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Facing stigma and criminalization, six women find community at the Sex Workers and Allies Network.

IN NOVEMBER OF 2020, a spider bit Glenda. Swollen and in pain, her finger began to necrotize. But she refused to visit the hospital. She’s a sex worker and drug user, and knew how she’d be treated there: security guards would accost her, confiscate her belongings, and strip her clothes. Phil Costello, a registered nurse practitioner and the Clinical Director of Homeless Care at Cornell Scott – Hill Health center, urged her to go, to save her life, but when Glenda finally went, it was exactly as she feared. She felt judged and violated by doctors. So she left. After a few weeks, her finger had worsened to a point she could no longer bear, so she came back. She was lucky, doctors told her, that she only lost the pointer finger of her left hand. 

Most people wouldn’t think twice about seeking medical attention for a necrotizing finger. But Glenda was willing to risk her life to avoid it, signifying how the criminalization of sex work and its accompanying stigmatization make even the most basic protections difficult to access.

I met Glenda and five other women (Christine, Kimberly, Lindsay, Jasmine, and Lil’ Bit) at a Leadership Development Program hosted by the Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN)—a harm-reduction organization that mostly services Fair Haven and distributes items like syringes, Narcan kits, safer sex supplies, and fentanyl test strips throughout the neighborhood. Since its founding in 2016, SWAN has worked closely with social service organizations in the area to connect sex workers to drug treatment facilities or local shelters, and members advocate for policy reforms like decriminalization. They also facilitate conversations with the police when sex workers want to file reports, and collaborate with local health providers to bring medical care directly to women on the street. They’re a kind of pillar in the community.

We met in a sparsely decorated room at New Reach, a non-profit organization in Fair Haven that supports housing insecure local families. Seats were placed in the formation of a large square, and we all sat so we could face one another. Beatrice Codianni, SWAN’s founder, organized the Leadership Development Program so that I would be able to talk to the organization’s members individually. SWAN intentionally refers to the New Haven sex workers they service as their “members” rather than their “clients” or “patrons.” I asked those present in the room at New Reach what they considered the greatest threats to their safety. The responses ranged from the men they serviced (known as “dates”) to the harassment they received on the streets. They described robberies, drug usage, housing insecurity, and their lack of trust in resources such as the police or hospitals. These women are forced to confront danger in almost every facet of their daily lives. 

Beatrice, herself a former sex worker, established SWAN five years ago after watching a prostitution sting in the neighborhoods of Fair Haven and Dwight-Kensington. She was devastated by what she saw: fourteen women, between the ages of 24 and 59, staring down up to a year of jail time when, more than anything, they needed help. Beatrice knew sex work couldn’t be arrested away. Frustrated, she rallied with community activists to protest the sting operations, and they held demonstrations outside City Hall with signs that read “Sex work is real work” and “Stop the stings.” Beatrice went down to the police station and insisted on talking to then-police chief Anthony Campbell. She explained to him that sting operations were harmful and would never stop what they purportedly set out to. Eventually, he agreed with her, promised to call them off, and his successors in the department have kept his word. Since that early settlement, SWAN has grown into one of the only organizations in Connecticut that sex workers can come to when they need care.

Christine, who is the daughter of a retired police officer, described to me how her drug usage threatened her life, explaining that she is an active heroin addict. She also mentioned the danger posed by dates. Lindsay echoed the sentiment. 

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Lindsay added. “Some people are really crazy.”

Jasmine agreed, saying that the greatest threats to her safety were “creepy ass men,” and that she also sometimes worried about stickup kids robbing her after they thought she’d been on a date.

When I asked Lil’ Bit the same question regarding threats to her safety, she immediately named the police. 

“I just feel like they’re very judgemental, especially if you have a past history or a record,” she said. She wouldn’t go to them if she needed help. “Especially if they look your name up and see your history. If you’re a drug addict or prostitute, forget about it. You’re not a human. You’re just some, you know, junkie. If you’re in a situation or predicament, they feel as if it was your fault.”

Kimberly, who said that dates were the largest threat to her safety as well, quickly shook her head when I asked if she would feel comfortable going to the police if she were harmed. Most of the women had the same reaction. 

“They’re just too judgemental,” Kimberly said. “Very judgemental. I don’t trust them ‘cause there was a cop out there who was raping women, too.”

Kimberly was referring to Gary Gamarra, a former member of the New Haven Police Department who was accused of sexually assaulting two sex workers after serving as an officer in Fair Haven for four years. Gamarra resigned in December 2020. An Internal Affairs report, obtained in April 2021 by the New Haven Independent, details months of investigation into the allegations. Both women, who have remained anonymous, told investigators that they felt they had no choice but to have sex with Gamarra due to his position as a police officer. But at first, they were reluctant to come forward. 

“They didn’t think we would listen to them,” Captain David Zannelli told me. Zannelli is in his seventeenth year of law enforcement and oversees the Internal Affairs unit of the New Haven Police Department. He emphasized that he and his detectives did everything they could to get the victims’ statements anyway, and they had Beatrice’s help, because the two women were SWAN members. 

When Gamarra was confronted with evidence, according to the IA report on the investigation, he burst into tears, said that he had “fucked up,” and shared a version of the events that was almost identical to what both women shared independently. The only discrepancy was that Gamarra claimed the sex was consensual. 

Photo courtesy of Beatrice Codianni. Design by Annli Nakayama, adapted for web.

Gamarra’s admission was good enough for Internal Affairs, but not for the State’s Attorney’s Office, which, for now, has decided not to press criminal charges against him due to a lack of probable cause. Beatrice and her team at SWAN vehemently oppose this decision, but Zannelli acknowledges that the physical evidence is not in their favor. At times, it was difficult to corroborate the victims’ stories because they had changed them or forgotten details. 

Gamarra has an upcoming decertification hearing with Connecticut’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council, where the NHPD may bar him from serving as a police officer in the state. The process is long and tedious, possibly taking many months until a hearing is held. 

The Attorney’s Office’s refusal to press charges hasn’t helped the already tense relationship between New Haven sex workers and the police. The women often feel that they won’t be taken seriously when filing claims because they aren’t perfect victims, and the Attorney’s Office’s decision has reconfirmed that to them. 

Stigma pervades the hazardous relationship between sex workers and police, even as members of law enforcement, like Zannelli, work to mend that dynamic. A 2020 joint report by Yale’s Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) and SWAN titled “Mistreatment and Missed Opportunities” surveyed forty-nine New Haven sex workers, and found that 83 percent of respondents believed that they have been stigmatized or disrespected by police. 89 percent of respondents had been incarcerated at some point—sex workers are often charged with crimes related to  homelessness, drug use, and the sex work itself, such as loitering, trespassing, and possession. Having a criminal record can make it harder to find housing or alternate forms of employment, which traps sex workers in a cycle; they may not be able to leave the industry even if they’d like to. Beatrice cited incidents relayed to her by SWAN members that echoed the findings of the survey, in which police have supposedly said that sex workers can’t be raped, or that their stories aren’t credible because the women may have been using drugs at the time.  

While some women told me they were comfortable going to the police and some said they were comfortable seeing doctors, all of them had experiences in which they felt uncomfortable when trying to access services that did not fully cater to their particular needs as sex workers. 

Christine told me that she has been raped before, but was never able to bring herself to get a rape kit done or file a report with the police. Just talking about it is hard for her. “A few times I tried to share with a few people, and nobody wants to listen,” she said. “Or they don’t believe you anyways, so [you] just swallow it,” she said. “I’ve had women cry on my lap and give me every utmost detail of rape or assault, and I’m writing everything down. I can’t do that. I’m not that brave.”

That feeling of isolation and distrust is fueled by policy criminalizing sex work, says Alice Miller. She is an adjunct associate professor at Yale Law School, assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Public Health, and the co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, a research and advocacy-oriented organization that operates at the intersection of health and justice. Miller has been working with sex worker organizations around the country for the past twenty-five to thirty years and has seen first-hand how criminalization feeds stigma, and how stigma leads to inadequate social support, especially in the case of labor rights. Because of the criminal status of their labor, sex workers in the United States have struggled to effectively organize to defend themselves against exploitation. Progress has been made in the past five to ten years as sex workers have increased their visibility, but this has not eradicated the barriers to security that sex workers face.

“What makes people safer in strawberry picking or christmas tree farming—which have been big areas of exploitation—is their ability to organize and work legally in a country,” Miller said. “The safer you are from the predation of the law, the more able you are to organize with others to protect your rights.” 

Viewing sex work through a labor rights lens shifts the terms of policy discussions, Miller explained. She emphasized that human trafficking—which policymakers often conflate with sex work itself—can take place in any industry. Human trafficking occurs when individuals are coerced into performing labor, and it can happen anywhere that workers have insufficient legal protections in the event of abuse. In the strawberry industry, for example, migrant agricultural workers on farms in Spain and California have described poor compensation, dangerous working conditions, and the threat of deportation if they ever retaliated against employers. “If you are disempowered, if you can’t organize, if you can’t tell people what you’re doing, and if you can’t leave what you’re doing—if all of those things are true, then you are at risk of being trafficked,” Miller said.

Another danger arising from the conflation of sex work and trafficking has been the FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act-Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) laws, ostensibly intended to hold websites accountable for allowing ads featuring trafficked children. But according to Karolina Ksiazek, SWAN’s Director of Advocacy, the law was written with such broad language that it essentially made it illegal for any website to support prostitution in any way. This included banning websites that sex workers used to keep themselves safe, such as forums where they could warn each other about dangerous dates. Because of FOSTA-SESTA, it’s harder for sex workers to screen clients and negotiate before meeting them. Even something as innocuous as the SWAN website has to be hosted on a server in Iceland, because it could be seen as illegal in the United States. 

Some of the sex workers I spoke with at the Leadership Development Program, like Glenda, cited housing insecurity as the greatest threat to their safety and the most revelant factor in their susceptibility to trafficking and coercion. In the GHJP and SWAN joint report, 58 percent of respondents said that they were housing insecure. Sex workers’ safety is inextricably intertwined with socioeconomic insecurity, addiction, the legal system, and gender-based violence, and reformers have their eyes set on foundational change. “Systemic overhauls are what we need,” Miller said. “And the way to do the overhaul is created by the day-to-day understanding of your interaction with those systems. It’s not an either/or—it’s a both, and.” Progress, Miller explained, is tied to efforts currently underway to decriminalize homelessness, to establish overdose prevention facilities with an adequate number of beds for women, and to reform drug and criminal policy. 

Captain David Zannelli understands the criticism of his officers, and he said that he tries to work with SWAN when he can—and they often have reached compromises—but that he couldn’t disregard crimes. “We can’t ignore community members that actually live in the Ferry Street area who have a complaint,” he said. Ferry Street is a high-traffic road in Fair Haven, lined with businesses and densely packed houses. During the day, kids play outside and residents walk to local markets and churches. It’s also where many sex workers gather to find work, and members of the community have been complaining about that to the police department for a long time. Zannelli explained that it was difficult to appease the community while also transitioning away from a punitive status quo. Still, he claimed to be happy to work with SWAN when he could.

“At the end of the day, we want the behavior to stop.” By behavior, he’s referring to drug-use and sex acts in public, loitering, and leaving needles in playgrounds. “We can’t allow that. I’m not gonna have that,” he said. But he would prefer to do that without arresting sex workers. Zannelli recognized that sex workers are often caught up in cycles, and he tries to call Beatrice so that she can arrive at the scene and talk to the sex workers herself. He also said that he sometimes talks to churches to help find the workers a place to go for the night. Zannelli acknowledged that there was progress to be made. “We have some work to do. I’m not saying that we do everything perfectly, ‘cause we don’t, and we do have mistakes,” he said. 

Jaclyn Lucibello, SWAN’s Director of Outreach, believes there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to repairing the relationship between sex workers and the police. “Things are definitely getting better,” she said. “But we’re far away from those open lines of communication between sex workers and police officers.”

In the meantime, sex workers are doing what they can to keep themselves safe. According to Glenda, it gets worse every day on the streets. Kimberly agreed, saying, “People drive by—a few years ago on Halloween, there was people throwing eggs and stuff. And then there were people going around shooting the workers.” She was referring to a recent pattern of people shooting sex workers with paintball guns. “It was really bad. And there are a lot of people dying and shit, too. From addictions and stuff like that. Depression too… you get very depressed. There are times when I just want to end it. But God put me here for a reason.”

Being able to comfortably talk to someone is important for these women. “The group’s really helpful for venting,” Lindsay said, referring to SWAN. Beatrice helps her “get help, get counseling.” She sees the therapists who work with SWAN. 

All the women make use of the resources SWAN distributes, such as needles and condoms, and they all said that they carry a blade to protect themselves. Some also carry mace. 

Christine said, “I carry a knife because once you’re in a car with somebody and something really fucked happens, it’s just you and them.” She referenced self-defense classes that SWAN hosted before the pandemic. “I was asking questions like—and I wasn’t trying to be funny—if my head is in somebody’s lap, I’m in the car with somebody, and somebody comes down like that”—she brought her elbow down hard—“how am I going to defend myself? Self defense is person-to-person, face-to-face.”

Kimberly, who is 50 years old and has been a sex worker since she was 14, also said that it was necessary to be able to defend yourself. “If I do have to fight somebody, I’ll fight them. I carry a blade on me.”

Jasmine said that she trusts her instincts, and if she has a bad feeling about a date, then she won’t go. “When I’m scared about being [robbed], I’ll try to go somewhere I know there’s a camera, like a street camera or security camera. Preferably somewhere really well-lit or populated.”

Still, many of the women have people they can depend on for support. Christine said that she knows there are people who are invested in her safety. “If there’s ever an emergency, I can call on people all the time… My people [at SWAN] and my people on the street, and I got family that support and love me.”

Kimberly was wearing a SWAN shirt, bright purple with a small sketch of an actual swan on the front. She said her husband was a source of support, who she endearingly referred to as a “big baby.” He’s blind, so the two of them take care of each other. She told me that his protectiveness sometimes annoyed her. But she affectionately added, “That’s what I signed up for when I married him.”

Christine also said that she and the other workers look out for each other. 

“All of us street people, the majority of us, it’s like we’re a big dysfunctional family,” she said. “Even though one day one person might hate the other person, they may be angry at the person, somebody may steal from somebody or do something stupid—for the most part, there’s a big group of people that wouldn’t let the other person get hurt. There’s a lot of loyalty.”

I asked her what that looked like, and she explained. “Let’s say I get thrown out of a car and Kim comes across me, she’s walking down the street and I’m beat up. She’s going to pick me up. We’ve got a tight group of people.”

“This one’s always helping people,” Jaclyn said, and everyone laughed while Christine smiled. 

“They call me the mother,” Christine said. “‘She’s our mother out here.’ And I do, I even scold them.” 

Dereen Shirnekhi is a junior in Davenport College and an Associate Editor of The New Journal.

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