Sex Worker Rehabilitated in Outdoor Cage. Later Died Alone. – Nicholas Little

Police in Dayton, Ohio want to establish the city’s first-ever rehabilitation home for gay men in response to the problem of frequent re-arrests (ie. gay men who continue to try and meet each other for sexual intimacy despite the threat of jail time for doing so). The idea comes in the wake of a spike in HIV-infected gay men arrested by officers in 2008. Police learned of this increase in HIV infections because gay men are subject to mandatory HIV tests while incarcerated for homosexuality. “Many of these men are having sex with each other because they are addicted to drugs,” the Dayton Police Chief said. “We need to get them into an environment where they see the benefits of being clean. It’s a problem that has to be addressed because homosexuality affects the entire community. There is a quality of life issue here, along with the general welfare of citizens in areas where homosexuality is a problem.”

Having gay sex was an illegal act in many places not that long ago. In many more places, it still is to this day. For many of us, the fictional news story above would have been entirely believable a few decades back. For many more of us, it is a lived reality today.

With that in mind, I’d like to share with you an example of how sex workers are suffering the very same police and media targeting the world over today, in 2009. Media coverage of HIV contributes to the way that most of us—shamefully—accept this targeting as an unfortunate inevitability, if not a regrettable necessity

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In a March 14, 2009 story entitled Dayton police think safe house might deter prostitution, Ohio’s Dayton Daily News reported that, in response to frequent re-arrests (ie. sex workers who continue to try to earn a living despite the threat of jail time for doing so), “police want to establish the city’s first-ever rehabilitation home for prostitutes”. Rehabilitation home, their words.

Lt. Brian Johns is spearheading discussions with nonprofit centers and leaders of safe houses from other cities to try to come up with funding and the necessary social services to operate the home. The idea comes in the wake of a spike in HIV-infected prostitutes arrested by officers in 2008. Twelve prostitutes arrested last year, including two men, were HIV positive, up from less than a handful in 2007 and 2006, according to police. Johns said it’s the largest jump he’s seen in his 10 years.

Chief Richard Biehl explains:

Many of these women are prostituting because they are addicted to drugs and need the money. We need to get them into an environment where they see the benefits of being clean. …It’s a problem that has to be addressed because prostitution affects the entire community. There is a quality of life issue here, along with the general welfare of citizens in areas where prostitution is a problem.

Sloppy journalism and pulled-it-out-of-my-ass police policy that is in no way grounded in scientific evidence sort of go hand in hand, so I’m not going to waste time calling out the Dayton Daily News for trading in their journalistic responsibilities for a chance to be the local police mouthpiece. It would be notable only if the Dayton Daily didn’t go along with the cops’ can’t-be-won “war on drugs” / “war on sex” agenda.

What does surprise and trouble me, however, is when I can’t distinguish between the Dayton Daily News’ coverage of this story and the coverage by respected HIV news sources that pride themselves on championing evidence-based approaches to HIV prevention.

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Kaiser Health News is a service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to producing and communicating the best possible information, research and analysis on health issues.

Those are their own words, straight from the KHN website. What I won’t quote directly, however, is their coverage of the proposed Dayton hooker reform school, which they ran under the title Dayton, Ohio Police Officers Arrest Increasing Number of HIV-Positive Sex Workers. I won’t quote it because there’s no need to — it’s simply a condensed version of the Dayton Daily News’ own story. No critique, no context or background, no epidemiological stats to verify the cops’ claims. Just a straight reprint: copy; paste.

For those of you who aren’t data dorks like me sitting at home on a sunny weekend prowling HIV research blogs, let me put this in context. On March 17, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced, “You can’t resolve [the HIV epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” Kaiser ran a story about it the next day and spent the entire first paragraph directly transcribing such papal wisdom. Six subsequent paragraphs, however, were spent dismantling this garbage.

I turn to news sources like KHN because I can depend on them to render scientific data accessible to laypersons like me in a language I can understand. They aim to strip the stigma from news stories about HIV and gay men or African nations or intravenous drug users and, instead, put it in a sociological context reflective of emerging prevention developments and epidemiological trends.

Yet such endeavours to present unbiased information proves insurmountable even for Kaiser Health News when sex workers are the subject. If KHN dared to run the fictitious story at the top of this article without any critique of the assumptions held therein, they’d be skewered by gay men. They could never get away with it. But then, they’d never try to in the first place.

So why do they when it comes to sex workers?

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When I want the soft news that presents the human face to Kaiser’s hard news, one source I often go to is POZ magazine. POZ presents itself as a voice of people living with HIV/AIDS. Their coverage tends to speak to and for HIV+ individuals as a way to counteract the invisibility of the PHA perspective in mainstream media.

But, under the heading HIV Leads Dayton, Ohio to Consider Rehab Home for Sex Workers, POZ magazine merely condenses the Dayton Daily News’ story even further. Again: no critique, no background information to help the reader interpret the story, no epi-stats to verify the claim of ballooning HIV rates among Dayton prostitutes. Just a reduced reprint: copy; paste.

Let’s be entirely clear about what we, the readers, are being presented with then:

1) The Dayton Police Department is the kind of organisation that deems it an efficient use of taxpayers’ money for the police to disguise themselves as clients, pick up street-based sex workers (the same ones they claim are victims in need of saving) and then arrest them and press criminal charges so that they can force them into rehabilitation centres to reform the addiction that they claim (without evidence) is at the root of sex workers’ occupational choices. You can read all of that in the original Dayton Daily News story, or you can just go to the Dayton Police Department website (something I doubt either the Kaiser or POZ journalists did) and read for yourself:

The Dayton Police Department regularly conducts decoy operations to disrupt prostitution activity in the city of Dayton. To help further deter prostitution activity, the names of individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution are regularly run in the Dayton Daily News and on the City of Dayton’s government access television channel.

2) Said Police Department runs one of their routine prostitution street sweeps, arrests women engaged in transactional sex, forces them to take HIV tests and then decides that, in addition to publishing the names of the people arrested, they may as well also announce their cumulative HIV stats too. Any half-wit who puts the two lists together, therefore, has a handy list of Dayton’s recently diagnosed. It’s confidentiality, Ohio style

3) The Dayton Daily News, obviously no great champion of sex worker rights if they’re an active part of the cops’ “name and shame” outing operation — receives the Police Department’s media release and publishes great swaths of it unadulterated.

4) Both the Kaiser Foundation and POZ magazine pick up the story but run it with nothing added; rather, they opt to omit the only sex worker voice included in the entire media copy-and-paste chain, a small anecdote at the start of the Dayton Daily story of how it might feel for a sex worker to be duped by a cop posing as a client. (Though admittedly, the empathy has to be supplied entirely by the reader…)

5) There is a fifth step here. It is the step of silence. The silencing of sex workers in (unsurprisingly) mainstream and (shockingly) HIV-specific media. The silence in the minds of readers – who can’t be expected to inherently know about the lives of sex workers, about HIV transmission data, about tactics used by cops to target the poor – and who rely on media as one means to fill in those blanks. And how only baseless assumptions are left to fill in those blanks if the media fail to do their job of providing factual information.

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And there is also sixth step. The step of unsilencing, wherein sex workers like me write some kind of critical commentary and seek some sort of net-based medium through which to distribute it, hoping that it might reach other sex workers and slowly build a critical mass. A critical mass like that of gay men, immigrants from countries where HIV is endemic or intravenous drug users, whereby we demand that our voice be included in the story of HIV, the story of police brutality, the story of the criminalization of any marginalized minority whose personal identity or behaviours frighten the majority. The sixth step in this process –exhausting, lead-footed and costly–is the rewriting of history, the assertion of agency, the demand for justice, the insistence that the truth be told.

In her essay Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants (recently republished by No More Potlucks), Laura Agustín writes:

There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters.

It also gives faux-legitimacy to Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl’s proposed rehabilitation home for sex workers and, to jail cells, even. Whatever it takes to save the helpless or, as Biehl puts it, “to get them into an environment where they see the benefits of being clean.”

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I won’t waste time writing evidence-based critiques that Kaiser Health News and POZ magazine should have written themselves if they deemed the Dayton rehabilitation home story fit for printing. I won’t waste time asking how HIV news organizations could miss the subtext here of non-consensual HIV testing forced upon arrested women. I won’t waste time wondering how HIV news organizations could fail to report on the laughable stats cited by the Dayton cops: “Twelve prostitutes arrested last year, including two men, were HIV positive, up from less than a handful in 2007 and 2006…” (Since when did we start measuring HIV transmission rates in handfuls?!) I won’t waste time dismantling the dangerously simplistic suggestion that addictions develop due to the lack of “an environment where one can see the benefits of being clean.” And I won’t waste time pointing out that if Toronto police still conducted raids on gay bath houses, as they so recently did, of the men they arrested there, 24% would be HIV+ and who knows how many would be drunk or high on drugs. Would that then be grounds to force homosexuals into rehabilitation centres to keep them from doing harm to both themselves and the community at large?

It’s enough to say that while mainstream media revel in abetting the police agenda to render sex workers as hapless scapegoats, we are in serious trouble when our own alternative media outlets get in on the act.

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And what of it?

On June 24 2009, 48-year-old Marcia Powell died while serving a 27 month sentence for prostitution in an Arizona prison. Powell had a history of both chaotic substance use and mental illness and was scheduled to be transferred to a psychiatric unit–another rehabilitation centre, of sorts.

At 11:00am on June 23, Powell was placed in an outdoor, uncovered chain-link holding cell while awaiting her transfer. Temperatures outside were 42°C. Department guidelines call for prisoners to be confined outdoors for no more than two hours, but Powell had been in the cell for almost twice that long when, at 2:40pm, she collapsed. A half hour later, Powell was taken to hospital. At 11:15pm, Powell was alone when doctors decided to remove her from life support. She was pronounced dead at 12:42am, June 24. No family members could be found to be with her in the hospital before she died and, at the time of publication, corrections officials were still searching for a next of kin.

In summary, then: addicted to substances, living with mental illness, exchanging sex for money, arrested, imprisoned, killed by the state. It’s rehabilitation, Arizona style.

The Arizona Republic ran the story under the innocuous headline: “Inmate found dead at AZ prison.” It should have read: “Sex worker rehabilitated in outdoor cage. Later died alone.”

Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He now lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where he is an HIV outreach worker in bathhouses, bars and online chat rooms. In 2008 Nicholas helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. In September 2008, POWER organised the first ever rally for sex worker rights on Parliament Hill. You can follow Nicholas’ blog at

Comments from old site

Submitted by Major Lee (not verified) on Wed, 07/29/2009 – 18:43.

Many thanks, Nicholas Little, not just for this article, but for your work in general, which I sadly came to realize is not only essential but incredibly marginalized, not least by law enforcement.
As a former sex worker (who, by the way, was entrapped, arrested without a warrant, shipped to the psychiatric ward and only escaped prison by being diagnosed ‘borderline’, thanks to my being bisexual and a little bit creative), it took me about ten minutes to ENTER the system, and two years to EXIT it. Now I won’t bother you with considerations of law and order, but I can assure you that in almost every case, when a sex worker is the victim of a criminal act, she ends up being, not `protected’, but considered the one people must be ‘protected from’. Now and probably forever, I have no passport, no credit, and a hell of a post-traumatic stress disorder, which no health professional gives a shit about nor takes seriously.
Which is absurd, deeply unfair, and to me, awfully disturbing.

Submitted by bornwhore (not verified) on Sun, 07/12/2009 – 00:13.

thank god for sex worker voices against the tide of our silencing. I cannot believe we still have to defend our right to have a say in what is written about us! Go Nicholas!
This is an atrocious case. And fuck “seeing the benefits of being clean”. People are entitled to their drug use without coercive, patronizing (and in this case, homicidal) law enforcement who couldnt give a rats ass about the autonomy or happiness of a poor sex worker. (wouldja listen to me! nothing has made me more of an anarchist than becoming a ho!)