Washington state communities unite to reduce demand for commercial sexual exploitation

Posted by on November 21, 2014 in CEASE Network

Buyer Beware is reducing the demand for commercial sexual exploitation in King County. ©Sherry Loeser Photography

The illegal sex trade is flourishing in King County, Washington. It’s estimated that on any given day 27,000 men in the area go online looking to buy women—and girls–for sex.

But just because a crime is prevalent, does that mean it’s unstoppable? King County has answered with a resounding NO. Supported by Demand Abolition, communities from all over Washington are taking a proactive stand against the sexual exploitation proliferating in their backyards.

Eight police departments and city prosecuting offices recently joined social service agencies and community leaders from across the state to launch the “Buyer Beware” initiative. A member of Demand Abolition’s CEASE Network, Buyer Beware is coalition of social service agencies, law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, local businesses, and private citizens combating illegal commercial sex. But instead of focusing their energies on arresting prostituted people, as has traditionally been the case, Buyer Beware directs its attention on sex buyers and the internet sites that enable their activities.

“Prostitution is a harmful and violent practice and has exploded on the internet, going from the street corner to the corner office,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “We are here to bury the notion, once and for all, that it is a victimless crime. And our message for buyers is simple: We are working together to hold you accountable for the harms of prostitution.”

Joining Statterberg at the podium was Noel Gomez, a sex-trafficking survivor and co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS). In a moving testimonial, Gomez recalled being handcuffed and thrown in a squad car for selling sex—while the man who paid her joked with the arresting officer, got his money back, and went on his way.

“I kept wondering why I was the only one in trouble. Nobody cared that when I went home, I’d be beat by my pimp because I had no money. I felt alone, scared and had no one to talk to. Jail does not help exploited women and girls. I needed help to integrate back into society, but there was no one there to help me.”

Alisa Bernard, another sexual exploitation survivor, joined Gomez in decrying illegal commercial sex and its harms. “80% of people caught in this system of oppression will experience sexual and physical assaults, and they are 40% more likely to be the victims of homicide than the rest of the population,” she said. “I’m here to speak for the victims still trapped and trying to get out, as well as the dead, whose voices are lost to us forever. I am lucky to have survived the rapes to my body, and the violence to my soul. And while I may have lived through the trauma, I am left with its shadow, which haunts me every night in my nightmares.”

More than arrests

To truly eradicate the harms inherent to prostitution, the Buyer Beware team acknowledges that just arresting sex buyers won’t be enough. In order to make sustainable, long-term reductions of this damaging industry, the initiative needs to go after its root cause: the sexual entitlement that empowers some men to feel that, for a price, they can to do whatever they want with a woman’s body.

Deconstructing such a complex and deep-seeded problem will take time and require a multilayered approach. In King County, that approach begins with a series of online ads that are triggered when residents search certain terms related to buying sex, especially with underage partners. These ads will contain messaging about the harms of prostitution and educate readers about the legal penalties of trying to buy sex.


©Sherry Loeser Photography

Thanks to Buyer Beware, King County will now also runStopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men,” an innovative, 10-week education and rehabilitation program for sex buyers designed by Buyer Beware co-coordinator Peter Qualliotine, (who founded OPS with Gomez). The program—funded entirely by fines collected from participants, not tax dollars—helps participants better understand how their behavior is harmful to prostituted people and promotes personal accountability in their choosing not to buy sex in the future.  (As part of the Buyer Beware initiative, all men convicted of prostitution-related crimes in King County are now required to attend the program as a condition of their sentences. Men looking to attend the course of their own volition are always welcome to do so.)

“If we are ever going to turn the tide against the harms of prostitution, we must focus on engaging men to end the demand for commercial sex,” Qualliotine says.  “I believe the coordinated community response to the problem represented in Buyer Beware is the first step in focusing on those who undeniably have the choice to decide if this practice continues: the men who buy sex.”

Learn more about Demand Abolition’s CEASE Network, which supports the Buyer Beware initiative.