In 2019, a Fairbanks District Attorney offered a generous plea – 5 years of actual time, amounting to little more than time served – to a man charged with kidnapping and forcefully sexually assaulting a minor, both unclassified felonies with a combined minimum sentence of 40 years. The reason? He claimed his underaged victim was a prostitute.
Charging documents allege that Winfred Hipp had been hanging out with the victim and her father. All three were headed to a BBQ, but the father had a stop to make first. Mr. Hipp dropped the father off and was to continue to the BBQ with the daughter and reunite with her father there. Instead, he took her to his apartment, ordered her inside in a threatening tone, coerced her into smoking marijuana, and had sex with her while she was saying no and telling him she had a boyfriend. Initially, the victim told police, Hipp reassured her that he was using a condom, but then he took it off and continued having sex with her. When the victim’s father arrived at the BBQ and realized his daughter wasn’t there, he went to Hipp’s apartment, where he could hear his daughter being raped through the door. Hipp stopped when the father almost broke the door down. Hipp told police he had not had any sort of sexual contact with the victim. His semen was found inside her and in a condom found on his bedroom floor which also had the victim’s DNA on the outside of it. At his sentencing, he said he’d been raped and robbed by the victim.
Hipp’s original charges, kidnapping and sexual assault in the first degree, are both unclassified felonies, each carrying a sentence of twenty years to life. Even the minimum sentence for each, forty years, would have been a life sentence for Hipp and effectively denied him access to any more children for the rest of his life. Initially the courts and prosecutors took the situation seriously, denying Hipp ankle monitor while he was on pre-trial because he was a serious threat to the community and had committed his (alleged) crime in his home. The plea deal, which came after the minor victim was labeled “difficult” and a prostitute by the prosecutor, is a slap in the face to all Alaskans at risk of being called “difficult.”
Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, researcher and author of the book Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, explained, “At the end of the day it was a [minor] who was being forced to have a sexual experience against her will, and it should not matter in any way whether that was involving prostitution or not,” Dr. Lutnick said. “Unfortunately that’s not how the law is being applied…. It so much depends on who the quote unquote victim is, whether they actually are perceived and treated as a victim.”
It seemed like the world had changed though. Women like myself, who work in the sex industry, are broadly seen as victims, whether we like it or not. All minors who sell sex are defined under the federal Violence Against Women Act (commonly known as VAWA) as sex trafficking victims, even if they are working completely independently, or if they are not necessarily working, but trading sex for survival needs, like a place to stay.
Dr. Lutnick explained: “based on the definitions put forth in the TVPA of 2000 [the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act is part of VAWA], anybody who is under the age of 18 and is involved in providing sexual services for some type of payment is considered a victim of sex trafficking. So there doesn’t have to be force, fraud, or coercion, there doesn’t have to be movement across state lines. There doesn’t have to be a third party.”
The TVPA is not part of the criminal code – rather it offers a definition for social service agencies seeking federal funding. This can cause quite a bit of confusion when agencies claim to see dozens of victims of trafficking every week, without clarifying that they are referring to a non-criminal definition of trafficking.
Essentially, vulnerable teens who were previously viewed as “bad kids” have been rebranded as victims. Dr. Lutnick explains, “this group of young people have existed for a very very long time and depending on the socio-political moment they’re referred to by different terms, so at one point it was juvenile delinquents. With the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it reclassified them as victims of sex trafficking. For me, language has power and language communicates things to people and what that term evokes for most folks who hear it, if they’re not really immersed in this work or these communities, is the idea of someone, typically a cisgender girl, being forced to sell sex against her will, and that ends up driving a lot of the policy and program responses. And yes, there are young cisgender girls being forced to sell sex, and they’re just a portion of the larger group of young people who are involved. So to me, I always worry when one narrative is prioritized over another, and when we see the legislative policy responses including elements that create harm for the larger group of young people and often for those young cisgender girls that are in peoples’ mind’s eye.”
In 2015, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act expanded the federal criminal definition of a sex trafficker to include adults who either agree to or engage in purchasing sex from a minor. The current federal criminal code (18 USC 1591) defines criminal sex trafficking of children as:
In or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, advertises, maintains, patronizes, or solicits by any means a person;
Benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value, from participation in a venture which has engaged in an act described in violation of paragraph (1),
Knowing, or, except where the act constituting the violation of paragraph (1) is advertising, in reckless disregard of the fact, that means of force, threats of force, fraud, coercion described in subsection (e)(2), or any combination of such means will be used to cause the person to engage in a commercial sex act, or that the person has not attained the age of 18 years and will be caused to engage in a commercial sex act, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).
According to subsection (b), the penalty for paying a minor aged 14-18 for sex, is ten years to life.
Under federal law, if Mr. Hipp claims that he purchased sex from a minor, rather than kidnapping and forcibly raping her, he is confessing to the crime of sex trafficking, with a sentence of ten years to life. The court documentation does not recognize the victim as a victim of sex trafficking. The prosecutor explained to the court that the victim was hard to reach, as her father was incarcerated and she was homeless. Rather than expressing concern for a homeless teen victim of sex trafficking, the prosecutor called her “difficult.” Ms. Sehl, from the state Office of Victims Rights, noted that she had tried to contact the victim and said there was “not much else I can do.”
The state prosecutor could have referred the case for federal charges, something FBI Agent Jolene Goeden said is frequently done. When I asked her if this case had been referred, she said “I had not heard of that case. I first heard of it when you mentioned it, just generally mentioned it, a few weeks ago.” I had sent her the charging documents and court transcripts a couple weeks before, hoping that Hipp could be charged federally.
However, the FBI may have (like the state) failed to recognize the crime as trafficking. Agent Goeden did not seem to understand the federal criminal trafficking law, saying at one point, “my focus is on the trafficker, not the buyers.” At another point she explained that some jurisdictions had tried to charge buyers as traffickers, but “we have not done that in Alaska. That’s not to say that we can’t, but we’re in the 9th circuit which tends to be a little more liberal than some of the other circuits in the country so we have not tried to charge that up here, but that’s not to say we can’t charge it.”
In fact, Danny Ray Lowe was charged with sex trafficking in 2017 and in 2018 convicted of two counts each of attempted sex trafficking and attempted sexual exploitation of a minor after agreeing to pay for sex with two fictitious minors who were being pimped out by the FBI on Craigslist here in Alaska. Coincidentally, the federal court judge who found Lowe guilty is the same judge who awarded custody of me to a sex trafficker when I was a child.
It may be less necessary for FBI agents to understand the law than it is for state and city police. In the state system, police make an arrest based on state criminal statute and forward the case, with the selected charges, to the Department of Law for prosecution. In the federal system, Agent Goeden explained, the investigators bring the facts to the US Attorneys, and the US Attorneys handle the charges. On the other hand, did she even forward the information I sent her about Hipp to the US Attorneys if she didn’t think that buying was trafficking?
Unfortunately, under Alaska Statute 11.66.100, an adult who pays a minor of any age for sex is guilty only of a class C felony, punishable by zero to two years of imprisonment. Court transcripts quote the prosecutor as explaining that there is an issue “evident in the audio” as to whether the crime was kidnapping and sexual assault in the first degree or prostitution. Mr. Hipp’s attorney explained that purchasing sex from a minor is only a class C felony under state law, with sentencing guidelines in alignment with the plea deal.
This statute was a result of 2012’s House Bill 359, allegedly meant to increase penalties for sex trafficking, especially of children, in Alaska. Former Governor Sean Parnell wrote in support of the bill: “When children are victimized in Alaska, they should not be labeled with the actions of the offender who solicits sex… Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable in our society – young girls and boys who may have tragically experienced varying levels of physical and sexual abuse and are often homeless.”
Mark Mew, at the time Chief of Police at the Anchorage Police Department, wrote about HB 359, “this measure would protect Alaska’s children.” Covenant House wrote that HB359, “allows for more aggressive prosecution of individuals engaged in the exploitation of youth.”
The bill, originally put forth by Parnell, defined paying a minor for sex as a class C felony, punishable by zero to two years for the first offense. To put that in perspective, having sex with a 15-year-old and not paying them is a class B felony punishable by two to four years, but up to ten years for the first offense.
Can a person be charged with both sexual abuse of a minor and prostitution with a minor? Can they be charged with sexual abuse of a minor (essentially statutory rape) and sexual assault? The answer is clear as mud. Technically, it seems to be yes, a person can be charged with both. However, several Fairbanks advocates told me that they had been trained that this would be double jeopardy. Two Anchorage advocates told me this would not be double jeopardy and the perpetrator could be charged with both or all three. The Fairbanks District Attorney did not respond to emails attempting to clarify this, after asking that I email, not call, with these questions. A review of recent Fairbanks cases involving minors shows that, in one case, a perpetrator was charged with both sexual abuse of a minor and sexual assault, while in other cases they were charged with only one or the other.
“But Your Honor, She’s a Whore,” as a Defense
This case jumped right out of the newspaper and punched me in the gut. Back in 1997, when I was 16, a Fairbanks District Attorney told me she had decided not to charge my father with pimping me out (this was before sex trafficking laws), despite ample evidence, because juries don’t like teenage whores. Even if the jury believed me, she said, they would blame me and find him innocent. She didn’t want to put me through that. Instead she offered me a recipe for “nuclear” fudge, which I couldn’t make because I was homeless.
Later, when I was a stripper in college, Philadelphia Judge Teresa Carr Deni dismissed rape and sexual assault charges against a man who was accused of raping a stripper at gun point. She said it was theft of services, not rape. My Human Sexuality professor dedicated an entire class to discussion of the case and I sat in stunned silence as most of my classmates argued passionately that a woman like me couldn’t be raped, that we were not qualified either to consent or to say no.
Dr. Lutnick explained, “there’s all these macro level things that communicate to people involved in the sex trade that they don’t have the same rights and they’re not considered the same way as other citizens.”
In Alaska, serial killer Robert Hanson was allowed to go on killing sex workers for years after he was identified. It took a Fairbanks DA to get around what might be called obstruction of the case by Anchorage law enforcement officials and obtain a search warrant.
As performer Penny Arcade famously put it, “Being a bad girl isn’t about wearing too much make up, too short skirts, or fishnet stockings. It’s about being cut out and left out of society… being a bad girl is irrevocable.”
Hipp and the Young Person He (Allegedly) Kidnapped and Sexually Assaulted Today
Despite my having sent court documentation of this case, including references to Hipp’s apparent claim that he paid a minor for sex, to the FBI last March, he has not been charged federally. A federal prosecutor, Kyle Reardon, did not return calls about the case. The FBI agent involved said she could not answer questions why the case hasn’t been charged. It seems doubtful that Hipp will do any more jail time. His attorney claimed last year that he had a serious illness which could not be treated appropriately in prison.
The only thing we know about his victim is that last February she was homeless, had no phone, and was failed by the state.
“The thing I’m always left with when I hear about cases like this is, what a failed opportunity to really show up and meet the needs of a young person who really needed to be seen and supported in that moment,” said Dr. Lutnick. “I worry for her and others like her who go through similar situations of the lasting impact, once, maybe she already fully understands what’s happened with the sentence this person ended up with, but how that sends a direct message about how her worth is perceived by the state, and it’s not very high. What a terrible message to send to a [young person].”
The Treatment of Youth Who Trade or Sell Sex
Dr. Lutnick went on to explain that despite the changes in the law, many law enforcement officers believe that only youth who are forced to sell sex qualify as sex trafficking victims, and this accounts for sometimes poor treatment of actual victims. The FBI Agent I spoke with was unaware of aspects of the federal trafficking law, but she did recognize that youth without traffickers are usually not freely choosing prostitution, saying she had worked to “bring awareness to the fact that there may be more going on in a situation, that there may be victimization going on, there may be kids that are being forced to do things they don’t want to do because of really bad circumstances and they don’t have a support network set up, so they’re in situations that they are having to make choices to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do or being forced to do things, and recognizing that as victimization.”
The unfortunate truth is that youth who sell or trade sex have usually been labelled “bad kids” by the system long before law enforcement encounters them as victims, and this can set the tone for all their interactions with police. Dr. Lutnick said that this “speaks to the larger issue of who gets viewed as a victim and gets treated according to the protocols of how you interact with a victim of a crime, and unfortunately what we’re seeing throughout the US is if that person shows up and they’re angry and they’re non-cooperative, people just sort of want to wash their hands of them quickly and don’t recognize why there’s very good reason why that young person is angry and very good reason why they don’t want to cooperate, and try to figure out different ways of having the conversation so that that person can regain some of the agency that was taken from them.”
Agent Goeden thinks that this dynamic is changing. “There has been definitely a change in attitude about kids who are being trafficked, recognizing them. The choice aspect – I think, historically, people have thought that kids who are being trafficked, that they’re choosing to be trafficked. I know that sounds crazy to say it that way, but they’re choosing this because they’ve been identified as bad kids. They’re chronic runaways, they’re kids who are already involved in the legal system and that kind of thing. I think we’ve come a long way in recognizing that there’s a lot more to it. In terms of law enforcement, I think law enforcement has a better understanding of these kids as potential victims now and that the choice aspect really is not there… I think we’re doing a better job. There’s always improvements that can be made, but I think we’re doing a better job of seeing it for what it actually is, versus just making assumptions about what it is.
Do These Laws Make Any Sense to Begin With?
As a former “bad kid” who’s been making a life in society’s “bad girl” box for a few decades now, I’m all for rebranding us as people deserving of equal protection under the law – but that doesn’t seem to be what is happening with the sex trafficking laws. Victims like the one in this article are still treated poorly, called “difficult” as if it is code for not deserving of the state’s resources in prosecuting a rapist. Meanwhile, the trafficking laws have been used to prosecute victims of violent trafficking within the sex industry with conspiring to traffick each other or independent sex workers who cooperate for safety with trafficking each other.
My colleague Maxine Doogan helped me understand what should have been obvious from the beginning: sexual assault of a minor is sexual assault of a minor. We shouldn’t have to call it sex trafficking to get state or federal prosecutors to address it appropriately. To call sexual assault sex trafficking is a disservice both to people who actually are trafficked in the sex industry and to a minor victim of sexual assault who is told that she has been sex trafficked and saddled with all the stigma of an industry she’s had no involvement in. Similarly, kidnapping is kidnapping, robbery is robbery, and assault is assault. When these crimes are done to sex workers, they don’t become sex trafficking, even if that is the best way to get police and prosecutors to care.
This year the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP) is asking legislators to disallow the “but your honor, she’s a whore,” defense and to make it an aggravator – a sentence increaser – if a crime is committed against a person engaged in sex work, if the crime involves a sex work transaction, or if a perpetrator pays the victim. When we first talked about creating the aggravator language, we were only thinking of sex workers and of non-sex workers who are easily discredited as crime victims when they can be discredited as whore-ish. Hipp’s case pointed to the need for an aggravator bill to also include perpetrators who pay their victims. “A child molester who sexually abuses a child and then pays them is an insidious manipulation,” said Pam Karalunas, a consultant, trainer, the recently retired chapter coordinator of the Alaska Children’s Alliance, and founding manager of RCPC Stevie’s Place Child Advocacy Center. “It is meant to focus responsibility on the child, both in the child’s mind and in the minds of adults who may learn of the abuse.”
CUSP has a petition to make these legislative changes here: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/427/691/921/quotbut-your-honor-shes-a-whorequot-make-it-an-aggravator-not-a-defense/#published
Tara Burns is a self-described whore revolutionary at the intersection of changing laws and reclaiming narratives. She was a co-founder of the Community United for Safety and Protection and helped to make historic changes to Alaska’s sex trafficking and prostitution laws.