Sex Work

Black Women Profiled as Prostitutes in NYC

A new report from the Red Umbrella Project makes clear that NYPD profiling isn't only focused on men.

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tonythemisfit/Flickr

Typically the term "profiling" is used in discussions of the way police target young men of color, especially for drug crimes or weapon possession. And much police profiling is, in fact, of this type. New York City's stop-and-frisk policy, for example, disproportionately affects black and Latino men—so much so that in 2011 the New York Police Department (NYPD) actually conducted more stops of young black men than there are young black men in the entire city.

As a new report makes clear, however, police profiling isn't only focused on men. The Red Umbrella Project (RedUP), a peer-led Brooklyn organization that advocates for sex workers, has just released the results of a year-long study of New York's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). These courts are intended to provide alternatives to incarceration for people charged with prostitution-related offenses. But while HTICs goal may be humanitarian, their proceedings seem tainted by racial bias. In Brooklyn—where blacks make up about one-third of the total population—black defendants faced 69 percent of all charges brought before the trafficking court. And they faced a whopping 94 percent of charges on the offense of "loitering for the purposes of prostitution."

Loitering for the purposes of prostitution is a particularly subjective charge, heavily based on individual officers' perception of criminal behavior. As Audacia Ray, the director of RedUP and a former sex worker, explained, "the bar for proof of loitering for engaging in prostitution is much lower than for proving a person has been doing prostitution." Loitering charges don't require an exchange of sex for money and are "really based on … what the cops observe and what they say they observe."

Police claim to take into account things such as the clothes a woman is wearing, whether she seems to be talking to people while loitering, and whether she's acting in some manner they deem suspicious. (Until recently, the possession of condoms was also a basis for a loitering charge, though that's thankfully been abandoned due to the health risks involved in threatening people with arrest for practicing safe sex.) But based on the fact that more than 9 out of 10 loitering-for-prostitution arrests are of black woman, it seems that police may also take skin color into account when determining whether someone "looks like" a loitering prostitute. 

Anecdotally, there's a lot of evidence that people in general, and police in particular, see black women as more likely to be sex workers, just as black men are often assumed to be violent criminals.

"Black bodies are hypersexualized," says N'jaila Rhee, an adult Web model, phone sex operator, and co-host of radio show "TWIB After Dark." Rhee says she has been in hotels for conferences where black women and Asian women were asked to leave because the staff assumed they were sex workers. She adds, "My mother is Jamaican, a lot of our family are nurse's aids and nurses, and you work very late nights, so you'd be waiting for the bus after a double shift, and have men solicit them for sex."

In August, a security guard at a swanky New York hotel asked three black women—a lawyer and two teachers—to stop soliciting at the establishment where they were merely having drinks. Monica Jones, a black trans woman and activist, was arrested in Arizona in May 2013 for "manifesting prostitution"—a charge which, like New York's loitering for purposes of prostitution law, essentially means a police officer can arrest you if they think you look like a prostitute. 

Ray acknowledged that it's "definitely a difficult task" to prove race-based profiling on charges like these. Yes, racial disparities in prostitution arrests are widely documented, but it's hard to know for sure what causes these disparities.

For example, a recent study of arrests in several North Carolina cities looked at escort ads and arrest rates for black sex workers. While the percentage of escort ads for black women was either less than or proportionate to the percentage of black women in each city's population, black women's arrest rates for prostitution were two to three times as great "as both the percentage of ads depicting black females and their percentage of the population." But the study also notes that black sex workers are disproportionately likely to be working on the street, which was the main focus of police attention. Racial profiling isn't mentioned as an explanation.

Regardless of why women wind up there, New York's trafficking courts are a step forward in some ways, says Ray. As the RedUP report points out, these courts signal a move away from treating those arrested for prostitution as criminals and toward treating them as victims. Those who appear before HTIC courts can pursue court-mandated programs and avoid arrest records and jail time. "It's definitely a win to have this realization by the courts that maybe incarceration is not the answer, and it's not actually helping people improve their lives," Ray says. 

But the on-the-ground mechanism for helping these "victims" is the same on-the-ground mechanism for punishing criminals—police make arrests, and the state exerts control. "Though based on an intention to help people who are in exploitive situations or working in the sex industry when they would prefer to be doing another job," the RedUP report states, "the blanket assumption that all people in the sex trade are victims does us a grave injustice." Part of that injustice, the figures suggest, comes from law enforcement officials who profile women for arrest on the basis of race.  

Note: The NYPD did not respond to a request for comments by press time.

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19 responses to “Black Women Profiled as Prostitutes in NYC

  1. I dunno – the second half of that article kinda lost me.

    “Black bodies are hypersexualized” because someone’s relative somewhere got asked to trade sex for money? Not really evidence.

    And how is being hauled into court, even if you are seen as a victim, really a step forward?

    1. “And how is being hauled into court, even if you are seen as a victim, really a step forward?”

      Because we ultimately want to save you from yourself and your tragic decision to sell your vagina or smooth dick. We don’t want you in jail, of course, but we desperately NEED to have you fear our authority which is critical in your re-education. The court is our way of maintaining a superior position without the bars of jail. Fear us, change due to that fear, and you will walk away saved and beholden to us because we protected you from jail and a criminal record.

      What better way to eradicate free market sex?

      1. “What better way to eradicate free market sex?”

        And that, when you get right down to it, is the root of an awful lot of this. Feminist white women have made themselves so phantasmagorically unpleasant that if they don’t stomp out all other access to sex, they aren’t going to get any men. So they partake of the “Human Trafficking” hysteria, and have conniptions about pornography, and generally behave like Victorian maiden aunts.

        1. So they partake of the “Human Trafficking” hysteria, and have conniptions about pornography, and generally behave like Victorian maiden aunts.

          This exactly defines highly religious men and women also.

          1. The difference is feminists try to pass as *enlightened*.

            1. Does this all lead to ass sex?

  2. More time wasted with victimless crimes

  3. Cue dunphy to rant about how body cameras would show those bitches had it coming…..

  4. Yet again, the ‘deeply caring and selfless’ elites through their arrogant social planning mandates continue to inflict considerable stress upon the people they claim to ’empathize’ with the most.

    Screwing with the lives of those most incapable of defending themselves has never fazed the moralist or progressive whose main purpose in life is to ‘feel good’ about ‘doing something’… because the woman and kids.

    Fuck logic. Fuck rationality. Fuck reality. I just want to stand tall against sin or social deviation by promoting laws that ‘feel’ righteous. These people are unwavering asteroids smashing into what should be the fluid surface of social evolution.

  5. “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.”

    As opposed to “surveillance for the purposes of public safety”?

  6. In Brooklyn?where blacks make up about one-third of the total population?black defendants faced 69 percent of all charges brought before the trafficking court.

    Science H. Logic another instance of claiming correlation equals causation? What if blacks in Brooklyn commit crimes at a higher rate than their white neighbors? Unpossible? The racial breakdown of crime must be exact or “profiling”?

    Ray acknowledged that it’s “definitely a difficult task” to prove race-based profiling on charges like these. Yes, racial disparities in prostitution arrests are widely documented, but it’s hard to know for sure what causes these disparities.

    You are not sure if it is profiling but you will fan the racial flames just in case?

    1. In stories like this the racial component might be viable but I’m far more concerned with the overall societal response to sex work in general- the race issue be damned.

      1. Oh, I don’t disagree. The article makes sense when it addresses victimless crime but not so much when it veers from there.

        1. Yeah, you can definitely tell the writer is used to The Atlantic where the big part of a story where people are being arrested for seeming like maybe, possibly, they might be up to something is the fact that there’s a racial disparity.

    2. Was going to post the same thing – it’s bad logic to think that the proportion of arrests by race should be the same proportion of the population by race.

      I think there probably is some racial profiling here, but you can’t tell by the facts presented in the article. Much more insightful (but perhaps undermining for the foregone premise of this article) in determing the presence of racial profiling would to determine what % of prostitutes are composed by each race, and compare THAT to the % of charges by race.

      Oh, we don’t have that info available? Then we can’t draw any rational conclusions.

      I’ve seen this same type of bad correlation of race to arrests on reason multiple times lately. Might be time for the editor to send a memo to staff.

      1. My next-door neighbor is a cop? Describes himself to casual acquaintances as “working in the field of pest control”, as he told me? I can just hear him say, “Every black woman I have ever known, is a ‘ho’? So there! There’s NO ‘racial profiling’ goin’ on HEAR, mah boy! Just keep on movin’ along, then ‘Sir’?”

        1. He’s human garbage. Worthless fucking poopoo.

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  8. First off I think prostitution should be decriminalized. Second it was rude treatment the woman in the hotels received. Third it was a laugh that blacks are hypersexualized. I assume that’s by whites. Has she seen rap videos.I don’t know why anyone would get that idea.

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