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Disability discrimination at Super 8 Hotel in South Bend, Indiana: A complaint and responses

Date: October 31, 2016



The original letter

October 29, 2016

Expedia Inc.
333 108th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98004
accessibility@expedia.com

Ganesh Hotels
3252 Cassopolis St.
Elkhart, IN 46514
info@ganeshhotels.com

Wyndham Hotel Group
22 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054
wyndhamcc@wyn.com

Dear Customer Service Representatives

My name is Emi Koyama and I am writing to make a formal complaint about the experience I had at Super 8 Hotel in South Bend, Indiana operated by Ganesh Hotels on October 27, 2016. The room was booked on September 24th through Expedia.com. I was visiting South Bend to give the 2016 Gloria Kaufman Memorial Lecture at Indiana University South Bend.

I understand that some people (I’m not sure who they are) who read about the incident on social media have contacted some of you, but I thought I’d provide my own account directly.

At around 6pm, I was dropped off at the hotel by the ADA paratransit service (Transpo Access). I went in and asked to check in, but I was told that there would be a special fee for my dog. I explained to the clerk at the front desk that the dog was a service animal, to which she demanded to see a document identifying the dog as a service animal. I explained to her that there is no such thing, and the documents that some travelers may present carry no legal weight.

Still, she insisted on seeing the document. As I was prepared for this, I pulled up a Department of Justice guideline on ADA service animals on my iPad, which read, in part:

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

I have encountered resistance from restaurant and hotel employees who were not trained about these legal requirements, but usually showing this document resolved the problem. This time however, the front desk clerk suggested that the federal regulation I pulled up may be “fake” because I just got it off the internet, and continued to demand a documentation. I asked her to use her own computer or phone to look up the document from the Department of Justice website to make sure that it is legit, but she refused to do so.

The clerk then called her manager, and, after explaining the situation to the manager, handed the phone over to me. I explained the federal regulation on service animal and read the paragraph I quoted above to the manager, but she also insisted that the documentation was required, because I could be lying about the service animal or the federal regulation. Again, I asked her to go to the Department of Justice website herself to find out if I was “faking” the law, but she declined. I asked the manager for her name, to which she replied “Sara” but refused to provide her last name. I gave the phone back to the clerk at her request, by which point the manager apparently made the decision to refuse service to me.

After hanging up the phone with the manager, the clerk told me that the hotel has decided to refuse service, which is clearly an abuse of discretion a business has and a violation of federal civil rights law (and probably Indiana’s as well—though I have not done any research about the relevant state law). I asked the clerk if I could stay in the lobby while I ask the people from the Indiana University who invited me to South Bend could come meet me and help me figure out what to do, but she insisted that I had to leave the building immediately or she would call the police on me.

Thus, I found myself and my dog freezing outside in a cold rainy weather of about 40 degrees temperature with strong wind blowing at around 6:30pm. Because I was dropped off by the ADA paratransit, which requires a reservation at least a day prior to the date of travel, I had no transportation. Further, I use electronic wheelchair which does not fit in most cars or cabs, so I had no place to go or means to get there.

I was desperate for help from someone in the area who could take me to a different place or at least come and let me get in their car so my dog and I could be warm at least, so I posted an urgent request for help on social media. I did not ask anyone to complain to the hotel, but apparently some people did, and the clerk came out at around 7:25pm after almost an hour of freezing outside in cold rain, and told me that she was letting me check in. At that point finally I was told that the hotel would accept my dog as a service animal. (I posted an update to the original social media call for help letting everyone know what happened after entering my room.)

What happened to me that evening is not just a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but also a failure of basic human decency. The clerk was clearly not trained on the legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the manager was also ignorant about it, but they also lacked imagination about what it would mean to throw out a customer with a disability using a wheelchair who have traveled from afar in a remote area where there are no other businesses or public transit or anything nearby on a cold rainy night.

Ganesh Hotels: How do you train employees or hotel managers on legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act? How did this failure occur, and what are you doing to ensure that it will not happen to other people? Remember, I happened to have the knowledge of the ADA guideline and social connections that allowed me to get inside eventually, but other customers might not and they still do not deserve to be left freeing outside.
Wyndham Hotel Group: What protections are in place for franchisees bearing your brands (Super 8, etc.) are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act? How was it possible for the entire staff at a Super 8 hotel to be ignorant about their legal obligations, and what are you doing to ensure that the same thing will not happen at other Wyndham-branded hotels?

Expedia Inc.: What do you do as a market facilitator to ensure that companies that you partner with are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it is safe for people with disabilities to book their travels with Expedia and your other sites?

I would like to hear your responses to these questions and also receive a formal apology from the manager of Super 8 Hotel in South Bend or someone above her. My friends have suggested that I should sue the hotel or demand a full refund. I would not go that far at this point because I was otherwise satisfied with the room and the booking process, but I think it would be fair and reasonable to ask for a refund for at least one night’s stay after I was left freezing outside for almost an hour in a strange city, wondering where I would go and how.

What I want out of this incident most is the assurance that the practice of disability discrimination is discontinued at Super 8 Hotel South Bend as well as at any other hotel under the control of Ganesh Hotels or in partnership with Wyndham Hotel Group or Expedia, Inc.

Thank you very much for your immediate attention to this problem. I look forward to hearing from you in the next couple of weeks.

Best,

Emi Koyama



Response from Wyndham Hotel Group:

Case # 3749437
Site # 14645

Dear Emi Koyama,

Super 8 Worldwide is in receipt of your concerns regarding your stay at SOUTH BEND , IN on or about 10/27/2016. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.

Super 8 Worldwide appreciates you bringing your concerns to our attention. We take these matters very seriously. While Super 8 Worldwide is solely the franchisor of the Super 8 Worldwide trade name, trademarks, and service marks to independently owned and operated Super 8 Worldwide guest lodging facilities, we require all Super 8 Worldwide facilities to comply with applicable law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and its directives. We have contacted the owner/operator of this facility regarding this incident and conveyed our expectation that he/ she take steps to address it adequately. As this matter is the responsibility of the owner/operator of the facility, the facility is in the best position to respond. Please direct further communications to:

Priti Jairam
4124 Ameritech Drive
South Bend, IN, 46628-9126
(574) 243-0200

Customer Care
Wyndham Hotel Group
Tele: 888-675-3379
Fax: 888-565-7707


Response from Super 8 Hotel South Bend:

November 1, 2016

Dear Ms. Koyama,

I, Priti Jairam, general manager at Super 8 South Bend, am writing this email to you on behalf of my employee to apologize. I deeply regret what happened on October 27th 2016 and hope that you accept my apology.

We do not handle situation like this lightly therefore, we would like to give you full refund of your stay with us. We would also like an opportunity to accommodate you in future as well.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention, if there is anything else I can further assist you with, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Priti Jairam
Super 8- South Bend
4124 Ameritech Dr
South Bend,IN 46628

Next Steps for Safe Consumption/Injection Site in Seattle, or why the City of Seattle should sell drugs and operate brothels

Date: October 29, 2016

In February 2015 the Indiana State Health Department announced an outbreak of dozens of cases of HIV infection in southeastern part of the State resulting from needle-sharing among prescription drug users. It was not particularly newsworthy, except it happened in white rural Indiana as opposed to urban neighborhoods with large Black and Latino populations, causing a shockwave that appears to finally be making drug policy reform an acceptable policy choice to the mainstream.

Among other cities, Seattle and King County are working on becoming the first U.S. city to open a safe consumption (injection) facility in the near future, and I have attended many meetings in which community members, public health officials, social workers, activists, and others discussed how to establish and operate such facilities, as well as what other preventative and treatment options should be pursued. I was initially concerned about some of the random comments made by community members and elected officials who did not seem to know much about the issue, but in the end I feel that the task force came up with a fairly decent proposal (considering the political climate) for the city and county to consider.

Referred to by various names including “drug consumption room,” “medically supervised injecting center,” or “supervised injection facility,” safe consumption sites are “professionally supervised healthcare facilities where drug users can use drugs in safer and more hygienic conditions,” according to a paper by Dagmar Hedrich, Thomas Kerr and Françoise Dubois-Arber. Enforcement of anti-drug laws are often suspended at and around the facility in order for drug users to enter and use the facility without the fear of prosecution. At this point, InSite in Vancouver, Canada which opened in 2003 is the only existing facility in North America, even though multiple cities in the U.S. including Seattle are considering starting one.

One of the key decisions made during the early stages of Seattle’s effort to establish a safe consumption facility was the adaption of the “equity and social justice charge” which guided the process. The document states:

The King County Heroin and Opiate Addiction Task Force will apply an Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) lens to all of its work. We acknowledge that the “War on Drugs” has disproportionately adversely impacted some communities of color, and it is important that supportive interventions now not inadvertently replicate that pattern. Interventions to address the King County heroin and opiate problem will or could affect the health and safety of diverse communities, directly and indirectly (through re- allocation of resources). Measures recommended by the Task Force to enhance the health and well-being of heroin and opiate users or to prevent heroin and opiate addiction must be intentionally planned to ensure that they serve marginalized individuals and communities. At the same time, the response to heroin and opiate use must not exacerbate inequities in the care and response provided among users of various drugs.

All recommendations by the Taskforce will be reviewed using a racial impact statement framework. The Task Force will not seek to advance recommendations that can be expected to widen racial or ethnic disparities in health, healthcare, other services and support, income, or justice system involvement. Whenever possible, these concerns should lead to broadening the recommendations of the Task Force, rather than leaving behind interventions that are predicted to enhance the health and well-being of heroin and opiate users.

One of the reasons the task force used the phrase “safe consumption facility” throughout its discussions (although political compromises resulted in it being rebranded as the “Community Health Engagement Locations” or CHEL in the final recommendation) was precisely because the group did not wish to further the disparities between communities using different types of drugs by offering legal and medical relief to people using drugs in one way without doing the same for those using them in a different way (smoking).

Speaking of political compromises, it was interesting to observe how the task force ended up recommending the establishment of “at least two CHEL sites,” one of which shall be in Seattle and another outside. Some task force members commented that the downtown Seattle business association would not tolerate establishment of the safe consumption site if they felt singled out, while officials from nearby cities of Renton, Auburn, and others fought to push the second facility on each other, fearing that the safe consumption facility would bring drug users to their cities (which is ridiculous: people will not travel to Auburn just to use drugs at the safe consumption facility unless they already live in the area). In the end, police officers representing Renton and Auburn Police Departments both opposed to the recommendation to establish safe consumption facilities, but the rest of the task force adapted it.

Even with the political compromises, I feel that recommendations that includes prevention, treatment (including changes to State regulations that are making access to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine programs unavailable to many who need it), greater distribution of naloxone, as well as the safe consumption facility are positive steps toward protecting the health and dignity of our neighbors.

But before Seattle celebrates itself upon becoming the one of the first cities if not the very first city to establish a safe consumption facility (or CHEL or whatever) and brags about its progressive tendencies, as it did when they legalized same-sex marriage or marijuana use, or when they enacted an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years, I want to push forward with a couple of proposals to further protect the individual and collective health.

First proposal: Provide a public option. Here, I am not talking about heath insurance policies, which is an entirely different matter altogether. I am calling for the City of Seattle and King County to sell drugs to users directly at the safe consumption facility to remove third party suppliers and ensure the quality and safety of drugs consumed at the facility. In my proposal, consumers can purchase drugs that they consume at the facility, and would not be allowed to bring them outside. This will certainly increase the likelihood that consumers will use the facility–perhaps they might even travel to Auburn if this was available. Users will know exactly what they are putting in their bodies because the City can eliminate any contamination of drugs it sells, and it will make it easier to monitor their health while they us them.

Second proposal: Start a safe prostitution facility. The City of Seattle has been at the forefront of the nationwide effort to shut down Backpage, a website that many sex workers (and yes some traffickers) use to advertise their services, which has led to the recent raid on the site. But shutting down Backpage only pushes sex workers as well as potential sex trafficking victims further underground, perhaps onto offshore websites using encrypted and decentralized payment methods like Bitcoin that are harder to subpoena or investigate even when they needed to be investigated for human rights abuses. Safe prostitution facilities would provide client background check, physical safety, social workers on site, as well as safe and clean environment for sex workers.

In both proposals, it would be essential that the City does not receive fees and revenues exceeding what it costs to offer these products or services, lest the City would itself become financially entangled as a drug dealer or a pimp. The City should certainly promote the services to increase its use among people who already engage in drug use or prostitution, but the system should be designed to minimize the financial incentive for the City to overreach this aim, perhaps by requiring that any profit would go toward lowering the fees for the next year.

These proposals may not be satisfactory to people who demand full decriminalization of drug use and prostitution (and I support that as well), but I feel that they are what is possible under the existing laws under the same rationale that make safe consumption sites possible in Seattle. Some versions of these policies are already practiced in some parts of Europe, such as the prescription of heroin to those diagnosed with substance use disorders or the establishment of government-funded facilities for sex workers to operate at, and if any city in the U.S. could do it, it would be Seattle.

My rejected response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”

Date: October 6, 2016

Note: Below is a piece written for an online media outlet that requested my 300-500 word response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”.

It was uncompensated, but because they were lining up many activists (anti-prostitution and sex worker rights) and scholars (law, philosophy, etc.) on both “pro” and “con” sides of the debate, and I felt that none of them on either side would represent my perspective, so I wrote one on a very tight deadline.

Well, it has been a month since that time, but they have not used my response in their published feature so I will assume that they did not like my piece, or felt that my response was completely incomprehensible to their target audience, who are members of the “personal finance industry,” so I decided to publish here instead.

*****

Should prostitution be legal? Of course it should, as I am sure others can explain how there is no fundamental moral or ethical reason that private sexual transactions between consenting adults should be criminalized, or how, if one were actually concerned about the violence and exploitation that exist within commercial sexual exchanges, prohibition of prostitution exacerbates the problems by pushing the sexual marketplace further underground.

But those who argue whether prostitution should be legalized, decriminalized, criminalized, or combination thereof (as in the case of the so-called Nordic model) often miss the crucial reality that criminalization is not about what the laws on the book say, but about the targeting and persecution of communities and individuals deemed criminal, as the extra-legal executions and murders of Black men and women by the law enforcement and the dearth of prosecutions against such actions attest. Criminal laws do not make criminals; they are merely tools to further persecute those who are already labeled by the society as criminal.

That is why, while I welcome my fellow sex worker activists’ and allies’ efforts to decriminalize prostitution, I believe that the criminalization of sex workers who are people of color, trans women, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and other criminalized populations will continue unabated regardless of how the law might classify the legality of commercial sexual exchange. In fact, I have heard anecdotal stories from youth advocates in cities that have enacted “safe harbor” policies which prevent minors from being charged with the crime of prostitution that the constant harassment, abuse, and persecution of street youth engaging in sex trade by the police have not decreased as a result.

Even laws that ostensively target pimps and sex traffickers are in reality used to further criminalize young people of color (I heard the police chief of a city I lived at the time tell a crowd at a human trafficking community forum that we must “stop listening to that crap, rap music” in order to prevent sex trafficking), in addition to making it harder for people in the sex trade to help each other without committing the crime of “promoting prostitution,” which media often equate with “pimping” and human trafficking but does not necessarily involve coercion or exploitation.

Since around 2011, the federal government reframed “domestic minor sex trafficking” as part of the “gang problem,” setting the government’s “war on trafficking” on the same devastatingly racist trajectory as Richard Nixon’s “war on crimes,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” In the meantime, the trafficking of foreign and domestic workers in our farms, factories, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses—none of which are predominantly owned by Black and brown people—remain unaddressed. We need to stop arguing in abstract about whether or not prostitution should be legal, and instead focus our attention on the white supremacy of our social, political, and legal institutions.

Pressuring or requiring cab drivers and hotel workers to report suspected prostitution will backfire

Date: July 30, 2013

In the previous post, I wrote about how penalizing cab drivers, hotel workers, and others for building relationship with people in the sex trade (instead of immediately reporting it to the police, as the law enforcement requests) isolates people in the sex trade (youth or adult, trafficked or not) and make them more vulnerable. But some people continue to insist that the right thing to do is to call the police, so here is further explanation.

Public policies often have unintended consequences. That is, when the government takes measures to encourage certain actions and discourage others, it does not necessarily lead to the desired result, and might even cause unanticipated harms. So the question we should ask is: what will happen if the government requires or pressures cab drivers, hotel workers, and other businesses to report suspected sex trafficking cases, including any suspected minor engaging in prostitution?

Cab drivers, hotel workers, and others witnessing potential sex trafficking cases have several options to choose from. They can 1) call the police, 2) pretend that they are not seeing anything, 3) refuse services to them, or 4) approach the potential victim and build relationship so that they can offer resources if they need and want them (including calling the police if that is what they want).

Businesses might call the police in the very rare cases when they are 100% certain that the person is being trafficked, or the victim is clearly underage (someone who appears like a pre-pubescent, for example). But when it is uncertain, which things usually are, businesses are reluctant to call the police on their customers.

When the cost of acting on a suspicion that might be wrong (such as calling the police under false impression) is high, businesses recognize that it is in their best interest to remain (or feign) uninformed about the situation (option 2), or simply distancing themselves from it (option 3), rather than risking angering innocent customers (option 1), or learning too much about the situation by becoming too involved with people who might be in the sex trade (option 4), making them complicit in the crime in the eyes of the law enforcement.

As a result, policies that are intended to promote option 1 (calling the police) actually lead businesses to choose options 2 and 3, and foreclose further the possibilities for more innovative solutions that meet people in the sex trade, build rapport with them, and assist them in ways they desire.

What Businesses Should Know About Service Animals: A Guide

Date: January 5, 2013

[Download PDF]

Many people are confused about what service animals are, or what rights people using service animals have under Americans with Disabilities Act. This document is intended to help businesses understand what obligations they have to customers and members of the public who have service animals under law.

1. Service animals are not pets.

Service animals are different from pets because they are trained to perform tasks to assist persons with disabilities. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their owners wherever people without service animals may enter, even if the premises do not generally allow pets.

2. There are psychiatric service animals, too.

In addition to guide dogs, seeing eye dogs, and other more commonly recognized ones, some service animals are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities. The DOJ guideline lists dogs that are trained to calm people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack as an example of service animals that must be accommodated.

3. Service animals do not need to be trained by professionals.

Some service animals are trained by professionals to perform highly specialized tasks and are certified by established institutions. But service animals can also be trained by their owner, and do not need to receive any certification or license to be recognized as service animals.

4. Businesses cannot require any documentation.

Under ADA, businesses are not allowed to require any documentation for service animals such as a certificate or a physician’s letter. They are not allowed to demand people with service animals to “prove” that they are service animals, or to demonstrate their ability to perform tasks.

5. Tags/harnesses marking the animal as “service animal” are optional.

Some people with service animals put a tag or harness that marks their animals as service animals in order to inform other people, but they are not required. It is entirely optional.

6. There are only two questions businesses can ask.

When it is not clear that an animal is a service animal, businesses may ask: 1. “Is this a service animal?” and 2. “What work does the animal do?” Businesses are not allowed to ask what disability the person has, or to demand a proof.

7. Businesses can expect service animal to be under the control of the owner.

People with disabilities are expected to keep their service animals under control (not barking or making a scene) and on a leash (unless it would prevent the animal from performing the task). Also, service animals must be potty-trained. Businesses can ask a person using a service animal to leave the premise if he or she cannot keep the animal under control.

8. Businesses cannot discriminate.

Businesses cannot charge extra fees for people with service animals, even if they charge extra for people with non-service pets. They cannot isolate or segregate people with service animals from other customers, or treat them less favorably.

9. Fear or allergy are not legitimate reason to exclude.

Some people are afraid of dogs or are allergic to dogs, but these are not legitimate grounds to exclude people with service animals. When appropriate, businesses may need to accommodate both customers with service animals and those with allergic reactions, for example by seating them away from each other.

10. People with service animals cannot be singled out.

When service animals cause damages, it must be treated the same way damages caused by people are treated. For example, a hotel may charge for an extra cleaning fee for a mess made by a service animal if another customer who made a similar mess is also held responsible.

This document is based on “ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals” issued by U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.

(Also posted in System Failure Alert!)

Going Places with Your Service Animal: A Guide

Date: January 4, 2013

[Download PDF]

Many people are confused about what service animals are, or what rights people with disabilities have about bringing their service animals to places like buses, restaurants, schools, and other places. Some businesses violate the law when they refuse service to people with service animals out of ignorance, but we can’t demand our rights effectively if we don’t know them better than they do. This guide is designed for people who are interested in going to places with their service animal.

What Are Service Animals?

Service animals must be dogs (with some exceptions) that have been trained to perform a task to assist a person with a disability. They are different from pets, “companion animals,” or “emotional support animals” because they are specifically trained to do something for a person with disability.

Examples of “tasks” given by the Department of Justice include:

  • guiding someone who is blind
  • alerting someone who is deaf
  • pulling a wheelchair for someone
  • protecting someone who is having a seizure
  • calming someone during an anxiety attack (licking, nuzzling, etc.)

Service animals must be trained to do one of these things (or some other task), but they do not need to be trained by professionals. Some organizations train and certify dogs as “service animals,” but you or your friends and family members can train your own dog as well. There is no requirement for certification or registration for service animals.

What Are My Rights and Responsibilities?

Businesses, government buildings, clinics, and non-profit organizations that other people can enter generally must allow service animals. There are some exceptions, but they are very specific (such as an operating room at a hospital).

Service animals must wear a harness, leash, etc., unless these devices prevent them from working. They must be under control (not barking or making a scene) and must be potty-trained (they are able to hold off until they are in an appropriate place to relieve themselves).

What Are Businesses’ Rights and Responsibilities?

There are only two questions businesses are allowed to ask about someone’s service animal: 1. “Is this a service animal?” and 2. “What work does the animal do?” They cannot ask what disability you have, require documentation of any kind, or make you “prove” that the animal can perform tasks.

Businesses cannot charge extra fees for people with service animals, even if they charge extra for people with non-service pets (hotels, airplanes, etc.). They must allow service animals even if they do not allow other animals (restaurants, grocery stores). They cannot treat people with service animal any worse than they treat other customers.

Businesses can ask people with service animals to leave if the dog is out of control, or the animal is not potty-trained, but not just because someone else is afraid of or allergic to dogs.

Businesses can make people with service animal pay for damages their animals cause only if they would also ask customers without service animals to pay for damages they cause.

What Else Should I Know About Service Animals?

Some people make their service animals wear “service animal” tags, harnesses, or jackets. They are not required, but they might stop other people from questioning if your dog really is a service animal. You can buy them at a pet supply store or online.

This document addresses your rights in most places of “public accommodation.” There are different definitions of “service animal” or “assistance animal” for having service animals in housing (including shelters), or for air travel, which might give you more rights. Talk to your friendly disability justice advocate to find out more!

This document is based on “ADA 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals” issued by U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Download the original document, print out a copy and hand it to ignorant businesses to educate them!

(Also posted in System Failure Alert!)

Roundtable on California’s Prop 35 and “War on Trafficking”

Date: December 24, 2012

I participated in the roundtable discussion about California’s Prop 35 and “war on trafficking” in the current (January 2013) issue of In These Times magazine, which is also available on its website.

ITT Jan. 2013 Cover

Cutting off people in the sex trade from support networks: Opportunity cost of the NYC anti-“sex trafficking” taxicab rule

Date: July 10, 2012

Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a new regulation targeting taxicab drivers who knowingly transport people who are engaging in prostitution. The new law imposes a $10,000 fine and the revocation of taxi license when the driver or owner of that taxi is convicted of such crimes as promoting prostitution (first thru third degree), compelling prostitution, or sex trafficking if the licensed vehicle was used in the crime.

Critics of the law have pointed out that the new regulation might lead cab drivers to refuse rides to any woman who are suspected of being prostitutes or sex trafficking victims (based on their appearance and other factors) out of fear that giving transportation to someone who might be involved in the sex trade could be construed as “promoting prostitution.”

When the bill was proposed, female bartenders who must frequently use cab to go home late at night held a protest against the law. The president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers also protested the regulation, arguing that it would encourage police officers to arrest innocent cab drivers who are simply doing their job.

While members of the New York City Council assure us that the law does not require cab drivers to determine who is or is not involved in the sex trade, pointing out that the driver has to be first convicted of one of the crimes listed above before the additional penalty kicks in, drivers’ and female riders’ fears are not entirely unwarranted, considering how broadly “promoting prostitution” is defined. Under law, “promoting prostitution” could simply mean that one “knowingly causes or aids a person to commit or engage in prostitution,” which providing transportation to and from a “date” would qualify, for example.

That said, my concern with this law is not about innocent cab drivers who might be wrongly targeted because he or she transported someone who turned out to be a prostitute or trafficking victim, or even about innocent female riders who experience inconvenience and annoyance as they are refused rides. My concern is about the loss of an opportunity to actually partner with cab drivers to offer resources and support to people in the sex trade, including victims of sex trafficking (though most actual sex trafficking rings do not use regular commercial cabs, as pointed out by the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center; they generally use private vehicles that are not licensed as cab).

New York City does intend to provide training to cab drivers to identify and report suspected sex trafficking victims. But that is not likely to be helpful to the actual victims of sex trafficking, as many victims would simply go back to their traffickers rather than testifying against them in the absence of legal, financial, and emotional support and services they need. It is also very annoying and inconvenient to those who are wrongly reported as potential trafficking victims, and downright harmful to those who are non-trafficked sex workers, immigrants, and others who wish to avoid interacting with the law enforcement.

Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. In an ongoing, long-term relationship that has elements that are abusive, and I include many “sex trafficking” or “pimping” relationships in this, calls made to the police, especially by a third party, might make things worse and more dangerous for the victim, not safer.

There are many initiatives within anti-domestic violence movement that attempt to build community support for people who are in ongoing, long-term abusive relationships. One example of such strategy is anti-DV organizations partnering with cosmetology schools and practitioners to educate hairstylists and others in the field to become the first line of support and information referral point for victims of domestic violence. Hair salons are ideal, because they are female-dominated space where women spend a long time chatting with each other about their lives while their hair is being done, away from their husbands and boyfriends.

The purpose of the partnership is not so that hairstylists can identify and report suspected abuse victims to the police; it is to build trust and rapport with the women, hear their stories, provide support and encouragement, and when a woman ready and willing, give her resources she needs to escape from violence. What I wish the New York City had done is to adapt a similar strategy to reach out to people in the sex trade through cab drivers, whether or not their circumstances meet the legal definition of “sex trafficking.”

The problem with the New York City law is not that innocent drivers might get caught in the crossfire; it is that it discourages them from building trust and rapport with people in the sex trade by generating the fear that any knowledge about their passengers’ involvement in the sex trade might incriminate them and expose them to persecution. The problem is not that cab drivers have no way of determining who is or is not a prostitute; it is that they are prohibited from knowing who is, or from forming relationships with people in the sex trade that might one day allow more trafficking victims and other people in the sex trade to come forward and access support and services they need.

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative

Date: June 6, 2012

In “Mug Shots: Transgender ‘Johns’,” research methodologist Rachel Lovell reveals that a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of color.

According to Lovell, Chicago Police Department has been posting mug shots and personal information of people who were arrested as “buyers” of sex online in 2005. Public posting of the mug shots of people arrested as “buyers” of sexual services has been a cornerstone of many “end demand” campaigns targeting the “johns” throughout the country.

Her research center, Social Science Research Center at DePaul University, began collecting the published information since 2010, and she almost immediately noticed a curious trend: a significant portion of mug shots seem to show individuals wearing clothes, hair, makeup, and accessories that are clearly feminine in presentation, despite the fact they are categorized by the police as male “buyers” of sex. In fact, over 10% of the mug shots published in the two-year period from March 2010 to March 2012 show faces of trans women.

Those who consider trans women as “men in disguise” might jump on such finding as an evidence supporting their prejudice, while the rest of us instinctively get the feeling that there is something wrong with the notion that over 10% of individuals who have been arrested as “johns” are trans women. Further analysis by Lovell and her team indicate that there is, indeed, something unusual going on.

According to her breakdown of arrest data, there are stark differences between non-transgender men who are arrested as “johns” and trans women who were arrested for the same offense, beyond their gender identity and presentation. Trans women who were arrested as “johns” tend to be overwhelmingly (92.7%) Black, compared to less than half of non-trans arrestees; they are much younger too.

Young trans women of color are not known to patronize prostitutes in droves. But they are known to be more likely to engage in prostitution to survive, more so than any other group I can think of. In fact, any young trans woman of color is vulnerable to be profiled and arrested as prostitutes even if one is not engaging in the sex trade. This is also the group most often targeted for hate crimes, and for police harassment and brutality. Lovell is probably right to assume that these women are far more likely to be sellers, not buyers, of sexual services.

It is not clear to me if they are actually arrested under false premise as “johns,” or the Chicago Police Department is simply publishing names and photos of any legally male individuals arrested for prostitution (since many laws do not distinguish buyers and sellers–which is another discussion). But regardless, there is no question that they know exactly what they are doing: maliciously punishing and humiliating women for their race, gender, gender identity, and class for daring to survive.

This intentional mislabeling of trans women of color as “johns” by the Chicago Police Department of course reminds me of the recent case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who has just been sentenced to serve 41 months for defending herself against violent assailants. In McDonald’s case, too, she is not just punished for doing what she had to do to survive, but on top of that she is misclassified as a male perpetrator: she will spend her sentence in a men’s prison. The message is clear: for trans women of color, survival is a crime.

There has been a huge war of words over a radical feminist conference in the U.K. that excludes trans women from attendance over the last couple of weeks, but that exclusion does not occur in a vacuum. The same radical feminists who disregard trans women’s lived realities of womanhood under the patriarchy are also behind the punitive/criminalizing approaches to prostitution including “end demand” initiatives (e.g. Sheila Jeffreys who has been banned from the venue of the radical feminist conference for hate speech against trans women before the venue canceled the conference altogether is the Australian representative of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women).

Trans women of color know that this is not just an issue about some obscure conference of close-minded folks: transphobia, racism, and the persecution of women and other people in the sex trade are inseparable, and the violence of trans exclusion and misclassification, racial and gender profiling, hate crimes against trans women of color, and State violence are all connected and constantly present in the lives of trans women of color.

Not so quick to call sex worker activists “pimps”: criminal charges do not tell the full story

Date: May 30, 2012

Last week, sex trafficking survivor and activist Stella Marr wrote an interesting article exposing some of the leaders of sex worker’s rights groups as “pimps” who are “posing” as sex worker activists, ostensibly to silence survivors like herself and promote “policies that protect pimps.” I appreciate her effort to address the conflict of interest within sex worker organizing as it is something I’ve been speaking out about, but I am troubled by her use of criminal records to support her claim that many “sex worker activists” are actually “pimps.”

That said, I want to state this first: regardless of what one’s views regarding prostitution and sex trade are–whether they are pro- or anti-prostitution, feminist or moralistic, libertarian or paternalistic, secular or religious–I feel a sense of connection to and camaraderie with everyone who has lived through abuse and exploitation in the sex trade. I hesitated responding to Ms. Marr because I fear that there are people out there who are not one of us, who would quote my words to attack her, as they would use her words to attack me and others like me. But this discussion is so important that I could not avoid it.

One of my first encounters with the national sex worker’s movement was in 2001, when I attended a series of workshops for sex workers held in conjunction with the Sex Worker’s Art Show in Olympia, Washington. I was naive about the racial/class/etc. division within the sex worker’s movement at the time, so I was really excited to be surrounded by sex workers who were proud, not ashamed, of what they did. I had never thought that it was possible to validate myself as a “sex worker,” rather than feeling ashamed or damaged about my experiences. (And this honeymoon period with the sex worker’s “community” and the sex worker identity lasted for less than a year.)

But even to my naive self, it felt very weird and offensive to hear one of the presenters chastise sex workers “who don’t enjoy their job” as being “sex-negative.” It was later that I found out that she had stripped behind a protective glass while she was a graduate student “as part of a research project,” and was managing a sex toy shop at the time. No wonder: as a manager, she had a vested interest in convincing her employees (which, I don’t consider sex toy shop workers to be “sex workers,” but that’s beside the point) that their jobs are fun and liberating: it’s cheaper than offering good pay and benefits.

Similarly in 2004, I was involved in the debate at/around St. James Infirmary, a free comprehensive health clinic specifically for sex workers in San Francisco. In order to make up about $80,000 budget shortfall after a funding cut from the city, SJI organized “Erotic Health Day,” on which “much of San Francisco’s adult entertainment community, including local exotic dancers, adult entertainment club owners, and sex workers” donate 10% of their proceeds to the clinic. The fundraiser was endorsed by the owners of the clubs (Hustler Club, New Century Theatre, Market St. Cinema, and others), but many sex workers were concerned that dancers would be forced or pressured by their bosses to give up their earnings.

In addition, there was a concern about St. James Infirmary, an institution that has to stand on the side of the vulnerable workers, becoming financially dependent on the bosses who exploit dancers every day. The controversy was further exacerbated after critics discovered that one of SJI’s board members (at the time) was a club owner, and that the board had contracted with his company to provide publicity for the fundraiser. (See my comments from November 2004 in “Pimps are not our friends: sex workers’ clinic should distance itself from managers.”)

In that sense, Ms. Marr is right: for a movement that purports to promote the notion that sex work should be treated just like any other work, its failure, in many instances, to actually treat sex workers’ interests and rights violations like any other workers’ is deeply troubling, even though there are also many sex worker activists with labor rights and other social justice analyses.

Where I become concerned about Ms. Marr’s article is her reliance on criminal records to label and dismiss someone as a “pimp.” Charges she conflates with “pimping,” such as promoting/facilitating prostitution, running a brothel, etc. do not necessarily mean that someone is controlling or taking advantage of another person, or even profiting from another person’s sexual labor. Under Oregon law, for example, promoting prostitution is defined as:

A person commits the crime of promoting prostitution if, with intent to promote prostitution, the person knowingly:

  • (a) Owns, controls, manages, supervises or otherwise maintains a place of prostitution or a prostitution enterprise; or
  • (b) Induces or causes a person to engage in prostitution or to remain in a place of prostitution; or
  • (c) Receives or agrees to receive money or other property, other than as a prostitute being compensated for personally rendered prostitution services, pursuant to an agreement or understanding that the money or other property is derived from a prostitution activity; or
  • (d) Engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution.

This statute, which is similar to many other jurisdictions’, is quite broad. For example, it can apply to sex workers who share a “work space” to save money and increase safety for themselves, or people (including friends) who provide transportation and other services for sex workers to work more safely, even if they are not controlling another person or profiting from their sexual labor. I am personally guilty (although I have never been charged with promoting prostitution), for example, of helping a friend who had just left a pimp learn to use Craigslist to post ads on her own, among other things, that might fall under this broad definition.

One reason it is so broad is that real pimps (i.e. those who control other people and pocket their earnings) are notoriously difficult to prosecute for what they do, which in Oregon law is called “compelling prostitution.” Prosecutors want to have the option to charge them with something that is easier to prove in court. But the same law can be and are used to target sex workers, survivors, and our associates–sometimes even as a threat to coerce us into “cooperating” with the prosecution against those they perceive to be “pimps.” In addition, while I don’t have any hard data, I would not be surprised if racial/class/gender/etc. stereotypes and prejudices sometimes influence what specific charges are brought against sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

The distinction between people who “engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution” and those who actually perform the sexual labor (trafficked or otherwise) is not as clear as Ms. Marr suggests. Many of us who trade sex, regardless of why or how we do it, are also vulnerable to prosecution under “promoting prostitution” laws: it can apply when we exchange health and safety tips or are on the lookout for a friend who is getting into a strange vehicle. It will definitely apply when a pimp asks (or makes) us talk to and recruit other “girls.” That should not disqualify us from speaking as a sex worker or a survivor of abuse and exploitation for that matter; in fact, it is part of what it means to be a sex worker or survivor of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

Pimps who control and abuse other people should never be allowed to speak as a sex worker or lead a sex worker organization. But people whose criminal histories include “promoting prostitution” and other similar charges are not necessarily guilty of controlling and abusing us, and some of them are actually not any different from us. Ms. Marr is correct to point out that sex worker’s movement often fails to address the inherent conflict of interest that exists within the sex industry as well as in the sex worker’s movement, but I don’t agree with her tactic of using people’s criminal history to reduce them to “pimps” just like her abusers.

(See “Pimping does not equal enslavement: thoughts on the resilience of youth and adults who have pimps” for more discussion about the problem with the label “pimps.”)

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