As the sex trade has increasingly moved online, a local nonprofit has developed a pilot program that targets people who buy and sell sex through the web. And there are plenty of places to look.
"The growth of the internet has expanded the marketplace dramatically," Val Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, told the BBC last month. "We found over 130 websites where you can buy sex in the Seattle area alone. One of those websites was averaging 34,000 ads a month last year."
When they find these ads, former sex workers with Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST)—a Seattle-based Christian group that aims to help people they think are being sexually exploited—reach out via text message, offering support services or just someone to talk to. Robert Beiser, the executive director of Seattle Against Slavery (SAS), a not-for-profit group that developed the program and partners with REST, told me that in the past year, they've sent more than 7,000 text messages to potential sex workers whose ads they found on the internet.
Though it's difficult to ascertain how many of those text messages were received and read (some of the advertised phone numbers were likely landlines), Beiser said they've had "400 positive conversations between advocates and people in prostitution." Of those 400 conversations, he said, 40 sex workers have enrolled in services to help them find stability or get out of the life.
SAS is going after sex buyers as well. In addition to reaching out directly to sex workers, most of whom are women, girls, and LGBTQ youth, SAS, along with volunteers from Microsoft, developed a chat bot that targets men who look for sex online.
Here's how it works. SAS posts decoy ads online. The ads appear to be from a sex worker offering her services. When interested parties make contact via text with this decoy, what they don't know is that they are not talking to a real sex worker, or even a human volunteer with SAS or REST, but a chat bot. The bot simulates actual conversations, complete with vernacular and misspellings. The bot may be flirty, asking things like "Where u at hun?" Also, often the decoy bot reveals in the course of texting that "she" is not actually 18 years old but, say, 15. According to SAS, the most effective bots are the fake 15-year-old girls.
Once a rapport is established, the hammer drops. "Buying sex from a minor is a felony and can cause serious long-term harm to the victim," the message may read. "You could end up as a registered sex offender. Buying sex will not fulfill what you are searching for. If you want help to stop buying, find out more at stopbuying.me."
Beiser said that in past year, they've had more than 2,000 buyers interact with a decoy trafficking victim and get through the conversation long enough to receive a deterrence message and a link to get support services if they want to stop buying sex. Potential interventions for sex buyers include a 10-week class held in Seattle and around King County called "Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men," which Beiser said is run by former sex workers. The class, which costs $90 per session, offers facilitated conversations about how the sex trade impacts victims and survivors, as well as how it affects sex buyers themselves.
But is shaming sex buyers with decoys and bots effective? David S. Prescott, a clinician and past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, thinks it's unlikely. "Sadly, these kinds of deterrents rarely work in reducing crime," Prescott said. "A better way forward would be for more open dialogue as a society about the harm of sexual exploitation in these situations."
Several sex workers, both those who had been trafficked and those who entered sex work voluntarily, told me they had reservations about the SAS program. Briq House, a Seattle-based sex worker and the communications director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national group that advocates for sex workers' rights, laughed when I asked if she thought it would work.
"No," she said. "Absolutely not. Have you seen To Catch a Predator? They don't care. It's not going to stop anyone from doing anything. If anything, it's going to stop people from responding to ads they think are fake."
In reality, House said, the online sex trade has actually made the job safer, because connecting with potential buyers beforehand allows both the sex worker and the client to set boundaries and expectations. It also gives sex workers a chance to run background checks—either through paid channels or by digging into a client's online persona, the same way you might before meeting a Tinder date. "Every time Rentboy or Backpage or any of those sites are shut down, it's actually putting sex workers more at risk, because we don't have a way of verifying that this person is who they say they are," House said.
House is equally dubious about the prospect of using text messages written by real human volunteers to target current sex workers, and she disputes the idea that most sex workers are victims at all. "I hear it all the time. All the time," she said. "But sex workers are the most savvy, entrepreneurial group of people. If we want something done, we know how to do it. And that includes retiring." (SWOP's support services for active sex workers also include resources for sex workers who want to quit.)
Instead of volunteers and chat bots targeting sex workers and their clients, House and SWOP advocate for decriminalization of the industry altogether. Decriminalization would remove laws that penalize sex work while keeping in place laws that penalize human trafficking, violence, and criminal exploitation. Decriminalization could also mean the release of people who are currently imprisoned for sex work.
Amnesty International and other human-rights groups support the policy of decriminalization, because it would increase access to health care and safety, and would allow more sex workers to report crimes against them. (Neither Amnesty nor SWOP is calling for legalization, which, instead of removing laws that criminalize sex workers, would introduce new laws to regulate the trade. "A particularly bad example of how legalization can go wrong is Tunisia," according to Amnesty. "Tunisian sex workers working in licensed brothels who wish to leave their jobs must obtain authorization from the police and demonstrate they can earn a living through 'honest' means. Those who operate outside these regulations are still criminalized, without protection of the law.")
But even in places where sex work is decriminalized, exploitation and human trafficking doesn't entirely disappear. A 2012 study analyzing a cross section of 116 countries found that those with some form of decriminalized or legalized prostitution have greater inflows of human trafficking than countries where prostitution is prohibited. Demand goes up and so does supply. Still, according to the same study, decriminalization has been shown to improve working conditions.
In New Zealand, where both brothels and street solicitation have been decriminalized for adults since 2003, working conditions have improved for some people, but not for everyone, said SAS's Robert Beiser. "More educated white folks in New Zealand who are voluntarily sex workers may be saying, 'This is great.' But every year, the State Department's Trafficking in Persons report says there are thousands and thousands of aboriginal people and children being exploited, and thousands of immigrants brought to New Zealand and sold to white people." (This year's report notes that many victims of sex trafficking are brought to New Zealand from Asia.)
But Briq House argues that it's inaccurate to conflate sex work with human trafficking. She points out that human trafficking exists in many industries beside sex. The International Labour Organization estimates that, as of 2012, there were 4.5 million people trapped in sex work globally and 14.2 million trapped in other kinds of forced labor, including in agriculture, construction, domestic work, and manufacturing. For her part, House said she has met a "handful" of people who were trafficked. "Is sex trafficking a myth?" she asked. "No, but it's not the majority."
"I love my work," she continued. "I love love love my work. It's not all blood and gore and pimps and hos. I am a woman with an entrepreneurial spirit who loves to hold people close and help them through difficult times in their life. I feel honored to be a sacred sex worker. And that is how I refer to myself, because sex work is sacred."
She has, at times, felt vulnerable in her job. But, she added, "I'm a black woman in America. But I don't feel any less safe doing sex work than I do walking in the world." (Black and Native American women have the highest rates of homicide death among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of the black women murdered in the United States each year are killed by a husband, boyfriend, or partner.)
Nevertheless, there is a difference between adults engaging in consensual sex work (like House, who has been doing it for six years) and youth who are forced into it. Any time minors are involved in the sex trade, technically and legally it's trafficking. Laura LeMoon, a sex worker, social worker, and advocate for victims of sexual exploitation, said that while some youth may choose to enter sex work, young people are rarely capable of making an informed decision about the sex trade themselves. LeMoon was trafficked herself as a youth, by a pimp in New York, and she said the experience was traumatic and plagued with violence and rape.
It happens here, too. In November, David Delay, a 51-year-old Seattle man, was convicted of 17 felonies for luring more than a dozen youth and young women into sex work. Prosecutors charged that Delay posed as a filmmaker working on a documentary about sex trafficking, and he recruited Marysa Comer, a 22-year-old North Carolina woman, to help him lure other victims using social media. Comer allegedly showed potential victims forged bank documents and fake contracts, supposedly from HBO, and once they'd signed on, Delay coerced the women into sex work. According to the US Attorney's Office, Delay "manipulated them emotionally and psychologically, isolated them, [and] established their complete dependency on him."
"Delay told his victims that he had a contract with HBO to produce a documentary on prostitution and escorting, and that if they worked for him as prostitutes to fund and participate in the 'documentary,' they would become famous and receive millions of dollars," said Assistant US Attorney Catherine Crisham in court documents. Instead, they were trafficked into sex work and their earnings went right back to Delay, who required that the women and girls pay him "production fees" ranging from $1,500 to $1,800 a week.
"He promised each of them a payment of at least $20 million and claimed to be negotiating a deal with 'American Idol' host Ryan Seacrest's production company," reported Seattle PI's Levi Pulkkinen. At the trial, seven victims testified against Delay, and it took a federal jury just 90 minutes to convict him. He's now facing a maximum sentence of life in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for February.
LeMoon is familiar with life under a pimp. "When I was being trafficked, I didn't have any agency," she said. "I didn't have the ability to call the shots or make decisions about who I would sleep with or where or when or any of that. When you don't have agency over your own body, you're at risk for a whole slew of bad things. It was really disempowering."
After less than a year, LeMoon left her pimp—which was difficult in its own right, as she had become completely dependent on him. Later, she got back into sex work, but this time she did it on her own terms. "When I started working for myself, it was really nice to reinterpret all those old negative experiences," she said. "I got to call the shots about who I saw and when I saw them. If I got a bad feeling about a client, I could leave. I didn't have to justify it to anyone. It was empowering." Besides, she added, "There is really no job you can do under capitalism that is not going to be exploitative to some extent. I've had plenty of vanilla jobs that made me feel shittier about myself than sex work ever did."
LeMoon and other sex workers I spoke to said the stigma against them not only drives the trade underground, it makes it harder to enter legal fields of work. Last summer, LeMoon said, she was fired from her job as an advocate for the victims of human trafficking at Cocoon House, a nonprofit serving homeless and at-risk youth in Snohomish County, after she was outed by a coworker for her past as a sex worker. (I reached out to Cocoon House for comment, and they said that LeMoon's "departure from the agency was in no way related to her life experience, background, or personal history.")
Like Briq House, LeMoon doubts chat bots and text messages from well-meaning volunteers will get anyone to leave the sex trade. If one of the SAS or REST volunteers reached out to her, she said it wouldn't make any difference at all. "It's presumptuous to assume that everyone doing sex work is doing it against their will," she said. "Unless you're going to offer me an alternative to sex work so I can pay my bills, I'm not interested in a bunch of self-righteous pontification."
The way to get people out of the trade, she said, is a lot more complex and harder to achieve than just offering support services or a shoulder to lean on. Most of the victims of exploitation and trafficking are poor. Many are immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ youth, or members of other marginalized populations. In her experience working with victims of trafficking, they come from generations of poverty, have little access to resources, and are especially vulnerable when someone comes along offering a way out. The answer, to LeMoon, isn't waging a war on sex workers; it's waging a war on poverty. "Think about it," she said. "Even food stamps are being cut."
The question of whether or not sex work is inherently exploitative is not a new one. Some schools of feminism, religious groups, social conservatives, and organizations like SAS and REST argue that it is. But for Briq House and Laura LeMoon, sex work isn't tragic; it's just work, as normal and rational as any nine-to-five job.
Both camps are in agreement about one thing: No matter how many text messages or chat bots you send, the world's oldest profession isn't going away anytime soon. The challenge is how to make life better for the people living it.