Police crackdowns of illicit massage businesses can harm women they seek to help
Police descended on three massage businesses along a stretch of Georgia highway, part of what they described as a broader campaign against the illicit sex industry in Coweta County. An investigator said the goal had been to root out "human trafficking and child exploitation."
While authorities said they found no evidence of human trafficking at the three spas, undercover officers engaged in sex acts with some of their workers, then arrested them, according to police reports and county court records describing the June 2019 raids that The Washington Post obtained through a public records request. In one encounter, a sheriff's deputy repeatedly grabbed a woman while she performed a sex act on him, the documents say, while another undercover officer paid $200 and received oral sex.
Police charged eight female spa workers with prostitution, according to local media outlets, which posted photos of their mug shots on the evening news.
In their efforts to rein in illicit massage businesses across the country, police sometimes rely on sting operations in which undercover officers engage in sex acts with spa workers, according to law enforcement experts and police records reviewed by The Post. While such tactics are generally permitted by law, policymakers are beginning to propose new limits on physical contact by police, which they say serves to dehumanize - and potentially traumatize - the women the raids are purportedly meant to help. The spa owners and operators targeted by law enforcement, experts said, often go unpunished.
The incidents in Coweta County "stand out as both egregious and probably fairly typical," said Erin Albright, an anti-trafficking expert who trains law enforcement agents on how to change their policies to better support victims.
"I do not believe for a second that whatever the state's interest might be justifies investigators getting naked and having the worker engage in physical contact of any sort," she said.
Toby Nix, an investigator for the Coweta County Sheriff's Office, said in an email that it is not agency policy or practice to take part "in any illegal or immoral activity." However, in some circumstances, he said, "a serious attempt to engage in criminal activity must take place before an arrest can be made." He declined to answer questions about the agency's policies regarding physical contact in police operations, whether any officers violated those policies or whether any trafficking charges were filed.
It is unclear how often police engage in sex acts during these operations because no organization tracks them. In two recent examples, Department of Homeland Security agents allegedly engaged in sex acts with suspected trafficking victims in Arizona and a private investigator in Horry County, S.C., working on behalf of local officials, engaged in sexual encounters as part of an undercover investigation into massage businesses, according to media reports.
Such incidents are probably much more common than reported, said Shea Rhodes, co-founder of Villanova University's Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, because "the very people who would report it are the most vulnerable," she said.
Paige Hughes, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the DHS, said the conduct of a "limited number" of agents in the Arizona case "was not consistent with" the agency's policy and had been referred to its office of professional responsibility for action.
A Horry County spokeswoman declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Advocates also see police stings as counterproductive: More often than not, they leave the spa workers with arrest records that can hurt their chances for employment, housing or other opportunities. Raids can be psychologically traumatizing to women and lead to ongoing stress and fear, as well as distrust of law enforcement, said Grace Chang, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara whose work focuses on human trafficking and immigrant women.
Some jurisdictions are beginning to consider stricter limits around physical contact by police, including prohibitions against skin-to-skin contact, as well as the verbal humiliation or degradation of sex workers. Officers are expressly barred from engaging in sexual intercourse during undercover stings in every state - Michigan became the last in 2017 - according to Bridgette Carr, founding director of the University of Michigan law school's Human Trafficking Clinic.
Others are going further: Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby in late March said her office would no longer prosecute low-level offenses, including prostitution, because such charges tend to "criminalize mostly people of color."