In early January, law enforcement in the Seattle area shut down a popular website used by sex workers to advertise their services and by customers to review sex workers. Police also raided a number of luxury apartments in Bellevue where women were allegedly selling sex and arrested a dozen men and two women for arranging the liaisons and moderating The Review Board (TRB) website.

In a recent interview, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett told me that his men, working with the King County Sheriff’s office and the FBI, had broken up a “well-organized ring promoting sex slavery.” He called the shuttered website an “anti-list of the underworld sex trafficking industry.”

There’s just one hitch. The women whom law enforcement said they “rescued” in this raid may not actually have been trafficked. U.S. law defines trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion.” It’s worth noting that King County’s prosecutor did not charge any of the people arrested with trafficking, only with promoting prostitution. The women rounded up in the January 6 raid were all from South Korea, and while police say that some of them may have been doing sex work to pay off debts their families owed back home, the question remains: were these women being coerced or forced into sex work?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but a larger question looms: is shutting down websites and arresting customers the most effective approach to curbing sexual exploitation and helping sex workers who may or may not want to get out of the life? Sex work advocates certainly don’t think so.

“The overwhelming majority of sex workers who advertised on TRB were white cisgendered [straight] women who were not being coerced into a damn thing,” says Savannah Sly, a Seattle sex worker and president of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), a national advocacy group. “Now these women have one less safe advertising venue.”

As I discovered in researching my book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, being able to advertise on online sites like TRB allows sex workers to more carefully screen potential customers and work indoors. Research shows that when sex workers can’t advertise online, they are often forced onto the street, where it is more difficult to screen out violent clients and negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). They are also more likely to have to depend on exploitative pimps to find customers for them.

Shutting down such websites make sex work more dangerous in other ways as well. “What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients who have a lot to lose from the client pool,” Sly says. “That leaves high-risk or violent predators who don’t respond to increased law enforcement. And because you have reduced demand, you’re more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous.”

That’s exactly what happened in Sweden, when that country began making the purchase of sex illegal in 2000, studies show. Sex workers there were exposed to more violent clients and less able to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Yet criminalizing buyers did not reduce trafficking in the region or the overall number of people selling sex in Sweden, according to the Swedish government’s own reports.

Criminalizing prostitution, whether from the demand or supply end, is not going to curb trafficking or make significant inroads into the soaring global demand for commercial sex. Indeed, one recent study found that in countries where sex work is illegal, trafficking increased to meet the demand. What this New York University study found was that when voluntary sex workers leave the business because they fear being penalized, traffickers step in to the fill the vacuum with women who aren’t doing the work by choice.

If such findings are true, then spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a ten-month undercover investigation (as Seattle law enforcement did) makes no sense. It will only make it more dangerous for sex workers and allow violent clients (who prey on non-prostitutes as well) to operate with impunity. Sex workers are like canaries in the coal mine when it comes to violent predators: they are often the first to spot such men but they can’t raise an alarm for fear of being arrested themselves. That’s one reason why Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, among other groups, call for the decriminalization of sex work.

Now back to the issue of whether we’re really dealing with trafficking in this case. The court documents include no affidavits or victim statements from the women themselves. According to sex work advocates, law enforcement did mention one woman who said her family in South Korea was in debt bondage and that if she didn’t do sex work and pay off their debt, her family might be hurt. If that’s true, such coercion shouldn’t be permitted, here or in South Korea. But I can’t help but wonder about the element of coercion involved in obtaining the statement of an illegal immigrant who knows she may be jailed or deported unless she depicts herself as a trafficking victim.

According to the court documents, the South Korean women who sold sex in the Seattle area paid their own way to travel there “on their own volition.” That doesn’t sound like they were being transported against their will. There is also no evidence that these women were being forced to stay in the apartments or forced to sell sex. Indeed, the instructions on the TRB site says explicitly that “No means NO. Regardless of your particular expectations, what is offered is completely up to the provider.” The website goes on to say, “Providers are encourage to report continued boundary testing by any client.”

Sex work advocates acknowledge that some of the South Korean sex workers might have been exploited. “These women are trying to keep a low profile and they’re isolated,” Sly says. “Those are ripe instances of abuse.”

She adds that in a world in which Seattle-area sex workers felt safe to go to law enforcement (without fear of being arrested themselves), they might have approached local police about their concerns. And that brings up yet another argument for decriminalizing sex work. In countries where prostitution is legal (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand), sex work advocates feel comfortable working with law enforcement to target traffickers and abusive clients. As a result, working conditions for sex workers are much safer and there are lower levels of violence against all women.

If the American public wants to spend scarce taxpayer dollars to entrap and arrest people for promoting adult prostitution, that’s one thing. But it’s disingenuous for law enforcement to wrap what they’re doing in the guise of sex slavery when that may not be what’s going on here at all.

This blog was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

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