In 2015, Seattle declared itself a human rights city, guided by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among those rights are: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person; No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms; No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” We urge the Seattle City Council to consider this commitment as it develops the 2021 budget.
Sexual exploitation violates those rights, and we have seen the devastating consequences. The authors are a retired judge who saw victims of sexual exploitation in court; two of us are survivors who work directly with people currently in the sex trade. We all advocate and train, locally and nationally, to prevent exploitation, and to protect the rights and safety of those currently in prostitution and those who have exited.
Sexual exploitation by nature is racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic. In King County, only 6.2% of the population is Black. Between 2011 and 2019, 62% of minor trafficking victims were youth of color, and 44% were Black. Seventy-two percent of the buyers were white men.
Most adults in prostitution become involved as minors. Regardless of age, most are forced into it through sexual, physical or mental abuse, or manipulated by promises of love, money, drugs and protection. They stay because of trauma, shame, stigma, discrimination and poverty, but 89% say they want out.
We advocates hear, “Why should I have to risk my life for this little bit of money because I’m hungry today?” To assume this is an act between two consenting adults when one is trying to meet basic needs lacks critical thought. Victims of exploitation don’t get COVID-19 stimulus checks or unemployment. They are prey to an unequal power dynamic. There is nothing liberating or progressive about it.
As advocates who have served hundreds of survivors, we know that adults in the sex trades are predominantly Black, brown, trans, men, and women. They often die as homicide victims. A study of nearly 2,000 prostituted women in Colorado Springs between 1967 and 1999 concluded that “women engaged in prostitution face the most dangerous occupational environment in the United States.” The average age of death was 34. The leading cause of death was homicide, usually at the hands of buyers. Studies elsewhere show similar results.
In King County, victims of sexual exploitation are our most vulnerable. Many are refugees, many smuggled or lured into this country to “work.” We have brothels in fancy condos and dismal massage parlors.
In 2019, the High Risk Victims Unit (HRVU) of the Seattle Police Department took down 11 massage parlors. The victims were mostly women from China who spoke little or no English. They were forced to sell themselves up to 14 hours daily, six or seven days a week. In a national model of trauma responsive police work, victim advocates for HRVU consulted with members of Seattle’s Chinese community to ensure victims were not re-traumatized by police. Ten plainclothes female SPD detectives were paired with interpreters to conduct victim interviews in a church. No police cars were parked outside. Culturally appropriate food was served, and a TV streamed popular Chinese shows.
If the City Council eliminates or decreases funding to special operations units like these, the ability to investigate these cases will vanish. Because patrol officers are not equipped to investigate and respond to complex cases, the result will be de facto decriminalization of prostitution. Countries that have legalized or decriminalized prostitution have seen increased markets and demand for sex tourism and trafficking, and increased violence.
Victims of sexual exploitation do not have “the right to life, liberty and security of person,” are often “held in slavery or servitude” and are by definition subjected to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” During this time of transformational change, Seattle has the opportunity to seriously address racism, transphobia and misogyny.
We urge the Seattle City Council to uphold the commitment to human rights as it works its next budget this fall. SPD needs to fundamentally change in a myriad ways. But cutting the budget so traffickers and buyers of sex can act with impunity will solidify the structural racism, inequality and violence that define the sex trade. Preserve what SPD does well on behalf of victims. Seattle must live up to the Declaration of Human Rights it espouses and protect sexually exploited people.