Subject: Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City
Available online, the report, “Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City,” reveals the experiences of 52 indoor sex workers. Researchers for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center met and interviewed a diverse group of sex workers, mostly women (73%), contacted in a variety of ways (through the internet, other sex workers, a nightclub, a gang clubhouse). Nearly half (47%) had been arrested for sex work, and nearly half (46%) had experienced client coercion. Sixty percent were born in the U.S. The report itself is 96 pages, and an executive summary is ten. “Specific problems faced by respondents,” reports the Executive Summary, “included violence, which is often disregarded by police; fear of arrest and its consequences; lack of supportive services; and extreme isolation.”
DB: What’s your job title at the Urban Justice Center? What are your duties in general?
JT: I’m the Director of the Sex Workers Project. We have a an Advisory Board and interns and consultants who do a lot of work, but I’m the only full-time staff person here, so that means that I do everything from raising money and creating our programs to representing clients to stuffing folders.
DB: How did you get involved with the Urban Justice Center?
JT: I graduated from law school (University of San Francisco School of Law) in 1996, and worked in CA for a few years–then we moved out to NYC because I got a fellowship doing reproductive rights work. I wanted to work directly with immigrant women, so I left that to join the Family Violence Project at UJC. I worked there for about two years, working with women who were involved in domestic violence situations and dealing with the criminal justice and child welfare systems, both of which are very hard on low-income families in general, but especially on immigrant families.
DB: How did you get involved with the Sex Workers Project?
JT: When I was in CA, a group called the Exotic Dancers Alliance approached the place where I was working for help. We worked with low-income women on issues of economic justice, and these dancers were having all kinds of problems with the clubs where they were working. I found the issue interesting–and even more than that, the reaction of many feminist women who are very progressive on other issues–I found their negative reactions to be really disturbing. So when we moved to NYC, I looked around for something similar to get involved in, and didn’t find much. At UJC, we’re definitely supported if we want to start a new project, as long as we can raise the money, so I started doing needs assessments with sex workers and advocates to start a legal project. We got started in December 2001.
DB: Where did the idea for conducting an indoor-sex-worker report come from?
JT: The main reason for doing a report is that there is so little factual information out there about sex workers–we released a report in 2003 on street-based sex workers, because they are so heavily targeted by the police and NYC’s quality of life initiatives. Once we finished that, we thought it was important to look at the other side–people who work indoors–and see how similar or different they are. Sex workers who are indoors are so invisible as a group, and we wanted to dispel myths about them–like they’re all drug addicts, or they’re all really rich call girls with an Upper East Side sugar daddy, or they’re all these poor immigrant women who have been chained into a brothel–the reality is so much more nuanced.
DB: What was the original motive for putting together the report? Did you expect the data to confirm expectations or dispel some myths?
JT: In addition to dispelling myths and putting solid facts out there, we want to create the bases for sound policies as they affect sex workers, and you have to start with facts. It’s so important to get this group of people on the public radar, but in a way that shows that prostitutes are very much like everyone else and have some profound needs that society simply does not meet. We definitely expected the data to dispel the myths I mentioned above, but some things surprised us as well.
DB: How did the research protocol get established? Did you stick with it to the end, or did the protocol change in response to what data you were able to collect?
JT: Some of my consultants and collaborators are Ph.D.’s who work on research and methodology, so we worked together to decide what areas we wanted to cover and how to ask the questions in a way that would elicit solid information in an unbiased manner. It takes a while, because everyone has issues they want to include, but we also can’t make it a four-hour interview, because no one would want to be interviewed. For this report, we started with the protocol from the first report and refined it to expand on things that were interesting or get rid of questions that didn’t really go anywhere, in terms of gathering data. For this report, we collaborated a lot with people at Columbia’s Sociology Department, and it’s great to work in such an inter-disciplinary manner.
We conducted two pilot interviews, to tweak questions, and we added a few questions or clarified wording based on that, but we used the same protocol and didn’t deviate, so we could preserve the method.
DB: Where did funding come from?
JT: We go to foundations, who usually fund us for a combination of the things we do–documentation like this report, but also direct legal services and policy advocacy based on our work. I would love to hire more staff, because there is so much that we could be doing, but sex workers are a pretty marginalized group, and we’re still talking to funders about why it’s important to work on this issue.
DB: What was your role in Behind Closed Doors? Were you there from the beginning?
JT: There were about 6 of us who worked on it–I was the central person to keep track of everything and decide on timelines and all that, and I did a little bit of everything, from conducting interviews to analyzing data and writing the report. But I didn’t have to do it all alone–we all worked hard on this, and worked together to assess what our thesis was, for about a year and a half. The only thing that I didn’t have to do, THANK GOD, was input data. We got Columbia students to do that.
DB: Did you interview respondents yourself? The report identifies the places where you contacted respondents. Were you intimidated by the environments (gang house, nightclub) or the people you had to go through (police, pimps) to get to the respondents? Did interviewers travel in pairs? After you identified respondents to interview, where were the interviews actually conducted?
JT: Everyone is so intrigued by the gang clubhouse interviews–including me and my co-authors–we’re all dying to meet Jimmy! (The gang leader who gets mentioned in the report.) Jimmy, and all the names, are pseudonyms, of course. Actually, someone else that we collaborated with conducted those interviews after making friends with Jimmy. At first, it can be a little intimidating, especially in environments where we as the researchers clearly stood out–everyone’s like, “What the hell are you doing here?” But that’s good too, because people are curious. In most places, we’re handing out legal rights cards and condoms, so that’s stuff people want, and it makes them more open. The thing is, they’re working, and you have to respect that, so we only get 30 seconds–it’s enough to exchange contact information and make an impression.
We also worked other networks–one of our co-authors thought she didn’t know anyone that knew any prostitutes, but once she started asking, they started coming out of the woodwork for her, through this one friend she had–it was pretty funny. Also, my male intern went on websites and wrote to men in ads, explaining what we were doing, and would you like to come down for an interview? That was interesting, because I think he saw a lot more penis ads than most law students do during their summer job.
We usually had people come to our offices, or we met them where they wanted to meet. The interviews were long, so we couldn’t do them right on the spot.
DB: What were your concerns about your own safety in finding sex workers?
JT: I’m all about Safety First, so it’s not too big a worry. I never send anyone out alone, and if it’s late, I always make sure people take cars–everyone has a cell phone, and honestly, even when people don’t want us there, they’re likely to use other methods of letting us know. When we did street outreach for the first report, we had these guys whom we assumed were pimps that brushed by us a lot to let us know they knew we were there and didn’t like it, but we didn’t push it–I think generally, as long as you’re polite and careful, you can get by.
We also have to worry about people thinking we’re police–so that’s an obstacle.
DB: What were your concerns about disrupting the lives of these sex workers and making their lives harder for them, and how did you address these concerns?
JT: Our impact on them was pretty minimal–we were very flexible about where and when to do the interviews, and since we knew we were taking away time that would otherwise be spent on appointments, we paid $50 per interview. It’s not much, but I think it showed that we took their time seriously. The only real danger is that someone might figure out who they are, so we were very careful about identifying details and names. Most of the people we interviewed liked or didn’t mind doing the interviews, because they don’t have that many chances to talk about this aspect of their lives–a few of them talked about it being therapeutic. Plus, they know it’s important to get their stories out there, and this is a safe and anonymous way to do it.
DB: What expectations of yours were confirmed by meeting these respondents?
JT: That they were just so normal. The only thing about most of them that isn’t very mainstream is the fact that they engage in sex work. Also, that they were such a diverse group of people from so many backgrounds–all genders and ethnicities, and all ages too.
DB: What expectations were challenged, i.e. what surprised you about these individuals (personality, lifestyle, manner of speaking, etc.)?
JT: I have to say, probably because I work with sex workers regularly, they were pretty much what I expected.
DB: Can you give a brief biographical sketch of one or two sex workers?
JT: Angie was born in NYC, and got involved in sex work at the age of 25, because she got left by her boyfriend and she couldn’t make enough money and also have time to spend with her kids. So a guy she knew–a friend of the boyfriend’s–said he’d pay her to have sex, and it wasn’t so bad, and she realized quickly she could make a lot of money and also spend time with her kids. She works independently and for the gang clubhouse. She wants to get out eventually, and go to school, but I didn’t get the sense that she was making concrete plans.
Emiko came to the US from Japan because she felt that a single woman in her 30s in Japan just has no social role anymore, and she had wanted to see the world. She’d done dominatrix work in Japan, and got into it here in NYC to support herself. She always liked the work, but knew that she should get out at some point, just because of the legal issues, and because it can make a relationship very messy. She got married and has a green card now, and has opened her own business.
Lisa was 22 when she started, and has been working for 13 years–she’s from Pennsylvania, and her exact words were “I always wanted to live in NYC, and do this!” She doesn’t have any plans to leave, and doesn’t want to work for someone else–she doesn’t think she’s hurting anyone, and she makes good money. She likes her freedom and she likes the work, which she prefers over office jobs.
DB: What stats surprised you the most?
JT: Honestly, the stats around violence. Violence was huge for street-based sex workers, and we knew it was a big problem for all sex workers, but finding that almost half had experienced some form of violence relating to their sex work was still pretty shocking. We assumed that being indoors makes you safer, and to some extent it does, but it’s still quite dangerous. I was also surprised by how many (67%) said that they couldn’t make a living wage on other work–it really goes to show how much of an economic issue this is, and that so many people are part of the working poor.
DB: What stats were the most upsetting, in your view?
JT: The violence, again. Also, the stats around the complete lack of any kind of services or help. Also, the arrest stats–indoor sex workers weren’t arrested as frequently as street-based sex workers, but it’s clear that the arrests do nothing–they don’t lead to assistance, and they don’t address the economic underpinnings of prostitution, so why are we as a society spending so much of our resources on arrests? It makes no sense.
DB: Are there plans to reveal the results of the report to the respondents themselves? If so, have you heard any feedback from the respondents?
JT: For the respondents with whom we can make contact, we’ve sent them the report. There aren’t as many as I would like, but one of the facts that we accept is people don’t necessarily want us to be able to track them down. The ones who’ve seen it have been pleased with it–it’s empowering to see that others are sharing their experiences, and that their concerns are being taken seriously.
DB: Have any of the law-enforcement folks read the report, and if so, any feedback? Did any respond to the report’s recommendations?
JT: The press called NYPD for comment, and their take on this is that if any of the claims about police violence were credible, our respondents would have filed complaints with internal affairs, which is ridiculous–it’s pretty clear throughout the report that sex workers are very hesitant about the idea of approaching police for help. We’ve gone to them in the past to say we want to work on violence against sex workers with them, in a systemic way, by implementing best practices, but they’re not interested. That means that we have to advocate even harder with them.
DB: What are your hopes for the impact this report might have on the future conditions in which sex workers live and work?
JT: We hope that we can get people talking about issues facing sex workers, as well as affecting City policies, such as implementing better practices for police who encounter sex workers who complain about violence. We also want to keep hammering away at the fact that arrest is such a waste of resources–the average annual cost to house an inmate in a City jail is $60,070, or $165/day.
DB: What is the most urgent thing that might be done to support sex workers? Is it likely to happen? If responding to this urgent need will take time, what is something that can be done in the immediate future?
JT: The most urgent thing is to reform the criminal justice response to sex workers, both in terms of reducing arrests, which put sex workers in harms way and do not solve or address any concrete issue, and in terms of taking violence against them seriously.
DB: What is your next project at the Urban Justice Center that might relate to this report, e.g. conducting another larger report, spreading public awareness, creating peer-support networks, etc.?
JT: Right now, we’re focusing on spreading public awareness, and working on creating allies to do this work. NYPD and the City won’t respond to us and to sex workers–we need to make other groups see how relevant sex workers’ issues are–that they are not that different from other groups of workers. We’re in the planning/formative stages of our next report, which will be more focused, but it will definitely address an area of criminal justice policy. We’re trying to decide between two issues right now.