How a New Anti-Trafficking Push in Olympia Is Disrespecting and Endangering Consensual Sex Workers
Mary is doing God’s work. She takes between one and four appointments a week, scheduled 48 hours in advance. She subsidizes sessions for her disabled clients, one of whom is a 28-year-old with multiple sclerosis. She gets down on all fours and curls up into a ball to show me the only position he can use.
Mary isn’t her real name. But in her line of work, no one has real names.
Mary is beautiful. She’s 41 years old and has the nicest skin I’ve ever seen. She’s not wearing makeup when we go out for breakfast (eggs Benedict with fruit, no hash browns), and she’s pulled her hair up into a small bun that sits on the top of her head.
Before Mary became a sex worker, she was a corporate accountant. “My joke is that then I felt like the biggest whore of my life,” she says. Before that, she toured with the Grateful Dead, sold hair wraps and ganja goo balls, and stripped for a few months. Mary grew up in Tacoma at a time when dealers sold heroin at all-ages punk shows. She left home when she was 13, but stayed in school.
In her 30s, after discovering a community of sex-based spiritual healers, Mary came to sex work. Hers is not the stereotypical street-based prostitution horror story, but she’s far from the only person with a story like this. “One of the reasons we’re dismissed is that there’s this belief that we’re so out of touch with the harms of the industry,” Mary says. “And so it really can be a fine line to walk to say, ‘No, I am empowered, I am making choices, and not only am I making choices, but these choices have been the best decisions I have made in my life.'”
No one actually knows how many people like Mary are in Seattle. Nor is it easy to estimate the number of women, men, or children who are forced into sex work. But King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg argues that self-employed sex workers like Mary are a tiny minority. In January, at an anti-trafficking event held at Town Hall, he said that people like Mary make up just 1 percent of the sex-worker population: “If there is 1 percent of women who are being sold in prostitution who are happy with that life, if 1 percent—I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is—but if there is 1 percent of them, that doesn’t mean we should turn our backs to the 99 percent of them who continue to be abused in our community.”
The fight over how to think about sex work is so old, it can fairly be described as ancient. But this year, that fight—and the search for numbers to use as rallying cries in the latest sex-work policy wars—has taken on specific urgency because of a bill in Olympia to increase penalties for buying sex. The bill is part of a wider campaign to “end demand” for paid sex, a campaign that rises from one particular side of the local sex-work debate—the side occupied by Satterberg and his view that “99 percent” of sex workers are forced, coerced, frauded, or unfairly primed for the trade.
“I’m assuming he didn’t cite where that research came from?” Meredith Dank asks when I tell her of Satterberg’s “99 percent” claim.
Dank is a sex-trafficking researcher and lead author of a Department of Justice–funded study published last year that looked at the sex industry across eight American cities, including Seattle. “There’s been no rigorous evidence to prove prevalence, how many victims actually exist,” she says. “That question has never been answered. You can’t just say 99 percent identify as a victim. Statements like that don’t help, because they’re not grounded in anything.”
When I follow up with Satterberg about his stats, he cites an opinionated essay from anti-prostitution activist and researcher Melissa Farley, published in Logos, a quarterly journal of “modern culture, politics, and society.” Farley’s piece reads: “Only a tiny percentage of all women in prostitution are there because they freely choose it. Most of the 1 percent who choose prostitution are privileged because of their ethnicity and class and they have escape options.”
The rest of the piece discusses how prostitution ought to be considered an inherent form of gender-based violence, and how liberals who acknowledge the existence of consensual sex work effectively deny the existence of sex trafficking.
This is one of the many constricting binaries of the current sex-work debate in Olympia: Either you’re with the anti-trafficking movement or you’re pro-gender-based violence. To keep this black-and-white view churning along, people like Mary—people who feel fulfilled by sex work—can’t be discussed. For example, when sex-worker activists drove to Olympia to testify before the legislature in late January, lawmakers shut down the public-comment session before the activists had a chance to speak. Five days later, when anti-trafficking groups spoke about ending demand at Satterberg’s Town Hall event, sex workers stood up in the audience and asked if their views could be considered, too. “No one is entitled to buy sex from another human being,” senior deputy prosecuting attorney Val Richey said at the event. “We shouldn’t give that act the credibility of official endorsement.”
This much is not debatable: Sex trafficking is a particularly vicious form of forced labor. Dank’s DOJ study found evidence of trafficking in all eight American cities studied, including Seattle, and concluded that gang involvement in Seattle sex-trafficking circuits had increased. It also noted that federal and local law enforcement—a group of people generally coming from the same perspective as Satterberg—felt like the underground commercial sex industry was much bigger than they had the resources to tackle, and that pimps felt like they had some kind of impunity.
But the underground market for commercial sex is bigger than trafficking alone. And contrary to Satterberg’s favored statistics, no one really knows what percentage of the industry’s workers are consensual and what percentage are sex slaves. Much of the problem comes down to a lack of funding to research an illegal trade. The other problem is the prevalence of studies that draw only on samples of street-based sex workers or people already connected to social workers—in other words, exactly the kind of people who are more likely to be trafficked or abused.
Though it’s easy to poke holes in Satterberg’s statistics, they’re also a major piece of the ammunition assembled to support three new “end demand” bills moving through the state legislature. One bill, SB 5277, increases the penalty for buying sex from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, which translates into a fine of up to $5,000 and up to a year of jail time. Another pair of bills, SB 5041 and HB 1558, allow law enforcement to seize the property of convicted johns.
Mary and other sex workers involved in the Sex Workers Outreach Project, Seattle (SWOP Seattle) say that harsher punishments and crackdowns on clients will only make their jobs more dangerous. On behalf of SWOP Seattle, Mary wrote a letter to lawmakers last month pointing out that a strategy to “end demand” for sex work often means that sex workers don’t receive enough information from jittery clients to screen them properly. When there’s less demand, sometimes sex workers are also forced to take work they wouldn’t normally go for—like condomless sex. Instead of continuing to criminalize the sex industry (even if it’s primarily on the demand side), SWOP would prefer a harm-reduction approach: more social services for vulnerable populations, amnesty for sex-trafficking victims and sex workers so they can report abuses, and inclusion in policy conversations that affect them.
“What UN AIDS and what UN Women say is that laws that target johns cause sex workers to have less time to negotiate for safe sex,” says Danielle Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League and a former sex worker herself. “Because johns are concerned with being arrested, they’re rushed in the negotiation, and it’s very difficult to negotiate condom usage.”
But even if the new legislation would adversely affect sex workers, anti-trafficking advocates say it’s no reason to change or kill the bills. In Seattle, trafficking survivor groups like the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) are enthusiastically pushing the “end demand” approach, and Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), the main sponsor of SB 5277, points to research done by Debra Boyer, a cultural anthropologist and executive director of OPS, to support her “end demand” legislation.
“There really are no boundaries between free and coerced prostitution,” Boyer tells me. “Prostitution is gender violence. It is a product of the patriarchy; it is a product of men’s oppression of women.”
But what about the sex workers who say they’ve chosen their careers freely?
Boyer says if SWOP volunteers were smarter, they’d support the so-called “Nordic model,” which has become shorthand for the process of shifting criminalization away from the sex workers and toward their clientele. “The global trend is to get women [sex workers] into services,” Boyer says. “I think they should recognize that.”
Anti-trafficking groups in Washington do deserve credit for connecting victims of trafficking, as well as sex workers who want out of the life, with various social services. In addition to pushing “end demand” policies, organizations like OPS and Seattle Against Slavery are backing other state-level initiatives that would focus on preventing underage prostitution and fund help for victims.
But outside of those efforts, the Nordic model has hardly proved itself an effective strategy to cut down on the abuses of the sex trade. In Sweden, where the model first premiered in 1999, the National Board of Health and Welfare reported that street-based prostitution nearly disappeared after the country launched a ban on buying sex, but bounced back two-thirds by 2007. In 2010, the country’s official evaluation of the law claimed that it had reduced total prostitution, but also noted that no in-depth data existed on how the law had affected indoor sex work—which had been estimated to be twice or three times the size of the street-based sex market before the law had been implemented. Researchers who reported on prostitution while at the Nordic Gender Institute—now known as the Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK)—have commented that strategies to criminalize buying sex over selling sex often resulted in negative outcomes for sex workers, and authors of a 2014 article published in Criminology and Criminal Justicefound evidence of increased conflict among vulnerable Swedish sex workers, stealing, and the same kind of risky behavior highlighted by SWOP Seattle and the Gender Justice League. The NIKK researchers have also noted that the data that does exist on the Nordic model comes almost solely from street-based sex workers, or sex workers who are already connected to social workers or law enforcement—so, again, there’s the problem with the pool from which the statistics are drawn being more likely to include disempowered sex workers.
On top of this, for many sex workers—like those who work on the street or those who had limited options to begin with—creating higher penalties for buying takes away their only way of surviving. “For many of these individuals, getting at the demand is not going to solve the problem of how they entered into this in the first place,” Dank, the DOJ study researcher, says. “It has to do with basic needs, and the basic needs include love and support, in addition to shelter, food, clothing, et cetera. If you take away that, you’re not helping them. You’re actually making things a lot more difficult, because, you know, as morally repugnant as you find purchasing sex, it’s actually their source of income.”
Another complicated truth: Between the “carpet queens”—a term for indoor sex workers like Mary—and trafficking victims, lots of people occupy a gray area of limited choices and coercion. And not everyone who’s survived the gray area agrees with calling most sex workers victims and using that as reason to crack down on demand.
Karen—also not her real name—says she used to work as a street-based sex worker for years to feed her drug habit. When she first moved onto the street, she had a “boyfriend” who would demand dope money from her. She started working on her own after her drug dealer stopped her boyfriend—or pimp, really—from attacking her. “He freed me,” she says of the drug dealer.
Karen has been clean and out of the life for several years now. Still, she doesn’t think that lawmakers can arrest their way out of the violence faced by vulnerable sex workers. Nor does she like the idea, suggested by Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, that johns should be listed on a sex-offender registry.
“Let me lay out a scenario when you make these guys register as sex offenders,” Karen says. “Married guy, low-income family. And they’re in low-income housing. And the guy decides to go out and buy some sex, and gets caught. The whole family will pay for that because you cannot be a registered sex offender in a federal housing program. It puts the whole family on the street. How’s that fair for going downtown and getting a little consensual sex?”
Other sex workers who got into the life because of constrained choices don’t necessarily agree with the “end demand” strategy, either. Sofia, 32, says she started working when she was 24 to pay off $6,000 of gambling and credit-card debt. (She also did not want her real name used.) As a trans woman and an immigrant, Sofia says she faced quite a bit of discrimination in the job market. The way Sofia explains it, sex work started out as a quick fix that stuck.
While Sofia’s glad that lawmakers are paying attention to ways to give sex workers alternative employment opportunities and crack down on trafficking, she also says that increased demand-side penalties could simply result in sex workers lowering their standards.
“Maybe they lower from $200 [an hour] to $50 just to get something,” she says. “The higher the money—it’s a screening process in some way.”
That said, Sofia adds that she wouldn’t necessarily encourage anyone to get into sex work in the first place. “It’s a hard life,” she says.
According to Senator Kohl-Welles, there’s another reason to lump trafficking victims and consensual sex workers together: the number of sex workers who have had traumatic sexual experiences as children. She asks: “Do we just put blinders on and say there’s no violence involved in this?”
Mary, as it happens, is a survivor of sexual violence as a teen. Of the 19 percent of women in the United States who are raped in their lifetimes, or the 44 percent who experience other kinds of sexual violence, more than half experience that violence before age 25, according to the most recent National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. (More than 40 percent of women in the first group are raped before they turn 18.)
But does that mean that sex workers who have had bad sexual experiences are in need of saving? Does it mean that their feeling of empowerment is, always and in every case, lingering psychological damage that needs fixing? The anti-trafficking debate has become so mired in absolutist thinking that it leaves little room for nuance or acknowledging the existence of multiple, complex truths.
“If someone has the happy hooker story, they have to stick with it,” Mary says. “The moment that I were to say something that is my truth, you know what that does? That gives people ammunition to say that the reason I’m choosing to do my work is because of that experience.”
To support the idea that adult sex workers simply extend or reenact the abuse they suffered as children, Kohl-Welles forwarded me a letter from Boyer—the local anthropologist and director of OPS—which itself cited the child-abuse connection from trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman’s 1997 book Trauma and Recovery. Herman, who is widely regarded as the foremost authority on the psychological effects of gender-based violence, noted in the book that traffickers can use psychological “seasoning” to ensnare victims. But it was in a separatebook authored by Melissa Farley that Herman wrote an introduction dealing with the link to child abuse. In it, Herman noted that survivors of child abuse are vulnerable to revictimization, which she demonstrated with clinical vignettes from sex workers already in trauma treatment.
There’s actually very little data to support the idea that most adult sex workers are working because they were trafficked or abused as children. Again, the problem comes down to studies that rely on samples of women living or working on the street—a sample slanted toward a particular statistical outcome.
A 2005 review of the scientific literature on the correlation between sex work and childhood sexual abuse published in the Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality concluded that lots of the studies that did make the link relied on flawed methodology and biased samples. And more recent research has cast doubt on the strength of the association between sexual abuse and sex work—it’s likely other factors, like poverty or dysfunctional home lives, that can create a bigger risk of going into sex work, said Jeffrey Parsons, founder of the Center for HIV Educational Studies & Training at Hunter College in New York. The landscape of the sex trade has changed in the last few decades, he adds. Almost no one studies internet-based sex work, which has dramatically reshaped the industry.
“Increasingly, the majority of sex workers feel that they have agency and that they’re choosing to engage in this,” Parsons says.
But in the framework created by Seattle lawmakers and their state legislature partners, you’re either a victim (of trafficking or abuse) or you don’t exist in numbers large enough to care about. That’s probably because it’s much easier to run with flimsy research under one sect’s vision of female empowerment than to acknowledge the humanity and diversity of people—including men and transgender people—voluntarily working in the sex industry.
After our initial interview, Kohl-Welles met with sex-worker activists in early February. She said she was impressed by their “candor and commitment,” and maintains that she doesn’t want to punish sex workers. She also now has an amendment that she says will increase the penalty for buying sex only after thethird conviction for a john.
Kohl-Welles’s meeting is an encouraging start. And if politicians continue a dialogue with sex workers, it would mark a radical shift away from the decades in which sex workers were rendered invisible or worthless.
Mary remembers those decades. “It’s been a long time since I got a stripper’s license, but you take your picture and they fingerprint you,” she explains, matter-of-factly, over breakfast. “I said, what is this about? And they said, it’s for when—not if—it’s for when you end up in the gutter, dead.”