The Stranger

You can't miss it: a hot-pink mural jumping out from the limitless grimness of Aurora Avenue like an orchid in Dickens. Its bubble letters say "DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO JUST KNOW THAT YOU'RE NOT ALONE," and this message is apparently for prostitutes, because the names of three prostitute support organizations are scribble-sprayed below it.

I'm there in the parking lot at 41st and Aurora writing all this down—between two boarded-up cheap motels, in the epitome of dilapidation in Seattle, a psychic world away from being home safe and warm—when a shiny black Passat pulls up. There's no business around. Unless I'm in business. He waits.

The mural first lists the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS). Its goal, the internet later tells me, is to "stop the violence of prostitution." Listed second is Children of the Night: "Rescuing America's children from prostitution." Lastly, Genesis Project: "Offer hope for a new life to young women and girls involved in domestic minor sex trafficking."

The color scheme is a giveaway: The mural's makers are Grrrl Army, a fact confirmed by OPS cofounder Noel Gomez (Grrrl Army didn't respond to an e-mail about it). Grrrl Army is the anonymous crew that relentlessly hot-pinked the corner of 11th Avenue and Pine Street last year with furious messages aimed at the misogynistic undercurrent of the mainstream.

"DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO," by comparison, is astoundingly nonjudgmental rhetoric. This time, Grrrl Army is not fighting but rather throwing up a triage tent in the middle of what Seattle police spokesman Sergeant Sean Whitcomb calls Seattle's "iconic" place for prostitution. The word "iconic" is important. Aurora is the bleakest place in the city, and also the place where you imagine sex for hire—"It's just always been that way," Whitcomb said. (The hot spots for prostitution arrests are between 120th and 135th Streets, according to a map of arrests, but the entire stretch from Denny Way up to 145th is an enforced no-go zone for repeat offenders.) The parking lot at 41st Street has returned to a frightening version of human nature, all decay and no promise. The word "pollution" is sprayed on the motel. It's the perfect demonstration of what journalist and former prostitute Melissa Gira Grant said in an interview in last month's Guernica magazine: "I think sex work has become isolated from the social."

It's not necessarily uncommon to be mistaken for a prostitute and solicited for sex when you're just going about your day, within the social fabric—which is why it's so jarring. I consider walking over to the black Passat. Maybe getting in. Then what? Would I tell him sure, yes, whatever, and try on what I've been raised to (but can't ever quite) see as the "other" female identity? Or would I say, "I am working. I'm a journalist"?

The funniest time it ever happened to me—being propositioned by a stranger—was when a James Brown impersonator offered to take me for a week to his Alaska home ("Nothing fancy, just a nice place, comfortable") and to match my day-job salary. Instead, I sang karaoke backup for him with two other women in the bar who probably also got the Alaska pitch. He was old and seemed like a feeble gentleman.

Last week on Slog, The Stranger's blog, I asked people if they had similar stories. Here are four:

• "I'm not proud of this, but I picked up a one-night stand one evening because I was horny, and afterwards he left me money on the nightstand. Which I obviously didn't take, and then there were complications. I'm a fat middle-aged woman and I was dressed very conservatively—midcalf-length suit, low heels, no makeup. It must have been the part of town."

• "...I always wondered why they did it. I didn't dress provocatively, I was just a petite woman. Anyway, being objectified by strangers in such a callous way was pretty upsetting. Yet it wasn't the initial come-on that got to me. It was the constant threat of anger, hostility, or twisted persistence that might ignite following my refusal or avoidance. It's in that response where you would see the disgusting and terrifying fucker's desperation and vile hatred of women. Once you've seen that side of intent on more than one occasion, you wouldn't even stomach the thought of getting into the car."

• "...The more recent one was funnier, because my reply to his request mentioned my husband, causing the dude to cartoonishly freak out and zoom off, laughing. It felt like the astonishment was mutual."

• "Yeah, I dropped the car off to be repaired at Aurora and 120th around 11 a.m. and walked five blocks to the bus stop. Twice a guy in a car stopped and talked to me... 'Hey baby'...short hair, glasses, almost 50, and mom jeans. But at least I can tell myself I still got it."

I also contacted the businesses near the Aurora mural. J. J. Jones, a woman who's worked at Blue Video across the street for five years and who used to hand out needles at a downtown exchange, told me she loves the mural: "Prostitutes and people on drugs don't get enough outreach as it is."

Todd Welter of Wave Hounds surf shop said of the mural, "It was calling for rights for sex workers. If they want rights, they've gotta quit falling into the hands of pimps that give them drugs. If you have a pimp, you can't have rights. Society's a mess."

Welter remembers telling a working woman that, actually, he was working that part of the street—meaning Wave Hounds was open—and "don't make me have to call somebody with a badge to remove you." For him, it's not the sex that's the problem—"There were cathouses up and down the West Coast—the OK Hotel used to be a brothel"—it's the drugs and unhealthiness that go with street prostitution. Then he says, "If you had an illegal food truck that had salmonella probably, would you want that parked outside of your business? Probably not. Same point of view."

Prostitution is the kind of topic where you can be chatting with someone and totally following along and then—bam—they're comparing a human to infested food. And you know how they got there, but...

Tim Ley, the wonderfully named owner of nearby Seattle Natural Mattress, sounds sadder and more resigned than Welter. "They're just tired," is how he describes the women who solicit him regularly. "I just wish something better for them over and over and over again."

So is there room for "DO WHAT YOU WANNA DO"? If you meet a prostitute who says she's doing what she wants, who are you to be sad-faced and judgy? All three of the mural neighbors I interviewed, despite their differences, say they're for legalization and regulation, but... "regulation" can sound eerily like another form of control of (mostly women's) sinful, sinful bodies—taking power out of the hands of pimps (yay!) and putting it into the hands of politicians (yay?). Prostitution talk is all about "but..." In 1999, Sweden changed its focus so that the purchase of sex is illegal there, but the selling is legal. In that system, Welter wouldn't shoo away the woman at his door, he'd shoo off her customers—or call in a badge to deal with them, not her. It's an intriguing premise, shifting accountability onto the demand side of the supply chain. Would it change anything here on Aurora?

On election night in November, I was proud that Seattle voted to end the insidiously destructive criminalization of marijuana and government punishment of gay commitment—two other tangled issues that have been hostage to nonsense debates while real people suffer. I wrote on Twitter: "So are we legalizing prostitution next, folks? I'm utterly not joking. I'll sponsor that myself."

That was an offhand opinion thrown out in passion and before I started talking to people, and the more people I talk to, the more complicated it gets. But I'm going to keep talking to people. And I open it up to you, too. What are we doing? How are we talking about prostitution now? What do you wanna do? recommended

Reporting contributed by Jen Kagan.