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Releasing the Robert Kraft tape would further harm sex workers

A few weeks after the New England Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl in February, Florida prosecutors charged Patriots owner Robert Kraft with two counts of soliciting a prostitute at the Orchids of Asia day spa, a massage parlor in Jupiter, Florida. In headline-grabbing press conferences that sent shockwaves around the sports world, the prosecutors said that these charges were part of a large-scale sex trafficking sting.

But last week, in a much quieter manner, prosecutors changed their tone completely.

“No one is being charged with human trafficking. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” said Greg Kridos, the assistant state attorney.

This wasn’t a surprise to those who had been paying attention. From the beginning, the human trafficking elements of the case seemed flimsy at best. According Jill McCracken, co-coordinator of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Tampa, police often use the fear-mongering of sex trafficking to go after consensual sex workers.

“The police and powers that be set up these traps under the guise of trafficking, but it’s a lot about shaming,” McCracken told ThinkProgress.

When police first raided the spa, they portrayed their efforts as a rescue mission. The women working there were given little bags filled with flip flops and evangelical tracts to take to jail with them while they were in custody. Police referred to these women as victims, and further averred that they were trying to get them to cooperate with a larger investigation.

That didn’t happen. Instead, 12 workers at the spa have been charged with prostitution. Kraft, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor solicitation charges and requested a jury trial.

“These sensationalized headlines do not help people. Arresting people is not rescuing them,” McCracken said.

Prosecutors are now threatening to make things even worse for the women. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office has announced its intention to make the surveillance videos of Kraft, and all other suspects, available to the public. Kraft’s lawyers have strenuously opposed the release of this material, but media companies and prosecutors have pushed back, contending that since the investigation is over, the Florida Sunshine Law guarantees the public access to these records.

Many argue that Kraft should not be above the law just because he has money and power, and that the video of him in the parlor — which, according to descriptions by police, clearly shows him naked and receiving a massage on his genitals — should be released. Undoubtedly the moment that happens, the video will spread far and wide across the internet.

And that prospect has Gabrielle Monroe, an advocate with SWOP Behind Bars, gravely concerned. After all, Kraft is not alone in that video — the women with him are much more vulnerable, and have been arrested.

“That would be devastating to the sex worker,” Monroe said. “The repercussions for the people in the video are going to be lifelong. And if they have children? Think about that.”

Kraft’s legal team has filed a pair of motions seeking to suppress the video. One motion holds that the videos should remain private because “the Jupiter Police Department deems the masseuses who are alleged to have performed the sex acts to be victims of a sexual offense.”

But, as mentioned above, that is no longer how the government is viewing the case.

“All of the masseuses who engaged in acts of prostitution in the Orchids of Asia Spa and who have been identified are being charged with felonies and misdemeanors,” Kridos wrote in response to that motion.

The second defense motion seeks to get the video thrown out out on the grounds that Andrew Sharp, a detective with the Jupiter Police Department, lied about suspected human trafficking in order to get a warrant for cameras at the spa. This motion has more of a possibility of succeeding.

In January, five months into the investigation, Sharp applied for the warrant to install the hidden cameras at the spa because he and health specialist Karen Herzog believed that human trafficking was taking place. They were granted the warrant due to Herzog’s report that the workers were sleeping and cooking meals at the spa, and that the conditions were not up to health codes. Then, on January 18, the police called in a fake bomb threat to clear out the spa and install the camera, something which is technically permitted under the Patriot Act.

Defense lawyers feel that law enforcement overstepped in a detrimental way. Monroe agrees.

“I get the sunshine laws and that police should be transparent. But the video should never have happened in the first place,” she said. “The government sanctioned police-produced pornography, without the consent of the participants.”

A lawyer for one of the spa’s owners has also sought a protective order to seal the video evidence, saying “no legitimate public purpose is served by the release of the video evidence to the public or press … Indeed, the only purpose served by the media and public’s access to such recordings would be for entertainment, amusement, sexual arousal, gratification, or profit.”

According to Monroe, the only possible good outcome of the videos becoming public record would be if they shine a light on how the cops behaved in the spa; it is known that cops went in to solicit services, but it is not known if they received any services beyond a standard massage.

Florida is one of a few states in the country where police are allowed to have sexual conduct with sex workers in order to obtain a low-level charge of prostitution; Monroe and many advocates consider this to be an act of sexual assault or rape, since the cops are not being honest about their identity with the sex workers.

“Sex by deception is rape,” Monroe said. “Cops are raping sex workers, and they’re not being prosecuted. So, yeah, maybe those videos need to be released.”

Both Monroe and McCracken stressed that just because there weren’t human trafficking charges in this case, doesn’t mean that these sex workers weren’t in need of assistance and support. If, instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on an investigation, the police had provided resources to help these workers with housing, employment, and food, the women could have moved toward independence and self-sufficiency.

Or, if sex work was decriminalized, these women wouldn’t have to operate in the proverbial shadows, where they are much more susceptible to abuse and corruption. Instead, they were arrested. Some were jailed, separated from their families, and now have a permanent record. Some, likely, will get deported. And now, some face the prospect of having a video of them performing a sex act become one of the year’s most viral internet videos.

Kraft will be fine. This will haunt the women forever. 

When you’re working on the margins, without labor protections, that’s when exploitation happens,” McCracken said. 

“Now they’ve been in jail for two months, away from their families, not making money. It’s detrimental and cyclical.”


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