Washington has the right policies in place to fight sex trafficking, but more community awareness is needed to end demand and help victims.

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WASHINGTON state is a longtime leader in crafting policies to combat sex trafficking, but persistent demand means that countless girls, boys and women continue to be exploited.

That frustrating reality is just one side effect of the region’s booming economy as well as the rise of the Internet as a marketplace for commercial sex.

A massive sting operation this month in King County succeeded in shutting down 12 brothels and two well-known sex-trafficking websites, but many others are ready to fill the void.

Seattle and King County’s innovative cross-agency approach to treating those who are prostituted as victims rather than as criminals is a model for the nation. More businesses and people beyond law-enforcement and the social-services communities need to be aware of this scourge and act.

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Yes, some sex workers claim it’s their choice to sell their bodies. But the vast majority of those who are being exploited cannot speak up for themselves. Some survivors of prostitution have discussed the horrors of their experiences after they were removed from their abusive situations or were able to seek help.

The truth is sex trafficking will continue until buyers stop driving demand and social norms change.

Prostitution is not a victimless crime. Recent investigations indicate that those forced to sell their bodies were often kept against their will to pay off debts and that buyers knew they were purchasing services from vulnerable people.

Increasing public awareness is essential:

• Anyone who sees suspicious behavior should call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888.

• Hotel workers and business inspectors must be attuned to possible abuses. The King County Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Task Force and nonprofits, including Seattle Against Slavery and Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, offer free training on victim identification.

• During this short legislative session, state lawmakers ought to resurrect a bill that upgrades the crime of buying sex from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. The penalty for buyers would be up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. The current penalty is only up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Exploiting a human in Washington should not be treated less seriously than violating a domestic-violence protective order or driving while intoxicated.

Social workers, law enforcement and policymakers in Seattle and King County have been at the forefront of a national effort to end sex trafficking. Now it’s time to broaden awareness and engage communities.

Victims of prostitution must be found and connected to services, while buyers must be held accountable for keeping a vicious cycle of exploitation going.