Seattle is FInally realizing the serious dangers presented by escort services. Because of them, the good order of our city is thrown into disarray. Because of them, our once proud men and women in blue, feeling unneeded, suffer from flagging self-esteem. Because of them, our normally frothing NIMBYs, with no public nuisance problem to complain bitterly about, are left psychologically discombobulated and deeply depressed. Because of them a major problem is needlessly solved, and some of our most colorful neighborhoods lose their character.

The escort industry must be shut down immediately. Why? Because Seattle's traditional and beloved vice-industrial complex--with its drug-addled street prostitutes, violent pimps, and overworked cops, with its clear delineation of good and evil and its stable institutional structures--is disappearing as this widely tolerated, nearly invisible, and largely victimless escort industry takes root. This trend we cannot allow to continue. The economic and social--not to mention the moral--consequences of reduced crime, less public disorder, and greater discretion associated with escorts are ruining the city.

Blame the Internet where this new breed of escorts peddles its wares.

Are we willing to shut down forever the massive public bureaucracies that survive, if not thrive, off vice? Will we callously forget our brave police officers who have devoted years of public service to busting hookers and hassling johns, often for no more recompense than the occasional free bj cadged off some nameless strumpet? Unless we stamp out escorts in favor of streetwalkers, that is the dark direction in which we are headed.

King County Sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart--a former vice detective--remembered better days in recent comments to the Seattle Times. Before the escorts took the negative public impact out of prostitution, cops felt needed. "In the old days, if you went to the strip, you'd know it. There'd be condoms in front of the businesses, it would be more visible. Nobody wants to live in a community where there are hookers around. So they'd call us," he recalled.

But now, sadly, Urquhart's buddies on the vice squad wait by the phone, thumbs twiddling, neglected and forgotten. The street prostitutes, along with all the life and excitement they brought to the neighborhoods, are mostly gone. And so, regrettably, are their colorful pimps. A frustrated Urquhart did not try to minimize the terrible negative impact of the change: "Now, people are making appointments on the Internet, the condoms are getting flushed down toilets at motels and nobody knows about it. The impact that one has is vastly different than the other."

Yes, this newfangled vice is intolerable. This situation cannot stand. We must act, and act now. Unless the city takes immediate and comprehensive steps to clamp down on escorts and restore a vibrant culture of street prostitution, our very way of life may be at risk.

And for what? So a couple of greedy weekly newspapers can sell a few ads. So the women who choose to trade their bodies for money can selfishly earn a decent wage, and so they can operate in relative dignity and safety. So the men who partake of such services can do so discreetly, rather than getting their pud pulled in front of passing school kids. In other words, for nothing.

Look at what happened to Aurora Avenue. In the 1980s, Aurora was Seattle's premier streetwalking strip, a teeming hive of illicit activity where frenzied hordes of energetic hookers worked a perfectly blighted "corridor of neglect and crime," as the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association nostalgically describes it. Tawdry, furtive, unsafe sex could be had for a pittance. Johns were serviced in their cars, in full view of the public. Quaint open-air drug markets sprouted and blossomed, and the pushers who worked them enjoyed record-shattering sales. Cops were happily occupied, the NIMBYs suitably upset, the local economy effectively primed. Those were great days in the Emerald City.

We can get back there. Here are three crucial steps the city can take to restore the old equilibrium:

- Cops must crack down on the escorts (and those who harbor them). As long as a benign and unregulated escort business thrives under the radar screen, street prostitution, and all the good that comes with it, will never make a comeback. And as street prostitution goes, so goes the outdoor drug trade. Think about the impact on the police budget. Layoffs will inevitably result. Will you feel safer with fewer cops on the street? Of course not. Last year, management consultants urged the Seattle Police Department to pressure weeklies (like this one) to stop running escort ads. Nothing would restore the good old days--when our neighborhood thoroughfares were flooded with hookers and their criminal associates--faster than the elimination of such advertising. What are SPD brass waiting for?

- A city-funded "Take It to the Streets" ad campaign, plastered on billboards and the sides of buses around town, would do wonders in convincing young call girls to take up street work. The many advantages of working the streets should be stressed. "Hey girls, a hit off the crack stem will never be farther away than just around the corner" might be one such theme.

- Finally, the city must create a well-defined red-light district where diseased, drug-addled streetwalkers can work with relative impunity. Luckily, the perfect location is readily available: woefully underdeveloped South Lake Union. Our illustrious mayor and his friend from Microsoft should drop their grandiose biotech scheme, which is a risky economic bet at best. Sex (and drugs) are recession-proof. Think, Mr. Nickels, of the stable job base. Plus, there wouldn't be any need for costly public improvements; a decaying neighborhood of shabby warehouses and half-filled parking lots is perfect as is for a thriving street prostitution trade. On the other hand, a "sex trolley" ferrying tourists and Seattle Times employees to quick sexual transactions in darkened alleyways starts to sound like an economically viable idea. And a two-way Mercer Street configured to aid cruising suburbanites in finding "dates" might make sense as well.

However it's done, the escort services must go. Too much is riding on the outcome for us to fail.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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