The Seattle City Council’s unanimous vote to change the legal terminology for buying sexual services from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation” is an example of the limits of the city’s politically progressive character. Seattle’s progressive leaders think it’s their mission to perpetuate the idea that sex workers are victims who need rescuing and eradicate the adult entertainment industry to stop violence against women.
There have been a shocking number of bills introduced in the Washington state legislature this session regarding sex work and human trafficking. The language in these bills synonymizes consensual adult sex work with trafficking, coloring all sex workers as victims and all sex work as victimization. Senate Bill 5041 goes so far as to say that prostitution is “modern day slavery.” The bills embrace the increasingly popular “End Demand” model and suggest such measures as giving local law enforcement the authority to seize clients’ assets if they are used in the crime of buying sex (e.g., confiscating their vehicles if they negotiate with street workers from them), increasing the penalty of soliciting a prostitute from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, and amending the state’s definition of human trafficking to include forced labor by “abuse of power, or abuse of position or vulnerability.” This vague language conflates sex work with trafficking and the bills as written would erase any remaining legal concept of sex workers’ individual agency.
These bills are a reaction to the trafficking hysteria pervading the country and Seattle in particular. Anti-trafficking groups in the area are more active than ever, hosting panel discussions and other public events, spreading misleading statistics and creating moral panic in concerned citizens. These groups fail to recognize that their efforts directly endanger consensual adult sex workers. They cannot conceive of anybody willingly choosing to do sex work.
Representatives of SWOP-Seattle, which I recently joined, have traveled several times to the state house in Olympia to share our stance on these bills. The first trip was a miss—the public comment portion of the bill’s hearing ended just before it was SWOP members’ turn to speak, though those in support of the bill were able to testify. We had better luck last Friday, testifying in opposition to Senate Bill 5041 and its companion House bill, which would allow for civil asset forfeiture of those who patronize prostitutes. In addition to public testimony, SWOP-Seattle representatives recently sat down for a private meeting with Senators Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Mike Padden to discuss these bills, encouraging them to include sex worker voices in their decision-making. As a result of this meeting, Kohl-Welles has announced her intent to amend the bill that would increase the penalties for patronizing a prostitute to take effect only after the client’s third offense, rather than their first. While by no means ideal, this is an encouraging development that shows legislators’ willingness to work with activists.
Local media has been following the trafficking debate closely, publishing several articles highlighting SWOP-Seattle’s efforts to fight the harmful bills and encourage amnesty. Hopefully, this media attention will garner increased public support for sex workers’ rights. The 2015-2016 legislative session is a long way from closing, and none of these bills have been voted on yet. There is still a possibility that the legislature will consider all communities affected by these bills before voting—including Seattle sex workers. A demonstration at the State House in Olympia is planned for March 3rd, Sex Worker Rights Day, and SWOP-Seattle is continuing to collect signatures on an open letter to policymakers.
Thus far, there’s been animosity between abolitionist and sex worker organizations. However, SWOP-Seattle is in the early stages of negotiating a panel discussion with local anti-trafficking groups to share ideas for helping those who are exploited while recognizing the agency and rights of those who choose to stay in the industry.
International examples show that end demand legislation puts sex workers at increased risk. If clients are at risk of losing their vehicles or being convicted of a higher crime for purchasing sex, workers in Seattle will be pressured to see clients without proper screening. Prostitution would still be criminalized, discouraging workers from reporting abuses to law enforcement. And unlike workers in Nordic countries with comparatively excellent social services, sex workers in Washington wishing to exit the industry have few resources. An attempt to eradicate the adult sex industry without establishing comprehensive social services for those thousands of workers is not an attempt to help them, only an attack on their livelihood.