The Effects of Polaris Project in Rhode Island

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In March 2015 Bella Robinson attended an event at Brown University, to hear a speech by Katherine Chon who is the co-founder and president of Emerita Polaris Project. She is currently the senior advisor on the trafficking in persons, at the US Department of Health & Human Services

In her speech, Mrs. Chon claimed that Polaris Project has people calling in that “self-identify” because they want “out of the life” and Polaris Project has no direct services to offer them.   Then she asks for donations and she says this has to be a community effort.   It seems Mrs. Chon is really taking this out of context because they are already getting millions in annual funding.  Meanwhile, they do not offer sex trafficking victims emergency shelter or create jobs that pay a living wage, or offer a higher education without student loan debt.  All Polaris Project does is refer these women to public shelters. Most shelters refuse to take in juvenile sex trafficking victims and many also refuse services to sex workers.   

Mrs. Chon went on to say that while she was attending Brown University and she was interviewing spa workers that she had found a woman who had been trafficked into the US from China and had been forced into prostitution.  Even when indoor prostitution was decriminalized, “forcing someone into prostitution” was always illegal so I do wonder why Rhode Island did not have any documented trafficking cases prior to 2009.   This leaves me to believe that Mrs. Chon thinks “any woman who migrates to work as a consensual adult sex worker”  is the same thing as sex trafficking.  Mrs. Chon bragged that until she came along no US state had trafficking laws.  Yet even before The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000,  it was already illegal to pimp out a minor or an adult, as this is referred to as “pandering” or “promoting prostitution”. Crossing a state line of an illegal sex act has been illegal since The Mann Act “White Slavery Act.

Sex workers and trafficking victims are being arrested, and their names and pictures are immediately published in the media. This can result in discrimination in housing, child custody, and banking institutes + can limit future employment.  

The criminalization of consensual adult prostitution creates stigma and violence against sex workers and trafficking victims. It also creates the perfect playground for predators and corrupt cops to continue robbing, raping, beating, exploiting, and murdering sex workers.  Law Enforcement refers to “prostitutes” as NHI for “No Human Involved.

After Mrs. Chon’s speech, they held a Q&A that lasted about 20 minutes.  When I go my turn at the microphone, I spoke for a full 5 minutes, asking several questions while not allowing Mrs. Chon to reply until I was finished.

What I said went something like this.  “ Hi, I want to thank you for coming out tonight.  My name is Bella Robinson.  I am the founder and executive director of the Rhode Island Chapter of Coyote.  I am on the board of “The Erotic Service Providers, Legal, Education & Research Project”   and I am also a member of “The Erotic Service Providers Union”. I have worked in the Sex Industry for over 30 years and I currently work as an online escort. 

 I go on to explain then when we tried to report a possible trafficking victim to Polaris Project that we were told that they didn’t investigate anything and that they simply relayed the tips to local police.  I also talked about other rescues that have gone on.  In one case a 22-year-old woman escaped a pimp but she did not trust law enforcement, so she refused to report it.  The woman told me that she still wanted to work as a sex worker and that she was just tired of this pimp taking all her earnings.  This woman was a consensual adult sex worker, who was being exploited because she did not have “equal protection under the law”.  

Then I explained how in most states that sex trafficking victims are required to prove that they are a victim.  If the victim does not help the prosecutor get a conviction on a trafficker, then the victim is charged with prostitution.  “​​People in Alaska’s sex trade: their lived experiences and policy recommendations”   Also, see Kenyana’s story

Then I explain per the 2014 Trafficking in-person reports, that undocumented sex worker are told that if they won’t say that they were forced into prostitution that they will be immediately deported.  The women are told that if they help get a conviction on the co-workers- 3rd party support staff,  that they can get a T-visa and will be allowed to stay in the USA.  The women are then kept in shelters for 2 to 3 years and they are not allowed to contact their families nor are they allowed access to cell phones.  Two-thirds of these women are deported after they have endured all this, even though the US is allowed to provide 5000 T visa’s a year. These are the policies and legislation that Mrs. Chon has helped create, and she is willing to continue purposely conflating sex trafficking with sex work.  

Criminalizing and arresting consensual adults, does not protect victims of human trafficking.  It creates a class of people with no rights and no legal protections.  It encourages violent predators to act out because they know nothing will happen to them.  If we really want to help women and protect them from violence, we need to empower them.

To add insult to injury none of the trafficking organizations doesn’t provide any real services to victims or women involved in the sex industry. .  In 2015 the US-funded trafficking organizations at 686 million a year. In order to tap into this funding, these organizations are supposed to “create awareness about sex trafficking” and host public training on “how to spot trafficking”, basically asking the community to become vigilantes and call the police on sex workers. These organizations are prohibited from supporting decriminalization or harm reduction or engaging with sex worker rights-led organizations.

Using Guide Star, we looked up the tax returns of trafficking organizations. We found that the majority of the funding is going to pay for their offices and salaries and for fundraising. 

Then I ask why all this funding is being spent stalking, harassing, and arresting consensual adult sex workers, when this funding could be used to provide “poor women” with safe and stable affordable housing and to increase youth services, which would help reduce the number of minors involved in survival sex. I mention that in 2014 researchers for almost 300 people who all entered into survival sex as minors because they could not access shelter and other vital services. Only 6% of those interviewed felt that they had been exploited and that teens taught each other how to find clients. 

I ask Mrs. Chon why she is advocating for more raids and vice stings to arrest more women when they don’t even have anywhere to house them.  Doesn’t she care if these women are unable to pay their rent and feed their kids?  

After the Q&A I walked up to Mrs. Chon and shook her hand and thanked her.  I say to her, “I think there are 2 things we can agree on and find common ground on.  I told her we need language added to the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA that would put mandatory time limits on the testing of rape kits.  I explained,  that we have over ½ million untested rape kits in evidence lockers in the US and that they recently tested 1600 of them and found 100 serial rapists.  

Then I told her that police officers are allowed to have sex with women and then arrest them for prostitution and seize their earnings and  Mrs. Chon tells me she didn’t know any of this.

 I was waving around a pile of papers that has every prostitution and disorderly conduct arrest for the entire US for the past 30 years, that proved only 1.8 of all arrests were minors and that the average age of arrest was 25 to 65, I confront Mrs. Chon about Polaris Project’s “average age of entry myth” that claims that the average age of entry into prostitution is just 12 to 14. This resulted in Polaris Project retracting and updating their claims to say that the average age of entry was 19, based on a sample of interviews from 123 people. 

 In October 2019 at The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice Brown University hosted a panel called 10 Years After Re-Criminalization: Reflecting on a Decade of Anti-Trafficking Activism in RI.  Katherine Chon came up to me after our presentation and started to introduce herself.  I reminded her that we had met in 2014.  She went on to tell me that she only wanted the clients arrested. I asked her why she wasn’t concerned about removing the only access to money that many poor women have while promoting stigma and inviting police violence. 

For over a decade Polaris Project has been advocating for violent police raids on Asian spas. After the March 2021 Georgia mass spa murders, Polaris Project is now removing that content from its website. “Anti-Trafficking Group Deletes Massage Parlor Fear-Mongering After Shootings”

Sitting in on anti-trafficking task force calls requires one to listen to multiple agencies boast about their inability to visualize the multiple barriers to locating inappropriate services for non-existent perfect victims and hyperventilate over the idea of bodily autonomy.

When you say that you “rescued” someone, that statement is about empowering and aggrandizing yourself while disempowering the person you think you rescued.  This is because “rescuing” creates an uneven power dynamic where the “rescuer” (read: hero) has all the power in the relationship and the rescuee” (read: the helpless victim) has no agency or role in the exit of his or her abuse.