Tara Burns is a founding board member of the organisation Community United for safety and protectionFreddie Dyke/Cambridge Union Society

A woman is in handcuffs. Her palms are being wiped after she interacted with an undercover officer. This is the image on the front cover of the document I am holding.

Penned by Tara Burns after being trafficked as a minor and living as a sex worker, inside are the findings of a study entitled ‘People in Alaska’s Sex Trade: Their Lived Experiences And Policy Recommendations’.

The context for her research was a 2012 law passed in Alaska, which redefined most adult consensual sex work as ‘sex trafficking’. In excluding sex workers and victims of sex trafficking from the discussion, those who are insulated from the effects of their policies made the  assumption that they ‘know what is best’ in dealing with issues they have no experience of.

“I saw that the law was only being used against us and not used to help us, or to protect us.”

Tara Burns

Speaking ‘for’, but not listening to sex workers, “people in the media were saying that they were using this law to ‘save’ the poor trafficking victims” Burns tells me. But this narrative failed to translate into the experiences of sex workers. Instead, “I saw that the law was only being used against us and not used to help us, or to protect us”, Tara recalls. Her study harrowingly illustrates this failure through endless cases of sex workers being denied shelter, arrested when reporting rape or experiencing violence at the hands of the police.

“I was familiar with all of these different issues – police having sex with people and then arresting them, and people being turned away when they were trying to report crimes,” she tells me. After studying for a Master’s Degree in Social Justice at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and conducting her thesis, Burns resolved to fight for change – using her research to find out the percentages of people who had experienced this.

“I brought that research to the Alaska legislature to tell them how their law was working and when I got down there I found out that I had to register as a representational lobbyist – so I was the first person in the history of Alaska’s legislature to be a representational lobbyist representing sex workers”, she explains. Now, Tara is a founding board member of the organisation Community United for safety and protection, which works for safety and protection in Alaska’s sex industry.

“Several women had escaped from him before going to the police, but the police threatened to arrest all of them and he was allowed to go on killing women.”

Tara Burns

I ask her to tell me about what galvanised her activism. “Sure”, she begins. “Well, I have had a lot of experience with things that I didn’t really realise at the time were political, because being in a criminalised occupation, your labour rights and working conditions are actually set by laws and by legislators instead of by bosses. So I’ve had a lot of different, very varied experiences with sex work, starting out young. You know, I was trafficked as a minor. I remember the prosecutor decided not to press charges because I was a teenager and juries didn’t believe them, juries didn’t like them. Then, I had some really bad experiences with police. My auntie was kidnapped. We had a serial killer in Alaska – Robert Hansen. She was kidnapped and almost killed by him and she managed to escape, but when she went to the police, they threatened to arrest her. Several women had escaped from him before going to the police, but the police threatened to arrest all of them and he was allowed to go on killing women.”

Burns highlights how the criminalisation of sex work is fatal, often resulting in the abuse or deaths of the very people that it is claimed to ‘protect’. She goes on to explain that criminal charges for sex workers prevent them from gaining other employment. “It’s almost like the state becomes a sex trafficker, forcing people to stay in sex work and that’s why we need decriminalisation”, Burns explains. “It’s very hard to get a job when people, look you up on the criminal database and it says you’re a sex trafficker”, she continues – referring to the 2012 law that redefined sex work as trafficking.

I ask her how the law needs to change. “Well we need the complete decriminalisation of every aspect of consensual adult sex work”, she resolves. “We need anti-discrimination laws to protect us from discrimination in housing and in access to financial instruments, employment, housing, custody and access to public services. We need laws that protect us when we’re reporting crimes. Right now, police in many parts of the world kind of disregard crimes against sex workers – so we need a policy that incentivises the right behaviour”.

“It’s almost like the state becomes a sex trafficker, forcing people to stay in sex work and that’s why we need decriminalisation.”

Tara Burns

Fearing arrest, sex workers are vulnerable to abuse and obstructed from seeking help when they are subject to it. Burns’ study reinforces this, with first-hand accounts of sex workers recalling their experiences of abuse – reading that ‘these guys didn’t feel like there was any consequences’ and that ‘they felt perfectly okay with this because there was no law to protect me’. One participant explains the dehumanising nature of criminalising sex work aptly, reflecting that ‘when you deny a certain group of people their protections or rights…you’re saying that it’s okay to abuse these people’.

From speaking to Burns and reading her study, I learn how the stigmatisation of sex work feeds into legal structures and institutions. ‘It’s not about a crime or a moral code of ethics, it’s about the political framework, the contextual framework, the political structure of the administration that is existent in the time that you are potentially experiencing a problem. That’s not how law enforcement is defined to you when you’re a child, but now I get that’, one participant in her study reflects. Burn’s thesis highlights that to understand sex work, we need to listen to people who have experienced what it is like. She explains to me that “because sex workers are so criminalised and stigmatised – we don’t get to represent ourselves. So we live more in the public imagination in the media”, pointing out that “in reality, there’s not one thing you can say about sex workers – we’re very diverse”.  

I ask Burns to leave us with an overarching message. “I would really like people to understand that sex workers’ labour conditions are set by laws and policy, and that we need to be able to negotiate our own safe work conditions. We need to be able to negotiate for our own labour”, she tells me.

Burns highlights the tragic implications of assuming we know what is best for sex workers without consulting them – stigma manifesting in harmful laws that leave people with no protection from abuse. It is a reminder that we need to listen

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