Terra Burns is a human rights activist for sex workers and a social justice consultant. As a former prostitute, she knows how vulnerable people in the industry are to violence, other crimes and hardship.
One time, when Burns was a sex worker working on her own accord as an adult, a client from Canada visited her at a hotel in Anchorage where she lived. The whole time she was with him, she said, she felt uncomfortable. She couldn’t pinpoint why; it was just a feeling she had that she couldn’t shake.
“He didn’t do anything explicitly,” she said in a recent interview. “He didn’t directly threaten me, but I was very concerned for my safety the whole time.”
On high alert, Burns told the man that her friend was out at the movies, was due back soon and that he had to leave immediately after their designated time was up. She was relieved when he left. But it wasn’t the last time she saw him.
Later that evening, he returned. He tried to enter through the door, but it was locked. He then went for the window, which was locked as well. Eventually, he realized there was no easy way in and he gave up and didn’t come back.
Burns searched online to find out anything about the man. She entered in the name of his hometown, which he had told her about during their visit. (She doesn’t remember the name of the town now.) What she learned online though was that the town had a serial killer who preyed on sex workers and he was never caught. She wondered if it was him.
She wanted to report the incident to police — give them a lead so they could investigate, especially given the man’s apparent potential to harm others. But calling the cops seemed out of the question. There was a very good chance she could be arrested herself for prostitution. Plus, she added, “I was also caring for a disabled old woman at the time. If I were to have gone to the police to report this and gotten arrested, she would have been in Anchorage not being able to walk, not being able to take care of herself and I could have lost my home.”
In the end, Burns compromised: She didn’t report it to the Anchorage Police Department because she was afraid she’d be arrested, but she reported it to the authorities in the man’s hometown in Canada, which had an online reporting system that allowed her to remain anonymous.
In an ideal world though, she said, she would never be forced to make that choice. In an ideal world, prostitutes could come forward to the authorities about anything — as a victim to report things that have happened to them, or as a witness to report things that they heard or saw — without fear, just like other citizens. That notion is something that recently brought her, and a fellow former sex worker turned social rights activist, to Juneau.
On the CUSP
What Burns and Maxine Doogan really want is for prostitution to be decriminalized. That’s the mission of the advocacy group they started, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), which is made up of current and former sex workers, sex trafficking victims and allies across Alaska.
Burns, who is in her mid-30s, and Doogan, a woman in her 50s or 60s who used to work in the massage parlors in Fairbanks in the ‘80s and has since pushed for sex workers’ rights in Alaska and California, know decriminalization isn’t a likely scenario in the near future for the Last Frontier. Instead, they’re after the next best thing: improved safety and protection for those in Alaska’s sex industry and equal protection as citizens under the law.
“We want legislation that will allow actual, real people who are in the sex trade — whether by chance, circumstance or coercion — to report when they’ve been a victim of a crime without being that perfect victim with the dramatic story,” Burns emphasized.
The two women, from Fairbanks, stayed in Juneau the entire legislative session, pushing for the passage of Senate Bill 21. SB 21 grants prostitutes immunity for prosecution when they come forward as a victim or witness of a violent crime. It’s being sponsored by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who said she wants to address the violence women face in Alaska. She has drafted several different versions of what is now SB 21.
“They didn’t like our first proposal,” Gardner said in a recent interview. “It was a little frustrating because what they really want is to legalize prostitution, and I don’t think this state wants to do that. I said, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do short of that to protect people whether they’re willing or coerced sex workers. How do we protect them and how do we keep other people safe?’”
The bill hasn’t moved since it was read aloud on the Senate floor for the first time in February and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Session is slated to end today. Gardner said she will bring up the bill next session.
“We want to address the real damage to society, which is the violence, and the violent perpetrators,” the legislator said. “Sex workers are victimized at far greater rates than the general population. ... They’re so afraid of being prosecuted for prostitution that they don’t come forward. The traffickers and the victimizers know that, and say, ‘What are you gonna do, call the police?’ So we’re trying to address that. We are trying to address the epidemics of rape and violence in our society by going after the rapists and not their victims. ... And it helps us, it helps law enforcement, to go after violent criminals. That’s what we want.”
Last month, Burns and Doogan held a movie night at the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theater downtown to try to raise awareness of the bill. They showed a documentary about a sex worker in Australia who services those with disabilities, and afterward held a Q&A with the audience. They outlined a simple truth: prostitutes are far more likely to be victimized, and it’s far from likely that they’ll speak up about it when it happens.
For proof, Burns turned to her graduate work in social justice at the University of Fairbanks, a study she said is currently being replicated at Brown University. When Burns began her study, she wanted to know how Alaska’s sex trafficking and prostitution policies affect people in Alaska’s sex trade. Burns surveyed over 40 prostitutes in Alaska and then sat down for individual interviews with eight. She found prostitutes are hesitant to come forward for fear of being arrested, and if their occupation becomes public, they face harassment and discrimination.
According to the answers the sex workers gave, Burns found that 52 percent of participants had tried to report being a victim or witness of a crime while working; the police took 44 percent of their reports, arrested six percent of them and threatened 33 percent with arrest when they were trying to report being the victim or witness of a crime. Additionally, 80 percent of participants who had been manipulated or coerced in the industry had tried to report being a victim or witness of a crime; when they did, the police took 20 percent of their reports, threatened 60 percent with arrest and arrested 20 percent.
A 1998 study by the University of California Berkeley looked at prostitution, violence against women and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study found that of 130 working prostitutes in the Bay area, 82 percent had been physically assaulted, 83 had been threatened with a weapon, 68 percent had been raped and 84 percent had reported current or past homelessness.
In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, it showed that active prostitutes were almost 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and race. The study pointed to other research which indicated that clients perpetuate a large proportion of the lethal and nonlethal violence prostitutes experience, and clients who are serial murderers may account for a disproportionate amount of murdered prostitutes.
Prostitutes need to be able to come forward without fear of arrest, both Burns and Doogan stressed, especially considering how at risk they are to experience violence.
It’s actually a hard point to argue because of society’s perception of the perfect victim.
The perfect victim is usually a “blonde little girl who is completely pure and she is kidnapped by evil men and she is who people want to go out and rescue,” as Burns puts it.
There’s certainly been a few cases like that, she said, but it’s just really not that common off the silver screen.
“The majority of people who are victimized within the sex industry, just like other forms of violence, are by partners or by people that they’re working with,” Burns said.
Burns would know.
She’s written publicly before, including a number of well-read articles for Vice Magazine (she confirmed she writes for Vice under the name Tara Burns) about being pimped out by her father as a child. She’s written about how afterward, she experienced difficulties with social services and foster care system. Sometimes, she was barred from shelters. She turned to prostitution to support herself out of necessity. When she became emancipated, she got a legal job to support herself. She still engaged in sex work on her own accord, but the frequency declined when the necessity declined.
Burns knows what it is like to be coerced into the industry, to do that work out of necessity and to do it completely of one’s own accord.
The perfect victim isn’t real, but Burns is. And she says that the perfect victim concept only harms the real victims by perpetuating stereotypes, and lessening the power of their voices inside statehouses when legislation is being drafted.
Burns compared it to how society has progressed on its perception of rape, and how over the past few decades society has started to acknowledge date rape and marital rape as real things.
SB 21, she argued, is a way for prostitutes to stop being easy, silent victims of violence, and to able to speak up and protect others when they are the ones being subjected to violence.
It also makes it easier for those to exit the industry without a criminal record.
Being arrested and charged with prostitution, a misdemeanor crime in Alaska, is a damning thing.
Like everybody else who is charged with a crime in the state, your name shows up in court documents, which are available for the public to view online in a statewide database, CourtView. If your case is dismissed or you’re exonerated, the case is now scrubbed from the online records, but documentation still exists at the courthouse in public records.
For prostitutes, that “outing” often results in harassment, extortion and threats.
Burns said some people in her life didn’t know she used to be a sex worker, so when she went on a radio program to speak about her experience and the rights of sex workers, she received anonymous text messages that threatened her with sexual assault.
“If I didn’t own my own home, I would be worried about being kicked out of my home,” she said. “Because for landlords it’s not just the stigma, but the landlord is also concerned that he can be charged with sex trafficking for prostitution going on in the rental.”
Burns was referring to the 2012 expansion of the definition of sex trafficking in Alaska where stated that a person who owns property where prostitution is taking place could be charged with a felony.
“A lot of time at that point, a landlord will try to extort people for extra money,” Burns noted, on the other hand. “They’ll double or triple the rent, and say if you don’t I’ll report you to the police.”
Burns said she knew a woman who tried to leave the sex industry and got a job at a fast food restaurant. Everything was fine until the employer learned that the woman had a prostitution charge on her record, so she was fired.
“It really limits their ability to work outside of the underground economies,” Burns said. “Their choices are severely constrained.”
It’s a vicious cycle. When sex workers are unable to secure employment or access to shelters and other services, they are left with little choice but to continue to work as sex workers to survive.
Particularly ghastly is something that Burns’ graduate study found: 19 percent of her survey participants had sought emergency shelter and 83 percent of those were denied shelter; 50 percent of those who met the federal criteria for sex trafficking victims had sought shelter (force, coercion, exploitation of a minor) and 100 percent of them were turned away. Most participants did not expand on why they were turned away, but most said they thought discrimination was involved.
Burns and Doogan are also supporting House Bill 349, sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, which would limit the definition of sex trafficking in Alaska. Believe it or not, the definition was so broad that prosecutors in Fairbanks in a recent case tried to arrest and charge a prostitute with sex trafficking in the fourth degree for sex trafficking herself. In the motion to dismiss the charge, the defense attorney argued that the law should more clearly reflect “the person who is doing the trafficking than on the person who is being trafficked.”
In 2012, former Gov. Sean Parnell broadened Alaska’s definition of what sex trafficking was in order to better catch sex traffickers. The broadened law goes beyond the federal definition, which defines sex trafficking as a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform the sexual act is not yet 18 years old. The federal definition mirrors Alaska’s definition of sex trafficking in the first degree, which is an unclassified felony that has a maximum possible penalty of life in prison.
The spirit of the law was to go after pimps and others who profit off of prostitutes, but it has yielded some unintended consequences when it comes to actually applying the law, like the example above.
Another unintended consequence, perhaps, was that the new definition limits the sharing of knowledge and communication between sex workers on how to stay safe and on which clients to avoid for safety reasons. That’s because the new definition states that if one sex worker advises another, then it’s considered facilitation of sex trafficking.
Doogan said when she worked in the massage parlors, she received advice on how to do her job as safely as possible from other sex workers, and by working at the parlor, she had other people physically around her to keep her safe. That’s changed over time in the modern age — less sex workers are working on the streets and advertise on paper, and instead choose to connect with clients online. With more work being facilitated on the internet, there’s also less chance of interaction between prostitutes.
In Burns’ eyes, some of the current sex trafficking laws create an environment where prostitutes are further isolated from help from law enforcement and those in the industry, making them easy victims.
HB 349, they said, would limit the definition of sex trafficking so that prostitutes cannot be charged with sex trafficking themselves. It would limit other things as well. The bill is currently in House Judiciary Committee.
• Contact Neighbors Editor Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.