The Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA is a social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy. Members of the Seattle chapter of SWOP, SWOP-Seattle, are hoping to offer a dissenting opinion to the pervasive myth that all sex work is inherently damaging and exploitative.
(This letter is in response to multiple bills in both the House and Senate which increase penalties for patronizing a prostitute to include asset seizure and the reclassification to a gross misdemeanor, and widening the definition of “human trafficking”.)
Of particular concern to us is the language inserted into recent bills which conflates prostitution with “human trafficking”, and calls for an End Demand approach to prostitution. Although well-intended to protect people who are vulnerable to exploitation and sex workers, we believe that the language inserted into this bill will have the opposite effect.
We urge that you remove this language and that you recognize a distinction between sexual exploitation and consensual sexual commerce. We recommend that you focus the state’s efforts on finding effective means to reduce the serious violation of human rights issues of sexual exploitation and abuse, and adults subjected to force, fraud, or coercion without compromising the safety of sex workers.
• “Sec. 1.The legislature finds that human trafficking is modern day slavery, which often takes the form of forced prostitution…
- Local and law enforcement agencies must have the effective tools necessary to focus on the buyers of sex in order to deter the demand for prostitution. …
- Providing law enforcement with the ability to seize and forfeit the personal property of buyers who use that property to commit the crime of patronizing a prostitute will hold these individuals responsible for actions that perpetuate human sex trafficking in our state.”
Concern: Conflation of trafficking and
There is no evidence that “most” prostitutes have been trafficked. Research touting horrifying statistics predominantly comes from research conducted on street based sex workers, and via social service centers or trauma centers, (as opposed to indoor workers and legal brothels.) It is often not peer reviewed or accredited, and is frequently openly biased against sex work. End demand policies, reliance on anecdotal testimony, and the language in this current bill deny the reality that there is a broad constellation of work arrangements, power relations, and personal experiences among participants in sexual commerce.
Conflating “patronizing a prostitute” with “sexual exploitation” and “sex trafficking” denies the existence and rights of adult consensual sex workers. The new language in the above bills codifies the belief and moral judgment that patronizing a prostitute is inherently exploitative, which creates confusion about what sexual exploitation actually is, and hinders our ability to discern and address actual exploitation. It also supports government regulation in the sexual choices of consensual adults.
This conflation also belies a seemingly willful ignorance of the distinction between trafficking and smuggling – the consensual migration of an individual with third party assistance. Many of those who migrate to participate in the sex industry are responding to factors such as the lack of economic opportunities in their home countries or the desire to provide a better life for family members, rather than the coercion from trafficker.
Trafficking is defined by “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means such as force, fraud, coercion or deception for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”
With the City of Seattle’s recent outrageous renaming “Patronizing a Prostitute” to be “Sexual Exploitation”, it is alarmingly evidently quickly patronizing a prostitute (“Sexual Exploitation”) can now easily become defined as trafficking. Well meaning and poorly written laws such as these can have disastrous and unintended consequences.
Sexual exploitation that involves underage persons or adults subjected to force, fraud, or coercion is a serious violation of human rights; but sex work by individuals who are choosing to sell sexual services and which does not include these elements is not inherently exploitative, and it is not trafficking.
International authorities and UN agencies have consistently criticized approaches that treat all sex work as trafficking, concluding that the conflation of sex work and trafficking is counterproductive in practice.
Concern: ‘End Demand’ does not work
There is no evidence to support the assertions that End Demand policies increase sex worker safety or reduces sex trafficking. On the contrary, there is much evidence that these policies increase the risk of violence for sex workers and trafficking victims, and have negative public health consequences.
(Please refer to position papers for more details.)
We are adamantly opposed to the increased criminalization of clients of sex workers (also referred to as the Swedish Model or End Demand), and the criminalization of the sex industry to begin with.
End Demand strategies do not address underlying issues of homelessness, trauma, mental illness, dependencies, or societal barriers to exiting the sex trade such as stigma and incurred criminal histories. For people who are already vulnerable, the increased criminalization of clients will remove their source of income, increasing financial desperation. For sex workers who have the ability to work indoors, the critical safety measure of client screening will be stripped away as clients resist sharing information in fear of arrest.
End Demand also decreases the number of safe clients (non-violent, low risk taking individuals) without removing the presence of possible predators (people who already violently break the law.) As the market reduces, sex workers and exploited individuals alike will be left having to make hastier decisions at a greater compromise in order to make ends meet.
End Demand hurts sex workers, and does not identify and address trafficking.
Are we trying to end human rights abuses, or are we enforcing morals around sexuality?
Human trafficking and human rights abuses occur in many industries – production of garments and commercial goods, domestic labor, agriculture, and food service. In no industry, outside of vices, have we called for an attempt to stamp out an entire industry in an attempt to stem abuses. What is the difference in how we are responding to trafficking into the sex trade and trafficking into other industries? Sex. Have we not learned from our history with alcohol prohibition and The War on Drugs that prohibition is ineffective and often expands the criminal black market? We did not make purchasing cotton and tobacco illegal in an attempt to eradicate slavery, nor have we tried to abolish the garment or agricultural industries despite human rights violations occurring within them.
End demand practices negatively impact our ability to discern and assist victims of abuse and other human rights violations. Clients and sex workers themselves are at the front
line as individuals who are in a position to identify and report suspected incidents of abuse. Increasing penalization for client directly decreases the likelihood that such reports will be filed.
Concern: Incarcerating non-violent
The United States has repeatedly been criticized by international organizations for incarcerating a large number of non-violent and victimless offenders. Can our reputation as a “free nation” and our overcrowded prison system handle the influx and of thousands of additional non-violent offenders that would result from making “patronizing a prostitute” a gross misdemeanor?
Additionally, we urge you to keep in mind that asset seizures and the associated fines and penalties will most likely disproportionately impact men of color. (A study of Chicago arrests found 88% of men arrested for soliciting sexual services were people of
Asset forfeiture can also unfairly affect innocent people who’s property is used in crimes (Bennis Vs. Michigan, Sourovelis vs City of Philidelphia) and may wrongly
incentives law enforcement (see “Policing for Profit“). Lastly, there are numerous civil rights groups in America asserting that the seizure of assets without conviction of a crime is unethical, and should be reformed. We question whether the income from increased penalties and asset seizure will begin to cover the additional public defender, court fees and administrative costs, and possibly even public benefits for the clients who lose their jobs after conviction.
Decriminalization of sex work is recommended and supported by numerous organizations such as the World Health Organization, UN Women, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and more. It is also supported by many sex workers themselves, and sex worker rights organizations around the world.
Along with many respected organizations, including those listed above, we recommend:
- Stop conflating commercial sexual exploitation with consensual sex work
- Stop promoting End Demand as an effective enforcement tactic
- Focus enforcement on actual human rights violations – including creating comprehensive services and assistance for those who are susceptible to, and victims of violence and abuse
- Adopt a new approach that values independent, unbiased and methodologically sound research and that includes the voices of all concerned parties, including sex workers and youth.
Legislation that governs sex work without consulting sex workers themselves and sex worker advocacy organizations such as ours, inevitably falls short of understanding the complex nature of the adult industry.
We would love to discuss these matters with you further.
The Council Members of SWOP-Seattle