Reluctant to Turn to Authorities, Sex Workers Attempt to Safeguard Against Crime

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As the investigation continues into a possible serial killer on Long Island that led to the discovery of 10 sets of human remains, sex workers who fear turning to authorities to report crimes say they have methods of trying to prevent against victimization.

The grisly discovery of human remains — including the bodies of four prostitutes — along a remote stretch of beach highway in Nassau and Suffolk Counties was sparked by the disappearance of New Jersey resident Shannon Gilbert, a prostitute, whose body has yet to be found.

Many suspect the slayings are the work of a serial killer, which has stoked the fears of many New Yorkers, but sex workers say they deal with the anxiety of being victimized on a regular basis.

"We've been coping with this sort of fear for a long time," said Stacey Swimme, the co-founder of Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, based in San Francisco, and a sex worker of 12 years.

Four of the bodies discovered last December were young women in their 20s, who had been reported missing as far back as July 2007, and had been sex workers who advertised on Craigslist. The others have not yet been identified.

A spokesman for the Nassau County police department said sex workers with information or those seeking to report a crime will not be arrested. "They will only be arrested if they have been caught offering to have sex with a member of law enforcement or soliciting sex for money," the spokesman said.

There is also an anonymous tip line — 1-800-244-8477 — where those who call in will have their privacy protected, the spokesman said.

Suffolk County police did not returned requests for comment.

Still, many sex workers, fearing arrest, have turned instead to relatively simple technology, like cell phones and a few iPhone apps, for protection.

Swimme said she will call a friend when she meets up with a client to let them know she is at an appointment and tell them how long she'll be. She said she also has a plan in place if she doesn't contact the friend. Sometimes that could mean calling the police or someone else nearby.

"I didn't feel like the police would be my friend," said Swimme, who said she was threatened by a stalker but never called police. "I didn't feel like I'd be taken seriously, and I was seriously afraid that if I went to the police and told them information about me that would lead to them finding my website and setting up a sting operation against me."

Audacia Ray, a former New York City sex worker and director of the Red Umbrella Project, said many sex workers are going more high tech, purchasing items like a GPS location alarm iPhone app to protect themselves. The app sends a users location to a friend if an alarm is not answered in time, and can automatically contact police as well.

SWOP-USA is also developing a similar app called Safe Call for sex workers.

One problem with creating technology for this purpose, Ray said, is the fact that communicating for the purposes of prostitution is illegal in New York, making development challenging.

There is also what is known as a Bad Date List. Ray said this is usually regional and passed on through word of mouth, but is essential to helping women identify misbehaving, non-paying and violent customers.

Ray said when she was a sex worker she was robbed and had reason to call the police but it never occurred to her to contact them.

"That wasn’t even on the menu of options," she said.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of Law and Police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police have a responsibility to make sex workers feel safe but also said it's unlikely police would pursue prostitution charges against individuals coming forward with information about a crime such as the slayings in Long Island.

"In the middle of a mass murder investigation it would seem that would pale in comparison, at least in the New York area," he said.