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Cincinnati aims to ‘shame’ away prostitution

Some sex worker advocates say publishing names of prostitutes’ clients could backfire

Cincinnati’s City Council will vote Wednesday on a number of ordinances to fight prostitution, including one that would publish the names of sex workers’ clients and bar clients from entering parts of the city typically frequented by sex workers.

The measures, which specifically target clients of the sex industry, have been touted as the “most comprehensive” in the nation by the council members, who say Cincinnati is facing rampant prostitution and sex trafficking. A preliminary vote by the committee that developed the proposals passed Monday.

If approved, the ordinances will also include a provision requiring clients of sex workers to reveal the results of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease tests to their spouses.

But Jeanette Allen, a former Cincinnati sex worker, said sex workers' concerns have not been adequately considered.

“I don’t agree with publishing [names]. You could put a lot of people in danger for doing that,” Allen, 34, told Al Jazeera. “Some people could come up hurt seriously or come up dead.

“I’ve never been put in a position to speak about something like that. I’d be willing to,” she added.

The proposed laws are the latest in a series of measures aimed at tackling prostitution. Last week, city officials erected a barricade on McMicken Avenue, infamous for sex-trade-related crimes. The barrier, according to Yvette Simpson, a city councilwoman behind the proposed ordinances, has brought prostitution there to a standstill. It will remain up for 90 days.

To Simpson, the goal is to effect change in the social habits that fuel the local sex trade.

“Johns get into the habit of being in certain areas. We are breaking that habit,” she told Al Jazeera. 

The publication of clients' names, which Simpson called “shaming” — already enforced in Dayton, Ohio, one of Cincinnati’s sister cities — is another measure she hopes will eventually stop a sex industry that she says has resulted in violence and drug use.

Simpson, who says she met with a number of local current and former prostitutes at a program aimed at diverting sex workers from the industry, dubbed Off the Streets, said the new measures target clients, not the sex workers themselves.

“Criminalizing [the sex workers] never works. They are under the control of someone else. You can't hold them for a long time in prison — they are going to get out,” Simpson said, estimating that 90 percent of Cincinnati sex workers work under pimps, who she says often coerce them with physical and mental abuse.

But Allen said the number of sex workers working under pimps is likely closer to half, and other analysts say statistics on the subject are difficult to find.

Off the Streets director Mary Carol Melton said she is unsure that prostitution is more of a problem in Cincinnati than in other cities. “I think the [Cincinnati] community is more vocal,” she said. “City Council members are putting voices behind a more comprehensive effort.”

Melton supports the City Council’s proposed initiatives — but not all advocates agree that targeting the clients is the right move.

Sienna Baskin, co-director of the New York City–based Sex Workers Project, said law enforcement often receives tips on women who have been trafficked and are not doing sex work by choice.

“They've received reports from people who went to have sex with a sex worker, were appalled and wanted to help,” Baskin said. “Not everyone who hires a sex worker wants to hurt someone or participate in something abusive.”

Simpson said that in Cincinnati, human trafficking is more prevalent than willful sex work.

But Jesse Bach, director of the advocacy group the Imagine Foundation, said, “There is no accurate way right now to gauge the difference between sex trafficking and commercial sex,” adding that analyzing sex trafficking trends in Cincinnati is “feasible.” The foundation has studied statistical trends in trafficking in Ohio and across the nation.

Off the Streets’ Melton, however, said that sex workers often face many of the same issues as those who have been trafficked.

“What I would try to say to people who make a distinction is the women I meet are women who have been physically, psychologically, emotionally abused as children. They have carried that into their adult lives. They are living in desperate situations,” Melton said.

“I personally don't think anyone wakes up one day and says this is what I want to do today,” she added.

Since graduating recently from Melton’s program, Allen has successfully started a career in catering.

She emphasized that the city should better include sex worker voices in the discussion on how to deal with prostitution and sex trafficking, suggesting “getting our side and not only [talking with] people who’ve never done anything like that or been in a situation like that.”

“I’m happy now to be alive,” Allen said, choking back tears. But she asserted, “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”

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