Article posted by Melody Hood, Demand Abolition Spotlight Series

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is serving his second term as the only elected city attorney in Washington state. He won re-election to a third term on November 7. He supervises an office of about 100 lawyers and 85 legal professionals as Seattle’s misdemeanor prosecutor and has sole supervisory control of the city’s litigation. Heidi Sargent is an Assistant City Attorney at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and the liaison to Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High-Risk Victims Unit.

We asked them about how they’re focusing on the demand side of prostitution in Seattle, and what they would say to other cities that want to get involved.

Q. When did the light bulb go on for you to start working on strategies to reduce demand for illegal paid sex?

PETE: In my first term, my membership on the Domestic Violence Prevention Council helped me understand the relationship between domestic violence and prostitution, especially the power dynamic. From there, I was introduced to organizations like the Organization of Prostitution Survivors (OPS) and its Executive Director, Debra Boyer, who helped me understand how this illegal industry operates and how we might do a better job of limiting its success.

Q. Not many people talk about the link between prostitution and domestic violence. Can you elaborate?

PETE: Well, in the simplest terms, what’s in common is the power dynamic. Sometimes you hear some of the same comments, like “boys will be boys,” whether they’re buying sex or roughing up their wife. That kind of dismissive language reflects an attitude, a gender bias, and a power dynamic that are very similar tenets that run throughout the crime of domestic violence and the crime of prostitution.

When you say “smart on crime,” it’s more than just an epithet. It means understanding the economic drivers in crimes. What are the emotional and cultural drivers? And when you understand them better, then you can be more effective at not just enforcing against criminal violations, but also making it difficult for the industry to advance. Understanding the cultural, power, and economic dynamics that underlie both domestic violence and prostitution shows how similar they are.

HEIDI: Sexual assault, domestic violence, and prostitution are all points on the continuum of gender-based violence. The similarities, like the pimp-prostitute relationship, are very similar to the domestic violence relationship between spouses. It’s about power and control, and the use of violence, threats, isolation, and intimidation to establish that power and maintain that control. The relationship between the prostituted person and the pimp, and the prostituted person and the buyer have a lot in common.

Q. It sounds like you are filing fewer charges against prostituted people and more against buyers. Why did you make that decision and how is it working?

PETE: Fortunately, in our case, there was very early alignment, at least with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) Command Staff and my office. When we started, Seattle was still very much suffering from the impact of the Great Recession. We were in budget-cutting mode. And so that informed every policy determination the city government was making.

Consequently, my discussions with SPD were about how to flip the status quo within the confines of existing scarce resources. We have flipped that without new resources, and without changing the laws. It was gratifying that we actually had buy-in early on. Effectively, our office placed a moratorium on filing prostitution charges. And then we were focused much more in looking at both our track record and our policies with regard to what was then called patronizing.

HEIDI: The other side of that equation is, after you address the issues around charging prostituted people, how do you get increased law enforcement activity and prosecution for the actual harm perpetrators, the sex buyers?

That’s where resources come in. From a law enforcement perspective, it’s cheaper and easier to go after the prostituted people. They’re standing out there on the street—at least before the internet—easy to identify, easy to pick up. It’s basically a one-officer operation.

In contrast, buyer-focused operations are more complex, more time intensive, and require much greater resources. In this case, the buyers are lurking, and you have a female undercover who is at risk, who is in danger, because prostitution is inherently dangerous and violent. There has to be an entire team supporting her to make sure she’s safe when she puts herself in the way of buyers. So that takes a lot of money, time, and staff. And for Seattle, we’re lucky we have a vice unit. A tiny jurisdiction may not even have one officer assigned to this.

But there is an answer to this problem, at least here in Washington. By state statute, there are substantial mandatory fees and assessments for this crime. For example, first-time offenders are fined $1,500, which is used for prostitution prevention and intervention. Half of that money goes to services for the victims of prostitution. And 48 percent goes to law enforcement to fund their enforcement efforts in this area. And there are other fees and fines as well. So, this can be a self-funding undertaking, if you have the laws in place, which we did.

Q. Heidi, tell me about how you work with the Seattle Police Department’s High-Risk Victims’ Unit and Vice Unit.

HEIDI: Collaboration and coordination between agencies is critical here. Working with law enforcement on a day-in and day-out basis you learn the ordinary operations they do to fight commercial sexual exploitation. But we can also work with them on other innovative ways to approach this problem. One of the things that SPD has been doing in coordination with the City Attorney’s Office and non-governmental service organizations is coordinating enforcement operations, where—even though they have flipped the emphasis to the buyers—they still do enforcement of prostitution. But it’s with a new goal: rather than punish prostituted people and re-victimize them, we provide services to assist them in exiting the life.

One of the things our Vice/High Risk Victims Unit came up with was to have coordinated operations with organizations that provide services for survivors. When a person is arrested for suspected prostitution, they are no longer booked into jail, which used to be the practice. Instead they are taken directly to the service provider’s location, where they can meet with somebody one-on-one and are offered services.

That’s an example of the type of coordination and innovative practice that we are doing here.

Q. You got the city council to change how they deal with the misdemeanor of patronizing. What did you change?

PETE: It was as simple as letting them know that words matter. We have always struggled with combatting a public perception that prostitution is a victimless crime. People ask, “why is government sticking its nose in the private affairs of consenting adults?”

We realized the nomenclature was part of the problem. For example, you go downtown to patronize the arts or patronize your favorite wine store or whatever. And then you say “patronize a prostitute”—that was part of the problem.

With that explanation, the council readily understood that and unanimously changed it from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation.”

HEIDI: This goes back to the domestic violence parallel. There are parallels not only in the relationships, but also in the evolution of the law and law enforcement. In the beginning, as awareness about domestic violence evolved, people asked, “what is government doing in our business? This is something that’s happening between two adults. Why is government interested in this crime at all?” Eventually people realized that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay just because it happened behind closed doors between people who were married. We’re experiencing parallel developments in prostitution awareness.

PETE: In addition to changing the name, we wanted to increase the penalty for sexual exploitation or patronizing to reflect the understanding that it was the demand for commercial sex that created this crime and caused the harms. We wanted to elevate the patronizing side of the equation, the buying side, from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, so we could enhance the penalties.

We haven’t been successful in doing that with the legislature so far, but in the city’s municipal code we renamed the crime to more accurately reflect what buyers are doing in driving the sex industry.

HEIDI: These changes in the law—whether it’s the name of the crime or the penalties—are important. Now that we have a growing understanding of what this crime is about, it’s important to make changes in the law to reflect that understanding. We believe increasing the penalties would have deterrence value. Changing the law would also further bifurcate the crimes, reflecting the reality that these two crimes aren’t equal halves of the same transaction. One person is being exploited, and the other person is exploiting. That is not just an equal exchange.

Q. How do you partner with other agencies and nonprofits?

PETE: Non-governmental organizations are hugely important. Service providers like the Organization for Prostitution Survivors meet a critical need for victims of prostitution. Other organizations, like BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking), are focused on trafficking. BEST works on engaging the business sector, such as the hotel industry. A lot of trafficking occurs in hotels. And educated hotel employees can go from being an unwitting accomplice in the sex trade to recognizing how they can actively fight something that is causing great harm.

Recently completed research here in King County and in the city has determined the prime time for arranging an online sex transactions is around 2 p.m., right in the heart of the business day. It’s often done with business telephones and computers. If we can educate businesses and employers about what’s going on during company time, we hope they will recognize the need for their active involvement and not look the other way.

If they don’t feel motivated by just a sense of duty in public service, then we can also educate them about how it’s going to look in the paper when it turns out that a certain percentage of the arrests from a sting are employees using their badges as a means of confirming ID on an online transaction.

The city and the county are both large employers. And they have both signed up in the BEST Employers Alliance. And we’re also going after more and more industries.

HEIDI: In addition to the NGO’s, we have an organization called Coordinated Effort Against Sexual Exploitation, created by the city’s Department of Human Services. Human Services provides funding for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and prostitution. And through CEASE, it brings non-governmental service providers for victims of prostitution together with law enforcement and prosecution agencies, in an unprecedented relationship. CEASE brings together people from various background and expertise to come up with new ideas that we can use to further this work and think outside the box.

In addition to the many task forces that the city is part of at the city, state, county, and federal level, a key group working in Seattle is the Ending Exploitation Collaborative, a driving force in the community. It brings together prosecutors, non-governmental service organizations, survivors, technology, and anti-trafficking groups, including the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, OPS, BEST, and Seattle Against Slavery.

Q. If other cities and city attorneys want to get involved, where would you tell them to start?

PETE: The real hard work is educating the public. That’s the biggest challenge. You can never have enough resources or lead time for that.

We have used our initiatives as the information generator. When you have a public event that’s attended by reporters, you have an opportunity to explain what you’re trying to do. Be prepared. Let the public know that this is not a victimless crime. Tell them about the commercial sex industry. Explain the harms that it is causing in our country.

And then, beyond that, you need to work hard to make sure law enforcement is on board. The more they are, the better you will be, the more effective you’ll be in aligning your demand-side focus.

Be aware that you will draw fire, as we did, from sex worker organizations. The county prosecutor and I were left scratching our heads, because why would people working in prostitution complain about a new policy that specifically deemphasizes prosecuting prostitution? It was a head-scratcher until we realized that part of that goes to how you define “sex worker.” Such organizations tend to include pimps and madams, as well as people actually engaged in prostitution, in that definition. And they support not only the legalization of prostitution, but also of sexual exploitation and pimping.

There was some genuine concern, particularly from women in the life, for them to get the message and understand that if they’re going to cooperate with law enforcement, that we’re not after them. We are trying to stifle the trade, and we are trying to get services to them. You need to offer a hand-up for women seeking to escape the life. That’s a key component if you’re ultimately going to be successful.

One of the things I would like to see, and we’re researching right now, is if we could enact protection for arrested women in the life if they want to report an assault by a sex buyer. I think we could go a long way toward encouraging cooperation.

One of the arguments we heard from people working in prostitution was, “why don’t you legalize it?” And in particular they pointed at me and said, “you know, you were a big advocate for legalizing marijuana,” and I was. And it was the right thing to do. The analogies end right there. One is a plant; the other is a human being. Not to mention, there’s the whole 13thAmendment, you know, Constitutional prohibition against slavery.

We will not stop trying to increase the penalties for the demand side of the equation. If we can afford arrest protection for sellers, women in the life, that would go a long way toward alleviating the inherent imbalance, the power imbalance that’s underlying all of this, and violence against women…

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“The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.

“About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to showcase these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.”