut down by the federal government. Craigslist axed its Personals section two days after Congress passed the law on March 21. 

    In September 2018, the Associated Press reported that a “side effect” of SESTA was “more street prostitution.” San Antonio’s surging arrests were among the data the report drew from. SAPD cops arrested nearly 300 people for prostitution—not necessarily prostitution-related loitering—between March and mid-August, AP found. SAPD’s prostitution arrests had jumped by 58 percent from the same time period in 2017, when police made 187 arrests.

    “I have seen a group of fresher faces, so that would make me think that they’re new to the street, maybe from the internet,” SAPD Lieutenant Jimmy Sides told AP. 

    The online platforms hit by SESTA/FOSTA seem to have been well used in the south-central Texas city. “Craigslist Personals was pretty active here,” Mackayla Frazier, founder of San Antonio’s Sex Worker Organizing Project (SWOP) chapter, told Filter. “I had a lot of friends making money here. We have a lot of people traveling for business. When those sites closed, it became a lot harder to find buyers.” 

    Platforms targeted by SESTA/FOSTA served as tools for sex workers to screen their clients for risk, allowing them to evaluate their reputation with other workers. Without them, workers may be increasingly facing fatal violence, suggested a 2019 study by economists of sex work.

    SAPD “prostitution details”—as sting teams are termed in the arrest reports—are baiting and arresting street-level sex workers in numbers unseen in years.

    The evidence of a switch from the internet to the street is anecdotal and circumstantial, but the explosion in arrests speaks for itself.

    More prostitution-related loitering arrests (23) were made in August 2018 alone than in the previous seven months of that year combined (21). From then to June 2019, the last month for which SAPD provided numbers to fulfill Filter‘s public records request, 401 prostitution-related arrests were made—a 600 percent increase from the equivalent time period in 2017 and 2018 (57 arrests). 

    The majority of arrested sex workers were categorized as “White,” but Frazier believes many of them are Latinx. Street workers are “largely undocumented and non-English speaking,” she said. Although Hispanic identity is recorded in arrest records, SAPD did not provide ethnicity to Filter, only providing data points that specified an arrestee as “Black” or “White.” Some arrestees’ race and sex were left blank in SAPD’s spreadsheet.

    Black sex workers seemed to be disproportionately represented in the crackdown. Their number of arrests more than doubled (from 16 to 35) between 2017 and 2018.

    In the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, SAPD “prostitution details”—as sting teams are termed in the arrest reports—are baiting and arresting street-level sex workers in numbers unseen in years.

    Officers will actively “stop” their car near or “contact” profiled sex workers, as described in two different August arrest reports, and the pedestrian will enter the unmarked vehicle. Then, as seen in Alicia’s case, the officer will request sex in exchange for money. Once the sex worker agrees to the deal, the undercover officer will signal to the “arrest team” that a prostitution case “ha[s] been made.” 

     

    Responding to the Crackdown

    Prostitution-related loitering ordinances are in place in many cities across the country, and activists argue that they criminalize transgender women for simply “walking while trans.”  

    According to San Antonio’s ordinance, unlawful circumstances, when combined with “loiter[ing] in or near any street or place open to the public,” include being a “known prostitute or panderer, and repeatedly beckon[ing] to, or stop[ping] or attempt[ing] to stop, or engag[ing] any person passing by in conversation indicative of soliciting for prostitution, or repeatedly stop[ping] or attempt[ing] to stop a motor vehicle operator by hailing, waiving of arms or any other bodily gesture.” 

    The criminalization of such generic behavior has been ruled unconstitutional in some jurisdictions.

    The Florida Supreme Court (in 1993) and District Court (2013) found this to be the case for Tampa and West Palm Beach’s city ordinances, respectively. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Tampa’s law “unnecessarily infringes on constitutional rights” by permitting “a violation of the law [to be] determined based on law enforcement officers’ discretion” and “by punishing innocent activities,” among other reasons. According to the justices, “time-honored pastimes,” such as simply waving at someone on the street, are, in effect, criminalized. 

    Anchorage, Alaska had its own, similar ordinance overturned back in 1978 for being overly broad. In the 1980s, the Oklahoma and Oregon appeals courts knocked down Tulsa’s and Portland’s ordinances on constitutional grounds. The Supreme Court of Nevada ruled Las Vegas’s to be too broad in 2006.

    “Here, it’s such a police city.”

    Organized political resistance to SAPD’s crackdown on street-level workers is seemingly nonexistent. Activists are limited in what they can do since it’s “difficult to get people to join” organizations like SWOP, “because sex work is still hush-hush,” explained Frazier.

    With its capacity limited, SWOP-San Antonio is focusing “on abortion access and STI testing, and getting those services for free.” The group also recently hosted a naloxone distribution event in March. 

    For now, it seems that street-level workers are simply having to geographically avoid the heightened policing. “Most people have to travel now if full-service sex work is their full-time job,” said Frazier. “They don’t do it in San Antonio. Here, it’s such a police city.” 

    Photograph of a San Antonio Police Department officer by SAPD via Facebook

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