Pete Holmes and Heidi Sargent: Interview with Seattle City Attorneys (Part 2)

Posted by on November 9, 2017 in Spotlight

Read the first half of the interview»

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is serving his second term as the only elected city attorney in Washington state. He won re-election to a third term on November 7. He supervises an office of about 100 lawyers and 85 legal professionals as Seattle’s misdemeanor prosecutor and has sole supervisory control of the city’s litigation. Heidi Sargent is an Assistant City Attorney at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and the liaison to Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High-Risk Victims Unit.

We asked them about how they’re focusing on the demand side of prostitution in Seattle, and what they would say to other cities that want to get involved.

Q. You got the city council to change how they deal with the misdemeanor of patronizing. What did you change?

PETE: It was as simple as letting them know that words matter. We have always struggled with combatting a public perception that prostitution is a victimless crime. People ask, “why is government sticking its nose in the private affairs of consenting adults?”

We realized the nomenclature was part of the problem. For example, you go downtown to patronize the arts or patronize your favorite wine store or whatever. And then you say “patronize a prostitute”—that was part of the problem.

With that explanation, the council readily understood that and unanimously changed it from “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation.”

HEIDI: This goes back to the domestic violence parallel. There are parallels not only in the relationships, but also in the evolution of the law and law enforcement. In the beginning, as awareness about domestic violence evolved, people asked, “what is government doing in our business? This is something that’s happening between two adults. Why is government interested in this crime at all?” Eventually people realized that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay just because it happened behind closed doors between people who were married. We’re experiencing parallel developments in prostitution awareness.

PETE: In addition to changing the name, we wanted to increase the penalty for sexual exploitation or patronizing to reflect the understanding that it was the demand for commercial sex that created this crime and caused the harms. We wanted to elevate the patronizing side of the equation, the buying side, from a simple misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, so we could enhance the penalties.

We haven’t been successful in doing that with the legislature so far, but in the city’s municipal code we renamed the crime to more accurately reflect what buyers are doing in driving the sex industry.

HEIDI: These changes in the law—whether it’s the name of the crime or the penalties—are important. Now that we have a growing understanding of what this crime is about, it’s important to make changes in the law to reflect that understanding. We believe increasing the penalties would have deterrence value. Changing the law would also further bifurcate the crimes, reflecting the reality that these two crimes aren’t equal halves of the same transaction. One person is being exploited, and the other person is exploiting. That is not just an equal exchange.

Q. How do you partner with other agencies and nonprofits?

PETE: Non-governmental organizations are hugely important. Service providers like the Organization for Prostitution Survivors meet a critical need for victims of prostitution. Other organizations, like BEST (Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking), are focused on trafficking. BEST works on engaging the business sector, such as the hotel industry. A lot of trafficking occurs in hotels. And educated hotel employees can go from being an unwitting accomplice in the sex trade to recognizing how they can actively fight something that is causing great harm.

Recently completed research here in King County and in the city has determined the prime time for arranging an online sex transactions is around 2 p.m., right in the heart of the business day. It’s often done with business telephones and computers. If we can educate businesses and employers about what’s going on during company time, we hope they will recognize the need for their active involvement and not look the other way.

If they don’t feel motivated by just a sense of duty in public service, then we can also educate them about how it’s going to look in the paper when it turns out that a certain percentage of the arrests from a sting are employees using their badges as a means of confirming ID on an online transaction.

The city and the county are both large employers. And they have both signed up in the BEST Employers Alliance. And we’re also going after more and more industries.

HEIDI: In addition to the NGO’s, we have an organization called Coordinated Effort Against Sexual Exploitation, created by the city’s Department of Human Services. Human Services provides funding for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and prostitution. And through CEASE, it brings non-governmental service providers for victims of prostitution together with law enforcement and prosecution agencies, in an unprecedented relationship. CEASE brings together people from various background and expertise to come up with new ideas that we can use to further this work and think outside the box.

In addition to the many task forces that the city is part of at the city, state, county, and federal level, a key group working in Seattle is the Ending Exploitation Collaborative, a driving force in the community. It brings together prosecutors, non-governmental service organizations, survivors, technology, and anti-trafficking groups, including the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, OPS, BEST, and Seattle Against Slavery.

Q. If other cities and city attorneys want to get involved, where would you tell them to start?

PETE: The real hard work is educating the public. That’s the biggest challenge. You can never have enough resources or lead time for that.

We have used our initiatives as the information generator. When you have a public event that’s attended by reporters, you have an opportunity to explain what you’re trying to do. Be prepared. Let the public know that this is not a victimless crime. Tell them about the commercial sex industry. Explain the harms that it is causing in our country.

And then, beyond that, you need to work hard to make sure law enforcement is on board. The more they are, the better you will be, the more effective you’ll be in aligning your demand-side focus.

Be aware that you will draw fire, as we did, from sex worker organizations. The county prosecutor and I were left scratching our heads, because why would people working in prostitution complain about a new policy that specifically deemphasizes prosecuting prostitution? It was a head-scratcher until we realized that part of that goes to how you define “sex worker.” Such organizations tend to include pimps and madams, as well as people actually engaged in prostitution, in that definition. And they support not only the legalization of prostitution, but also of sexual exploitation and pimping.

There was some genuine concern, particularly from women in the life, for them to get the message and understand that if they’re going to cooperate with law enforcement, that we’re not after them. We are trying to stifle the trade, and we are trying to get services to them. You need to offer a hand-up for women seeking to escape the life. That’s a key component if you’re ultimately going to be successful.

One of the things I would like to see, and we’re researching right now, is if we could enact protection for arrested women in the life if they want to report an assault by a sex buyer. I think we could go a long way toward encouraging cooperation.

One of the arguments we heard from people working in prostitution was, “why don’t you legalize it?” And in particular they pointed at me and said, “you know, you were a big advocate for legalizing marijuana,” and I was. And it was the right thing to do. The analogies end right there. One is a plant; the other is a human being. Not to mention, there’s the whole 13th Amendment, you know, Constitutional prohibition against slavery.

We will not stop trying to increase the penalties for the demand side of the equation. If we can afford arrest protection for sellers, women in the life, that would go a long way toward alleviating the inherent imbalance, the power imbalance that’s underlying all of this, and violence against women.

HEIDI: I echo everything Pete said. The public education piece is huge; it really extends everywhere. If you want to undertake this endeavor and you don’t have the understanding and cooperation of a particular segment in the community, it can fall apart. For example, the prosecutor can’t do anything without the cooperation of the police. We can only act on what we’re sent from the police. If they’re not on board, it falls apart.

If the public isn’t on board, they may see that the police are not going after the women on the track in their neighborhood that they see as causing problems and public safety issues. If the public doesn’t understand what’s happening, it could fall apart there because of pressure from the neighborhoods. Let’s say you have all of that in place, but then you get to court, and your juries or judges have not been educated on the issues. You know, at any point along the way, it begins to fall apart without that public education piece.

PETE: I agree there. In fact, I was going to add two other quick things to illustrate what Heidi was saying about getting law enforcement on board. In my first year in office, I stopped prosecuting all marijuana possession cases, only to find that, by the end of that first year in office, arrests by SPD for possession had tripled. It took some time to win them over and show that this was not advocating lawlessness.

HEIDI: You have to be aware that there is pushback out there and you need to have your eyes wide open. It’s not just the sex workers’ lobby, it’s the buyers’ lobby, and it’s organized crime. Trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise, and the second most profitable criminal enterprise. It’s all about money. There is big money to be made in sexual exploitation. And when you start rattling that cage, you’re going to get pushback from the organizations and individuals making the money, and pushback from the buyers who want to keep being able to buy. And you’ve got to be prepared for that, because it’s a lot of power, it’s a lot of money.


The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.

About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to showcase these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.

Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »

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