King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, explaining that he has never met a happy sex worker.
  • Sydney Brownstone
  • King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, explaining that he has never met a happy sex worker.

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Prostitutes are victims, according to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. "Today our goal is to identify women who are being prostituted and treat them as the victims that they are, and give them the services that they so desperately need," he told a packed Town Hall audience in attendance for an anti-sex trafficking panel on Monday night.

But then Satterberg added a weird qualifier, perhaps anticipating the criticism that some sex workers don't identify as victims. Even if happy sex workers do exist, Satterberg said, he personally does not know them. (Hooray?)

"I know that there is a small group of women who are saying, hey, this is okay, this is a profession that I chose; it doesn't hurt anybody," Satterberg said. "And my answer to that is that if there is one percent of women who are being sold in prostitution who are happy with that life, if one percent—I don't think I’ve ever met anyone who is—but if there is one percent of them, that doesn't mean we should turn our backs to the 99 percent of them who continue to be abused in our community."

Sex trafficking is serious abuse. It's a pernicious kind of forced labor that regularly preys on people who already have few employment opportunities or those who have histories that put them at risk for being re-victimized. But Satterberg's statement was an illogical one at best. (How does acknowledging the existence of consensual adult sex workers nullify all anti-trafficking efforts? And hey, was he just making that 99 percent vs. 1 percent stat up, or is it grounded in real data?) At worst, it contradicted the panel's own stated intentions of respecting marginalized individuals' humanity.

One of the more ridiculous moments of the night was this slide from Seattle Against Slavery, which purported to use memes to try and get johns to quit buying sex. (The guy on the left is Val Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County.)
  • Sydney Brownstone
  • One of the more ridiculous moments of the night was this slide from Seattle Against Slavery, which purported to use "online memes" to try and get johns to quit buying sex. (The guy to the right of the cat is Val Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County.)

But let's back up for a minute. Satterberg's comments came at a time when state and city legislators are ramping up their efforts to crack down on the sex trade. Unlike earlier attempts to do so, this time courts and law enforcement say they aren't going after the workers themselves. Instead, the new efforts focus on punishing and deterring johns. Earlier this month, state legislators introduced bills that would elevate buying sex to a more serious crime (a gross misdemeanor), and allow seizure of property as punishment. City Attorney Pete Holmes also reclassified the misdemeanor of "patronizing a prostitute" to "sexual exploitation."

The panel, which featured Satterberg, Holmes, an anti-trafficking business consultant named Dan Arkless, and staffers with the Organization for Prostitute Survivors (OPS), along with other anti-trafficking activists, did not include any current sex workers. Noel Gomez, OPS co-founder and trafficking survivor, spoke to her own devastating experiences of abuse and why "the life" is harmful to all. The rest of the two-hour event mostly probed the minds of mostly white men on how to protect a group they contend is mostly women and children who are coerced into sex work.

Some sex workers in the audience, however, had different opinions about how to best protect—and distinguish—at-risk youth and self-employed adults. During a question-and-answer period at the end of the panel, a volunteer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Seattle first thanked the panel for the work that they had done to end trafficking, then asked if sex workers might be part of the ongoing policy conversation.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes changed the misdemeanor of patronizing a prostitute to sexual exploitation.
  • Sydney Brownstone
  • Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes changed the misdemeanor of "patronizing a prostitute" to "sexual exploitation." He also referenced the bills in the legislature as part of a larger effort to reduce demand for sex work.

"Being told that as consenting adult sex workers [we] are fictitious or don't exist or that there's only one percent of us—I don’t think that's an actual statistic—it feels as if our realities as consenting adult sex workers who have not been disempowered or disenfranchised or victimized are brushed aside," the volunteer said.

Val Richey, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, replied that "some 90 percent of people, according to the research" are coerced into prostitution. Legalization attempts, he added, have failed. "No one is entitled to buying sex from another human being," he said. "We shouldn’t give that act the credibility of official endorsement."

Those stats and conclusions are less straightforward than they may seem. According to one major study of minors working as prostitutes in New York City, 90 percent said they wished they could leave "the life." But the problem wasn’t coercion into sex work—it was the lack of other kinds of stable employment, education, and affordable housing. That same New York City study found that only 14 percent of the sex workers had pimps. Another recent, qualitative study published in the British Medical Journal found that, out of a small sample of street sex workers in Vancouver, police attempts to crack down on johns actually prevented sex workers from screening their clients thoroughly and forced the workers into more dangerous situations. Conflating consensual sex work and trafficking, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, "leads to inappropriate responses that fail to assist sex workers and victims of trafficking" and can actually block efforts to counter sexual slavery.

This wasn't the first time that sex workers have been denied entry to policy decisions governing their actions. Recently in Olympia, a public hearing on the bills mentioned above concluded before any SWOP volunteers waiting in line to testify could speak.

But the truth is that many more voices were missing from that Town Hall auditorium, like pretty much anyone who wasn't a well-educated white person at little risk of being trafficked (this, I'm aware, very much includes myself). So it's a big issue, and not everyone has the privilege to attend meetings like these. At the same time, if lawmakers are going to make efforts to "protect" people, shouldn't they at least hear what those people have to say? You know, stakeholders! Outreach! Then again, lawmakers could also assume—like some on the Town Hall panel seemed to—that those stakeholders a) don’t exist if they have not met them or b) can't make informed decisions for themselves.