Prostitution is a complex issue that affects individuals in vastly different ways. Not enough people are aware of how King County’s compassionate approach is helping some victims move on.
Each time advocate Noel Gomez and King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Val Richey come face-to-face with prostituted children, they are stunned by the sordid details they hear.
When Gomez asked an 11-year-old girl how she knew what to do the first time she was sold to a buyer, she responded, “The old man showed me.”
Painful stories like this one are driving King County’s groundbreaking efforts to curb the growing demand for commercial sex.
A lot of people don’t see this advocacy work or appreciate the difference it’s making for some.
Though no one knows exactly how much of the local sex trade involves consenting adults or coerced individuals, a 2008 study estimated hundreds of youths are bought and sold every night in the Seattle area.
In recent years, police and sheriff’s deputies within King County have shifted their focus from arresting and charging prostituted women to targeting the patrons responsible for rising demand.
A coalition of sex workers and their allies have taken to social media recently to argue vehemently against this approach. They say criminalization is unfair to them and their clients. They are proud of what they do and reject a host of studies that have tried to estimate the age range and number of people being trafficked.
Most concerning is the tendency in some of these online tirades to downplay or ignore the widespread harm suffered within the same industry by far less-privileged people. Disturbingly, there is a lack of compassion for the children getting caught or forced into the trade before they are mature enough to understand their options in life.
Consider some real numbers provided by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. This is a snapshot of what’s likely a bigger problem:
• Over the last six years, King County cases have involved at least 88 minors, ranging in age from 11 to 17. More than half were 15 or younger when authorities found them, which means they likely entered prostitution even earlier.
• Between April 2014 and September 2015, some of those kids were among the 126 sexually exploited people aged 17 and under referred to case management.
• Since 2013, about 125 men countywide have been charged with knowingly trying to meet up with a detective posing as a 15-year-old girl.
This month, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg charged a male patron with commercial sexual abuse of a minor. After this buyer found the 16-year-old victim on Backpage.com, he asked her to wear pigtails and pretend she was 14, according to court documents. Each time they met before his arrest, he paid her about $120 for 30 minutes of service.
When prostituted children are found, Gomez is one of several advocates called in to represent their needs. She works with up to 60 youths every year. A former prostituted person herself, she knows firsthand how abuse, addiction and other trauma makes some kids vulnerable to traffickers. Those same factors keep them in prostitution into adulthood.
Once fearful of law enforcement, Gomez now works with authorities to ensure the response to victims is more humane.
Richey says arrests of prostituted people are becoming less common in King County. The exploited are more likely referred to victims’ services or let go unless they are exhibiting extreme behavior. In 2015, the prosecutor’s office did not file prostitution charges against a single minor. It also charged fewer adults compared to previous years.
Meanwhile, more buyers (and likely just a fraction of the overall number) are getting caught and facing fines. They also are ordered to attend an intervention program that helps men explore gender, power and the ways in which prostitution is harmful. Yes, jail time remains a possibility. Prostitution is, after all, against the law.
This new approach is a work in progress, but it’s encouraging to know King County’s criminal justice system is nimble enough to reverse the sexist practice of disproportionately charging women while letting their male patrons off without any consequences.
Some individuals want to call themselves willing sex workers and resent being viewed as victims. Just remember they do not speak for the many other adults and kids truly suffering, with no voice or awareness of their rights.
Gomez and Richey witness the cost of their commercial sex exploitation every day and are among those trying to do the right thing for scores of people who need help.
This is really hard work, and it’s time more people start caring.