by Laura LeMoon
There’s a change coming to New York City — a change in prostitution criminalization policy that has already been in place in Seattle for many years. NYC is going to stop all pending and future prosecutions of prostitutes. It will continue to prosecute prostitution-related offenses and sex buyers. What this means is that New York City is moving to a system of prostitution criminalization that has been around in the rest of the major U.S. cities for years. It may initially sound like a smart, even progressive and empowering move to only prosecute sex buyers instead of sex workers — but think again.
Seattle has a system of prostitution criminalization called “End Demand,” which is essentially the American version of what is known elsewhere as the Nordic (or “equality”) system. There are four types of global legal systems with regard to prostitution: criminalization, partial decriminalization, full decriminalization, and legalization. Criminalization is what most countries around the world have and certainly what most of the U.S. has currently. Many big cities in the U.S., however, have recently started to institute partial decriminalization, which means the buyers’ side of the transaction is the only one that is criminalized, while the side of the sex worker is not. However, crimes related to prostitution, such as loitering with intent, trespassing, and related infractions, still remain intact.
Full decriminalization of prostitution is currently only present in the country of New Zealand via the Prostitution Reform Act, passed in 2003. The difference between full decriminalization and legalization is that full decriminalization removes penalties for X without any government regulation of X. Legalization, such as we have in the counties on the outskirts of Las Vegas, means removing penalties while also simultaneously providing government regulation, which also brings government interference. Many sex workers who have worked in the brothels of Nevada report unfair treatment and highly stigmatizing STI testing, while the customers are not required to show any proof of STI results. Additionally, workers in the Nevada brothels have a large chunk of their income taken away by “the house” in addition to the many fees and debts one incurs working at the brothels. For these reasons, most sex workers are not in favor of legalization but decriminalization.
Seattle began adopting the partial decriminalization ideology in 2011. Most people may think that, upon first glance, shifting penalties to the sex buyers as opposed to prostitutes is a good idea; however, partial decriminalization has within it many endemic problems. One of the most glaring is the reduction in sex workers’ ability to keep themselves safe on the job. A recent law you may have heard of, passed in 2018, called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA for short) was championed by many political leaders, including Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, and signed into law by Donald Trump, who hailed it as a win against trafficking. At the same time that this law was passed, literally within days, the now-notorious Backpage website was also seized by the feds in a trafficking sting. Both of these efforts were made possible by the lobbying of highly powerful and moneyed nonprofit organizations, like Exodus Cry. These nonprofits are often based in evangelical Christian ideals that regard prostitution as a mortal sin and prostitutes as sinners in need of rescuing — or saving, rather. Needless to say, these organizations never make room for the idea that prostitution can be anything but trafficking — their position is that prostitution is inherently exploitative and therefore all prostitution is forced.
After SESTA and the closure of Backpage, sex workers have been, by and large, in a very bad way. According to the San Francisco Police Department itself, directly after SESTA was signed, trafficking in the city shot up a whopping 177% and sex work became profoundly more dangerous overnight. This increased danger to sex workers — which continues as I write this — has multiple causes. One: The closure of Backpage left most sex workers in the lurch, with no way to make an income. This left sex workers unemployed, scared, and desperate. A desperate sex worker is, by definition, a sex worker who is in much higher danger of physical and sexual assault and is engaging in higher-risk sexual behaviors, like anal sex or condomless sex, than a sex worker who is not economically desperate.
Two: The Backpage closure and SESTA double whammy in 2018 left opportunistic predators rearing their ugly heads to prey on sex workers who were desperate for clients, the majority of whom were scared away by the heat. Numerous sex workers have reported that pimps “coming out of the woodwork” to offer their “services” was especially common. It’s no secret that working with a pimp as a sex worker means less bodily autonomy; less ability to choose who you see, where, and when; and going home with less of the money you earn. At their worst, a pimp is a violent, sadistic tyrant, and at their best, a lazy, selfish worm who sponges off of a hardworking sex worker.
In Seattle, there is much money to be earned in the partial decriminalization business. We have two programs set up to “deal with” the “social ill” of prostitution. Upon arrest, prostitutes are funneled into a program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), while sex buyers are funneled into a similar diversion program called the Men’s Accountability Program through Seattle Against Slavery. To take part in this program costs anywhere from $400 to $1,200 per sex buyer (yes, they have to pay the nonprofit directly). Until recently, the program was run by Peter Qualliotine through Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) in Seattle, whose questionable motives for doing the work are a popular topic of conversation among sex workers and sex trafficking survivors throughout Seattle. Peter’s LinkedIn page has always been — to put it nicely — quite scant on background info and qualifications. He is a white, cisgender man who has never been in the sex industry who is making money and a career off the backs of real survivors, most of whom are not cisgender white men.
Though Peter recently left his prestigious, lucrative, and well-known position as head of King County’s sex buyer diversion program, a new cowboy is in town: Eli Zucker, with Seattle Against Slavery, now heads the program. Another white, cis man.
Once you see that much of King County’s money comes directly from this structure of partial decriminalization of prostitution — that it is both a means to force sex workers to believe they have been exploited and trafficked, even if they haven’t, and to force sex buyers to learn and regurgitate an ideology that all prostitution is gender-based violence — it seems Seattle has a big problem when it comes to how prostitution is dealt with, on both sides. And this is just the tip of the problematic iceberg. There’s greed, ego, and rampant sexism and racism entrenched in these systems and within the toxic nonprofits that support them. In the end, it’s Seattle sex workers who are losing.
There’s more … so much more you need to know about this topic, about these organizations, about prosecution of prostitution-related crimes in Seattle.
Pull up a seat.
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated on 12/08/2021 to clarify that Seattle has begun “adopting a partial decriminalization ideology” rather than “methodology.”
This has been Part 1 of a two-part series about the criminalization and prosecution of sex work and related crimes. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon.
Laura LeMoon is a Queer sex worker and writer/author based in Tacoma, WA. She is the author of two poetry books and has served as consultant to the CDC, USDOJ, and UNODC on issues related to sex work and HIV.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Boyan Dimitrov/Shutterstock.com.
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