Project ROSE is a program in the city of Phoenix, AZ that claims to help sex workers. In the name of rescuing them, police officers handcuff alleged sex workers and take them off the street and into a church to meet with prosecutors and Project ROSE representatives, who offer them “diversion programs.” Sex workers who aren’t interested in the diversion programs face jail time. These sex workers aren’t technically arrested, just made “contact” with; conveniently, if they’re not arrested, then they don’t need to be offered the chance to speak to a lawyer. In May of 2013, Monica Jones became one of the people arrested by Project ROSE; the charge was “manifesting prostitution” for accepting a ride home to her neighborhood from men who turned out to be undercover cops. This week, Jones was found guilty, and faces the possibility of serving time in a men’s prison as a trans woman.
The ways in which Jones’ identity as a black trans woman and sex workers’ activist inform her arrest can’t be ignored. Much like CeCe McDonald’s arrest was impacted by racism and transmisogyny, Jones’ arrest is impossible to separate from her race, gender, trans status, and public activism around sex work. TransAdvocate points out that trans women are already disproportionate recipients of police scrutiny, and trans status can intersect with racial profiling to make police interactions particularly fraught and dangerous. What research there is on the interactions between trans women of color and police tells us that police intimidation is a constant reality, even without a legitimate basis for arrest. If anything about the situation can be interpreted to relate to sex work, the odds are that much worse.
“We receive reports and work with survivors all the time who tell us they were profiled–generally these are transgender women–by the NYPD as sex workers, stopped because of profiling, and searched,” Sharon Stapel, [Anti-Violence Project]’s executive director, tells the Voice. “If a condom is found on them, that condom is taken as evidence as intent to engage in prostitution. Many survivors of violence tell us that makes them hesitant to carry condoms.”
The fact that Jones is in fact a sex work activist in her own community makes the narrative around her arrest that much more complicated, and more suspect. Jones isn’t just an activist supporting the rights of sex workers, but is specifically an outspoken activist against Project ROSE, the same program under whose auspices she was arrested. In Jones’ case, it’s difficult to ignore the ways in which her arrest directly benefits the organization that arrested her. It’s notable that she was randomly questioned on the street three times after her arrest; during her trial, Jones made a point of questioning the constitutionality of the program (which the ACLU also questions). As she told VICE:
“Because I was very outspoken about the diversion program, being out there protesting and also being a student of ASU School of Social Work, I feel like the police knew about me,” Monica said. “I was very loud, so they could pick me out of the crowd.”
Furthermore, the director of Project ROSE, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, has interacted with Jones previously. Roe-Sepowitz is a professor at ASU, where Jones is a student; Roe-Sepowitz and Jones have even debated each other on the subject of Project ROSE. Jones’ longtime position as an active and engaged critic of Project ROSE calls the program’s stated aims into question: is it in fact a “rescue” operation? If so, who is it saving?
The program’s claim to help the alleged sex workers it (doesn’t technically) arrest seems flawed when one considers the options it offers them. (“Alleged,” because “manifesting prostitution” can, in practice, mean virtually anything, including striking up a conversation with a stranger.) If a sex worker takes the option to be “rescued” — to attend 36 hours of “diversion” programming — they’re offered no way to compensate for the critical income they may be losing during that time, and no childcare. No food is offered in the daily classes, which last from 8-4. No condoms are provided — ROSE is a religious program with Catholic values, attempting to address issues of sex work without contraceptives — and no concrete information or strategies are provided on engaging in sex work more safely, let alone how to leave sex work if that’s what’s desired. And for at least some of the sex workers, leaving the industry isn’t what they want — Jones included. She told VICE that “I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program… Girls would ask me why I didn’t feel this way. Well, ’cause I don’t. I have the right to my own body.”
Jones further addressed the problems with the diversion program after a protest against it with the Sex Worker Outreach Project of Phoenix:
“I took the diversion program and it was like the worst experience ever. It was humiliating. They treat you as like just a thing. Like [because] you’re a prostitute, this is what’s wrong with you. This is what you need to be doing. And like for me, I ’m proud to be a sex worker. I’m not on drugs. I’m not like one of these crazy people. I just needed to make money for school. And for a transworker they housed me in the men’s facility. And I was humiliated there. I was harassed by the DRCs there. I was harassed by the inmates there. And I was in isolation there full time for 15 days in a cell by myself. And I did nothing wrong. I was in there with murderers, child molesters and like rapists. So I was in there with a whole bunch of the worst people you can think of.”
In contrast, johns who are identified within the program are asked only to attend “a John School where men arrested for buying sex have to undergo 6 hours of “schooling” regarding the nature of prostitution and they harm they cause the women as part of their sentencing.” Johns are required to spend only a sixth of the time being “educated” that sex workers are. Project ROSE doesn’t appear to have any programs or services aimed at pimps. It also doesn’t appear to make any differentiation between people trafficked into the sex trade against their will, and consenting adults who have entered the sex trade freely. Jordan Flaherty, a journalist who traveled to Phoenix to write about SWOP-Phoenix and Project ROSE, found that “…the police lieutenant that helped found it said basically he feels that everyone’s being trafficked, and the social worker that founded it also has a similar perspective. They really conflate the trafficking and sex work.”
If a sex worker doesn’t choose to attend the programming, or doesn’t qualify — because they have drugs on their person, or because they have prior prostitution arrests — they face jail time in a state with a prison system so harsh it’s made headlines nationwide. Recently and tragically, we learned of the death of Marcia Powell, who was serving two years for a prostitution conviction when she died because she was left in an outdoor cage in scorching sun for hours. The prison-industrial system is integral to Project ROSE’s model of sex workers and their rescue — one that, as Flaherty reports, “just [doesn’t] see an alternative outside of the criminal justice system and they think the only thing they can do is to work within the criminal justice system. …they’re continually seeing all of these women—and it is 98% women who go through the program—all of these women as victims, but at the same time as criminals.” On top of the already inhumane Arizona prison system, Jones will have to navigate it as a black trans woman. Incarcerated trans women generally face horrific levels of violence from both inmates and guards, sexual assault, and severely limited access to medical care. Right now, the state of Arizona wants Jones to be held in a men’s prison, which is extraordinarily dangerous for her.
The question, then, remains: who is being rescued here? In what way would any of these choices provide real support or positive change? How does Jones — or any sex worker — benefit from her arrest and subsequent incarceration?
Jones’ arrest and conviction raise deeply troubling questions about how our governing bodies conceive of sex work and sex workers, as well as the value placed on trans women of color and trans women’s bodies. Given that Jones wasn’t engaged in any kind of sex work when she was arrested, is our legal system interested in punishing the act of engaging in sex work, or is it interested in punishing people who have ever engaged in sex work just for having done so? Given that Jones is being incarcerated for speaking out against a system that claimed to want to help her — for explaining that it does not in fact help, and that anyone who wants to help her should pursue other measures — how are we to interpret the program’s goals? Do its actions indicate that it’s interested in supporting trans sex workers of color, or that it’s interested in the social and political capital to be gained from purporting to rescue them? Which narrative does Project ROSE and other programs like it stand to benefit from more: the one in which Monica Jones is a strong and talented student, activist, volunteer in her community, and sex worker; or the one in which Monica Jones is a helpless victim of a trade that she isn’t capable of fully understanding or navigating her way out of? Jones’ incarceration through the program would seem to provide some clues.
SWOP-Phoenix is leading a pledge to defund Project ROSE and support Monica Jones; donations can be sent directly to Monica via Paypal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But at the end of the day, she was still involved in illegal activ
*activity as a sex worker. Why not spend more time fighting for the rights of trans people/people in general who actually strive to play by society’s rules?
Playing by the rules changes nothing for transgender people. Thirty years ago, playing by the rules would mean that you or I couldn’t express our queer identities.
I have been a sex worker. Luckily for me, it is decriminalized here, but I know trans sex workers who lived and worked in the USA. They managed to get out but most don’t.
Just because something is the law, it doesn’t mean that it is right.
And just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
I’m interested to hear the range of options you think trans people, and particularly black trans women, have when “playing by society’s rules”! I’m also interested to hear why those rules don’t deserve to be open to critique.
I’d also gently ask you to reread the part of the article which explains that Jones wasn’t engaged in sex work or any other illegal activity when she was arrested — she was accepting a ride in a car. The wording of what calls for “contact” in this program is broad enough to cover almost any activity, related to sex work or not.
It’s also a troubling thought that once people become incarcerated or are accused of illegal activities, they’re no longer as deserving as rights as those who are not. Especially when the well-documented biases of the legal system are taken into account – like the case of Marissa Alexander as compared with the case of George Zimmerman – I’m not sure in what ways we can accurately judge people’s character by their “illegal” activity, or why we’d want to do so. If our constitution guarantees basic human rights and equality, why would interaction with the legal system take those rights away?
The fact that something is illegal doesn’t make it immoral. For many, especially those subject to employment discrimination, sex work is a desperately needed source of income. Why should someone be condemned for doing work that hurts no one (except possibly themselves, in some cases)? Frankly, even if Ms. Jones had done something wrong (which it appears that she did not), she still shouldn’t have been housed with men or treated so disrespectfully.
Trans sex workers are an especially vulnerable population and absolutely ought to to have people fighting for their rights. It Ms. Jones is imprisoned in a men’s facility she faces an enormous risk of rape/sexual assault. Should we cease to care about her safety just because she failed to “play be society’s rules”?
Of course it’s wrong that she was housed in a men’s prison. But the article states that she was a college student, so it seems like she may have a somewhat better financial situation or at least the opportunity to start a career after graduation. And haven’t there been enough stories of people forced/manipulated into sex trafficking to show that for the most part, that whole industry is predominantly negative? And wouldn’t it be better to supply programs/opportunities to these women so they don’t need to be involved in said industry, which is mostly focused on satisfying the wants and whims of men (who likely don’t care all that much about trans people or woc) to begin with? At the end of the day, she was doing something illegal that hurts plenty of women. At the same time, it’s bad that she will likely be misgendered, a victim of transphobia, etc. from the prison system. But if someone wants to do something illegal that has been proven to hurt people and reinforce negative views of women (and she made it clear that sex work is simply what she wants to do) and they do go to jail as a result, I don’t know how upset you can reasonably be because you knew that was a possible outcome.
Tl;dr it sucks that the prison system is transphobic but I’m not here for people knowingly involved in harmful illegal activities who get upset when they are caught.
some resources you might be interested in!
You wrote: “And wouldn’t it be better to supply programs/opportunities to these women so they don’t need to be involved in said industry…”
But that’s why sex workers’ advocates like Monica Jones are so important, and an organization like Project ROSE causes more problems than it solves. Coming from the outside and supplying programs to a group of people doesn’t work as well as organizing from within. Jones and the people with whom she works understand the community and the needs of the community. Even with the best intentions, outsiders don’t have that critical knowledge. For someone who isn’t a sex worker, it might seem that what sex workers need is to be saved, but sex worker advocates often have much more specific, immediate, and powerful changes in mind. There’s a lot of assumptions in the idea that someone who isn’t a sex worker can determine that sex workers need to be rescued.
Of course, trafficked and exploited women are in a different situation from sex workers like Jones, but in their case as well, the humanitarian and charitable efforts to “save” them often don’t succeed because these attempts don’t take into account anything of the material conditions of these women’s lives — they simply spring from the idea that the rescuer knows better than the women themselves what they want and need.
TLDR, to be in solidarity with a group, listen to what that group identifies as their needs, dreams, and goals, and help them achieve it. A few decades ago, humanitarians were certain that what lesbians really needed was to be saved from their terrible and oppressive “lifestyle.”
You’re making a lot of assumptions about the harm that sex workers supposedly do others that you don’t back up.
“But the article states that she was a college student, so it seems like she may have a somewhat better financial situation or at least the opportunity to start a career after graduation.”
Have you seen the stats on how trans people have more education than the general population but still (especially trans WoC) have worse economic outcomes? Read the Injustice at Any Turn report and then get back to me.
“And haven’t there been enough stories of people forced/manipulated into sex trafficking to show that for the most part, that whole industry is predominantly negative?”
Argument by anecdote? I can do that too. I’ve talked to a lot of sex workers, including trans sex workers, and while they had a lot of different opinions when it came to sex work and how voluntary they felt it was for them, exactly zero of them thought that criminalization – or attitudes like yours – are helpful for their safety or well-being.
First, as many have mentioned all that Ms. Jones did was accept a ride. It’s absurd and dubiously constitutional that she was picked up (not technically arrested)for doing something that is normally perfectly legal.
Second, it is not sex workers who are to blame abuse and exploitation in the sex industry: it is pimps, traffickers, abusive johns and police officers, and the risk of being imprisoned that make the work dangerous. Do you think that if everyone who voluntarily participates in sex work stopped working that sex trafficking would suddenly cease? That makes no sense.
But she wasn’t involved in illegal activity as is evidenced in no actual charges being laid and a non-arrest (that for all intents and purposes seems to be an arrest). I can’t comprehend how someone can be sent to jail without a conviction. Even if I walked into a police station and admitted murder, they’d still have to find some evidence of my crime before sending me to jail. Monica Jones’ only ‘crime’ appears to be that she refused to participate in a ‘diversion program’ (*conversion program) run and based on the values of a religious organisation.
WTF Arizona, I like you cacti but then you go do this on top of recent attempts to to legislate for homophobia. You’re making it really hard to like you.
I’m so angry I can’t even spell *your properly.
Thank you for writing this important piece, Rachel! It’s so important to be exposing the true motivations of Project ROSE and similar programs.
This is heartbreaking. Thanks for the excellent article Rachel.
This is infuriating! As a social worker, I’m so proud of Monica Jones, a social work student, and so angry that the director of Project Rose is also a social worker. I need to write NASW about this.
This whole situation is vile and so, so wrong. I am so sorry for Monica Jones having to go through this bullshit. It’s outrageous.
Everything about this situation is so wrong. My heart goes out to Ms Jones, and all women caught up in this kind of anti-women and anti-whore legal bullshit.
Just watch as people turn this into a cautionary tale about the dangers of caring too much about trafficked women (who are usually immigrant women of colour, a group of people about whose wellbeing everyone always bends over backwards to take into consideration, amirite?) when it’s clear as day that this programme has nothing to do with them and doesn’t help them in any way.
because so much sex work activism seems about how unfair it is to treat sex workers who are Empowered Feminists who love what they do (and, preferably, only do it to pay for college not because they need to support their families) as badly as we treat trafficked women because they don’t deserve that – not about how nobody should be treated as badly as trafficked women are, least of all trafficked women themselves
It really seems like the police and Project ROSE are happy to be able to use this unconstitutional policy to silence an educated and articulate critic of the system. How can we get involved to change things?! I’m asking also for my mother, who was extremely upset when I shared this article with her.
SWOP-Phoenix is leading a campaign to defund Project ROSE, and you can also donate directly to Monica! There are links for both at the bottom of the post!
Oh yes! Thanks, I signed the pledge and will donate when I have funds. I just want to be able to do MORE. Sorry, though, didn’t mean to imply you hadn’t offered some steps to take. :)
I feel sick.
Infuriating on so many levels. “Manifesting prostitution”?!? What does that even mean! (And if accepting a ride is illegal, shouldn’t offering that ride be considered entrapment or something?) Thanks for raising awareness of this, and for including info about donations and further support.
so that’s your new idea how to fill your private prison quotas? Truly impressed.
See the video Jordan Flaherty did in Phoenix, featuring Monica Jones and other protestors and an inside look at Project ROSE, here:
Thank you Rachel for covering this story and for doing such a great (and thorough) job with it. The hypocrisy and selfishness behind these “rescue” programs is just nauseating. Like sex working women are all supposed to be helpless victims who can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies?? Gross.
This story is really important and I wish it was getting the attention that it deserves. With ‘Rupaul-gate’ on endless repeat right now in the trans community, that unfortunately doesn’t seem likely.