New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged on Friday with two counts of soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlor tied to an international human trafficking investigation. Police in Jupiter, FL, have issued a warrant for his arrest.
Kraft is one of hundreds of men who have been charged with solicitation relating to the 8-month-long investigation by the Martin County Sheriff's Department and the Vero Beach Police Department in conjunction with agencies including Homeland Security, the IRS and ICE. The news was met with titillation on social media, but raises serious questions about sex work and human trafficking.
Kraft, a billionaire who divides his time between Massachusetts and Palm Beach, FL, is alleged to have been driven by his chauffeur to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, FL, where he was caught on surveillance soliciting and receiving a sex act that likely cost between $59 to $79. Within hours of the news breaking, his friend President Donald Trump spoke to reporters calling Kraft's arrest "very sad" and reiterating Kraft's assertion that he was "100% innocent."
At a press conference on Tuesday, before the news of Kraft's involvement was made public, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said that the women employed at the parlors in the investigation, "were cooking on the back steps of the business. These women were sleeping in massage parlors, on the massage tables, and had no access to transportation.”
The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as the act of "recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion."
Law enforcement officials, have been careful to portray most of the sex workers involved in the sting as victims. Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey noted that most of the women were Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants who had come to the U.S. on temporary work visas and were coerced into sex work through "fear, intimidation, debt, and shame."
In an email, Chris Muller, the director of training and external affairs for the group Restore NYC, a nonprofit working to end sex trafficking in New York and specializing in working with Chinese and Korean foreign-national adult women, told Refinery29,"We are saddened by this news, and we hope these events can further highlight the difficult realities many of the women we serve face — women who have come to the United States from East Asia and many other countries for opportunity, only to be trafficked and exploited. We continue the long, hard fight to make freedom real for all survivors."
Refinery 29 spoke with Jillian Modzeleski, the senior trial attorney in charge of the Human Trafficking Intervention Unit in Brooklyn, about the ways in which the Florida investigation and ensuing arrests could actually be far more harmful to the women than to the men involved including Kraft, who face only misdemeanor charges of soliciting sex from a prostitute. She explained that the women in parlors who answer the door and provide pricing are often charged with trafficking, despite the likelihood that they may have been trafficked themselves.
The most serious arrests made so far as a result of the investigation have been of Chinese women working at the parlors in what police describe as management positions. In Palm Beach County, Lei Wang and Hua Zhang face charges that include "maintaining a house of ill fame" and "deriving profits from prostitution." Both are being held on bail in excess of $250,000 and before posting bond must prove the money doesn't come from illegal activity. In Vero Beach, five of the six people arrested for serious felony charges including human trafficking and racketeering were Chinese women. And three of those women were also charged with engaging in prostitution.
Melissa Sontag Broudo, co-executive director of the SOAR Institute, pointed out the seeming gender imbalance in the charges levied so far, telling Refinery29 that, "It's very likely that women arrested as managers were also sex workers and potentially victims of human trafficking. Once you insert trafficking into the discourse, it creates a victim-villain dynamic but the actual dynamics of these relationships are more complicated. We are coming to an evolving understanding as a society that someone can be both a victim and have engaged in an illegal act. But it's important to remember that we shouldn't have to frame everyone as a victim first to see their humanity or the myriad of reasons why they may have been engaged in sex work."
And the "victim" status currently being applied to the sex workers in this sting may do little to protect them from criminal charges and deportation. Modzeleski explained that prostitution is considered a "crime of moral turpitude" under immigration law and thus grounds for deportation.
"The concern here is that any criminal involvement forces these women to go into court, and that heightens their risk of arrest by ICE agents – even before they've had a chance to be tried. Sex work exists on a spectrum, but under no circumstance should a true victim of trafficking be held responsible in criminal court or be pursued by any government agency."
Refinery29 reached out to Jupiter and Vero Beach police to determine the immigration status and criminal charges brought against the massage parlor workers but has not yet heard back.
Thus far, no advocate as powerful as the President of the United States has spoken on behalf of the women involved. The story may have become a celebrity scandal in the media, but for these women it's a traumatic and complicated question of justice.