State legislators will be gathering again next week, and more likely than not they’ll be voting on proposed legislation to change the state’s prostitution law. One of the primary people trying to force this legislation through has been URI professor Donna M Hughes, who earlier this year started an organization called Citizens Against Trafficking. Those interested in the problem of trafficking have probably heard of her, and may even get her newsletters which, it just so happens, are really crazy and misleading. (This should come as no surprise, really, if you’ve been following the issue. See here, here, and here.)
Citizens Against Trafficking calls itself a “broad-based coalition formed to combat all forms of human trafficking in 2009.” In reality, from what its own website indicates, it is a coalition of two: Donna M. Hughes, a Women’s Studies professor at the University of Rhode Island, and Melanie Shapiro, the office manager in the Women’s Studies department at the University of Rhode Island. No other names of other coalition members are mentioned anywhere on the site.
Citizens Against Trafficking trumpets letters of support from groups like the Concerned Women for America, an anti-gay organization known to many for encouraging the idea that Harry Potter somehow promotes witchcraft. They do not, however, have the support of the (much more established) Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, or Brown University’s chapter of the Campus Coalition Against Trafficking, all groups with a long-standing history in the struggle for human rights.
I don’t know how many people receive the e-mail newsletters of Citizens Against Trafficking, but while browsing the “coalition”‘s website I noticed a variety of misleading factual errors in the organization’s reporting. For instance, their most recent newsletter, dated October 17 (PDF), focuses on some of the gruesome violent crimes associated with the “rapidly expanding sex industry in Rhode Island.” Melanie Shapiro, the author, claims these criminals “endanger the livelihood of neighboring businesses and put children at risk.” She gives eight examples. Let’s look at them, shall we?
1. Between 2003 and 2004, Jeffrey Mailhot murdered three sex workers, all residents of Woonsocket with families in the area. The crimes were violent and disgusting, but all three of the victims were streetwalkers. Streetwalking is already illegal in Rhode Island, and nothing about this case would be different if the current prostitution law were changed. (Also, If “the rapidly expanding sex industry is a market for criminals,” as Shapiro says, one might think she would begin with a case more recent than five years ago; that was, you’ll recall, before most people even realized that indoor prostitution was legal.)
2. Shapiro turns next to the celebrated case of Philip Markoff, the Boston University medical student who murdered one sex worker and assaulted two others earlier this year. While Shapiro mentions that Markoff’s first victims were both in Massachusetts — where prostitution is and has always been illegal — she neglects to point out that the medical student was only caught because his last victim — whom he met at a hotel in Warwick — was able to report him police without legal repercussions. It is because of Rhode Island’s current prostitution law, not in spite of it, that Markoff is in jail and not still attacking women today.
3. Narin “Trip” Kheng was a member of a Cambodian street gang, who stabbed a Connecticut man after leaving Level II, a nightclub completely unaffiliated with (and on a different block from) Spa 81, the so-called spa-brothel that Shapiro refers to. Level II was already a known nuisance; after the stabbing its liquor license was promptly revoked for 30 days and Mayor Cicilline himself spoke before the city licensing board, asking for the club’s closure. According to the Providence Journal, Level II was known for overcrowding and serving underage patrons. At no point did the police or any news source ever mention Spa 81, or anything remotely related to the sex industry, in connection with the killing.
4. The fourth case Shapiro mentions is so factually off-base that it bears particular mention. Anthony Parrish, a Dorchester man known to be affiliated with a Boston gang, was murdered by Dana Gallop, a known member of a rival Boston gang, outside Club Passions (part of Jovan’s), a popular hip-hop club on the South Side. The club, at 6 Portland Street, is located near the split between Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, more than three-quarters of a mile away from Spa 81, which Shapiro again mentions.
5. The case of Jonathan Quaweay, who shot four people inside the Sportsman’s Inn downtown, is unquestionably tragic. But As Shapiro mentions (correctly, for once), Quaweay has had fourteen arrests in the past fourteen years; he was arrested in 1995 for trespassing and marijuana possession at Central High School, convicted in 1996 of grand theft auto in Lincoln and again in 1998 for assaulting his girlfriend; he was in jail as recently as this past January for cocaine possession. The man was a walking time bomb, and this incident should not be looked at as a direct reflection on its location any more than the town of Lincoln should be blamed for the car he stole there.
6. Troy Figgs was a pimp who murdered the two-year old son of a girl he put on the street; this crime is especially disgusting, and the Providence Journal noted in its coverage that several jurors cried openly during the trial. It is a shameful tragedy that should never have happened.
However, it is also a shameful tragedy that has no relation whatsoever to Rhode Island’s current prostitution law. The boy’s mother, who was eighteen when she met Figgs, took a Greyhound bus to Boston daily to walk the streets for him; by her own testimony, she never once prostituted herself in Rhode Island, and if she had her actions would have been illegal under current law. Equating Figgs’s evil crime with Rhode Island’s legalized indoor prostitution is a distortion of facts that completely insults both the mother and her late child.
7. The case of the sixteen-year old who was stripping at Cheaters has been taken up by those anxious to equate prostitution with some sort of overall culture of deviance in the Ocean State. But the girl, according to all news reports, got the job with a fake ID listing an adult age. The club did not — and there’s no indication that they ever would have — hired her with the knowledge that she is a minor.
The man who orchestrated her exploitation, Michael Barton, had escaped from Boston authorities in March while serving time for drug and weapons charges. The reason he chose Rhode Island was to evade authorities, not because of anything having to do with the state’s prostitution laws. Also, just this week the City of Providence issued an ordinance banning minors from working in adult entertainment establishments in the city.
8. The case of the lawyer moonlighting as an escort is, seemingly, Shapiro’s best argument about our current prostitution law. It is, at any rate, the only case she mentions which has any relation at all to any proposed legislation to change the current law. The escort was committing no crime by visiting the man’s Silver Lake apartment. However, she only went to police escaping the man because she knew she had legal recourse against him. When the Providence Journal later published the woman’s name (against the wishes of the attorney general’s office), she threatened to drop the charges. Were indoor prostitution illegal, the woman would never have gone to police and the man would never have been caught.
The eight incidents mentioned by Shapiro in the Citizens Against Trafficking newsletter are deliberately designed to provoke, outrage, and misinform readers. Also, only the case of the sixteen-year old stripper has anything at all to do with trafficking. Life-affecting laws that put people in jail should not be implemented because of this sort of hysterical propaganda, and a real anti-trafficking organization should either do better research or just stop making things up.