Hon. Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.
Allegheny County District Attorney
Courthouse, Room 303
436 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Dear District Attorney Zappala,
The Sex Worker’s Outreach Project (SWOP) Pittsburgh is disappointed in the District Attorney Zappala’s response to the open letter we and several other organizations (including ACLU of Pennsylvania, Women’s Law Project, and Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania) opposing several practice that endanger the citizens of Allegheny County: 1.) police and prosecutors’ practice of citing condom possession as evidence of intent to engage in prostitution-related crimes, 2.) police seizure of condoms and other contraceptives, and 3.) the practice of adding the more severe possessing-instrument-of-crime (“PIC”) charges under 18 Pa.C.S. § 907 when defendants are charged with prostitution.
DA Zappala incorrectly characterized SWOP as “represent[ing] an industry that is illegal in Pennsylvania.” This is inaccurate for two reasons.
First, SWOP does not, in any way, encourage illegal activity, nor is SWOP a trade group representing an industry. SWOP is “a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy.” SWOP Pittsburgh is a group of local community members—DA Zapalla’s constituents—loosely affiliated with that broader national network. SWOP Pittsburgh’s goal is, and remains, to work alongside local law enforcement and other relevant organizations in order to promote the health and safety of a vulnerable population (i.e., sex workers) in our community. We do this important harm reduction work only to the extent that the law allows. These efforts may include working with city leaders to clarify what the law is pertaining various forms of sex work in the community and how providers can comply with it. It may also include advocating for law/policy changes that we believe would improve conditions for the population we serve through civic engagement and democratic processes.
To express concern for the health and safety of individuals who may have broken the law is in no way to show disregard for the law or to promote criminal behavior. Concretely, while SWOP Pittsburgh urges people to respect the law, we do not believe anyone—even those who break it—should suffer HIV, STIs, or unwanted pregnancy. Public servants have a responsibility to promote public health for all members of the community, and it is troubling that a public servant would express unwillingness to engage with a local community organizers simply because the vulnerable and stigmatized population they serve sometimes breaks the law.
Second, many forms of sex work are, in fact, legal in Allegheny County. For example, numerous strip clubs operate in accordance with law. However, as described in the open letter (and widely documents in a 2012 Human Rights Watch report), dancers are discouraged from possessing any safer sex materials in clubs for fear these materials will be treated as evidence that the club is facilitating prostitution. These conditions are dangerous and impinge on the reproductive rights of all persons concerned (including waitress, bartenders, bouncers, and other non-sex workers).
SWOP is similarly concerned for the well-being of former providers who may fear that possessing condoms will be seen as evidence that they have returned to doing illegal work. Again, in this case, condoms-as-evidence policies and their potential designation as instruments of crime, intimidates law-abiding citizens into foregoing their reproductive rights to access safer sex materials. We find similar concerns among law-abiding LGBTQ+ persons and women of color.
DA Zappala’s response is also problematic for a couple of additional reasons.
First, DA Zappala seems to suggest that concerns of the coalition opposing the criminalization of condoms are unwarranted because most PIC charges for condom possession that reach him are dropped. These PIC charges for condom possession are, counterintuitively, higher level offenses than the prostitution charges themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that many legal experts believe that making such arrests and filing these charges violates state and federal law, charging sex workers with these higher level offenses—even if dropped—may mean they are unnecessarily taken into custody for processing. Moreover, any possibility of such charges intimidates sex workers and discourages condom use.
Second, DA Zappala argues that PIC charges against condoms and cell phones are targeted at sex traffickers; however, the evidence does not appear to support this claim as, in many cases, these charges are being levied against sex workers and not pimps or traffickers. In cases where a provider is a victim of trafficking, it seems cruel and only further victimizing to punish them for condom use. Many escorts and prostitutes work independent of pimps or traffickers, and these providers are also being arrested for possessing condoms when their activities have nothing to do with trafficking whatsoever. Thus, for the DA or police departments to claim that they are arresting providers for possessing condom in order to stop trafficking is neither logical nor compelling.
Of course—as was expressed in our open letter—we all abhor human trafficking. But, law enforcement officials in the county need to be clear in distinguishing providers from pimp/traffickers as well as distinguishing consensual, independent sex work from sex trafficking. In fact, drawing these distinctions is necessary to hone in on signs of real sex trafficking.
The members of SWOP Pittsburgh are eager to work with law enforcement to improve community relations between sex workers and law enforcement so that sex workers feel safe in tipping off law enforcement if they have suspicion that abuse or trafficking is occurring. Sex workers are on the front lines and in the best position to observe these problems. These sorts of relationships are the essence of community policing, but cannot take place if one side does not trust or respect the other.
SWOP’s position is that the decriminalization of sex work is the most effective means of not only promoting the health and safety of sex workers, but also of facilitating trust and respect between sex workers and law enforcement. Nevertheless, we encourage respect for the law as it stands. That said, we also encourage the DA and police to use discretion in their enforcement of the law, focusing resources on the trafficking we all find despicable, not conflating it with consensual, independent sex work, and certainly not levying dangerous, inflated charges against independent sex workers.
We remain eager to work with DA Zappala and believe an adversarial relationship in no way serves our community. It is SWOP Pittsburgh’s hope that DA Zappala simply misunderstood our position and will be open to working with us moving forward.