The state of Washington made history yesterday. In a first-of-its-kind case, the King County Sherriff’s Office, the Bellevue Police Department, King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the FBI charged over a dozen sex buyers with the felony crime of “promoting prostitution.” These men are high-frequency sex buyers who belong to an organization known as “The League,” an online network that used specific websites to interact and share information on the illegal sex trade. Often known as “john boards,” these sites allow sex buyers to rate the women they pay for, tell other buyers how they can gain access to secret brothels, and give tips on avoiding police detection. In this case, the office of the King County Prosecuting Attorney has reported that “League” members were encouraged to buy certain individuals “as often as possible” so their traffickers would make enough money to keep them in the area—evidence that many buyers knew these women were not in the sex trade consensually.
In addition to shutting down the “League” online—closing websites with approximately 18,000 to 23,000 users nationwide—authorities raided 12 Seattle-area brothels, recovering 12 women who had been trafficked from South Korea and forced into prostitution to pay off family debts at home. According to reports, the women were expected to be with buyers as much as 14 hours per day, six or seven days a week, and were not permitted to leave the apartments their traffickers used as brothels.
WATCH: King County announces its large- scale human trafficking investigation
The rescue of these women and the disruption of the “League” are victories for the movement to end commercial sexual exploitation. But what makes this case truly unique is that the arrested buyers are being charged with promotion of prostitution for their online activities. Unlike soliciting paid sex, which is often treated as a misdemeanor, promotion of prostitution is a felony and carries more serious penalties. The decision to prosecute these buyers in a manner usually reserved for pimps and traffickers reinforces the notion that demand is the primary driver of sex trafficking, and those who buy must be held accountable for their role in funding this damaging enterprise. Or, as Alisa Bernard of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors
“It all comes down to demand. If you want to end commercial sexual exploitation and its harms you have to go after the guys who buy it.”