"I feel scared all the time." A Jamaican sex worker tells her story
‘Apple’ is a 38 year old street sex worker in Jamaica, she has been a sex worker for almost 12 years. She was arrested for the first time six weeks ago, and forced to sign a confession. Apple told Amnesty that the statement read on her behalf at the court hearing was “pure lies”. She described how she and the other female sex workers are regularly harassed and abused by a particular police officer who demands free sex in return for not arresting them.
I’ve worked in many different categories of sex work. I started out in a massage parlour and then worked as an exotic dancer. Most recently I have been involved in street sex work. The majority of our sex workers here in Jamaica work on the streets and they are the ones that are most prone to being arrested by the police and locked up. And also of being robbed, beaten and killed.
Last month I was arrested for the first time. It really was a horrific experience. I was picked up by the police along with 11 other females and we were just shoved into the back of a small truck. It was a really tight space and we were just crammed in there. When we arrived at the police station we were ridiculed and chastised. We were being looked down on as being trash and not being good persons. They used many negative words against us ‘prostitute’, ‘old whore’, ‘nasty girl’.
No one explained what was happening. No one offered me a lawyer. I didn’t even realize I was under arrest; nobody told me that.”
No one explained what was happening. No one offered me a lawyer. I didn’t even realize I was under arrest; nobody told me that.
I was forced to sign what is called a station diary but I wasn’t aware of what was written in it. At first I refused to sign but then the police officer threatened to throw me in jail. It was my first time being in that situation so I wasn’t aware of what to do. Being claustrophobic I didn’t want to be in jail, so I just signed it, even though I didn’t know what it said. After that the police said I could call someone to bail me.
I was brought to court about two weeks later. The statement that they read to me was pure lies. The only thing I was asked is if I was guilty or not guilty. I didn’t want to plead guilty but I did so because I understood that the fine would be minimal for my first time and I just wanted to get the case over with. I didn’t have a lawyer to advise me so it seemed the best thing to do. It was very frightening.
I am part of the Sex Workers Association of Jamaica (SWAJ); we have around 600 members now but there are still so many challenges. I was getting in touch with some of the girls who were picked up by police to see if we could record what happened to them. But the women are afraid to talk, even to us. Only one girl gave me her name, the others don’t want to be identified as sex workers because they don’t want more trouble with the police officer who arrested us. They are very scared of him. He constantly harasses us girls on the streets. He wants to have sex with the girls but he doesn’t want to pay.
If you refuse when he [the police officer] makes his advances, then he will return another night and then claim to be enforcing the law and arrest you. What he is actually doing is abusing the law.
If you refuse when he [the police officer] makes his advances, then he will return another night and then claim to be enforcing the law and arrest you. What he is actually doing is abusing the law.”
I also think that one of the reasons he is doing this is because of how the law is set up in Jamaica. The fact that sex work is illegal, he is using that power over us.
There is no one we can complain to because even the night I was arrested the senior officer was there. They were all in agreement with us being arrested.
If sex workers are arrested and brought to court, they always just plead guilty and pay the fine. Most times because they don’t know their rights and they don’t understand the court system; they don’t want to have the case drawn out. That’s how our justice system is here. The case is drawn out for years and years and so to keep going up to court each time, it will cost more for the transport than to pay the fine. And also if one was to get a lawyer to represent them it will cost more than the fine. The result is that nobody ever challenges these laws.
I feel scared all the time. I should be looking out for the police and feeling faith [in them], but I actually feel even more threatened by the police.”
I feel scared all the time. I should be looking out for the police and feeling faith [in them], but I actually feel even more threatened by the police.
Raids have been happening a lot recently. A few weeks ago there was a raid where 27 girls were arrested. Some were beaten, some were pepper sprayed.
As well as the police we have to be looking out for robbers and other bad guys. There are killings and there are rapes. Sometimes it gets to the news, sometimes it doesn’t; it happens a lot. Sometimes these things happen because we have to go to areas that are not safe because we are illegal and we have to hide from the police. But then when we go to these places that are supposedly secretive, there are persons there who watch the sex workers and prey upon the sex workers, because they think we always have money on us. So when we go to these secret places to work then we are pounced upon, robbed, raped and sometimes even killed.
I think if this work is decriminalized the police would be duty bound to protect us and if persons were to have an incident with a client or even a robber we could go and report it and that person could be brought [in by police]. I think then there would be a reduction in things like that and our work would become more safe.
Buying should be decriminalized as well, because if buying sex is still illegal then there would still be problems with the police officers and even the robbers as well. The police would constantly put pressure on the clients and so we would still have to be in hiding, and if there is any kind of agitation then the police still wouldn’t do anything.
Some of us have tried before to make a complaint to the police but when they do, they are more chastised for being a sex worker than receiving the help they should from the police. Sometimes they are sent away from the station, or their statements are never taken.
Some of us have tried before to make a complaint to the police but when they do, they are more chastised for being a sex worker than receiving the help they should from the police. Sometimes they are sent away from the station, or their statements are never taken.”
We are starting to get organized as sex workers and the Sex Workers Association of Jamaica is growing, but we are embryonic and there are so many challenges. Our main call is just for human rights, we want our rights respected. We are very inexperienced but we know what it is that we want for sex workers and that is the main thing. Everything else we can learn.
In Jamaica it is illegal to solicit the sale of sex, keep a room or premises where sex work occurs, or live off the earnings of sex work. Public order laws are also used against sex workers.