Ever so often, something happens in the sex worker corner of the internet that has me screaming, “We told you so” into the void. Recently, it was the murder of Donna Castleberry, a 23-year-old woman, and a mother of two young children, who also happened to be a sex worker. I first heard about her as I usually hear about sex worker news – particularly news about violence against sex workers – on Instagram. Screenshots of a fundraising campaign to assist Donna’s family through this time, and details for how to stay safe from police raids, made all the more necessary after SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law back in April. It’s not uncommon that these kinds of stories are disseminated by sex workers first, or for them to be picked up by the mainstream media reluctantly, if at all. Sometimes it seems like the only people who care about us at all are, well, us.
The trajectory following Donna’s death is a fairly typical one. Mainstream media outlets, if they are reporting this at all, are making sure to report that she had a warrant out for her arrest for a previous charge of solicitation. They’re reporting that there was an “altercation” in the car of the undercover officer who detained her, and that she stabbed him in the hand, so he responded by shooting her multiple times. In my opinion, a 30-year veteran of the police force should ever need to use that kind of deadly force in an “altercation” with a 23-year-old woman. To add insult to tragedy, according to Splinter News, a Christian non-profit decided to make its presence known at Donna’s vigil, suggesting – without any evidence – that Donna may have been trafficked. Esther Flores, a representative from the organization 1DivineLine2Health, spoke with a characteristic failure to understand the nuances of consensual sex work and human trafficking that is so typical of those who claim to be anti-trafficking advocates. Flores stated, “I wish I could tell you that the women are just selling themselves but it’s not that. The dope dealers they know that they can get the women hooked on [drugs].” Her comment was allowed to run by NBC despite there being no evidence that Donna was a drug user or was being trafficked.
What is not being said in any of the articles reporting on Donna Castleberry’s death is that police brutality against sex workers is about as old as sex work itself, and in fact, is essentially an accepted and even expected part of vice squad policing. Earlier this summer, undercover officers posed as paying customers at an Ohio strip club to entrap Stormy Daniels, leading to her arrest and the arrest of two other dancers she was working with. They bought a lap dance from her and then arrested her for the physical contact they received during that dance, essentially punishing her for doing the job they paid her to do.
This goes back generations. A key (but often erased) factor contributing to the Stonewall Riots were that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were sex workers who were weary and infuriated by the ways the NYPD was brutalizing the queer community in our own supposedly safe spaces. In Stone Butch Blues, a novel based on the life of author Leslie Feinberg, Feinberg also describes harrowing and heartbreaking instances of police brutality and sexual violence against butches and drag queens who were arrested from the bars that were the only place they could be themselves – as well as horrific violence against queer femme sex workers, who then also served as healers within their community, specifically for the traumatized butches they cared for and loved.
In a Buzzfeed article this past February, it was reported that in 35 states, it is not explicitly illegal for police officers to have sex with people they’ve detained. While the article was not talking about specifically sex workers, it’s not hard to see that sex workers are at increased risk of sexual violence from the cops – especially if cops can routinely pose as customers undercover. One only needs to look at the power dynamics at play here to see how wrong this is – and even someone with only a very cursory understanding of consent should be able to see that someone in such an elevated position of power – such as a police officer – could in no way be able to secure the genuine consent of someone they’re arresting. Combine this with the fact that many sex workers – particularly street-based sex workers – are often queer, trans, and youth of color, and the power dynamics between officers and sex workers are even starker.
These dynamics in particular were illustrated in the Daniel Holtzclaw case of 2015, in which Holtzclaw targeted women who were likely to have had an arrest record – primarily involving sex work or drug use – and forced himself on them. One victim laid out how this abuse of power functioned in her response to this violation, something that was clearly a conscious factor in the way Holtzclaw targeted his victims. She said she “‘had been jailed many times before, and knew the math: a 15-minute ride downtown, two hours to be booked, up to a day of waiting to move to a cell, hearings drawn out over weeks or months,’ and then decided to give into his demands, which she figured would only take about six minutes.” Another victim disclosed what happened to her to her boyfriend. When he recommended that she go to the police, she stated, “[Holtzclaw] is the police.”
One cannot have a conversation about police brutality, and violence against sex workers, without discussing race – after all, all of Holtzclaw’s victims were Black. Similarly, it is telling that the woman who broke the case – 57-years-old and a grandmother – was not a sex worker. Her identity added a complicating layer of respectability politics to the equation. All of his other victims, having some involvement with the criminal justice system in the past whether due to drug use or sex work, felt that they wouldn’t be believed if they reported what Holtzclaw had done to them. Holtzclaw felt he could act with impunity, and the police as an institution have done nothing to contradict this fact. To underscore this: It wasn’t until last year that a bill was even proposed in New York City to make it explicitly illegal for police officers to have sex with people in their custody.
Sex workers rights advocates have said for years that forcing workers outdoors (which SESTA/FOSTA does, by making it illegal to advertise services and vet clients online, life-saving harm reduction measures) increases the risk of violence those workers face, not only at the hands of customers, but also at the hands of the police. And since it was primarily queer and trans workers of color who were – and are – forced out onto the streets, this will only result in increased violence towards the most marginalized members of the sex work community. If you don’t want to take that at face value from sex workers themselves, then just know that organizations such as Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU are all pro-decriminalization of sex work as a means of decreasing violence. In fact, they emphasize “that it is criminalization that creates conditions of impunity and enhances sex workers’ vulnerabilities to violence and exploitation, including trafficking” (Albright and D’Adamo, 2017).
When you factor in the dehumanization that sex workers face — including the the stigma surrounding our jobs and our lives, the terrible jokes about us; misogyny, misogynoir, homophobia, and transphobia; and the fact that legislators seem to be intent on making the lives of sex workers even harder and more dangerous due to misplaced morality and savior complexes — cases like Donna Castleberry will become even more common.
We are tired of shouting into the void, or online, where we’re further ostracized and silenced by the terms of service on Instagram or Facebook (which are also becoming more strict post SESTA/FOSTA). We are tired of begging for non-sex workers to trust that we know what our community needs to stay safe. We are tired of the fact that overwhelmingly, the only ones who care about sex workers, who try to keep us safe and mourn our deaths, are sex workers ourselves. Donna Castleberry’s death was a tragedy, it was murder, and it was a murder that SESTA/FOSTA put into motion the day it passed.
You can donate to Donna’s funeral expenses here.