Sinister Motives, Moral Panic Behind Florida’s Persecution of Sex Workers

    Bruce Colton, the chief elected prosecutor of Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee and St. Lucie Counties in Florida, is anything but a humanitarian.

    For example, in 2013, State Attorney Colton, a Republican who has been in his current office since 1985, aggressively pursued a homophobic sex offender prosecution against Kaitlyn Hunt for dating a slightly younger girl while both attended high school together. Yet after failing to indict in 1992 three Mets players accused of gang-raping a woman, Colton did nothing to correct the record when the Palm Beach Post printed quotes from sports fans openly victim-blaming her.

    Back in 2006, when there was pushback about overcrowding in the St. Lucie County jail and unaffordable bail amounts, Colton’s response was, “I hope we don’t reach the day where some things are not considered a crime. We’re not Dade, Palm Beach or Orange County.”

    And earlier in his career, then-Chief Deputy State Attorney Colton argued that Florida’s age of majority should be lowered from 17 to only 15 years old, and that he should be able to prosecute kids as young as 15 as adults without any judicial hearing.

    But Colton has now found a way to convince the general public that he is a nice man after all: treating owners of “happy ending” massage parlors that employ middle-aged women as if they are sexual predators.


    Targeting of Massage Parlor Owners and Workers

    After New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was the target of a massage parlor sting in Jupiter, Florida earlier this year, a media firestorm pitted law enforcementdesperate to claim sex trafficking was afootagainst sex workers’ rights advocates who argued that the real abuse taking place was done under the pretext of rescue. In Palm Beach County, where Kraft’s case is ongoing, State Attorney Dave Aronberg conceded that all of the women involved were not trafficked.

    But powerful local figures like State Attorney Colton have long played by pernicious ideological rules. In cases connected to the Kraft sting, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder decided on a hunch that the Chinese immigrant women local police arrested are “slaves.” Now, his deputies are publicly pressuring them into changing their stories to say they were trafficked.

    ”We as a nation should have a collective sense of shame,” he told a local news station. “In the land of the free, thousands of women have no freedom.” (Yet interestingly, as a Republican state representative, Snyder was the sponsor of a bill modeled after Arizona’s unconstitutional anti-immigrant roundups.)

    For sex workers’ rights activists, this is little surprise: It is the next stage in what has become the hottest moral panic in the country.

    Colton also personally decided that trafficking was central to the spas and massage parlors tied to the Kraft case, despite the lack of evidence for this. But he does not need the evidence—or even a false confession—when he has RICO.

    Racketeering laws, often known as “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act), first came about in 1970 as a way to smoke out mob bosses trying to infiltrate unions and corporations. The legislation has since morphed into a secret weapon for law enforcement to lock “problem people” away for years based on amorphous social ties to criminal activity. Thankfully, these ethically fraught charges are relatively rare, but they are devastating when used.

    Lixia Zhu, one of the massage parlor owners, currently faces 30 years on a RICO plea deal, a hugely disproportionate punishment. Depending on what happens, the case could send a dog whistle through Southern Florida about sex work among new Chinese immigrants.

    Zhu speaks only Mandarin Chinese, but was coerced into signing plea documents, obtained by Filter, that heavily imply she will be treated like a sex offender going forward.

    For sex workers’ rights activists, this comes as little surprise: It is the next stage in what has quickly become the hottest moral panic in the country.


    An Unholy Alliance of Law Enforcement and Christian Fundamentalists

    In recent years, prohibitions on pornography and sex shops, as well as vice policing, have gotten less popular, while sex workers’ rights advocacy has become more mainstream. To take the power back, tough-on-crime law enforcement and Christian fundamentalists teamed up to create a public relations plan that is nearly impossible to fight against.

    At the core of the plan is the outdated notion that sex work, including pornography, is always rape, no matter the facts or the consent involved. No one wants to be appear “anti-rape survivor.” Now, news editors run sex trafficking hoaxes as fact, and use highly misleading stock images to suggest there is an epidemic of paid child rape in America.

    These anti-sex work machinations have very real human costs, and punish along race, class, gender and country-of-origin lines.

    Last month, this very panic drove the Florida legislature to pass B 540—a bill that creates a de facto sex offender registry for sex workers and their clients, by a near-unanimous vote. The law enforcement-and-fundamentalists alliance was in full force during hearings about the bill, with both the Florida Sheriffs Association and Place of Hope teaming up to support it.

    Place of Hope is operated by the hyperconservative Christ Fellowship Church, and has received the biggest “rescue industry” grants from Florida’s government for years. The same church runs Southeastern University-CFC, a Handmaid’s Tale-esque nightmare that states on its website that “any attempts to change one’s God-given sexuality through elective sex-reassignment or transvestite, transgender or nonbinary ‘genderqueer’ acts or conduct is at odds with our biblical standards, denominational affiliation and subsequently our code of conduct.”

    These anti-sex work political machinations and prosecutions have very real human costs, and punish along race, class, gender and country-of-origin lines.

    For example, a large percentage of transgender people have engaged in sex work in a world that brutally discriminates against them. Transgender people who have had sex for money repeatedly end up dying in a system that claims to be saving them.

    Meanwhile, immigrant womenbeing coerced in State Attorney Colton’s jurisdiction to turn informant and falsely claim they have been traffickedface the loss of their agency to a “white savior” narrative. At least one unnamed worker just wants to help her family financially in a poorer country.

    No politician should get away with waging war on sex worker, transgender and immigrant communities. There are better ways to prevent trafficking than dehumanizing already vulnerable people.

    Photo of San Francisco massage parlor via DJ Speiss / 

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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