Trafficking Hysteria and Citizen Surveillance

11 July 2019

2:00 AM. The phone rang, abruptly wakening me. It was the hotel night clerk calling to tell me that members of the Montreal Police Service were downstairs and wanting to search my room. This made no sense to me. When I asked why, I was told there was a report of a missing youth being held in the hotel. Knowing I couldn’t refuse without negative consequences, I reluctantly agreed. More than 7 minutes later, two officers knocked at my door. The officers, both about 6’4”, were imposing men. They wore uniforms and had guns. Stunned by the situation, irritation setting in, I asked if I could speak to a female police officer. The officers laughed. “Do you have an underaged girl in your room,” they persisted. I said no but, resigned to the likelihood that they would not believe me, I responded with “you’d better take a look.” Entering only three steps, they shone a flashlight down the short hall to the bedroom. No searching the closet to their left, bathroom to right, or balcony at the far end of the room, as one would expect in response to concerns about forcible confinement, kidnapping, or trafficking. Within a minute, they apologized for the inconvenience and left. 

Now angry by the intrusion and not able to get back to sleep, I went down to the hotel reception. The night clerk – a nice guy –  conveyed to me that the officers told him that they had a tip about youth being held at the hotel. The police specified that they wanted entry to my room – only to my room. Why only my room? Shrugging sympathetically, he responded, “You’ll have to talk to the manager in the morning.”

This is what happened to one of us – Kerry Porth, sex worker rights activist, educator, and scholar. Along with the other one of us – Genevieve Fuji Johnson, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University – Kerry was in Montreal to attend the 4th biennial International Conference of Public Policy. The day before, the presentation of our paper “Drugs and Sex: The Boundaries of Harm Reduction,” was well received by a small but interested audience. Afterwards, we met over coffee and croissants with members of our McGill-based research team to discuss our Canadian Institutes of Health Research collaboration, including plans for more research, conferences, and publications. It was a productive couple of days, further developing our work together and consolidating research partnerships with other academics and activists.

We have enjoyed a fruitful activist-academic relationship for about 7 years, producing a number of academic papers on prostitution policy and sex work governance. Sex work is controversial, even as a research area. We have faced our share of stigmatic remarks from peer reviewers of our writings and attendees at our presentations as we have worked to mainstream an evidence-based discussion about the harms of criminalizing prostitution and of conflating sex work with sex trafficking, within political science and public policy research-circles. Never did we think that our work would attract the attention of law enforcement in what was essentially a raid on Kerry’s hotel room in the dead of night.

(Photo Credit: Kerry Porth | Kerry Porth (left) and Genevieve Fuji Johnson (right) in Montreal | June 26, 2019) 

No one disputes that human trafficking of any kind is a serious concern. However, often concerns about sex trafficking belie a powerful moralism that resists evidence and logic. This moralism feeds certain anti-trafficking campaigns that are more harmful than helpful, especially when those campaigns involve harnessing the surveillance powers of an archipelago of hotels, taxi companies, and ride-sharing apps.

Citizen Surveillance and Trafficking “Indicators”

In May 2019, the Montreal Police Service (SPVM) launched RADAR, an anti-trafficking program designed to enlist hotel staff and taxi drivers in identifying suspicious activity. For this program, the SPVM has partnered with police services in Laval and Longueuil, as well as with the Association des hôtels du Grand Montréal, the Montreal taxi bureau, Sun Youth, and the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. Hotel staff and taxi drivers are encouraged to be especially vigilant during major sporting events.

RADAR is similar to initiatives implemented by hotels across North America, including the Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Wyndham. For several years, industry associations such as the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association have been partnering with anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris and ECPAT-USA, as well as with police departments. These initiatives include providing hotel employees with lists of indicators of trafficking that include the following: The guests having multiple computers and phones, large amounts of cash, and lots of alcohol, condoms, lube, and lingerie; refusing cleaning services; leaving minors in the room; infrequently leaving the room; frequently using the “Do not Disturb” sign;  wearing provocative clothing and shoes; taking a lot of toiletries; asking for more towels; staying for long periods with few possessions; and renting more than one room. Some lists also include wearing large hats and sunglasses and children’s items in the room as possible indicators. Ride sharing apps and commercial airlines are also being enlisted in such anti-trafficking campaigns.

A serious issue with these indicators is that, like claims linking an increase in trafficking to major sports events, they are not based on evidence (see What’s the Cost of a Rumour? and SWAN Vancouver Toolkit). Another, perhaps more obvious, problem is that these indicator lists capture the behaviour of many people travelling for any number of reasons. When coupled with the post-911 dictum, “if you see something, say something,” these indicators have the potential of creating sleeper cells of hypervigilant anti-trafficking crusaders (see New York Times article and Washington Post article). Through these amateur agents, the state justifies its creep deeper into our private lives, and the consequences are far-reaching.

We had checked into to our Crescent Street hotel in downtown Montreal a few nights before the raid on Kerry’s room. Genevieve paid for the two rooms for 4 nights, the duration of the conference, on her credit card since she was covering the expenses from her CIHR grant on harm reduction; she did the talking with the hotel clerk while Kerry stood by. We were fatigued from the day’s travel from Vancouver, and that probably showed. That night, and the following morning before our presentation, we stayed close to the hotel, often in our respective rooms, in order to prepare. We had a number of books and articles relating to prostitution in our rooms as well as reports from advocacy and support organizations for sex workers. In Kerry’s room, she had her faithful “Sheepy” – a cute stuffed animal – perched on her pillow for company.

Were any of these activities and items the basis for the anonymous tip to the SPVM?

Or was the tip valid, perhaps from a “would-have-been” client who may have understood what he had unexpectedly walked into and decided to call the cops. Or perhaps it was from a sex worker with first-hand knowledge of a coercive situation taking place in the hotel. Perhaps there was, and still is, a victim of sexual exploitation in the hotel who wants to leave the trade and wants support in doing so. Perhaps the police got the wrong room.

We believe that the most likely explanation is that hotel staff with regular access to Kerry’s room were triggered by the research materials related to sex work on her desk (and perhaps also by little Sheepy). The Montreal Grand Prix had just finished and the Jazz Fest was soon to begin. Staff may have been extra vigilant and called the police just in case. The police responded. But, did they take the sex trafficking tip seriously? Or did they view it as an opportunity to harass a sex worker? Again, at 2:00 AM, two large police officers knocked on Kerry’s room door to ask her about a missing youth but they didn’t actually search her room. When Kerry followed up by phone from Vancouver with the SPVM a week later, she was told there was no record whatsoever of the visit.

(Photo Credit: Kerry Porth | Sheepy the stuffed lamb sits atop various research materials related to sex work | June 26, 2019) 

Anti-Trafficking Campaigns are Harming Sex Workers and Victims of Sex Trafficking

There is growing evidence of the far-reaching harms of anti-trafficking campaigns implemented by the police, including those in partnership with the hospitality industry. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “carceral hospitality” has “largely wound up as law-enforcement-driven attacks on sex workers and their clients, on immigrants, and on other members of marginalized communities. Along the way, victims of actual trafficking are often swept up in the arrests and incarceration”. If they are non-citizens, this sweep can result in deportation.

Indeed, these programs may make it more difficult for real victims of both sexual exploitation and sex trafficking to come forward, seek the help they want, and receive that help. Those who have power over them may find more ways of keeping them hidden from well-publicized efforts to detect them. Additionally, by funding these programs, valuable resources are diverted from addressing deeper causes of trafficking and, im/migrants who are either exploited or trafficked may fear incarceration or deportation.

They also harm sex workers. Captured by the excessively broad net of initiatives are consenting adults engaging in transactional sex. These programs make sex workers reluctant to carry condoms, more mistrustful of law enforcement, and less likely to “seek help from law enforcement even if they are experiencing violence, abuse, harassment or exploitation”.

Moreover, these initiatives threaten the rights and freedoms of citizens – especially those of us who are racialized. Threats include those to mobility rights, personal security rights, and freedom of association. In November 2017, a twenty-something Asian American was detained en route home from vacationing in Mexico on the suspicion that she was a victim of trafficking. There have been other such cases as well (see this and this). We also believe that Kerry’s visit from the police would have been far different had she been Black or Indigenous instead of a middle-aged white woman. As the raid on Kerry’s room suggests, these initiatives may also pose threats to academic freedom. At the very least, the incident has caused us to think more carefully about hiding from sight any research materials we may have with us when we travel.

Finally, they also threaten the very concept of citizenship. These types of anti-trafficking initiatives represent a shift from an ideal of citizenship in which members of a political community have a responsibility to be critical of the state and to keep a vigilant eye on its exercise of power. The ideal citizen underlying programs such as RADAR is one in which they become an agent of the state blindly implementing its agenda. 

How Can We Really End Human Trafficking?

We are not saying that trafficking doesn’t take place. It does in multiple sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. But, the moral panic around sex trafficking has fueled approaches to addressing the problem that are wildly overreaching, causing harms to victims of sexual exploitation and coercion, to sex workers, to the general population, and to the social production of knowledge.

They are costly too. The Canadian National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking 2012 to 2016 cost $25 million. Incidentally, only 2% or $500,000 of this was to go to assist victims. As a part of 2014 changes to prostitution provisions in the Criminal Code, an additional $9.53 million was made available to law enforcement to address trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry.

We have to ask: Are such anti-trafficking programs a good idea? Have they been effective in combatting trafficking? Have they actually resulted in any convictions? Researchers Hayli Millar and Tamara O’Doherty report that, from 2006 to 2018 only 88 cases were prosecuted of the 937 charged persons in Canada, and, of these, less than 50% resulted in conviction (forthcoming 2019).

Given the harms, the costs, and the limited benefits, RADAR-esq initiatives need to be abandoned. If we really want to combat sexual exploitation and trafficking, a critical first step is public education about the differences among sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and sex work (see Living in Community’s Sex Work 101). People engage in sex work for a wide range of reasons, for some it may include a lack of other employment options. Sometimes sex workers will travel across jurisdictions in order to work. Sex work occurring indoors – in condos or hotel rooms – is safer than that occurring on the streets (see Canada (Attorney General) v. Beford, Lebovitch, and Scott). None of these facts necessarily reduce sex work to sex exploitation or trafficking.

Anti-trafficking policies and programs need to be directly informed by sex workers, particularly those who experience multiple forms of overlapping oppressions, and their organizations. It is essential to center the voices of Indigenous sex workers in the development of these polices and programs. As Elene Lam and Annalee Lepp argue, we also need to radically center “the voices of Asian and migrant sex workers” and develop peer-based approaches to seriously addressing these forms of violence. Beyond destigmatizing sex workers, another crucial step in combatting sexual exploitation and trafficking is to decriminalize adult prostitution. Once decriminalized, prostitution can be governed by the same types of labour laws in other areas, and sex workers can receive the same protections as workers in other areas. Affordable housing and accessible education are also essential in any meaningful plan to combat sexual exploitation. Ultimately, municipal governments, including police departments need to work hard to gain the trust of sex workers and their advocacy and support organizations who are among the best positioned to identify victims of either sexual exploitation or sex trafficking and to refer them to trusted programs that can enable them to exit the trade should they choose to do so.

Trafficking is a serious crime and a gross violation of basic human rights. To respond to it, we need nothing less than an effective, evidence-based approach. We need this now.

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Kerry Porth, Sex Work Policy Researcher & SFU Research Assistant
Professor Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Political Science, Simon Fraser University