Program Offering Services To Suspected Sex Workers Faces Backlash

April 11, 2014

(Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)
Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz is with ASU's School of Social Work and helped start Project ROSE.

Two weeks ago, we told you about a sex worker rights activist who is fighting prostitution-related charges. April 11, 2014, she faces trial. She was arrested as part of a program that targets suspected sex workers and tries to get them services they need. Critics have called into question projects that pair social work with law enforcement.

Since 1997, the city of Phoenix has offered the option of a diversion program for some people facing prostitution charges. But Project ROSE goes a step farther. Since late 2011, it has offered not only diversion but social services for those arrested.

Volunteers connect people with things like safe housing options, mental health care and detox programs. In a promotional video for Project ROSE, a woman named Tammy said she had been a prostitute for 25 years.

"My mom got me started working, and she would give me drugs when I would go to work," Tammy said in the video. "I was pretty young. You get used to taking the drugs when you work, because you don't want to work sober."

Project ROSE is a two-day program. It's a partnership among the Phoenix Police Department and Prosecutor's Office, Arizona State University's School of Social Work and community social service agencies. On the five occasions when Project ROSE has been held, more than 100 officers hit the streets arresting suspected sex workers.

"Obviously, it would be in our best interest to try to get as many [people] as possible into the program so that we won't see these same people time and time again," said Phoenix Police Sgt. Steve Martos.

"In Arizona, your fourth arrest for prostitution is a felony," said program co-founder Dominique Roe-Sepowitz in the promotional video.

She is an associate professor in ASU's School of Social Work.

"So even if we just stop on the third, that's an opportunity to prevent a felony, which really stops a lot of people from getting gainful employment and makes it really difficult to function in our society," said Roe-Sepowitz.

She said Project ROSE helps people leave prostitution behind.

But critics, many of whom think sex work should be decriminalized, object to offering people services after arrest. Project ROSE's organizers say suspected prostitutes get arrested anyway all year, and most of the time, they don't get access to care they may need.

"I can't challenge that. And, I have to ask, what are social workers' roles and responsibilities in the face of that?" said Stephanie Wahab, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Portland State University. "Social workers have ethical mandates to honor and pay attention to issues of social and economic justice."

Wahab said Project ROSE violates the principle of informed consent, getting the client's permission before offering care. She argues the people detained didn't consent to being the target of police action.

Wahab also points out that not everyone brought to Project ROSE is eligible -- and if they aren't, or if they decline to participate, they face criminal charges.

"Collaborating with law enforcement to create interventions that land already oppressed, poor people of color, trans folks in jail is unconscionable," Wahab said.

While Wahab and like-minded colleagues have made grounded arguments against Project ROSE, not everyone who opposes it has been so reasonable. Critics on the internet have called ASU's Roe-Sepowitz biased, vile and ethically bankrupt. And opponents have seized on one of her statements in particular as evidence of how she views sex work.

"Once you've prostituted, you can never not have prostituted," Roe-Sepowitz said in an interview with Al-Jazeera America last year. "Having that many body parts in your body parts, having that many body fluids near you and doing things that are freaky and weird really messes up your ideas of what a relationship looks like, and intimacy."

Roe-Sepowitz said the quote is entirely out of context -- that it wasn't worded well, that she wasn't trying to demean sex workers and that her comment was specifically about the difficulties people forced into sex work face after they leave the industry.

From Roe-Sepowitz's perspective, Project ROSE isn't about the debate over legalizing prostitution. It's about helping people in need. In the promo video, a client named Laura said her life in the sex industry is full of fear.

"I have both a heroin and crack addiction. That's why I'm on the street, trying to keep that up. It's just too hard, and I'm ready for a different life," Laura said in the video.

But while Project ROSE might help her find a different life, the program's critics aren't likely to see past the fact that Laura's journey began in handcuffs.