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Local Sex Worker Speaks Out Against Proposed Legislation

March 3 is International Sex Workers' Rights Day. This protest took place in 2008 on the steps of San Francisco's city hall. The red umbrella symbolizes protection from violence.
Flickr Photo/Eliya
March 3 is International Sex Workers' Rights Day. This protest took place in 2008 on the steps of San Francisco's city hall. The red umbrella symbolizes protection from violence.

Some state lawmakers want to crack down on sex trafficking by cracking down on demand. Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, has a bill in the state House that would allow law enforcement to confiscate the cars and money of people who buy sex, just like they do in drug busts.

“Not only will it make the buyers of sex think twice about doing it in the state of Washington, but the revenues that we then get will be used to help fund rehabilitation programs and the policing,” Muri said.

Mary (a pseudonym) is a sex worker in Seattle and member of the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project. Mary told KUOW’s Marcie Sillman that while new penalties would not be aimed at sex workers, they would still be bad for sex workers.


Mary: What we know about prohibition measures is that they take a black market and they push it further underground, which makes it much more difficult to access the communities, the services, the people who are involved. It doesn't address any root causes and it doesn't provide services for the people who actually need them.

Sillman: I'm curious if you can tell us of a particular instance where tighter restrictions actually impacted your work.

Mary: Five or six years ago, there was an unusual sting operation that happened in Seattle. Instead of the street bust or the hotels that are normally used in these operations, they used a high-end condo downtown on the waterfront. Something like 96 gentlemen were arrested that one weekend. I have a lot of safety mechanisms in place, and as someone who screens and verifies my clients, it was like pulling teeth to get the information that I used to help ensure my safety and security. Someone who is in a more vulnerable position than me would have been subject to taking appointments that they were not comfortable with for the sake of paying their rent.

Sillman: The Department of Justice says that thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year and that a portion of those thousands end up in the sex-work industry. If that's true, why shouldn't we be targeting sex buyers to stop this kind of sex trafficking?

Mary: It's not as simple as that. The black markets are notoriously difficult to study and analyze, and there is a lot of conflation and confusion about how much is labor migration and how much is forced labor. I have seen many studies that just assume they are one and the same. So when you're looking at these large numbers of people who are trafficked, and then you assume that this large number are sex slaves, you're not looking at the scale of different positions of autonomy and power dynamics and situations that people are in.

So what we're attacking is a small sliver, instead of actually looking at the human rights abuses. If you look at domestic violence and sexual assault in this country, we have huge issues. And when we're looking at juvenile prostitution, we're not looking at what's putting the kids on the street: abusive family situations and poverty — there's a reason a lot of us refer to that style of working as survival-based sex work. It's typically not a pimp who has kidnapped someone from the mall and forced them into sex work.

What we're talking about are human rights abuses versus commerce and industry.

Sillman: There have been a lot of studies that indicate that a large number of women who are in the sex-work trade either were abused in this profession, trafficked or would like to get out. What is your response to those studies?

Mary: Some of these things are so complicated; the first is there's a lot of bad studies out there. They are primarily conducted on the most vulnerable of the population, so they are getting their numbers from social service organizations, people who have been arrested, people who are actually already in such a vulnerable place that they are seeking assistance.

This is the only population that you can get numbers on, because everyone else, it is for our safety and our security that we cannot be seen. So there's a misrepresentation that this is 96, 97 — whatever study you're looking at — percent of the industry, and that's a huge misrepresentation of what we have here.

Sillman: How did you get into this business?

Mary: I actually have had nine lives already between hospital administration works, hair wraps at Grateful Dead shows, corporate accounting — I do extremes really well. I got into this work through my connection with both the sacred sexuality work and involvement with a gentleman who ran a private swing club. They kind of collided at the same time I was trying to figure out where my passion was and what I wanted to do.

Sillman: Is it more lucrative or more satisfying than corporate accounting?

Mary: More satisfying, absolutely, and as lucrative. But I don't work 80-hour work weeks to get there. I actually am very passionate about my work; I love my work and I really adore my clients. And this is also part of the offense of what is happening: It is painting all of these individuals, no matter their circumstance, as predators, as pedophiles, and as if they are themselves directly creating a demand for juvenile prostitution and human trafficking.

There are so many social issues underlying this and that's really the reason why it is absolutely backwards to target the clients instead of taking all of these resources, this time, these coalitions, all of these organizations and coming together to provide safety nets, social services and things that will prevent the vulnerabilities to begin with.

Sillman: There are countries where sex work is decriminalized. How would that play out in this country do you think?

Mary: There's actually a lot of confusion in people's minds between decriminalization and legalization, so there are multiple models that are happening in other countries to try to work with these ideas.

Decriminalization is simply the removal of criminal penalties that are around prostitution, and that in no way removes any penalties for statutory rape, abduction, or abuse of other peoples.

Legalization on the other hand — and there are various models of this, for example in Nevada with the brothels there and in other countries where there is licensing — is treated as a labor issue and regulated along those lines.

Sillman: Would that work here?

Mary: I’d like to think it would and I think it would free up a tremendous amount of resources to be able to find and address the underlying abuses that happen. Right now with the criminal penalties, sex workers and clients are not free to come forward to report abuses. There's a tremendous amount of fear and that extends to people who are violently assaulted in their work.

Sillman: What do you think it will take for sex workers to be taken seriously and be heard by power makers?

Mary: Sex worker advocacy organizations are not new. They have been around for decades and have been saying much of the same information for a very long time. I think it's really going to take people to come forward and start talking, which like I said, is very difficult because it’s a vulnerable and unsafe position for this community.

It's going to take creating studies that are more inclusive of the entire industry instead of narrowly focused on one segment, so that we get good information about what's happening. It's going to take people understanding the conflation issues and starting to tease apart what is trafficking, what is migration, what is abuse — to separate out everything that has been pushed together under this umbrella.

Produced for the Web by Jenna Montgomery.