Editorial: Seattle City Council takes good step to deter prostitution
The Seattle City Council took the right step this week to protect victims of sexual exploitation, but increased penalties against buyers must be carefully considered.
Seattle Times Editorial
PROSTITUTION is not a victimless crime.
Changing that perception is an uphill battle made a little easier by the Seattle City Council’s decision on Monday to swap the wording of the crime known as “patronizing a prostitute” with “sexual exploitation.”
That revision is the right response to a growing body of evidence indicating many of the sex workers with whom law-enforcement officers come in contact are women and girls coerced into selling their bodies by someone else who controls them.
They are victims, and they should be treated as such.
A few defend their right to choose to be in this line of work, but anti-slavery advocates and social-work experts report far too many of the people in this illicit industry suffer from histories of abuse, addiction, homelessness and poverty. Those factors limit their options in life and make them easy targets for pimps.
City Attorney Pete Holmes is an advocate for the council’s wording change. “[T]he idea is to attack the demand-side of prostitution and human trafficking” and to make “it clear that there are consequences for coming to Seattle to buy sex,” Holmes told Seattle Times' reporter Daniel Beekman.
In recent years, Holmes’ office and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office have shifted focus from filing charges against the sexually exploited to going after johns. A similar approach in Sweden, known as the “Nordic Model,” criminalizes buyers of sex and offers social services to the person being sold. Since 2009, the demand there for commercial sex — which keeps traffickers in business — has decreased.
Here in Washington, patronizing prostitution is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail, but very few actually do time. From January 2012 to September 2014, the city filed 188 cases — a tiny fraction of total buyers, considering that Arizona State University researchers recently found that 8,806 men in Seattle solicited sex online within a 24-hour period. Most are never caught. King County requires those convicted to attend a 10-week intervention course. This session, the Washington state Legislature may consider a bill to upgrade the crime to a gross misdemeanor, which means up to one year in jail.
Lawmakers ought to brush up on Prostitution Research & Education’s 2011 study of 100 sex buyers. Participants said that, in addition to serving prison time, they are also afraid of public disclosure (such as a registry) and paying high fines.
Seattle City Council members did the right thing by classifying prostitution solicitation as a form of exploitation. Now state lawmakers need to carefully weigh the potential costs and effectiveness of imprisonment versus other forms of deterrence.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).