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OPINION: Prostitution and the City Part 2: The ‘Good’ Survivors and the Troublemakers

by Laura LeMoon

I am scared as I write this. Not for my physical safety, but for my emotional safety. I am scared to name names. I am scared to tell the truth about Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program and the people involved in it. I am a former sex worker and sex trafficking survivor living in the Seattle area. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I wrote about the LEAD program, which is Seattle’s diversion program for prostitution charges. I also wrote a brief background on “end demand” ideology, which is at the heart of LEAD programming. “End demand” philosophy is a form of policy related to criminalization of prostitution. It focuses policing on the buyers’ side of sex work as a way to limit or end prostitution. 

I am a trafficking survivor, and yet because I have the dual identities of trafficking survivor and sex worker; because I am pro-sex work and sex worker’s rights, I’m seen as invalid and illegitimate by the “end demand” movement in Seattle. The very basis of their philosophy is that all prostitution is inherently exploitative. And I disagree. 

In researching this article, I could find almost nothing negative about LEAD and the people associated with it. As a survivor amidst a community of friends who are also survivors, I know a significant portion of us do not support “end demand” or LEAD. But that perspective isn’t represented publicly, because most of us are too disenfranchised and impoverished to be in a position to speak up. So the only voices you or most people have likely heard are those in support of “end demand” and the LEAD program. 

Though it has definitely not always been the case, I am fortunate enough right now to have housing, access to food, and my health, though I consider myself insecure in all three categories. I am not living on the streets, in a shelter, or in an ICU bed dying of AIDS-related complications like most of my survivor friends. So although these words are difficult and traumatizing to write, I have to write them. Many of my survivor friends do not agree with the way sex trafficking is being handled in Seattle. I want to be their voice.

The “end demand” movement in Seattle — hell, in the entire U.S. — is abusive. I know this from all my years of being gaslit by the area advocates of “end demand” and LEAD. In 2017, I got a job as a case manager for victims of human trafficking at a nonprofit called Cocoon House in Everett, Washington. As a former sex worker and sex trafficking survivor, I had a lot to offer. In this position, I was working with youth between the ages of 12 and 24, so primarily minors being sex trafficked. I spent a lot of time at Denney Juvenile Detention Center in Everett meeting with many 12–14-year-old girls who were being pimped out by their parents or were trading sex to survive on the streets as runaways. My work was important and making a difference, and I was uniquely poised to offer a kind of help that a non-survivor perhaps could not.

About a month after I started at Cocoon House, I got pulled in front of the director of housing services and my boss, the advocacy team supervisor. They questioned me about an article I had just written for Wear Your Voice magazine. They asked me flat-out if I supported child prostitution since my article was pro-sex work (for consenting adults, duh). I was flabbergasted that they could ever think I would believe child sex trafficking was anything but an atrocity. No sex workers I know would ever support something as egregious as sex trafficking. We are not monsters. And this allegation certainly was nowhere in the article I had written (or any other, for that matter). The article was critiquing a system in which allies of sex workers can exclude sex workers from important decisions in the field. I was fired from Cocoon House shortly thereafter. 

This experience solidified in my mind two things: 1. So-called “allies” of sex trafficking survivors with no real life experience in the industry (like my boss and his boss) believe they are more of an authority about sex trafficking than sex trafficking survivors, and 2. These “allies” have more interest in preserving their own privilege than in giving up money and power to actually uplift real survivor voices.

At a presentation I led for Seattle & King County Public Health’s homelessness task force shortly after I was fired from Cocoon House, there were representatives from Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) and Real Escape for the Sex Trade (REST), local Seattle anti-trafficking nonprofits. I was contacted by employees of both organizations who seemed angry at me for publicly criticizing them, and shortly afterward, it was apparent to me that I was no longer welcome to receive services at either organization. Around the same time, when attempting to join the King County Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) task force, I was basically grilled as to what my intentions were and essentially asked to promise that I would not “make trouble” before I was invited to task force meetings. Despite my role in the “end demand” community as a brash, annoying, troublemaking survivor, my feelings were hurt. These nonprofits should be able to tolerate criticism — especially from survivors who disagree with them. Instead, there is a culture of fragility and silencing survivors who critique the “end demand” movement in Seattle. 

In the summer of 2019, I contacted the (now former) executive director at Seattle Against Slavery (SAS, now called the Lantern Project) in my capacity as a freelance trainer and public speaker on how to work with people in the sex industry. He responded by, and I’m paraphrasing here, wondering if I was even a “real survivor” because all the survivors of trafficking he knows are anti-sex work. In a 2017 panel on sex trafficking, where I sat with members of SAS, OPS, and API Chaya (who are amazing to survivors of sex trafficking and sex workers, by the way, and deserve all the credit), the OPS representative refused to shake my hand. 

Clearly, I am a troublemaker. I am not welcome in my own movement in Seattle. I publicly criticize nonprofit organizations that, based on all my experience, background, and contacts, are not always good to survivors and sex workers and who I believe are not being held properly accountable for this because this movement intimidates and isolates anyone who dares to criticize them. 

In writing this article, I have decided to focus on my truth, and hopefully it will embolden my survivor sisters and brothers to speak up as well. Because they, too, have been pushed out of this movement so that non-survivors can stand on our backs and make careers out of our suffering and struggles. I contacted the Lantern Project (formerly Seattle Against Slavery) for comment, and as of this moment, they have not responded to grant me an interview.

A movement like “end demand” and a program like LEAD should be held accountable and have to answer survivors’ questions. ALL survivors; not just the ones who support LEAD. We are the metric by which these programs must measure their success, and we are not a monolith. It is okay for one survivor to believe that all prostitution is exploitation and that LEAD and “end demand” are great solutions to ongoing problems. It is also okay for me and other survivors to disagree. 

We are a widely diverse group that includes Black and Indigenous People of Color, queer people, trans and gendernonconforming people, and more. We have widely different experiences that have shaped who we are and how we view these issues. But we need to work out the solutions amongst each other, within our own community, for our own community. This movement, mostly led by non-survivors, cannot selectively cherry-pick which survivors are validated and listened to and which are cast out. 

“End demand” does not work on a micro or macro level. Using policing as the answer to … well, anything is problematic, as we have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement and the countless murders of unarmed Black men and women by police. Policing and increasing funding for police presence and police involvement is not the answer to the issue of exploitation in the sex industry. 

According to Forbes, a total of 375 trans and gendernonconforming people were murdered this year alone; 58% of these murders were sex workers. It’s hard to find statistics on the incidence of survivor and sex worker poverty, tragic deaths, and murders, because much of this is deemed not important enough to track and document. Murders go unreported, or their bodies unidentified. More policing doesn’t address these horrors and neither does giving money and power to cis white male non-survivors and non-sex workers to build their careers and wealth.

Turning money and power over to actual survivors to work it out amongst ourselves is the answer. Turning money and power over to actual sex workers is the answer. Turning money and power over to grassroots community organizing within said communities is the answer. 

A top D.C.-based national sex trafficking policy advocate and community organizer who I interviewed, and who wished to remain anonymous, said the following to sum up “end demand” and LEAD: “‘End demand’ is problematic everywhere, always. The philosophy requires the erasure and eradication of sex workers, and the impact is more violence and stigma, which has been demonstrated everywhere it has been implemented. There is nowhere that has shown improvement in the lives of anyone outside of the people who advocated for it. If your metric of success for a policy is its passage, you care about your worldview and not the world.”

I’m a troublemaker, and I’m tired. I’m tired of having no power, no voice, in my own movement. I’m tired of this city’s power players asking me with cold, steel-gray eyes,  how dare you? How dare I be a loud-mouthed, contrarian bitch getting in the way of those making money off of my identity while I was homeless, powerless, and barely surviving? 

I have spent a lot of time in my life being controlled by violent, ruthless people who used me for their own gains and threw away the rest. A movement to end exploitation and violence in the sex industry cannot do so by perpetuating a culture of exploitation, violence, and silence. Make no mistake — to silence and erase sex trafficking survivors’ voices is violence. And if there’s one thing I know my siblings have already endured enough of, it’s that.

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article contained a quote that was misattributed to Voltaire. This article was updated on 12/16/2021 with the quote removed.

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 Jorm S/

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