If there was any doubt as to how deeply rape culture is embedded in our justice system and law enforcement institutions, look no further than the Oakland Police Department. The recent and abrupt firing of Police Chief Oakland Sean Whent was for “personal reasons,” maintains Mayor Libby Schaaf, and “nothing to do with a scandal involving rookie police officers who sexually exploited a minor.”
It’s an obvious lie that is only confirmed by a shocking new report by the East Bay Express that reveals that the allegations of sexual misconduct and statutory rape against an underage sex worker implicates not just a couple of beat cops but extends to widespread and systematic exploitation, reaching all the way up to high-ranking police officers in multiple police departments throughout the Bay area.
Evidence collected by the EBE indicates that “at least fourteen Oakland Police officers, three Richmond Police officers, and four Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies had sex with the girl who goes by the name Celeste Guap,” who was sixteen when she began associating with police officers, who would ferry her about and warn her about undercover sting operations. At least three of the officers committed statutory rape against Guap, and all knew she was a sex worker. It’s evident that she was pressured to sleep with cops for her own protection.
It’s a case that truly shows how the criminalization of sex work puts thousands of women at risk for assault from their pimps or customers, as they cannot seek protection from law enforcement – and sets them up to be used and exploited by the police in exchange for looking the other way. The extent of this scandal is extremely disturbing, as it shows an internal police culture without discipline, gross violations of their “protect and serve” mandate, widespread collusion and cooperation among police officers in their collective violation of the law, and the systematic exploitation of a vulnerable teenager for their own pleasure.
Coming so soon after convicted rapist Brock Turner was handed a slap on the wrist by a Santa Clara judge, it’s clear that our justice system is designed to punish women for engaging in sex work and for being victim to sexual assault while exonerating and insulating their male predators from the consequences of their actions. Such widespread corruption in the Oakland Police Department should be a call for internal audits of every major police force across the country – many of whom are currently already under investigation for the summary execution of unarmed African-American men/children. If the exploitation of one girl in one state involves literally dozens of cops, how many more cases like this are out there, hidden behind the curtain of social stigma and the omnipresent threat of criminal prosecution?
It is loud and clear wake-up call for the decriminalization of sex work in the United States. The world’s oldest profession is never going away, and the irresistible economic pressures of neoliberal capitalism and excessive income inequality in the United States simply serve to push more and more women into it. There is no shame in sex work and we must stop stigmatizing it as such. Keeping it illegal not only reinforces the unhealthy slut-shaming narrative perpetuated by sexually dysfunctional conservatives but also – crucially – serves to put more women at risk of assault and exploitation from all sides.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.