Sex on the Beach: Hawaii Law Allows Undercover Officers to Break Prostitution Laws

I get it all the time. You’re from Hawaii? Sigh. It must be paradise there, what with the air smelling of flowers, people going to work in shorts, and happy hour drinks served from coconuts. Hawaii is idyllic, yes. And I am the last person to ever complain about its welcoming residents and lifestyle that promotes balance and community over competition and individualism. But the islands house a darkness not outweighed by its substantially carefree way of life and not seen by the hordes of tourists who storm our shores looking for a blissful escape from reality.  

A recent debate in the state’s capital has brought this fact to the forefront. Honolulu police are campaigning in earnest, asking lawmakers to keep an exemption in state law that allows undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes during investigations. While police have assured legislatures that internal policies keep from any abuse of the allowance, many activists and advocates have decried this exemption as another mechanism keeping sex-workers–many of who have been trafficked into the trade–victimized. Honolulu lawmakers have been listening with an unbiased ear to both sides while attempting to find a just policy on this issue. But despite the legislature’s thorough investigation of the issues, the police are largely unable to point to the law’s practical benefits and have remained silent about how frequently and for what purpose officers use the exemption. So the question must be asked: why does such an antiquated law still exist and why are lawmakers entertaining the idea of letting it continue?

We all acknowledge that the nature of police work often requires masked officers parading as lawbreakers; authorized criminality is not an unknown concept. And I am certainly not against the idea that officers, whose work necessitates deception and participation in criminal activity, should be absolved from punishment where their participation in criminal acts is necessary to further a legitimate police objective. I understand that an undercover agent must undertake a gruesome assignment from a cartel he or she is building a case against, engage in drug use, or even perjure him or herself to federal agents. But I suppose I don’t understand police work that allows officers of the law to punish women and other sex workers in order to keep their cover.

The only functional purpose for this law is to make it easier to catch prostitutes selling sex, currently a petty misdemeanor under Hawaii law. Where are the exemptions that make it easier to catch traffickers plucking young women without support or better options and putting them in the sex trade? Where are the exemptions that facilitate the prosecution of pimps and johns who function in a system of objectification and benefit derived from the exploitation of another’s body? The existing law is particularly terrible because it comes in the wake of a proposed bill that would ratchet up penalties on john and pimps but not add punishment or criminal guilt on those selling sex. Maintaining the exemption flies in the face of the legislative intent of Honolulu’s lawmakers who seek to broaden protections for prostitutes and punish those whose actions compel sex work.

The legislature has yet to decide on the issue but the debate is unsettling at best. Hawaii may be paradise, but with laws like this still on the books it has proven to be more paradise lost than found. 

-- HWLJ staff editor