When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting a woman in connection with prostitution, it was widely reported that he had been busted as part of an anti-sex trafficking investigation into a string of massage parlors in Florida. On Friday, however, prosecutors walked back on this claim, confirming during a court hearing that there was no evidence that any sex trafficking took place at the Orchids of Asia spa in Jupiter, Florida, one of the massage parlors that was targeted in the bust.
During the hearing, which was over Kraft’s request to suppress the release of surveillance footage featuring him at the spa, Kraft’s attorneys argued that police staked out the spa with hidden cameras, despite the fact that they knew all along that there was no evidence of trafficking there. They claimed that Florida police deliberately misled a judge in order to obtain a warrant to place cameras in the massage parlors under investigation, and that the warrant was unconstitutional. (A judge did not rule on Kraft’s attorneys’ request on Friday, saying instead that he would review the footage in private and then issue his decision.)
Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos disputed this claim, arguing that the spa had “all the appearances” of trafficking, and that there was enough evidence to suggest that requesting the warrant was justified. He did, however, acknowledge that there was not enough evidence to suggest that the women working at the spa were doing so against their will. “No one is being charged with human trafficking. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation,” he said.
This admission is a stark contrast to the narrative previously set forth by Florida police. In a February press conference announcing the arrests, state attorney Dave Aronberg referred to human trafficking as “evil in our midst.” He stated that the women who were alleged to be selling sexual services at the Orchids of Asia spa, among other spas targeted by the anti-trafficking investigation, were there against their will, and were living under inhumane conditions, forced to work long hours and cook meals on hot plates in their rooms. “Human trafficking is the business of stealing someone’s freedom for profit,” said Aronberg. “It can happen anywhere, including the peaceful community of Jupiter, Florida.” Yet Aronberg said that no trafficking charges were brought against anyone arrested, though he hinted that there was a possibility that they might be brought at a later date.
It is not uncommon for law enforcement officials to used claims of sex trafficking as an excuse to target and harass sex workers in sting operations, regardless of whether workers are there consensually or not. “I am not at all surprised that they haven’t found any evidence of trafficking in the Kraft case,” Jessie Sage, a sex columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper and an organizer with the advocacy group SWOP Pittsburgh, told Rolling Stone. “In our current political climate, trafficking rhetoric is used as a shortcut to incite moral panic about the buying and selling of sex.” Sage believes that this is due to our culture conflating sex work with sex trafficking: “Historically, feminist rhetoric suggests that women and femmes would never consent to sex work…and therefore are all trafficked still influences cultural attitudes toward sex work,” even when this is not the case.
In the case of the Florida massage parlor investigation, police were apparently struggling to get the women they busted to identify themselves as sex trafficking victims, with Martin County Sheriff William Snyder telling CNN that they repeatedly asked the women why they would “go and allow themselves to be trafficked,” to no avail. “They had the ability, they could’ve walked out into the street and asked for help,” he said. “But they didn’t.” Instead of taking this as a sign that these women were willingly engaging in this work, police continue to seek ways to “explain away this evidence,” Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote at the time.
Such busts tend to target migrant sex workers, particularly Asian migrant sex workers, as Dr. Jill McCracken, professor at University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and cofounder and co-director of SWOP Tampa Bay told Rolling Stone. “We tend to see Asian massage parlors in general through a very prejudiced lens,” she said, adding that they are often targeted as a result of a sort of “racial profiling.” Savannah Sly, a board president for SWOP-USA and a former sex worker, said in a statement following a similar bust of a string of Seattle-based massage parlors in 2016. “Just because a women came to the U.S. and works as an escort does not mean she did so involuntarily. These assumptions are blatantly racist and xenophobic. Many migrant workers in the sex trade, domestic work and agriculture emigrate and work voluntarily, because it’s often their best option for addressing issues of poverty, crime, family needs and war, at home,” Sly said in the statement.
As a result of the criminalization of sex work, many sex workers live in constant fear of such busts, and many sex worker rights’ advocates have argued that such busts can potentially end up putting sex workers’ lives at risk. In one notable example, a 38-year-old woman named Yang Song fell to her death onto a sidewalk in Flushing, Queens in 2017, reportedly while police were attempting to arrest her for doing sex work. And as McCracken notes, many of the women busted in the massage parlor investigation are still in jail, which affects their long-term employment prospects. “How many problems have we created for them because they engaged in consensual sex work?” she says.
That’s why, following media coverage of stories like the Kraft case, it’s crucial to keep a critical eye on the language used by law enforcement officials. “Often when we hear stories in the media about sex trafficking and law enforcement efforts, we should be skeptical, recognizing that there is a tendency to conflate trafficking and sex work, and much of the policing of sex work is done under the banner of sex trafficking (which importantly victimizes both sex workers and trafficking victims who are also arrested and deported),” says Sage.
This story has been updated to include a quote from Jill McCracken.
Correction: This article previously stated that Robert Kraft had been arrested. He has been charged, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.