Our Letter to Councilman Neilson and the Committee on Licenses & Inspections: Have you sent Yours?

Councilman Neilson has proposed Bill Nos.150076 & 150075. In efforts to stop human trafficking, these bills would ban Philadelphia hotels from renting by the hour and also require employees at all Philadelphia hotels to be trained to recognize signs of human trafficking by the Philadelphia Police Department. Information can be found here fromPhilly.com and Councilman Neilson’s Website. 

Preventing human sex trafficking can only be done in collaboration with individuals who labor in the sex trade. We need more safe, affirming services, not more surveillance.

Please contact Councilman Neilson and urge him to reconsider this bill by leaving a comment on his website or calling his office at 215-686-3420 or Ed.Neilson@phila.gov as well as other members of the Committee on Licenses & Inspection who are now reviewing the bill.


Councilman Neilson and Members of the Committee on Licenses & Inspections:

Thank for your interest and commitment to combatting human trafficking in Philadelphia. I am writing you and other members of the Committee on Licenses and Inspections as the Executive Director of Project SAFE and Board Member at the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Trafficking and labor exploitation are compelling issues for individuals in the sex trade, however it is important to remember that the majority of human trafficking does not happen among those in the sex trade (Clawson et al., 2009; Free the Slaves, 2004).

Project SAFE has served women in the sex trade since 2004. We are a grassroots organization and 100% volunteer. Most of our volunteers work with us because they also have experience in the sex trade and recognize that there is a dearth in direct services for sex workers and victims of trafficking in Philadelphia.

The majority of the women we work with trade sex for money, housing or other goods because of their circumstances – because they are poor, because they need flexible employment to care for their children; some have arrest records preventing them working, or they find that the minimum wage is not enough to support a family. Many of these women are survivors of various forms of violence.

Initially, we served women in Kensington. Since the increase of policing on Kensington Avenue, we – at first – thought our services would be less necessary in the community. Now we know instead this community of sex workers have migrated all over the city, generating more of a need for advocacy and allied intervention.

Sex workers move indoors to work with managers or “pimps,” or online to work out of hotels or rented rooms. Women still needed to make a living, so sex work ensued, undeterred by law enforcement’s best efforts. We now serve women all over the greater Philadelphia area.

We provide health and harm reduction services for women – anything from clean socks to condoms to tampon (our most requested item) – all for free and 100% anonymous. We use a harm reduction approach as opposed to an abstinence-based or zero-tolerance approach. We find for many women sex work is not their first choice, but leaving the sex trade is a process. It takes time, options, and above all compassionate support for the individual.

We support those ready to leave the industry through referrals to shelters, recovery communities and other therapeutic services. For those actively working we help ensure they have access to essential health and safety provisions. We let sex workers know their lives matter because so many people treat sex workers with shame, indignity, and sadly even violence.

Councilman Neilson and Committee members, herein lies our concerns with both of these bills:

  • For those women who are trading sex because they have nowhere else to go, by regulating hotels, you are again taking away another low-cost option. These are not women who can jump on smart phones to look up low prices on priceline.com. Often, a $40 for a few hours of solace is all they can afford, and is the best deal in town when shelters are full, or for many people shelters are more violence, stigma, shame and abuse (Koyama, 2006).
  • While your focus is on regulating sex trafficking, sex workers face extreme amounts violence (see below for several US-based research studies). Hourly hotels, because of affordability and ease of access, are one of the few safe places individuals who are trading sex by choice, circumstance or coercion can go to earn money without going to a client’s private place of residence, where we find a number of violent transactions occur. This bill could potentially may force at-risk women to engage in dangerous and exploitative labor situations in areas where we can’t reach out to help them.
  • I am aware that sex work is illegal in PA. While our organization is supportive of sex workers we ultimately believe that most people would live happier, healthier lives outside of the sex trade. As it stands, however, there is no formal program to help sex workers exit the industry. For these women, their only choices are organizations like ours, or law enforcement. However, utilizing police officers as first-responders to rescue victims of trafficking has been unsuccessful, and tends to replicate the systemic racism of the criminal justice system (Red Umbrella Project, 2014; Strangio, 2014).

I look forward to collaborating about the many stakeholders that could and should be trained to identify human trafficking activities and human trafficking victims both within the sex trade as well as other vulnerable industries: domestic labor, agriculture, hospitality, food service and, sadly, much more.

I hope City Council will consider including the voices of survivors and sex workers. We have intimate knowledge of human trafficking, and how to best be supportive to those victimized by it. We – if possible – want to work in interdisciplinary teams with law enforcement to better the lives of those we all serve in our shared communities.

I encourage you to contact me regarding this issue. I am so grateful that your office and the Committee on Licenses & Inspections are tackling Human Trafficking in Philadelphia. I hope we can respond with evidence-based approaches grounded in data that support survivors and resist further stigmatization and criminalization of victims.



Executive Director, Project SAFE

Consulted Sources

Clawson, Heather J., et al. “Human trafficking into and within the United States: A review of the literature.” US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (2009).

Decker, M.R., Pearson, E., Illangasekare, S.L., Clark, E., and Sherman, S.G. (2013). Violence against women in sex work and HIV risk implications differ qualitatively by perpetrator.

Free the Slaves (2004). Hidden Slaves, Forced Labor in the United States. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20070830033751/http://freetheslaves.net/files/Hidden_Slaves.pdf

Koyama, E. (2006). Disloyal to feminism: Abuse of survivors within the domestic violence shelter system. Color of Violence: The INCITE Anthology, 208-22.

Hail-Jares, K. (Forthcoming) Bad Dates: How prostitution strolls impact client-initiated violence. Studies in Law, Politics & Society

Human Rights Watch (2012). Sex Workers At Risk. Retrieved Fromhttp://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/07/19/sex-workers-risk-0

Human Rights Violations of Sex Workers, People in the Sex Trade, and People Profiled as Such (2014). Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the United States of America.

Hospitality. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://www.traffickingresourcecenter.org/labor-trafficking-venuesindustries/hospitality-0

Murtha, T. (2013, October 30). Activists Campaign Against Philadelphia Judge Who Ruled Rape as Theft. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/10/30/activists-campaign-against-philadelphia-judge-who-ruled-rape-as-theft/

Red Umbrella Project (2014). Criminal, Victim or Worker. Retrieved from http://redumbrellaproject.org/advocate/nyhtic/

Strangio, C. (2014, August 5). When Walking Down the Street Is a Crime. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from https://www.aclu.org/blog/lgbt-rights/when-walking-down-street-crime

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