I’m a New York–based writer and student of history. For The Nation, I’ll be blogging about labor and human rights struggles inside and outside US borders, in the context of the global economy and transnational social movements. Bookmark my blog for new posts multiple times a week.
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Arizona has a long record of going against the current of history, from its rejection of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to its vicious anti-immigrant crackdowns and opposition to LGBT rights. Today the state is at the center of a global debate on the politics of policing the sex industry. The case of Monica Jones, a transgender former sex worker in Phoenix who has been swept up in a harsh anti-prostitution campaign, has set off a wave of outrage, stretching from a local court—where her trial has been delayed pending a constitutional challenge—to Geneva, where her story has reached the world’s preeminent human rights body.
Jones’s plight began last May when she was accosted on the street and apprehended by an undercover officer for allegedly “manifesting prostitution.” Jones, a local rights activist and university student, was one of hundreds who have been ensnared in recent years by Arizona’s flagship anti-prostitution campaign, Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation). The program encourages cops to investigate anything that suggests the intent to sell sex, ranging from a conversation on the street to a suggestive “bodily gesture.” Given the vagueness of the “manifestation” definition, police tend to focus on the more convenient suspects: the poor, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people, immigrants and people of color. Once suspects are detained, the program attempts to rehabilitate them through a blend of criminalization—the threat of jail—and social programs that, under the guidance of Catholic Charities, pushes participants to redeem themselves by leaving the trade.
This carrot-and-hammer approach reflects the legal framework of anti-trafficking policy nationwide. Though these policies are intended to stop forced and coerced sex work, they’ve fueled by harsh, often dehumanizing police tactics, as officers indiscriminately round up suspected sex workers on the street, raid suspected brothels and criminalize nearly anything that smacks of sex for pay, voluntary or involuntary.