Why I livetweeted the trial of an Alaskan sex worker

When I heard that Amber Batts, a sex worker and the owner of Alaska’s most successful and well-known escorting agency, had been arrested for sex trafficking, I wasn’t surprised. Alaska’s sex trafficking laws, passed in 2012, had been used exclusively against sex workers themselves in their first couple years, and are still used disproportionately against those they were intended to protect.  

The laws target safety practices used by sex workers, such as people working together [Update 3:11pm CT Aug. 25: This piece was updated to reflect that sex workers are independent contractors, not employees.], communicating to screen clients, or working indoors. Batts, like everyone else who’d been charged under the law at that point, was not accused of any violence or abuse; the charging documents describe how she screened clients for safety and processed credit card transactions.  The eight felony counts of sex trafficking with which Batts was charged could have added up to a sentence of over 60 years. She eventually pled out to just one count of second-degree sex trafficking (running a prostitution enterprise)

Batts’ case was high-profile in our state and many people had been impacted. It also came in the midst of my graduate research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, into the lived experiences and policy recommendations of people in Alaska’s sex trade. In my role as an advocate for safety for Alaska’s sex workers, I began using Batts’ case right away to educate lawmakers about the effects of the new trafficking laws. 

A hearing was scheduled for August 14. I decided to livetweet it. Activists around the world are upset about sex workers becoming the collateral damage of sex trafficking laws, but to many our plight seems like an abstract concept. I wanted to both create a record of the hearing and I wanted the whole world to be watching.  

Two days before the sentencing, on August 12, I started a petition at Care2 asking Alaska’s legislators to repeal the 2012 sex trafficking law. Other local activists and I made shirts that said WhoresUNITED907 (907 is our local area code) and decided to tweet with the same hashtag:

As I tweeted what I observed in the courtroom, sex worker activists from all over the world joined the conversation.

As people joined in, the petition URL was tweeted and retweeted.

Tweeters wanted justice for Amber Batts, and talked about sex worker policy issues worldwide.

Batt’s trial comes at a time when policy surrounding sex work is front page news. Recently, Amnesty International joined Human Rights Watch, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Women, and UNAIDS in recommending protecting the human rights of people in the sex trade by decriminalizing every aspect of consensual adult prostitution. Their resolution calls for “a refocussing of laws to tackle acts of exploitation, abuse and trafficking – rather than catch-all offences that only criminalize and endanger sex workers.” The human rights group identified police receiving sexual services from sex workers to build evidence, as has been alleged in Batts’ case, as a human rights violation that their new resolution is intended to prevent.

In the courtroom an Assistant Attorney General for the state, Adam Alexander, argued on August 14 with Batts’ attorney, Brandon Kelly, about what should be included in the presentencing report.  In one example, Mr. Alexander had written that escorts were regularly assaulted by clients, requiring medical attention. Mr. Kelly pointed out that the only remotely related event was when one worker reported she had been cut by a client’s fingernail during consensual digital penetration, and had not required medical treatment. The judge modified the report to read that one worker had been assaulted.

The defense repeatedly objected to wording in which the state had implied that Batts was selling human beings or acting coercively. The prosecutor responded repeatedly that it didn’t matter because Batts was not being charged with any form of force, fraud, or coercion.  

The hearing  resumed on August 17, with the prosecutor, Mr. Alexander, alleging that Batts’ extensive screening practices were not actually for sex workers’ safety. Instead, he alleged, she conducted screening as a business practice to increase her income, looking for hagglers rather than indications of potential violence. In response, sex workers watching my livetweets started listing serial killers who have preyed on sex workers—and tweeting their support of the screening practices Batts employed.

The prosecutor had some opinions about sex workers, saying that we had been reduced to pieces of meat that can be bought and sold:

In the end, Judge Volland made it clear that he didn’t care about the morality of prostitution. His job was to apply the law, not to judge the law. He also didn’t care that Batts was not accused of hurting anyone. She was charged with running a prostitution enterprise and Alaska’s legislature had decided a penalty for that. Judge Volland sentenced Batts to five years for the sex trafficking charge and a year-and-a-half for a probation violation.  

Batts’ sentence caused my petition at Care2 to go viral. As of August 24th, over 37,000 people have signed their names asking Alaska’s legislators to repeal the sex trafficking law.

I’m not letting the hashtag #WhoresUNITED907 go, however. It’s mainly other people now using it now, mostly pushing for an investigation into several unsolved murders of Alaskan sex workers. But still, I’m pleased that Twitter has provided a platform for sex worker voices that are regularly silenced in the public sphere. 

Tara Burns lives in Alaska, where she is a board member of the Community United for Safety and Protection.  She is the author of the Whore Diaries series, and has written about sex work issues for AlterNet, VICE, The New Inquiry, and others. 

Illustration by Max Fleishman