Crosscut Investigates: The new face of Seattle's booming sex industry

Suburban brothels and sex work holiday parties: Seattle's sex industry may be the nation's fastest growing, but you won't find it hanging out on Aurora Ave.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's sex industry may be the fastest growing in the nation.

Suburban brothels and sex work holiday parties: Seattle's sex industry may be the nation's fastest growing, but you won't find it hanging out on Aurora Ave.

There are the holiday parties at Seattle restaurants, organized to allow prostitutes and their online clientele to mingle casually — and in clothing. There are the unassuming brothels in middle-class neighborhoods, situated between family homes and, some speculate, affiliated with Asian organized crime. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s the money.

In Seattle, there’s more and more of it in the commercial sex industry.

Sex for trade: it’s called the world’s oldest business model. Until recently, however, there was virtually no understanding of how the sex industry operated in the United States, or data on its overall size, structure and growth.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice set out to change that, funding a landmark study to compile detailed, nationwide intelligence on the industry for the first time. The study focused on eight major cities throughout the country, including Seattle. After years of research — including interviews with over 250 sex workers, pimps, traffickers, federal and local law enforcement officials and more — it was released this past March.

The study’s findings were shocking, and local law enforcement and state legislators were quick to downplay them.

The examples listed above — the Christmas and Halloween parties between "johns" and sex workers, the clandestine brothels — are each unique to Seattle, according the authors of the 340-page report. But most notable is the discovery that Seattle’s sex industry could be the fastest growing in the United States. By a long shot.

Where most the study’s target cities saw their sex economies stagnate over the years, Seattle’s more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, as measured by the estimated amount of cash changing hands in it.

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What’s behind this dramatic jump? Attempts at an explanation have been limited.

When the study was first released, Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge asked Captain Eric Sano — who leads the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit — to comment on its findings. He chalked it up to SPD’s top-notch record keeping.

“[Seattle] has been named number one in the nation for our techniques, methods and how we code, track, report and investigate [prostitution cases],” Sano told the Times. “I think our actual crime is probably commensurate with other cities, but we’re so cognizant about reporting that our numbers are going to be higher.”

The assertion went unchallenged, and State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles — considered a leading voice on sex and trafficking issues in Olympia — repeated this reasoning in a recent column for the Ballard News Tribune. “What appears to be a growth in the sex industry in Seattle is likely in part due to an increase in the reporting of this crime,” Kohl-Welles wrote.

Presented with these statements, Dr. Meredith Dank, the lead researcher behind the study, simply laughs. They demonstrate a complete misrepresentation of the research, she says.

“Record keeping has nothing to do with these results at all,” Dank says. “We didn’t ask for any arrest data from the Seattle police. Their record keeping wouldn’t have anything to do with an economic spike over this time period. That’s not how our methodology worked.”

Instead, the report’s conclusions relied on interviews with roughly 150 sex workers, pimps and traffickers. Through detailed discussions of their earnings and business considerations, filtered through mathematical models, researchers extrapolated the size of the sex economy in each target city. The soundness of this methodology is explained in the study.

Researchers didn’t attempt to determine the number of sex workers in each market, Dank says. Police data would have helped in that task, but she considers it to be nearly impossible, given the underground and discrete nature of the industry.

Beyond this first explanation, other law enforcement officers simply dismissed the findings as unreflective of the current environment.

“What you saw was a seven year old study,” says Sergeant Jaycin Diaz of the SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit. “It’s like comparing the housing market. A lot’s changed and a lot hasn’t.”

However, according to Dank, this statement is also incorrect. While the study pegs its findings to two years — 2003 and 2007 — Dank says this was a concession to the Department of Justice, which wanted to compare drug, weapon and sex markets in target cities. Data on these other markets were available for 2003 and 2007, so researchers used the years to compare with their new data on the sex industry.

In fact, Dank says her study relies on interviews conducted up until 2012, and classifying the data as pre- and post-2005 would be more accurate. It therefore covers the accelerated use of the Internet in the industry, and the effects of the recession. This leaves the escalation of Seattle’s sex industry a true mystery, and one that local officials and journalists have shown little interest in exploring.

To be fair, Seattle does not have the nation’s largest sex industry. Of the eight cities examined, both Miami and Atlanta have sex industries over double the size of Seattle’s. Nonetheless, as a portion of Seattle’s illicit cash economy, sex has grown larger than drugs, and represents roughly one out of 100 dollars spent in cash in the city.

There are some broad causes for the upswing, which have come up in nearly all of our interviews. Seattle’s proximity to Asia makes it a strategic destination for that region’s human trafficking industry, whether through the ports, the Canadian border or SeaTac International Airport.  Over the years, this has spurred Washington to become a national leader in anti-trafficking laws.

There is also the growth of the Puget Sound economy, and the amount of disposable income in the area. According to the study, women in California’s erotic massage sector have made a “mass migration” to Seattle in recent years, because the city represents such a lucrative market.

But does this entirely explain Seattle’s rapid growth relative to other cities, or is there more to it? That’s a complicated question. In our months of interviews, everyone agreed that this is an industry understood only in bits and pieces. Most data about it is only anecdotal at this point. Dank cautions that this national study — over three years in the making — should be seen not as conclusive, but as a first step of sorts. More research is necessary to connect the dots on how the industry truly works, she says.

Nonetheless, by using the study as a jumping-off point for further investigation, there are many insights to be had.

This series will attempt to present a detailed, data-centric look at the three major facets of Seattle’s sex industry: the streets, the Internet and Asian massage parlors and brothels. Each facet contains uncomfortable details and subjects, which many people might prefer to ignore. That’s becoming easier as the industry moves online.

But if Sano and Kohl-Welles' assertions that every worker is a victim are anywhere near reality, ignoring it becomes untenable — especially considering that most sex workers start in their mid-teens. The fact that this is an industry that’s growing by leaps and bounds makes it a true problem.

As with any problem, a conversation about solving it should start by defining it.

Next in this series: The Street Level

Read the rest of this series:

The Street Level

Fighting “The Flood”

Massage parlors, “happy endings” and the growth of residential brothels

Commercial sex and exploitation: Sorting out the public response


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at