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April 04, 2019

Robert Kraft, Sex Work and Media Hysteria

JUPITER, Fla. – Back when the news first broke that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had been snagged in a prostitution sting at a tacky little strip-mall rub and tug in Florida, I must admit my first response was to chuckle, just a bit.

I didn’t chuckle out of disapproval because Kraft had allegedly sought the services of a prostitute masquerading as a masseuse; I believe there’s nothing shameful about sex work. I believe sex work should be legal and regulated, with the focus of the regulations being assuring the safety and well-being of sex workers and their clients, to the extent possible. I chuckled because the fabulously wealthy owner of a football team I loathe (in the “sports hate” sense, I mean) had just begun the process of being publicly humiliated in a way which was likely take him down a peg or two, and I’m not above feeling a little schadenfreude from time to time.

Then I got to the part of the article which reported the claim from prosecutors that there was actual human trafficking involved in this case, and I stopped chuckling. There’s nothing funny to me about people being forced or coerced into sex work, in any context.

While the human trafficking claims surrounding this case do give me pause, I’m a skeptic at heart. I believe the numbers which get kicked around when discussing how many people are trafficked within the American sex trade are often enormously inflated. I believe the largest of those estimates include many adult sex workers of sound mind who have chosen to be sex workers – and I believe it’s absolute nonsense to think of such people as ‘trafficking’ themselves.

All this has been percolating in my head as I’ve watched the story of Kraft’s trips to the Orchids of Asia Spa unfold. And as that story has unfolded, I’ve noticed a significant scaling-back of the sensationalist human trafficking claims at its core.

Among other things, whatever the law enforcement personnel and prosecutors may have said about the case in their various press conferences, if you look at the charges filed against Kraft in this case, the words “human trafficking” are nowhere to be found. He was charged with a first-degree misdemeanor of “soliciting another to commit prostitution.”

For that matter, in the arrest report for the spa’s owners, you won’t see human trafficking charges, either. The charges they face (so far, at least) include deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, soliciting another to commit prostitution, renting space to be used for prostitution and maintaining a house of prostitution.

You might not know the above from reading mainstream media reports about the Orchids of Asia case though, because for the most part, they’ve been happy to zero in on the human trafficking claims made by prosecutors at various press conferences. Some have gone so far as to note that while human trafficking is hard prove, just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That statement is true enough – but it’s true of virtually any criminal allegation which can’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, which makes it a rather useless observation in my book.

The media’s focus on the notion the sex workers at the Orchids of Asia were victims of human trafficking hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who advocate for sex workers and/or favor the decriminalization of sex work. When sex workers and their advocates read these articles and watch the prosecutors’ press conferences, they see a familiar pattern of spectacular claims, followed by scant evidence to support them.

In a press release issued Tuesday, the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project (ESPLERP) “called out the media for their irresponsible, lazy reporting on the Robert Kraft case – and about sex work in general.”

“The reporting on the Robert Kraft case has been incredibly sloppy and lazy,” said Maxine Doogan of ESPLERP. “You might expect a reputable news operation like the New York Times to conduct some basic fact checking – like checking what the individuals caught up in the Florida massage parlor prostitution sting were actually charged with – which turns out to be misdemeanor prostitution and nothing to do with ‘trafficking.’ But instead, they simply parroted law enforcement’s completely misleading and unsupported claims.”

I tend to agree with Doogan – with one caveat: The prosecutors in this case may not have put all their evidence on the table with respect to the alleged human trafficking by the owners of the spa.

In a February post, Florida-based defense attorney Keren Goldenberg observed that “there may have been human trafficking and evidence to support such allegations may come out later.”

Goldenberg makes several other important points in the same paragraph where she noted the possibility of human trafficking evidence emerging later in the case, including that “not all prostitution is human trafficking and the measures taken to investigate this spa were based on suspicion of prostitution and not human trafficking.”

“Human trafficking charges could arise if employees of the Spa are questioned by police and claim that they were working involuntarily,” Goldenberger continued. “Those claims need to be viewed with both concern and suspicion. A victim of human trafficking may not have the opportunity to tell law enforcement officials what has happened to them until the moment that traffickers are apprehended. However, one must also consider that if a person is confronted by police officers with the option of being a criminal (prostitute) or victim (of sex trafficking) there is an incentive to choose the latter. If the person accused of prostitution is not a US citizen, prostitution will get them deported; being the victim of sex trafficking may get them a visa.”

Goldenberger’s post is worth reading in full, but you get the idea: While it’s possible evidence of human trafficking may indeed emerge in this case, based on what we know at this moment, there’s ample reason to be more skeptical of the accusation – and not just the ability of prosecutors to prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

I also don’t think it would be entirely objective, fact-based journalism to claim the prosecutors in the Orchids of Asia case “have absolutely zero evidence” of human trafficking to offer, as ESPLERP stated in its press release. I feel this way simply because of what Goldenberger pointed out in her post: It’s possible the prosecutors do have such evidence and will present it at a later stage in the case.

In other words, what the media should do – and what much of it has not done to this point – is refrain from judgment, one way or the other, and present just the facts which are known, while noting any ambiguities and inconsistencies as they arise. And speaking of ‘trafficking,’ long the line, it would sure be nice if the mainstream media would refrain from trafficking in tired, stereotype-reinforcing clichés concerning sex work and sex workers, while they’re at it.

That said, I wouldn’t advise holding your breath and waiting for the media to adopt such an approach. After all, “On Robert Kraft’s Charges, Let’s Wait for the Facts to Come Out” isn’t quite as juicy a headline as “New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution in human trafficking probe

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