by Tina Vasquez
Monica Jones says that growing up, her family was “loud and opinionated.” As an adult, she uses those very attributes to her advantage as an outspoken trans activist and sex worker rights advocate with the Phoenix chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a social justice network dedicated to the rights of sex workers.
The organization focuses on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy, areas of interest for Jones as a former sex worker and current student at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work. What she didn’t anticipate was how these worlds would collide.
In May of 2013, Jones was arrested for “manifesting prostitution”, becoming one of more than 350 people arrested since 2011 as part of Project ROSE, a diversion program created by ASU tenured professor Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. The professor is also director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, and she knew Jones personally. The two women debated Project ROSE and Roe-Sepowitz was present when the handcuffed activist was brought into Bethany Bible Church and deemed ineligible to participate in the diversion program because of previous convictions. The professor refused to speak to Jones, who was held for 45 minutes before being released. She received a court summons a few months after her arrest with a court date set for March 14. If found guilty, Jones will be jailed in the men’s facility of a prison system notorious for human rights violations.
Before her arrest, Jones spoke out against Project ROSE at a rally and posted an ad on Backpage warning sex workers that a sting would be taking place. The following night, during day two of Project ROSE, the activist was walking to a bar in her neighborhood when she accepted a ride. Once inside the car, the driver revealed themselves to be an undercover officer.
“I’m in that area every weekend, so it’s not like no one had ever seen me before. I’m 6’2’ and I stick out in a crowd, but nothing like that has ever happened to me,” Jones said. “I believe I was targeted for being outspoken about Project ROSE, a program that takes away agency and targets women in poverty. Many sex workers live in poverty and so do many trans women of color, who the police associate with sex work whether it’s true or not. So you have two agencies – the police department and diversion programs – working together to target low-income women.”
Jones says it was upsetting when Roe-Sepowitz refused to speak to her, especially given that the program is supposedly in place to help. The professor declined to participate in an interview, saying she couldn’t speak about anything related to individuals involved in her “evaluation work.” According to a fact sheet she provided, Project ROSE was created with 15 partner organizations, including the Phoenix Police Department, with the goal of avoiding filing charges against adults engaged in prostitution. “Instead, the partners provide an opportunity for medical and social services, as well as an evidence-based intervention to assist in helping them exit the life of prostitution if they choose,” the fact sheet says.
Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman, Jones’ best friend and a founder of SWOP Phoenix, has serious concerns about the ethics surrounding Roe-Sepowitz’s project.
“This is criminalization under the guise of social work. It’s police-driven and its foundation is victim ideology, treating all sex workers as victims in need of help. It’s problematic in a lot of ways, but it’s most problematic in the way it discards the voices of the population it’s seeking to serve. We don’t want this in Phoenix. They’re actually seeking out women in poverty; 96 percent of those affected are women. It’s harmful,” Moskal-Dairman said.
The SWOP-Phoenix founder says Project ROSE only has a success rate of 30 percent, which is the same success rate for women who go in front of a judge without a diversion program. The program also costs tax payers money by adding more police officers to the street, which Jones says endangers the communities she inhabits.
“It’s dangerous out there for poor women, women of color, and trans women. I’m all of those things and I’m being told that because I was once a sex worker, I will always be seen as a sex worker. They’re trying to convict me off of my priors. Social workers have ethics and Project ROSE violates social work code,” Jones said.
In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which revealed that transgender and gender non-conforming people have higher levels of interaction with police because they are more likely to be on the street in part, because their circumstances “often force them to work in the underground economy and because they face harassment and arrest simply because they are out in public while being transgender.”
Fifty-four percent of the study’s respondents reported having contact with the police, with 22 percent reporting they were harassed by police officers because of bias. This number increases dramatically – up to 38 percent –for trans people of color.
Moskal-Dairman is certain her friend was profiled, saying Jones was stopped multiple times after the initial run-in with the undercover officer and that SWOP-Phoenix has video of police profiling Jones and using discriminatory language against her.
“She was profiled as a sex worker because she’s a trans woman of color. She is not guilty,” Moskal-Dairman said.
As the court date nears, Jones is stressed and scared. She’s worried about the dangers she will face if she’s jailed and she’s very concerned about how it will affect her livelihood. If she’s imprisoned, she won’t be able to finish her semester at ASU. If she can’t finish her semester, she’ll lose her financial aid. Jones says all she wants is the charges dropped. The activist is requesting supporters sign a petition on her behalf and use the hashtag #StandWithMonica to voice their support, though she’s also hoping the support extends beyond her case.
“If you know a sex worker, tell them you support them. Treat them like a human being because so often, sex workers don’t get treated like human beings,” Jones said. “I’m not a quitter. They can’t silence me. I didn’t always love my voice, but it’s what I got and I’m going to use it. So many can’t, but I can and I will fight for our rights.”
Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.