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 andsex 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.
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.
Washingtonians are deeply concerned about sex trafficking but struggle with acknowledging the existence, let alone the needs, of sex workers. Legislators are reluctant to differentiate between sexual labor and commercial sexual exploitation, because many incorrectly view all prostitution as inherently violent. Phrases such as “prostituted people’’ are frequently used to describe all providers of sexual services, suggesting a lack of agency across the board. If sex workers are acknowledged at all in discussions about sex trafficking, they are typically presumed to be exceedingly rare or to be “not representative” of people who sell sex.
The sex trafficking narrative dominating Washington State policymaking is overly simplistic, and it creates an artificial divide between sex workers and survivors. All people in the sex trade are vulnerable to violence because of criminalization and the extreme stigma associated with the work. In addition, many face overlapping issues of discrimination related to race, gender, class, nationality, and disability. Left alone by society to fend for ourselves, many of us have encountered commercial abuse or violence at some point in our lives.