On Jan. 12, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to make a change in the way people are charged for buying sex. Instead of the previous terminology of “Patronizing a Prostitute,” the charge will now be “Sexual Exploitation.”
Is it just bureaucratic semantics, or is it a sign of changing public
perceptions of the sex industry?
And is it a change for the better?
Prostitution is one of the oldest professions around, but Seattle just changed its name.
Besides changing the term prostitution to a crime of sexual exploitation new state legislation will increase the offense’s maximum penalty from 90 days to a year in jail.
According to a press release, the rationale behind the law is an effort to change the way prostitution is regarded. Instead of placing blame on the sex worker, these changes were made as part of an attempt to hold clients accountable. In other words, this law hopes to attack the demand side of the equation.
This change is based off of the idea that many prostitutes are victims. This assumption is not unfounded: Seattle is a hub for sex trafficking.
“It’s hard to know exactly how prevalent it is, but it’s absolutely prevalent in Seattle,” said Bailey Disher, a Seattle University alumna.
Disher graduated in 2014 with a degree in public affairs. She was also a founding member of the campus’ currently inactive Human Trafficking Awareness Club.
Human trafficking is an umbrella term that includes people being bought or sold for various purposes, including sex.
In Seattle, between 2003 and 2007, the sex market grew 123 percent from $50.3 million to $112 million, according to Urban Institute. Additionally, Seattle pimps made about $18,000 weekly cash income between 2005-2011.
Despite the figures, some disagree that City Council’s vote will actually help target exploitation of women or men in the sex trade.
Savannah Sly has worked in the sex industry for about 11 years, primarily as a dominatrix. Sly, which is her professional name and used in this article for identity protection purposes, is currently on an indefinite sabbatical, allowing her to speak more openly as an advocate for the rights of sex workers, since she feels that they are vastly underrepresented in the legal discussion about sex work.
Sly said she believes that the legal decisions being made now are mostly well-intentioned but ignorant, because they do not include sufficient perspective from the population for whom the laws are intended. She calls it disempowering.
“I do see bridges that can be built with the anti-sex trafficking movement and with lawmakers,” Sly said. “I feel that we can connect with them and we can actually create policies and committees that will help people who are in possibly dangerous situations, without compromising the human rights of people who are in consenting adult situations.”
There are portions of it that are legal, such as pornography or stripping, and portions that are not. Sly advocates that sex work can provide a healthy outlet for sexual needs, social stigmas aside.
“There’s nothing wrong with blow jobs. People need blow jobs,” Sly said.
However, the sex industry is vast and complex. Although some may voluntary do sex work, this may be one of few options, and so the areas where the sex industry can be consensual on both ends become muddled. However, there are some who do have the freedom of choice.
“There’s a special group of sex workers that really love their job, and then there’s a group of sex workers that are exploited, but the vast majority of sex workers are just punching the clock and it’s a job like any other. They’re really just supporting themselves. They might not be passionately into their job, but they’d rather do it than get an office job or flip burgers.”
And yet very few are represented in the lawmaking process.
While Disher says that sex trafficking is a problem, she also says that excluding people from the conversation is not the best solution.
“I think one of the things that we can do, we as people can do, to better understand and help move legislation forward is to really make sure that we’re hearing and seeking out stories of the population in its entirety,” Disher said.
Sly equates criminalized sex work with other prohibitions in U.S. history, which, for the most part, haven’t worked. And according to Sly, prohibiting sex work doesn’t help anybody.
Sly said that criminalizing prostitution makes it harder for consenting participants to stay safe—and for exploited workers to get the help they need. Criminalization tends to make nonthreatening clients withdraw from the pool, but it does nothing to get rid of harmful clients. Sly said she wouldn’t be surprised if violence against sex workers increased as a result of this legislation.
Melinda Chateauvert, an author and sex worker advocate, voiced a
“You actually are increasing the vulnerability of sex workers to violence,” said Chateauvert. “You’re still criminalizing part of
Ultimately, Sly said, laws make it harder for sex workers to take steps to protect themselves. They can’t thoroughly screen their clients, and if they’re getting picked up, they have less time to bargain and make sure they’re in a safe situation.
Chateauvert mentioned the Green River Killer as an example of someone who sex workers have had trouble protecting themselves from. He is in prison for killing 48 women in the Seattle area during the 80s and 90s, many of them prostitutes, and is suspected of being responsible for the deaths of many more. Under the current system, going to the police or asking for help can incriminate sex workers.
Victims should also know that under this legislation, the hope is to shed demeaning language surrounding prostitution and to help out
According to Sly, it’s great to have support, such as that from other workers. But she says it’s tricky; even to tell a new worker how to stay safe while working can legally be considered “pimping.”
Sly got her own start about eleven years ago.
“I got started the week of my twentieth birthday, in Boston, in a massage parlor ring,” Sly said. I got hired off of Craigslist, it was totally voluntary; I clicked the ad myself.”
She said she found herself working with an empowered group of women, and loved the job. Her boss, or pimp, turned out to be quite abusive.
She calls it a “quintessential pimp experience.” He tried blackmailing them into lower wages and into having sex with him. She and the other workers got together and fired him. She was lucky; she worked with a strong group of women. But exploitation comes in many forms.
There is sex trafficking and blackmail, but there are other forms of oppression, like racism and sexism, that sex workers of color or trans sex workers are particularly vulnerable to.
As for the trafficked and exploited population, Sly said that it’s hard to help them without regulation.
As opposed to prohibition legislation, Sly recommended approaching sex work with a harm-reduction technique. Like giving teenagers condoms as opposed to abstinence-only education, the idea is to offer what is needed. She proposes a similar model to that used in domestic abuse situations.
“I really have been looking at the domestic violence model, where if you think that a woman is being beaten by her husband, you don’t just bust in there and remove her, because odds are that’s not going to work out very well,” Sly said. “You might not have the support system in place to help her, she might go back, she might not appreciate it. There’s a huge psychological anchor associated with that kind of situation.”
Instead, she said a committee of retired sex workers and active social workers could regulate the industry, helping exploited workers and preserving a safe environment for consensual workers.
She is calling for the decriminalization of the sex trade. Without there being criminal consequences, she believes that it can be regulated and more people will be safe.
Sly, as well as other members of the Sex Worker Outreach Project held a symposium in December of last year. The goal was to provide sex workers a stage to have their voices heard.
Sly said that the current approach to prostitution makes sex workers into victims. There are certainly victims in the industry, but Sly warns against conflating all workers as victims and all clients as rapists. According to her, that doesn’t help anyone.
“We need to be very wary of taking an entire population or an entire demographic and labeling them as one thing,” said Sly.
While there may be details to smooth over with legislation, the ultimate goal is to curb the demand for sex trafficking.
Lena may be reached at [email protected]