Sex Workers rally at Westlake Plaza on International Sex Workers Day 2016.
Sex Workers rally at Westlake Plaza on International Sex Workers Day 2016. Alex Garland

In October 2016 in the Jungle, a homeless encampment in Seattle, was cleared out and people were forced to leave. The city told some of those who left the Jungle they could safely stay in another encampment nearby. Five months later, the city swept that camp too, citing alleged sex trafficking. During these cleanups, the city allowed a religious organization, the Union Gospel Mission, to be the service provider. UGM claims clients are not required to participate in religious practices to receive services, but the organization’s mission is known. This means anyone who feels uncomfortable with UGM’s religious mission—including sex workers—is left without an alternative for services.

We at the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Seattle— a grassroots organization led by people with first-hand experience in sex work— believe this process of "sweeps" is not efficient, especially in remedying any issues associated with sex trafficking or supporting sex workers. Furthermore, we believe that allowing people in either situation to remain inside encampment spaces is a safer option because of the multifarious relationships that individuals form in communal outdoor communities. We speak from personal experiences about how police influence and stigmatize sex workers in a way that makes sex workers feel unsafe. We speak against the myth of sex workers as victims. When the idea of protecting women from violence, rape and sexually exploitative situations is manipulated, when it is used to do sweeps, this is not only disempowering but also harmful. We implore you to remember that sex workers are human beings.

We want to live in a city that walks its talk. We believe our city should actually provide services that are needed and offer a harm reduction approach. Furthermore, we believe that stigmatizing sex work is a barrier to access to social services whether or not the individual is being trafficked. To address this, the city must involve sex workers themselves and offer harm reduction services like condoms, lube, and safer injection supplies as well as legal spaces for people to inhabit. More importantly, we want those services to be provided by those who are coming from the communities they represent—those who have faced homelessness, current and former sex workers, current and former drug users—and from non-religious organizations.

There are actually many organizations around the world, across the nation, and even here in Seattle and King County, including SNAPS, Rad Care, SWOP-Seattle, and CAKES, who are all working to provide direct services to those who are engaging in sex trade. These include services for those who are being trafficked as well as those who wish to remain sex workers. Even if the city does not want to work with any of these organizations, there are numerous service providers in Seattle that actually provide services to trafficking survivors such as API Chaya and the NW Network as well as programs for youth such as PSKS, Roots, and YouthCare. So the city really has no excuse for sending sex workers to a religious organization for services. We can take a page from our sibling city of Portland and the Right 2 Dream project which empowers homeless folks in tent cities. We can do better than this. We have the resources and the infrastructure.

One of our members, Laura LeMoon, knows from first-hand experience the effect stigmatizing sex work has on people being trafficked:

I am a sex trafficking survivor and a sex worker and the one thing I can tell you for sure—as someone who has walked in both of these the shoes—is that policy related to sex trafficking in this country is often a red-herring for heterosexual white cisgender men’s hatred of poor female, trans and gender nonconforming bodies. Let me tell you how I know that that is.

Exodus Cry, in Kansas City Missouri, is one of the most prominent nonprofit agencies that works with human trafficking survivors in the United States. Recently, the executive director of the program—who is a straight, cisgender white man—was invited to speak [[LINK?]] to Vice President Mike Pence at the White House as an expert on trafficking. He is not a trafficking survivor. He is not a sex worker. His authority is that he is a hetero cis white man in America.

When I was being pimped out as a teenager in the Bronx, I was incredibly dependent upon my pimp. I always say he’s the only person I’ve ever known who could talk me into believing I didn’t need to breathe. I wanted to make money for him, I wanted to get his brand on my private parts. He was in theory dependent on me for income, but not really because he had a whole stable of other bitches in line to make him money. I was completely dependent on him. For safety, protection and companionship. I was a kid, new to New York City and didn’t know anybody but him. Police treated me like a criminal. Not someone in need of help. Which resulted in me never once thinking to call them after all the times I got raped, gang-raped or held hostage.

What sweeps do to a person who is being trafficked is displace them, create a lack of physical and emotional safety, increase isolation, and enforce a larger dependence upon pimps and other intermediaries. They create increased tension and distrust between law enforcement and homeless communities and further disempower people by robbing them of a chance to participate in problem solving the issues that are affecting their community. “Protecting” sex trafficking victims from rape and exploitation by displacing them is a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul. The communities that homeless folks live in often become their keys to survival as they learn where life-saving resources are and which people will help them with what. Jerking a person, particularly a youth, away from their pimp without a safety net can also have extreme fallout in that many trafficking victims have become dependent on their pimp and will be extremely vulnerable to all sorts of predatory street behavior they haven’t been used to negotiating alone.

What the city needs to do instead is acknowledge sex work or “prostitution” exists. This is the first step to peeling back the stigma that ensnares both the trafficking survivor and sex worker communities. The safety and health of survivors of human trafficking actually depends a great deal on how a given society treats its sex workers—both via the legal system and through societal and cultural expectations. One of the primary ways the legal system could begin to change course from ineffective sweeps to a better pproach is by regularly consulting sex workers and trafficking survivors on policies that affect them. The law influences culture and vice versa. To create change in the legal system is to create change in the cultural and social systems of America. Acknowledge that we have valid expertise in these fields and set a precedent by allowing our voices to have a platform. Include us in the creation of our own destinies.

Laura LeMoon has worked with sex workers in San Francisco, Seattle, and Kolkata, India. Today, she works as a disease, research, and intervention specialist on the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS), which this year focuses on HIV risk and women who exchange sex. She co-founded a sex workers’ collective in Seattle that works to provide harm reduction services to street-based sex workers.

Smitty Buckler is an artist, organizer, writer, performer, dancer, coder, researcher, healer, and advocate. They currently are ombudsperson at SWOP USA and are creating an anti-racism, anti-oppression community advisory board.