Presidential candidate Marco Rubio once proposed seizing money from sex workers and awarding it to the “whistleblowers” who ratted them out to the cops.
It’s an original idea that sheds light on how Rubio views on morality, sex, and prostitution—and, surprisingly, it’s one that could help build up his bona fides with the religious right. But the proposal, if enacted, could have endangered and isolated already-marginalized prostitutes and incentivized false claims against innocent individuals, advocates from sex workers charge.
After Rubio became speaker of the Florida House in 2006, he compiled a list of “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.” The 43rd idea involved targeting those who profited from prostitution.
“Whistleblower status should be afforded to everyone who reports these crimes, even if they are involved in the act,” Rubio’s book read. “As an incentive for reporting the illegal activities, whistleblowers should also receive half the proceeds from any forfeiture actions brought in the case.”
The proposal was targeted at allowing prostitutes to report themselves, “thus assisting our women and young girls to escape prostitution.”
But Rubio’s proposal could be interpreted to mean that “everyone”—the prostitutes, the clients, even the pimps—could be given this immunity.
Rubio further argued that those who use websites that promote illegal sexual activity should have their names “placed in a registry.” That would “discourage people from patronizing businesses and websites that promote criminal activity.” The new law would also be coupled with a “large-scale advertising campaign” to shame those who “promote illicit sex” in Florida, encouraging people to come forward with information relating to “these destructive, demeaning crimes.”
A version of prostitution legislation reflecting these ideas passed the Florida House but stalled in the Senate.
The Rubio campaign did not respond to a question on whether this 2006 proposal reflects his current view. But the whistleblower idea could win him praise from social conservatives, a critical segment of the Republican presidential primary base.
“I will give Marco Rubio credit for caring and trying to think creatively about the issues of human trafficking and prostitution. He has consistently fought for ‘the least of these’ when, to be honest, most politicians could care less. These women and children can’t do one thing for him probably ever,” said Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian women’s activist group.
Among sex workers and those who have studied the industry closely, however, proposals like Rubio’s are dangerous—extending the controversial powers of asset forfeiture, which has come under fire from civil libertarians due to abuse.
“Sex workers don’t have a great deal of money to begin with, and property forfeiture is not a major feature in most prostitution cases. But if it were, the amounts would mostly be tiny to the state, but still crippling to the sex worker, thus forcing already low-income people deeper into poverty,” said “Mistress Matisse,” a columnist for the Seattle-based alternative newspaper The Stranger. “Such a law would do nothing to decrease sex work, it would simply encourage people to accuse women of being prostitutes out of greed, which will thus make sex workers more fearful and thus more isolated.”
And while the proposal was meant to encourage reporting of illegal activities, it also contained possibly perverse incentives.
“The extension of whistleblower protection even to persons involved in prostitution is a bit strange,” suggested Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociology professor who studies the sex industry. “So, a client can purchase sexual services and then turn around and inform the authorities and thus benefit materially… from their illegal activity.”
Sex-worker advocates are worried that a proposal like this, with its promises of monetary rewards, would lead individuals to make untrue accusations.
“It would incentivize false claims,” said Maggie McNeil, a former sex worker who now writes about prostitutes and their rights.
Alison Bass, author of Getting Screwed, Sex Workers & the Law, called the proposal a “silly gesture,” especially since police would be reluctant to share the proceeds of forfeiture.
“Rubio [was] barking up the wrong tree. It’s completely counterproductive... it encourages people to snitch on what should be an adult, consensual behavior. And I don’t think we want that in this country,” Bass said. “It makes people into rats on things that should be private.”