I’m going to spend some time talking about sex work in Seattle. As a musician, I am fully invested in my community, and this is an issue that has deep implications within my community.
Sex work is a complex issue, and it taps into most people’s deeply-held values on a number of topics, mine included. Before I dive into the situation in Seattle, I want to expose my biases. I am an ally to sex workers. I have several friends who do this kind of work, and I think that sex work is perfectly acceptable, so long as everyone involved is a consenting adult and being respectful. I do not believe that all sex workers are victims. Consent is the magic ingredient that separates victims from voluntary workers in the sex industry.
This past Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a special session of Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors (GAIN) about sex work on Aurora.
This meeting came about because my friend Amánda (A-mahn-da) Koster* was cleaning up litter on Aurora and felt disgusted by the used condoms and she found. She started a petition to step up policing of sex workers on Aurora with the goal of encouraging them to leave the sex industry. Amánda was interviewed on TV about the issue.
Rene T. Murry, Chair of Children’s Campaign Fund and founder of GAIN Seattle, saw Amánda’s interview and jumped into the discussion. Rene has a background in this issue, especially as it relates to the sexual exploitation of minors. She wanted to leverage Amánda’s efforts to convene a panel discussion. The meeting I attended was the outcome of their efforts.
After Amánda’s interview aired, a number of my friends who do sex work saw that Amánda and I are friends on Facebook. They asked me to put them in touch with her so I invited Amánda to a dinner at my house with some of my friends and she declined (the invitation still stands). Because she declined, and my friends felt uncomfortable attending this meeting with police, I attended to advocate for the point of view that I have heard them articulate.
The panelists were:
• Brendan Brophy – City Attorney, North Precinct (his office handles misdemeanor prostitution cases)
• Jason Diaz – Seattle Police, Vice Squad
• Jim Fitzgerald – Seattle Police, Commander of Vice Squads
• DM Gordon – Member of Seattle Police Community Team for the North End
• Ben Katt – Executive Director of Aurora Commons & pastor of AWAKE Church
• Noel Gomez – Founder of Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), which aims to get sex workers to leave the sex industry
• Rene Murry – founder of GAIN
• Amánda Koster – concerned citizen
• State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles – Democrat, 36th Legislative District
Also in attendance were folks who run a condom distribution program on Aurora, as well as Ane Mathieson, a Fulbright scholar and activist for the Nordic Model and Amanda Hightower, Executive Director of Real Escape from Sex Trade (REST).
The only representation of sex workers in the room were from OPS. There were no current, practicing sex workers present at the meeting or on the panel. The attendees who were in direct contact with practicing sex workers said on more than one occasion during the meeting that the sex workers they knew felt intimidated by the police presence and and therefore didn’t want to attend.
The absence of practicing sex workers in this discussion was a huge missed opportunity. It biased the conversation heavily in favor of the perspective that even consenting sex workers are victims and that the best outreach efforts are those that aim to get sex workers out of the industry.
The organizers should have involved someone from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Seattle (SWOP Seattle) to sit on the panel and offer a different perspective. I pointed this out during the meeting and privately afterwards to Rene. She told me that she had never heard of SWOP.
A reporter from KOMO News was also present. I offered to connect him with current sex workers to get another perspective for his piece, but he declined. (I will update this post with a link to his report on the meeting if it airs.)
What follows is a summary of the most salient points I heard from the panelists and audience members. Click here for my full notes on the discussion.
The police & prosecutor present talked about the focus of their policing efforts on clients and pimps. They talked about a two-step process they take when they encounter workers themselves.
Step One: “Give Them a Chance”
- They hand out pamphlets with resources aimed at encouraging them to leave sex work.
- They document that the sex worker has received the information.
Step Two: Community Court
- Sex workers are required to submit to a sex worker education class run by OPS
- Sex workers are required to take an HIV test
- Sex workers are required to comply with laws banning their form of work for six weeks
My take: this approach to policing sex work is certainly in line with our current laws and social outlook on sex work, but it is ineffective. Even City Attorney Brendan Brophy admitted that programs that shunt sex workers into the OPS program are sub optimal because they “may be a little bit forced.” I’d say that’s an understatement, because involving police and the courts is indeed a coercive way to get someone into a program aimed at getting them to make a career change and has adverse economic implications because it forces them to stop working for six weeks or face further criminal consequences.
Noel Gomez of OPS gave a very moving account of her experience as an underage victim of sex trafficking.
She says that all sex workers, regardless of their age, are victims of trafficking. She claims that the vast majority of sex workers were abused as children, or trafficked when they were underage. She further argues that male privilege is the real problem, and that men should not feel entitled to purchase sexual access to women. (This position was reiterated by Ane Mathieson, also of OPS.)
When pressed, she admitted during the meeting that she has met sex workers who are in the industry of their own volition, but claimed that they are far and few between. After the meeting, when we talked one on one, she indicated to me that she thinks there’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker if that’s what someone truly wants to be doing.
Finally, she mentioned that OPS is partnering with the State of Washington to unveil a big initiative aimed at ending demand by going after sex workers’ clients sometime this year. She did not say what that initiative was.
My take: I feel for Ms. Gomez. Nobody deserves what she went through as an underage victim. I think that her approach is heavily biased by her own personal experience and trauma (which is understandable) and that she has her statistics wrong. There is no good evidence to support the common myth that the majority of sex workers were exploited when they were minors. Her perspective ignores the agency that sex workers have when to make informed decisions about when, whether, and with whom they will exchange money for sex.
A single discussion such as this one does not do anything on its own – especially not one that had no practicing sex workers present and was therefore incomplete and biased around issues of consent and victimhood. I will continue to attend these types of meetings throughout the Seattle area and advocate for the inclusion of actual sex workers (and not just former sex workers with a particular point of view) in the conversation.
I encourage those of you who share my position on this issue to visit SWOP and sign up for their newsletter.
* Amanda and I know one another through Dent the Future. Though she and I do not see eye to eye on this issue, I respect her tremendously and hope that we can continue to be friends.