The truth about Polaris

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I got this message recently: “I was watching you on a podcast and you mentioned Polaris as being problematic. I would love to know more about that. In the human rights world Polaris is pretty respected so if it aught not to be I would love to know more.”

Whew babies you are in for a ride. Here’s the TL;DR: Fuck Polaris.

Polaris:

  • Works with law enforcement to arrest, imprison, and deport adult, consenting sex workers

  • Trades on racist stereotypes to use state violence to deprive Asian massage owners and workers of their businesses and jobs

  • Works to keep sex work illegal, despite the fact that decriminalization helps law enforcement rescue trafficking victims and makes sex work safer for providers and clients

Polaris is a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. It brought in $10 million in 2016 (of which $2.1 million is government funding, according to IRS filings). 

Polaris operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline (est 2007) which ostensibly exists so that sex trafficking victims can call for help and rescue. In reality, the majority of the calls to the hotline are from “community members,” who provide “tips” on suspected human trafficking. In fact most reported instances of human trafficking are either nothing or adult, consensual prostitution. 

Polaris works with law enforcement to arrest, imprison, and deport adult, consenting sex workers

When Polaris gets a tip about possible human trafficking or prostitution, they send the information to law enforcement and ICE. Every “rescue” of sex workers through Polaris is an arrest by police or federal agents. 

Polaris claims to work with more than 3,000 service providers nationwide. What they don’t advertise is that Polaris forces women to stop doing sex work through arrest and the threat of imprisonment or deportation. Women can’t access services until after police arrest them at which point they’re forced to comply with service orgs’ requirements or face jail time. 

Polaris trades on racist stereotypes to deprive Asian massage owners and workers of their businesses and jobs

In January 2018 Polaris announced they intended to close “illicit massage businesses,” or IMBs staffed primarily by Chinese and Korean immigrant women. Polaris claimed, without any evidence whatsoever, that “all” of the 9,000 illicit massage businesses across the US “have some element of trafficking.”

Polaris defines an IMB as “a business that purports to provide massage therapy services but in fact makes its profits through commercial sex.” 

To gin up public support for depriving massage parlor owners of their businesses through violent state intervention Polaris launched an 11-city film and speaker tour on the sex trade in Seoul, Korea. “This is a large-scale social change initiative,” Polaris CEO Bradley Myles said at the New York tour stop on January 18. “We are actually trying to spark a catalyst across the 50 states and thousands of cities.”

This is part of a growing racist assault on Asian business owners in the US. Between 2012 and 2016 police arrested2,700 percent more Asian-identified people in New York City under charges of “unauthorized practice of a profession” and prostitution. Noncitizen Asian migrant women made up 87 percent of arrests for unlicensed massage of the thousands of clients in a Legal Aid Society program representing individuals charged with prostitution in New York City. 

Polaris works to keep sex work illegal, despite the fact that decriminalization helps law enforcement rescue trafficking victims and makes sex work safer for providers and clients

Ample evidence shows criminalizing sex work increases sex workers’ risk of violence and abuse from clients, police, and the public and that decrim reduces mistreatment of sex workers and increase their access to human rights, including health care. 

“A wealth of academic research and community-based evidence,” shows laws prohibiting sex work directly harm the “safety, health and human rights of people who sell sex and directly contributes to human rights abuses,” write Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Marjan Wijers, and Alison Jobe in Social Sciences.

Not only does criminalizing sex work not reduce trafficking, but there’s also less trafficking in jurisdictions which have decriminalized sex work. 

Decriminalizing sex work makes it possible for trafficking victims and abused sex workers to seek help from police without fearing rape, arrest, trial, conviction, expensive and time-consuming diversion programs, and a criminal record. 

Juhu Thukral, senior founding advisor at the SOAR Institute and founder of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Institute argues that sex workers should be able to access services without going through criminal or civil courts. 

“Policing, regardless of how creative and collaborative the approach may seem, does not tackle the root causes of vulnerability and exploitation,” New York-based service provider for Asian survivors of trafficking Womankind said in a statement to The Appeal. They are one of several survivor groups criticizing Polaris’s campaign to get tough on minority-run massage establishments. 

Yet a 2018 Polaris report calls for services to continue to be administered through the criminal justice system and increased funding for law enforcement. And Brad Myles—CEO of Polaris, “strongly opposed” a bill to decriminalize sex work in DC. 

Polaris is just one of a network of organizations which oppose sex work under the guise of opposing sex trafficking. Not only are they lying about their actual goals, but their tactics actually work at cross purposes to their stated goals. Polaris uses state violence to suppress sex work despite the fact that doing so exacerbates sex trafficking and makes sex work more dangerous without actually meaningfully decreasing the amount of sex work that happens.