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Policing Sex Workers with Dr. India Thusi

George Grombacher April 15, 2022

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Policing Sex Workers with Dr. India Thusi

LifeBlood: We talked about policing sex workers, the value of having a personal relationship with law enforcement as well as sex workers, how to understand the challenges that exist in these professions, the role of the police, and how to create a better system, with Dr. India Thusi, JD, Senior Scientist, Professor and author. 

Listen to learn what lessons can be learned from law enforcement in South Africa!

You can learn more about India at Law.Indiana.Edu, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thanks, as always for listening!  If you got some value and enjoyed the show, please leave us a review wherever you listen and subscribe as well. 

You can learn more about us at LifeBlood.Live, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook or you’d like to be a guest on the show, contact us at contact@LifeBlood.Live.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher


Dr. India Thusi

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:00
Come on well Blippo This is George G. And the time is right welcome. Today’s guest is Dr. Powerful Dr. India to see Dr. India. Are you ready to do this?

Dr. India Thusi 0:20
Yes, I am. Thanks for having me.

george grombacher 0:22
I’m excited to have you on India is a GD she is a professor of law Senior Scientist, the author of policing bodies law, sex, work and desire in Johannesburg, India excited to have you on tell us a little about your personal life’s more about your work and why you do what you do.

Dr. India Thusi 0:43
Sure, so I teach law at Indiana University, and I teach criminal law, criminal procedure and regulation advice as well as critical race theory. And my research really just focuses on the ways that policing and criminal isolation can really reproduce different social and racial hierarchies in society. And so I’ve been focused on the policing of sex work, in particular, because it’s a really interesting area to examine the ways that perceptions around sex, gender, sexuality, feminism, um, really shaped how police approach the task of policing. And, you know, what I noticed was that within the policing scholarship, most policing scholars aren’t focused on the unique ways that different classes of women are being policed, really focused on, you know, other sorts of issues. And so I wanted to kind of bring that perspective and look at, you know, sex workers in particular, because all these dominant ideas about what it means to be a woman, what’s appropriate forms of sexuality, influence the police as their policing on sex workers. And so that’s what the book is focused on. It’s based in Johannesburg, but I think it has insights that are relevant beyond the context of South Africa. And, and really, it really, like reflects some of what you observe in the United States and in other countries as well.

george grombacher 2:11
Fascinating. Are there any topics that that you’re not interested in talking about? Or wary of? Are you just right into all of them? India?

Dr. India Thusi 2:21
Um, no, I mean, I, if it’s relevant, and if it’s interesting for me, I go with it, and I pursue it, there’s nothing that I’m too, you know, afraid to kind of discuss. I mean, just given my research agenda, I think for you know, some professors, this might be a little bit, you know, kind of risky for them to want to focus in this area. But, you know, I think it’s important work that needs to be done. And so, you know, there’s no topics that I’m kind of hesitant to kind of cover and go into, and explore, I think, you know, most topics are worth at least an inquiry and some exploration.

george grombacher 2:58
Joe, I couldn’t agree more. And certainly, we’re at a stage in here in the United States, where we’re talking about policing a lot, and we’re talking a lot about gender, and, and, and issues there. And we’ve been talking about. So I think that there are probably a myriad of different things you can take from this case study in Johannesburg, and then apply out to greater civilization, probably probably anywhere. So

Dr. India Thusi 3:32
absolutely, absolutely. There’s so many insights, you know, one in particular, that that’s really interesting. Actually, I’m gonna back up a moment, before I started my research, I was actually pretty ambivalent about the appropriate approach to dealing with sex work and prostitution, I didn’t necessarily think I needed to be decriminalized or criminalized. I was just really ambivalent. And it was really just through doing the research, interacting with both police and sex workers, that I develop a perspective on the issue. And the research was interesting, because I was able to get access to the police, which meant I went through this like year long process. I’m through the Central Police Department in South Africa. And I was able to get access official approval to work with the police and look at how they were policing sex workers. And so what that meant is that I went on patrols, 12 hour patrols with officers, I would meet them at the police station. I had a regular police officer, kind of partner that I often worked with, and, you know, I had an opportunity to get to know them as people as well as form, you know, pretty close relationships. And, you know, after I did my work with police and and during, you know, as I was doing this work of police, I began to develop relationships with sex workers at the same time, and, you know, deepening that relationship and seeing what their perspective The bond thinks was. And so it’s really interesting because it’s these two groups that people often think might be at odds with each other who have this oppositional relationship. And I was kind of sitting in between both of them and develop a connection with both and getting a sense of, you know, what it what that experience actually was like, what were some of the weaknesses, and what the different perspectives on you know, sex work, and, you know, gender and sexuality work from both, both of these groups. And so it was really kind of interesting for me at times, it felt a bit schizophrenic in terms of going back and forth between the two, but I think it and enrich the research I got to do,

george grombacher 5:41
I have to imagine it did exactly that. And it strikes me that what you did is exactly what we need to take and apply probably for a lot of, for lack of a better term, the problems that we’re facing, to be able to go through a process and have have have a police department give you the ability, I was gonna say bless you, but it’s probably the wrong term. But to to say, yes, we want you to come in and really get to know us and how we handle things. And and then write about it. And then on the same token, to have sex workers say, Yeah, okay, let’s, let’s, let’s have a conversation, and then all three sort of all all come together, I think that, that certainly speaks to a commitment on everybody’s part.

Dr. India Thusi 6:35
Absolutely, and it, you know, I really appreciate everyone who participated, because it did take a lot of, um, you know, work from everyone. And, you know, for us to be able to kind of do that type of work and collaborate in that way. Absolutely. And I think it is an approach that she would take in more options, for instance, you know, really ensuring that we have, you know, balanced perspectives and can really examine things for what they are, as opposed to, you know, a very kind of biased perspective on issues.

george grombacher 7:06
So, what do you think? What did your perception or your belief thoughts on the role of police going into it change now, after, after the book has has has has been published?

Dr. India Thusi 7:25
And how has it has? It has quite a bit, um, you know, I think when I went into the research, you know, I just assumed that, you know, please, we’re focused on reducing crime and protecting their communities and serving, you know, I think that’s what we’re often taught. And that was my assumption going in. And I saw a little bit of that. But what was interesting is that I started to see how much of policing really isn’t about those things at all, and is about other motivations and other things that are being protected, not necessarily the community being served. And so, you know, what I observed during the course of my research is that, you know, especially when you’re dealing with, you know, a marginalized group, like sex workers, that increasing police interactions, or, you know, deeming something to be, you know, criminal, and something that we’re going to prohibit, as society can actually increase the vulnerability of that group, and maybe even increase incidents of police violence, which was not something I was expecting before I went into my research. But what I found was that, you know, during those moments when police decided that they’re going to be aggressive, and really target sex workers, they’re in fact creating these really violent situations for sex workers, in terms of their interactions between sex workers and police, as well as sex workers and their clients. Because the work ended up being so underground pushed so far underground, they weren’t able to properly screen clients, they weren’t able to have transparency with each other, communicate, share knowledge about different situations, know who to avoid, because they’re too busy trying to run away from the police. You know, another thing that I found from my research that I found surprising was that most of the police officers didn’t think they should be policing sex work, either, which was not what I was expecting. And so most of them actually supported decriminalization of sex work. Most of them thought that there were other things they could be doing, and that, you know, spending all these resources on enforcing this thing that couldn’t ever really be eradicated was a bit wasteful. And so, you know, that was really interesting. And it kind of forced me to rethink, you know, what is the role for police in society? Have we had police doing way more than they actually should be doing? And you know, how can we use those resources more effectively and more efficiently

george grombacher 10:04
than have we have we had them doing way more than me, Bobby?

Dr. India Thusi 10:09
Absolutely, absolutely. I think the amount that’s the, you know, spent, you know, trying to enforce prostitution laws is an excellent example, the amount that spends on like vise squads, the vise patrols, they’re largely ineffective. So there are a lot of arrests, and then people go before court, and then they’re released, because you know, there’s no evidence or, you know, the, it’s just like a very weak case of prosecutors not able to move forward. And then the cycle repeats itself. And so you have the cycle of arrest, no prosecutions, arrest, no prosecutions, particularly when you’re dealing with something like prostitution. And so it just ends up being really wasteful. I know, some years ago, there was a study that did like an economic analysis of how much police departments spend on enforcing prostitution specifically, and it was millions, it was, you know, really wasteful, in terms of, you know, what was being spent. And it was in the fact that you weren’t getting any convictions as a result, and it was just this cycle of harass. And so I think that’s one area where we could just eliminate the policing of that, because no, really, especially in situations where you’re dealing with consensual sex work, you know, we really, there shouldn’t really be a role for criminal blocks being, you know, intruding into people’s private lives. I think another example could be, you know, there are instances where we rely on please to provide certain social welfare programs. So there might be instances, like with mental health crises, where, you know, in certain jurisdictions, people are only able to get mental health services, if police to call first, they’re not able to go to a social service provider directly. So that can be really dangerous. And that can create the situations that, you know, you create a situation where the police are now be brought in as a middle person in order to secure the services that you need. And so I think that’s another example where we’re relying on police too much to do things that really, they shouldn’t be doing.

george grombacher 12:10
I think that that makes a lot of sense. And certainly, I mean, we only have so many hours in the day. So if a police officer is spending a good chunk of it doing vice work, or whatever it might be, but trying to prove a case or put together a case that’s never ever going to be prosecuted. And it’s just it just does become a waste of time. So that’s interesting. In South Africa, it’s it’s unique because it’s, it’s it’s I understand a gray area. So sex work isn’t necessarily illegal, but it’s not necessarily legal or illegal. Do you see things here in the United States any parallels like that?

Dr. India Thusi 12:54
Or, I mean, I think what we see in South Africa is that, you know, because there’s a lot of discretion for the police in terms of how they enforce the law. That’s what creates some of this gray space. So officially, sex work is actually illegal in South Africa. But individual police departments, and individual officers make determinations about whether they’re going to force and so there’s a period of time, where some of these departments I work with, decided that they’re going to treat it as if it were decriminalized, and not enforced prostitution, which created some legal ambiguity. And the US, you see some of that in certain places where, you know, off a police department or certain officers might have a policy of not actually effectuating arrests, in cases that involve prostitution. But you know, here, I think from what I’ve observed, and the research I’ve done is that it does seem to be a just a general approach of this criminalizing and enforce the prostitution cases, you know, where it where there might be some suspicion that prostitution is occurring, and there are, you know, a few places in the US, so some counties in Nevada, where there is legalization, and that’s where you have the legalized brothels. And so that’s, you know, a different kind of approach where, you know, prostitution is occurring, but it’s no fully legalized, but the brothels just needs to have certain license requirements and, you know, other procedures in place for that.

george grombacher 14:28
Is was was your perception of sex work going into this work? Did you think that it should be legal and what is it now?

Dr. India Thusi 14:39
I thought I didn’t have a firm view about how it should be regulated. Um, I just wasn’t sure I just didn’t feel informed enough. I heard different arguments for and against. And, you know, I thought maybe they put a lot of faith in the law to the extent that you know, Officers have a lot of discretion. So they’ll do what they do. Maybe the boss doesn’t matter as much. Um, but I wasn’t sure. I mean, now, I think it should be decriminalized that we shouldn’t have, you know, police focused on, you know, regulating bison this way. So I definitely think no, it should probably be decriminalized what decriminalization looks like though in different places, it’s going to differ I’d imagine, and what’s appropriate in different places is going to differ, but I don’t think we should be spending these resources trying to criminalize activity that we can’t ever fully eradicate, and which, you know, is kind of infringing on some other rights that I think are at play. So, you know, now I think it should be decriminalized, although, you know, going in, I was just really gently ambivalent.

george grombacher 15:48
Your your experience working and having access to the police department? Did you come away? What did you come away thinking of, of the institution in general? You know,

Dr. India Thusi 16:06
it’s interesting, because, you know, working closely with police, I developed some empathy for the difficulties of the work, that, you know, it could be exhausting to do these long patrols. And, you know, I got to learn about individuals, as you know, people and individuals, but I also saw, you know, some of the inherent violence in policing that, no, really, it just takes a few fat snap moments for, you know, things to get violent very quickly, right, and Officer having a bad day. And I saw a lot of that, during, during, you know, the course of my time. So it, it really showed to me that, you know, increase, increasing the amount of policing we have for different tasks. So whether it’s, you’re saying that we need police were mental health services, or police in order for someone to get new treatment for drug therapy before, you know, will will actually see them directly. It can create, you know, really precarious situations where, you know, police violence ends up being a results, and you see that a lot of the incidents that have been happening in the US where the police are responding maybe to a mental health crisis, because the family members know that that’s the only way that person can get services, and then the police end up like killing the person, right, because they’re not trained as therapists, they don’t know necessarily what’s going on. And so, you know, ends up resulting in this situation with violence. So, you know, strangely enough, I working really closely with the police, I started to see the ways that we were pleased to do way too much. And that, you know, policing can be really violent really quickly. And that there is this culture of violence that’s tolerated. And I think it’s, you know, maybe starting to shift a little bit now, where we’re having these moments of some accountability. But um, you know, it really is very much a culture of blue, above everything else. And you know, I think that that can be a problem.

george grombacher 18:19
Yeah, it is a another one of those really, really big topics. And I appreciate your insight on that. So, we are asking a human being to do an awful lot, and to go into situations where, when violence happens? Yeah, it is. It is a lot. So more to come on. What is what is it? Do you have an eye on on on a next book, or or next project?

Dr. India Thusi 18:50
Yeah, actually, I’m starting a new project. So I have a Fulbright Award, a Global Scholar Award, where I get to do comparative research. And so I’m going to be doing more research on sex work, but changing locations. And so then we do in research is Sweden, where there’s an approach to prostitution, where it’s criminalized for sex for clients. And the idea was that if we just criminalize the client will still protect the sex worker, and that will eradicate sex work. But, you know, some of the initial research is showing that, in fact, the sex workers have been dealing with a lot of stigmatization, and, you know, it’s just created some difficult situations for them. And so I’m going to be doing that research as well. And then I’m also going to be doing research in New Zealand, where sex work is fully decriminalized, and, you know, be able to to direct comparison between those different approaches those different regimes and, you know, to some work to analyze how the legal approach effects on the way that sex work occurs.

george grombacher 20:03
Awesome. Like, that’ll be great. Perfect. Yeah. Well, Dr. Andy, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? How can they engage? And where can they get a copy of policing bodies law, sex work in desire in Johannesburg?

Dr. India Thusi 20:21
Well, thanks for having me on. It’s been a great conversation. People can purchase the book, um, at any of their preferred booksellers is available, you know, everywhere and the book was published by Stanford University Press so you can also purchasing directly from the publisher as well. And you can learn more about me you can find me on my faculty page on Indiana University Bloomington. And if you just search India to see T H USI, you’ll be able to find me and you can also find me on my website India to

george grombacher 20:56
Perfect. If you enjoyed as much as I did show India your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas pick up a copy of policing bodies, law, sex work and desire in Johannesburg wherever you buy your books or directly from Stanford University Press. Find her on her academic page, the University of Indiana Bloomington and also go to is it India to see Yes, I NDIA th Thanks again, India. Thank you. And until next time, keep fighting the good fight. We’re all in this together.

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