Here's one way sex workers can hold clients and cops accountable: videotape them. Raven Nicole Masterson, a self-described "coparazzi," uses her cellphone camera to document how often the basic rights of sex workers — especially those who are women of color — are completely ignored. Masterson's guerrilla tactics won't work for everyone, but activists say sex workers have few other options if they want to protect themselves.
Masterson, a 30-year-old sex worker who lives in Los Angeles, told Jezebel that she became a cop-policing activist in 2010, after years of being unfairly treated like a suspect because of her line of work. There are over 100 videos on her "Coparazzi" YouTube channel, including dozens of legal arguments with cops and interviews with teenage sex workers who say they've been abused by the LAPD. Masterson has an abrasive online presence (sample tweets: "DUMBASS, I ACTUALLY STARTED COPWATCHING BECAUSE I WAS THE VICTIM OF A CRIME"; "Inhuman mofos...K.I.L.L. LAPD!"), but spoke eloquently about sex workers' legal rights and her activist work during our phone interview. "The minute you mention sex work in the context of a real crime, cops don't want to hear it," she said. "They'll blame you for whatever happened to you, even if you're a victim."
Are police required to protect individuals who break the law? No one has an absolute constitutional right to protection, but "sex workers have just as much of a right to ask or seek that protection to report crimes," said Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, the only team of lawyers in the country who specialize in justice for sex workers. A silly but helpful analogy: if someone shoots you while you're urinating on the street, that doesn't mean the police won't investigate your death. "When cops don't take sex workers seriously, that's a policy decision that they're making," Baskin said. "We as a society should demand that they do."
Masterson herself is the star of her most recent exposé posted to her "Coparrazi" YouTube channel. In it, Masterson is mistreated by unsympathetic police officers and harassed by a lying John; viewers can watch as she unapologetically harasses them right back.
The video runs almost 25 minutes (Masterson also summarizes it in a blog post); we've got a breakdown below.
Earlier this month, Masterson received a call from a client, "Tim," who found her on Backpage.com. Masterson said Tim gave off weird vibes as soon as she arrived at his apartment around 2 AM: He didn't want to pay her upfront and insisted Masterson would stay the night even though she hadn't agreed to do so. Eventually, Tim accused Masterson of stealing his wallet and forbade her from leaving until she coughed it up. Masterson said Tim rifled through her purse and again told her she couldn't leave; she grabbed her purse back and whipped out her pepper spray. Tim grabbed a pool cue. Masterson started to film.
You can hear Tim say, "You fucking stole my wallet" around 1:12; more arguing ensues while Masterson calls 911. "My wallet is fricking gone," Tim whines. "Thanks for nothing." The unsympathetic operator tells Masterson twice to stop "antagonizing" Tim, even though he's equally antagonistic. "My wallet's gone," he says again. "You were the only one here."
After Masterson clarifies that she's not falling for the wallet trick or getting off the phone with 911, Tim lets her go; as she's on her way out, he lunges at her and tries to grab her cellphone (at around 4:32). He appears to assault her on video. On video.
In response, Masterson instinctively drop-kicks him. (Nice.) After he chases her down the stairs, Masterson tells him he's about to be YouTube famous and calls the cops again to file a police report to accuse him of attempting to hold her against her will. She asks the cops to meet her at a nearby gas station; they show up at Tim's place, instead.
The sun is rising when Masterson finally gets the chance to speak to a police officer. During that time, Tim frantically calls and texts her to apologize; he says his dog dragged his wallet out onto the patio (m'kay).
Masterson didn't tape her entire meeting with the cops — she says her phone died — but you can hear her politely explain why they're on camera at 17:28. "Being that I'm at a very vulnerable circumstance right now, I just want to make sure no one infringes on my civil rights," she says. Masterson told Jezebel that the cops started blaming her for what happened as soon as her phone shut off, saying what she did was illegal and that she had no business going to a stranger's house so late at night. She claims Officer Mathews watched her video and said her drop-kick could be construed as battery, not self-defense against a man who physically tried to block her from leaving his apartment. She received the business card below. The case was closed.
Tim did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Officers Haberkorn or Mathews. A LAPD spokesperson took our questions earlier this week but said he had no idea if or when the department would get back to us. When Masterson emailed Officer Haberkorn, he asked her to stop contacting him.
The law is rarely kind to sex workers. A Texas jury recently acquitted a man of murder who said he didn't "intend" to shoot and kill a prostitute. Two narcotics officers in the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department — yep, the same department that employs the cops who "helped" Masterson — are currently under investigation for allegedly using their badges to lure women into unmarked cars and force them to perform sex acts. A commenter on our post on the subject wrote that she, too, was sexually assaulted by an LAPD cop years ago; she claims he "groped my entire body under my underclothes and inserted his fingers into my vagina" before confiscating some cigarettes that didn't have tax stamps. "Until LAPD treats this as a systemic issue instead of a case of 'bad apples,' LAPD will continue to have a rape problem," she wrote.
Even anonymous internet commenters have more credibility than sex workers. Masterson, who has appeared on VH1's Rock of Love, has a reputation for being unhinged; her name's first page of Google results is full of hits about how she's a crazy man-hating "femacunt" and — gasp! — "admitted prostitute." History teaches us that there's no better way to disenfranchise a marginalized woman than accusing her of insanity.
"People call me crazy to dismiss me, because they can't argue my truth using logic" Masterson said. "That's what happens to all sex workers who speak out."
Jessie Nicole, a representative of the Sex Workers Outreach Project's L.A. chapter, said Raven had a reputation for "not being taken seriously" among local sex workers, too. "She's not an ideal poster child," Nicole said. "But that's not a bad thing. Sex worker activists are trying to shift the idea that there's no 'better victim' — just because she's out there doesn't mean she has less of a right not to be assaulted."
Nicole said Masterson's "Coparazzi" project was exciting, given how few resources there are for sex workers in L.A. "People who aren't marginalized — sex workers, people of color, trans women — take it for granted that the police are a source of safety," she said. "But [Masterson's] story is hardly unique. It's only unique that she got it on camera." Videotaping isn't a possibility for sex workers who want to retain anonymity, but "outing" could be a "viable, powerful option" for some.
Baskin said Masterson's work reminded her of "Bad Date Lists," a review/warning system for dangerous clients that only exists in a handful of cities, and noted that the Center often advises sex workers to collect information on police officers; Masterson's guidance is "advice that everyone can take on."
"Recording is a useful tool if it's legal," said Baskin (some states have hidden camera statutes), "and sex workers don't have a lot of tools to keep themselves safe. It's important to think of anything creative you can do to feel feel like you have more power in a situation."
Masterson says she was raised from a young age to believe that sex workers have rights; her dad, a New Orleans cop, taught her that prostitutes can get raped, too. "If I wasn't doing 'cop watch,' they would've treated me way worse," Masterson said. "They would've taken me to jail, or worse."
Note: Masterson identifies "Tim" by what she says is his first and last name in her video and on her blog, but since we couldn't independently verify his identity, we gave him a pseudonym.
Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Shutterstock.