OnApril 11, Monica Jones is scheduled to appear in court on charges of “manifestation of prostitution.” Ms. Jones is a student of social work, an advocate for transgender and sex worker rights and an activist with SWOP PHX. She was arrested under dubious circumstances shortly after protesting Project ROSE. Ms. Jones’ case has been a focal point for criticism of Project ROSE and has brought international attention to the unjust – and potentially unconstitutional – program.I will examine how Project ROSE is an anti-prostitution program operating under the guise of anti-trafficking, harming both sex workers and trafficking victims/survivors alike, and is driven by a misplaced moralistic crusade with little grounding in the realities of either sex work or sex trafficking.
Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation) is a collaboration between the Phoenix Police Department and Arizona State University School of Social Work. Twice a year, more than 100 police officers spend two days rounding up sex workers through street sweeps and online stings. Sex workers are handcuffed and taken to Bethany Bible Church. They are then assessed for eligibility to the “arrest-diversion” program. Anyone with previous arrests for prostitution or in possession of drugs at the time of arrest is ineligible. Eligible sex workers speak to a prosecutor who offers them the ultimatum of criminal charges and possible jail time or participation in a “rehabilitation” program run by Catholic Charities. They are denied the right to speak to a defense attorney.
This program is ostensibly designed to “rescue” victims/survivors of sexual exploitation, yet there is no form of victim identification at any point in the process. Rather than attempting to assess whether someone is being coerced, forced or defrauded into prostitution, they threaten the arrested person with prosecution. The reality of sex trafficking is that victims/survivors are often arrested many times without ever being identified as trafficked, and many have drug addictions – either the result of a coping mechanism or as a form of control employed by the traffickers. If sex trafficking victims/survivors do not meet the “perfect victim” criteria and are convicted, they will face mandatory minimum sentencing in Arizona’s particularly brutal prison system where they may experience violence, abuse and possibly death.If the social workers and police officers of Project ROSE were to somehow identify a victim/survivor of trafficking, it is unclear what they would actually do. They don’t offer protective services and apparently make no attempt to prosecute traffickers. They can, however, offer the victim/survivor of sex trafficking up to six months of classes that instruct them on the dangers and horrors of selling sex while building their “self-esteem.”
It is obvious that Project ROSE bears little resemblance to anything that could be considered an anti-sex trafficking program, but is it even a prostitution “diversion” program? A prostitution “diversion” program offers people who sell sex an alternative to prison through participation in programs and services. Diversion programs intend to reduce the harm of the legal system on vulnerable people while providing opportunities to access resources and job alternatives. The most basic requirement of a diversion program is that it should result in fewer people who sell sex going to jail.
Project ROSE is a tragically absurd version of a “diversion” program. Instead of keeping people out of the criminal justice system, it sweeps them up and funnels them in. According to Project ROSE’s statistics, about 70 percent of the eligible sex workers do not complete the program and instead go to jail. Project ROSE is a diversion program like a person who pushes ten people onto the train tracks and pulls three off is a hero. If we count only the sex workers who were eligible and participated, Project ROSE is responsible for at least 100 percent more incarcerations than “diversions.” Beyond the concrete and immediate harms of incarceration, a prostitution-related offense on a person’s record can severely limit options for jobs and education, jeopardizing any opportunity the person might have to leave “the life.”
With all its contradictions and problems, one wonders what kind of thinking is driving this program. The founder, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, has given one interview on Project ROSE and had the following to say about people who sell sex: “Once you’ve prostituted, you can never not have prostituted. You are always identified, even by yourself that way. Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy.” This quote perfectly demonstrates the moral disgust and forced victimization that drives so many anti-prostitution programs. The ASU social workers of Project ROSE are acting like colonial missionaries – they offer to “save” the sex workers they perceive as helpless and damaged, but should the sex workers not gratefully accept their “help,” then armed, uniformed men are at the ready – “for their own good.”
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC