(Photo credit: Chris Ryan via iStock)

The March shooting of Asian massage parlor workers in Atlanta, Georgia, cast a national spotlight on the question of how to protect both massage parlor workers and sex workers—groups that in some cases overlap. While it is not clear whether any of the massage parlor workers killed in the Atlanta shootings were sex workers, they became the targets of misogynist, white supremacist violence because the shooter assumed they were. In response, anti-trafficking groups have called for increased police enforcement to shut down parlors with a history of selling sex—which includes the parlors targeted in Atlanta—while massage parlor and sex workers say neither the police nor the courts promote safety. 

Within the last decade, efforts to protect massage parlor and sex workers and victims of human trafficking have led to the establishment of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTIC) across the country. Judges, criminal justice reform organizations, and service providers affiliated with the courts celebrate them as a compassionate alternative to criminal courts that require defendants to work with service providers in order to avoid jail and a criminal record. But critics argue these courts conflate sex work with human trafficking and fail to meet the needs of massage parlor and sex workers.

Sex workers across the country are organizing to transform their working conditions. Earlier this month, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced it will no longer prosecute individuals for prostitution or unlicensed massage, a charge faced by many immigrant massage parlor workers. Previously, defendants in HTIC were forced to complete certain programs from service providers for the district attorney to drop the charges against them, but now in Manhattan and Brooklyn, accessing services is purely voluntary. 

This change means sex workers will be able to choose for themselves whether to receive services, which is a departure from the historical legacy of denying sex workers agency over their lives. 

“Human trafficking occurs across all labor sectors and is a horrific crime,” said Ariela Moscowitz, director of communications at Decriminalize Sex Work, an organization that works to improve public attitudes towards sex work. “It is often conflated with consensual adult sex work which leads to the dangerous assumption that all sex workers have been coerced and need to be ’saved.’ We know this is not the case.” 

HTICs in New York have served as a model for similar courts across the country in Illinois, Texas, and Ohio, among other states. Documentaries and local news coverage echo the views of service providers and judges affiliated with the courts. For former sex workers like Maria, although these courts are preferable to incarceration, they’re still a far cry from what sex workers need. Even with reform coming to some of New York’s courts, sex workers may still face risks, including the potential for arrest by the police who conduct elaborate undercover operations to find them. 

Maria, who chose not to share her real name due to immigration concerns, turned to sex work after she began hormone therapy as a transgender woman and experienced unbearable discrimination working at restaurants. Sex work allowed her to support herself and her family in Guatemala. During her 10 years as a sex worker in New York City, she was arrested three times. 

Maria was first arrested by an undercover police officer soliciting sex as part of the Vice Squad, a notoriously corrupt unit of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Maria alleged she was arrested shortly after having sex with the undercover police officer in his car. Allegations like hers are common—an NYPD officer faced disciplinary hearings for similar conduct in 2017. Advocates and elected officials report these practices have continued for decades and are calling for the Vice Squad to be disbanded

“When I was in [human trafficking] court, the police officer with whom I engaged in sex work was the same person who told the district attorney I was guilty,” Maria said. “You know what the judge said to me? ‘You’re doing the most degrading [crime] possible in this courtroom.’ But she didn’t ask me how I put food on the table for myself and for my family in Guatemala.” 

Judge Toko Serita is one of many judges who presides over the Queens HTIC that Maria attended. In an interview, Serita described her courtroom as “trauma-informed,” which she defined as “a recognition that most people who come into my courtroom are facing different forms of trauma. We need to be sensitive to that fact.”

The discrepancy between how supporters describe the HTIC courts and how sex and massage parlor workers experience it is a recurring issue. For example, sex worker advocates cite secure housing, adequately paid work, and immigration assistance as their greatest needs, yet the services offered by human trafficking courts tend to focus on mental health counseling and substance abuse programs. While programs vary from one city to another, they ultimately fail to address the various forms of state violence sex workers experience, whether due to their immigration status or police enforcement that disproportionately targets Black and Latinx workers. While some individuals have had transformational experiences proudly shared by the courts—including finding alternative work, developing expansive support systems including service providers, and recovering from substance abuse—many do not. 

On November 25, 2017, Yang Song was working in a massage parlor in Queens, New York, when Vice Squad police officers conducting a raid banged on her door. Song fell or jumped out of the window to avoid arrest and died from her injuries. She was a sex worker who alleged she had been previously sexually assaulted by an undercover police officer.

Song had been undergoing counseling sessions mandated by the HTIC and her final session was scheduled for three days after her death. She had previously told family members that she would rather die than face another arrest. Song’s death captures the limitations of counseling services when sex workers must support themselves financially amid fears of arrests that can fuel deportations for undocumented immigrants. 

As a former sex worker, TS Candii experienced these courts firsthand when she was arrested three times for sex work-related charges. She was required to complete counseling sessions after each arrest. After encountering service providers who were focused on trying to “save” women from sex work, Candii remains skeptical of the courts’ effectiveness in meeting sex workers’ actual needs. 

“If they were doing it [properly] then we wouldn’t be starving,” she said. “There would be more employment, more sex workers making policies and more sex workers counseling one another.”

Candii is now the executive director of Black Trans Nation, which organizes and supports fellow Black transgender sex workers via mutual aid efforts. 

When it comes to Manhattan’s district attorney, who has been hailed for his newfound progressive stance on sex work, Candii said, “Cy Vance has a lot of blood on his hands.” She noted that sex workers can still face arrest under other charges such as promoting prostitution for practices rooted in ensuring their safety such as living and working together. According to advocates, this points to a larger problem of which HTICs are a part: the fact that sex workers are criminalized for their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, since the Atlanta murders, many groups have called for increased police raids of massage parlors. Red Canary Song, which was formed after Song’s death and organizes massage parlor workers in Queens, firmly opposes raids and increased policing. They have a clear vision of safety rooted in removing all criminal penalties associated with buying or selling sex. “Decriminalization of sex work is the only way that sex workers, massage workers, sex trafficking survivors, and anyone criminalized for their survival and/or livelihood will ever be safe,” they said in a statement.

As decriminalization campaigns gain traction in various states, Maria recognized the major difference such a law would have made in her own life.

“I wouldn’t have been in jail three times suffering for 24 hours [at a time] and enduring so much,” she said. 

For Candii, decriminalization is an integral part of reducing police power over sex workers and marginalized communities more broadly. 

“Whatever [police] put on the citation or report, the judge is going to side with the police and Black transgender women do not have a voice,” Candii said to New York City councilmembers. “So it’s important for us to defund the police and keep them out of the Black, underfunded, marginalized neighborhoods. We don’t need police. We need you all to invest money into our community.”

Rebecca Chowdhury is a freelance journalist covering movements for liberation focusing on immigration and criminal justice issues. Her work has appeared in The Appeal, In These Times, The Independent,...