Right now, it’s legal in Hawaii for an undercover police officer to pretend to be a john, have sex with a prostitute, and then arrest her after the fact. Some legislators in Hawaii are not too happy about this and, in a new bill aimed at cracking down on prostitution, have attempted to get rid of the provision that allowed for it. But police leadership in the state is fighting back. The Associated Press reports:
Authorities say they need the legal protection to catch lawbreakers in the act. Critics, including human trafficking experts and other police, say it’s unnecessary and could further victimize sex workers, many of whom have been forced into the trade.
Police haven’t said how often — or even if — they use the provision. And when they asked legislators to preserve it, they made assurances that internal policies and procedures are in place to prevent officers from taking advantage of it.
In other words, they are asking legislators to preserve their ability to have sex with prostitutes because, hey, they do it responsibly. But the police department can’t give too many details because “if prostitution suspects, pimps and other people are privy to that information, they’re going to know exactly how far the undercover officer can and cannot go,” Honolulu Police Maj. Jerry Inouye explained in his House testimony.
Of course, undercover cops sometimes do have to partake in criminal activity. But, as Lauren Hersh, who runs the global trafficking program of the women’s advocacy group Equality Now, told the AP: “I can understand you’re in a drug den, and you have a gun to your head and someone says ‘snort this,’ ” But, she continues, police officers having sex with prostitutes is “so dissimilar from that circumstance on so many levels.”
There’s a heated debate in feminist circles about how best to deal with the issue of sex work. Some feminists support sex work and want to decriminalize it, while others see sex workers as victims but want to focus criminal penalties on the pimps and johns who exploit vulnerable women. These two camps fight a lot, but they do tend to agree on one thing: that prostitutes are too often abused by the police. This bill, which increases penalties for johns and pimps while keeping the selling of sex at a misdemeanor level, suggests the influence of the latter group, but all that could be dramatically undermined if the state continues to give police the authority to have sex with prostitutes and then turn around and cuff them.
Unfortunately, the state House has caved to police pressure and passed a new bill that preserves, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, the right of cops to have sex with prostitutes without getting in trouble for it. Let’s hope that the state Senate balks.