Sex work is legal in the Dominican Republic. But despite this, sex workers are still vulnerable to abuse—particularly at the hands of local law enforcement, who know they can torture women who engage in sex work with impunity.
After all, who do you go to when you’re raped by the cops?
A new report released today by Amnesty International chronicles the depth of the problem in the Caribbean country. “If They Can Have Her, Why Can’t We?” features interviews from 46 trans and cisgender women sex workers, all of whom report suffering horrific violence at the hands of Dominican police officers.
“At least 10 out of the 24 cisgender women interviewed for this research described having been raped by police officials, often at gunpoint,” the report’s executive summary reads. “Most of the transgender women had been subjected to discriminatory and violent actions by the police that could amount to torture or other ill-treatment, typically focused on their gender-identity or expression.”
The report takes its name from one particularly harrowing account, from a woman who says she was gang-raped by three officers in October 2017.
After spotting her waiting for clients, police pulled her into a police van and began groping her and ripping off her clothes, she said.
“I was afraid. I was alone. I couldn’t defend myself. I had to let them do what they wanted with me,” the woman told Amnesty International. “They threatened me, that if I wasn’t with them they would kill me. They (said) that I was a whore, and so why not with them?”
“They called me a ‘bitch’ and used many offensive words,” she continued. “They saw me, I guess, and they thought ‘Well, if they (clients) can have her, why can’t we?’”
The sex workers’ accounts reveal “a deeply ingrained culture of machismo with the National Police,” the report summarizes, calling police abuse of the women a “form of social control.”
But the Dominican Republic’s National Police aren’t exactly atypical. And as the report notes, the violence is indicative of a larger problem with gender violence throughout the country.
“Gender-based violence is epidemic across Latin America and the Caribbean, with women sex workers at particular risk from state officials and other individuals,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
“The harrowing testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered from the Dominican Republic reveal that police routinely target and inflict sexual abuse and humiliation on women who sell sex with the purpose of punishing and discriminating against them,” Guevara-Rosas added. “Under international law, such treatment can amount to gender-based torture and other ill-treatment.”
According to the UN Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic had one of the region’s highest femicide rates in 2017; more than 100 cases of gender-based killings were recorded that year.
But while the conditions for gender abuse may be worse in the Dominican Republic, the pattern holds true in many other countries. Sex workers in particular are extremely vulnerable to police abuse around the world.
Last year, sociology professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, laid out to ThinkProgress some of the issues with American police and sexual abuse.
“We have some survey data of sex workers that shows a significant proportion of them have had interactions with police that involved demands for sex or other kinds of abuse,” Vitale said. He also noted sex workers are also targeted by people impersonating officers, but because of their traumatic interactions with cops, they are reluctant to challenge or report cases where a person is faking their identity.
And just as in the Dominican Republic, this data is tethered to a deeply-embedded systemic problem with sexual assault in police departments. According to an earlier Amnesty International report, sexual violence is the second most reported form of police misconduct. Only use of force ranks higher.
And the more marginalized one’s identity, the more vulnerable they are. The Dominican Republic report found trans sex workers experienced more exclusion and were at greater risk of torture from state authorities and individuals. This tracks with other studies, like one U.S.-based report which found nearly 40 percent of black transgender people who have exchanged sex reported experiencing harassment, violence, and arrest.
While the new Amnesty International report gives an idea of the depth of the problem, it notes that it’s still difficult to determine the scope of gender-based abuse by police. The country doesn’t collect any data on sexual assault by law enforcement officials. Because these incidents aren’t tracked, abuse is allowed to persist unabated, contributing to a culture where violent misogyny is normalize, the report argues.
Corrected: Friday, 3/29/19, 10:45 am EDT: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that sex work is illegal in the Dominican Republic. Sex work is legal, although sex work involving a third party (like brothel-keeping or pimping) is technically prohibited.