Seattle's sex industry: How the "street level" is changing

The new face of Seattle's sex industry has left local cops lamenting the 'good old days' of gentleman pimps and Aurora Ave arrests.
The new face of Seattle's sex industry has left local cops lamenting the 'good old days' of gentleman pimps and Aurora Ave arrests.

This year, a study commissioned by the Department of Justice found Seattle has the fastest-growing sex industry in the United States, more than doubling in size since 2005. In this five-part series, Crosscut offers an unprecedented investigation into this local underground economy.


A middle-aged mother of two, Rene Murry would fit most definitions of an upstanding citizen. She runs her own business, sits on the board of a nonprofit, chairs a political action committee and volunteers regularly in her community. She even ran for the state House of Representatives back in 2011.

But none of this matters when Murry, 55, strolls around her neighborhood.

“Men have slowed down in their cars next to me, and asked to pay me for sex,” Murry says. “Some men will come up to this area and literally ask every woman they see, I think.”

Murry expresses no anger about this. She says it’s an unfortunate fact of life if your home is near northern Aurora Avenue.

When Seattle’s sex industry is discussed, northern Aurora Avenue is often the first thing people envision. For decades, it’s been the prime zone for prostitution-related police busts, and the go-to destination for men on the hunt for paid company.

“I remember as an undercover vice detective back in ‘87, you’d just drive up to Aurora, pick up a girl, and try to make an arrest,” says Captain Eric Sano, who leads the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. “More times than not, if you fought in the car, the girl would try to stab you with a syringe or a knife or something... Back then, that’s all we had. It was all streetwalkers, and the majority were on Aurora.”

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Night time on Aurora Avenue North. Photo: Dale Matteson.

The years haven’t changed Aurora Avenue much. Sano says the number of prostitutes on the street has remained relatively steady throughout his roughly three decades in the department.

For her part, Murry helps lead a neighborhood group aimed at cleaning up the area, named Greenwood/Aurora Involved Neighbors (GAIN). The group patrols the street occasionally, and pressures the police to maintain a vigilant presence in the area. A review of the city’s 911 call data shows the pressure works, and SPD still responds to prostitution on Aurora like clockwork.

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Murry (at right) hates that her part of town is considered a “cesspool” by many city residents. GAIN has made progress fighting many sorts of crime, she says. Things are much safer than they were. When it comes to prostitution, however, police say Aurora remains the same illicit corridor of decades past.

But while appearances may remain the same, the mechanics of Seattle’s commercial sex industry have changed dramatically in just the past few years. That change has contributed to the industry's sudden boom in the city, and has also made it much more difficult to help the people Sano names as his number one priority: commercially exploited children.

The Takeover

It’s not often you hear the police speak wistfully of pimps. But nostalgia for what some call “old school pimping” is nonetheless present in the SPD.

“Very rarely do we see old school pimps anymore, or what the girls would call gentleman pimps,” one SPD official told the federal study’s authors. “There are set rules to the old school gentleman pimps, they don’t mess with any gang associations. Whereas the gangsters, they don’t have those rules, they don’t have that discipline … and they are a little more heavy handed.”

Sano agrees with the assessment, and makes no attempt to disguise his disdain for the so-called “gangsters” that have taken over the Seattle street prostitution business in the past five or so years.

“These guys are not the sharpest tools in the box,” says Sano. “There’s no quote unquote business model. They’re motivated purely by greed. I’m going to the mall, I’m going to find a girl, I know one in ten girls will give into my charm, and that girl is going to make me $2000 a night. I don’t want this to seem like some sophisticated organized crime syndicate. They’re not.”

Nonetheless, he says gangs are aggressive in their recruitment techniques, approaching lone girls not only in public areas like malls and parks, but also on social networks online.

A few years ago, Sano heard a shocking assertion from the Polaris Project, a national organization fighting human trafficking. The group stated one in three teens are recruited into the sex industry within 48 hours of becoming homeless. He decided to put this to the test.

“We put a young-looking female officer at Westlake Mall at Fourth and Pine,” Sano says. “Within 45 minutes she was approached by two men trying to force her into the lifestyle. They came up and sweet-talked her, saying ‘Come on girl, let’s go do this, blah blah blah.’ The whole time they’re talking about, we’re going to put you on Aurora Avenue. I look at my sergeant, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit. That’s unbelievable.’”

Pimping 101

The men who approached the officer were members of the Westside Street M.O.B.B. (Money over Broke Bitches) gang, and were eventually sent to jail. Between 2008 and 2010, prosecution against this gang represented the highest-profile attack on prostitution and child exploitation in the Seattle area, and received plenty of press.

“Ah, the West Side Street M.O.B.B.” Sano says, laughing at the memory of them. “These idiots, they’re their own worst enemy. They actually wore around t-shirts that said ‘West Side Street M.O.B.B.’ These guys bragged on social media. Guess what, guys? Social media is all in the open.”

Westside Street M.O.B.B. were no mental giants, Sano says, or any sort of organized entity. “This wasn’t the Godfather,” he jokes. Instead, it was representative of a new mindset in the streets: young gangsters now see prostitution as a safer business than drugs or weapons.

“I’m going to give you a little pimping 101,” says a federal law enforcement officer quoted in the federal study. “Pimping and prostitution used to be looked at, in my opinion, as a crime of opportunity ... [It was] one of the crimes that is kind of handed off from generation to generation that [old-school pimps] would be involved with.

And now, instead of being a crime of opportunity, it is being looked at by organized and documented street gangs as a guaranteed moneymaker. I think the street gangs always have to some degree dabbled in it, but now they’re really looking at it as a financial base to bankroll other criminal activity.”

The reason boils down to cold business logic, according to the study’s main author –Meredith Dank of the Urban Institute – and every person we spoke with in law enforcement. When a person gets caught with drugs or illegal guns in their car, it’s hard to explain away. Not so with prostitutes. Women can be coached to say the right thing, and a bust can become very difficult. Even if they’re juveniles.

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Street Recruits

Sergeant Jayson Diaz leads the SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit, focused on getting underage girls out of the business. They’ve never recovered a boy, he says. (More on this later in this series.) Most street prostitutes enter the business in their early teens — a fact that fact hasn’t changed over the years, despite growing penalties around the exploitation of children.

What is changing is how those girls are recruited into the business, and the difficulty in helping them out of it.

Dank says people often assume a significant connection to the homeless youth population, but while that's partly true, it's not the whole picture.

“Seattle has an absolutely huge transient youth population,” says Dank, who has studied such populations in numerous metro areas. “I mean it’s massive, given the size of the city… But what you mainly see with them is what’s called ‘survival sex.’ You think of street prostitutes as being strung out on drugs. These [homeless youth] mainly just use marijuana and alcohol. They’re not trying to support some habit. They’re just trying to eat.”

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Hanging out at Westlake Plaza. Photo: Flickr user sea turtle

Diaz agrees. There’s no doubt that some homeless youth are recruited into the business, he says. Sano’s Westlake Mall experiment proves that. But in the modern industry, the path many underage women take is far more insidious.

Many juveniles in the business are not homeless, so much as tricked away from their homes by “exploiters.”

“There’s always been a whole grooming process, but it’s getting way better now,” says Diaz. “Now, [the pimps] are really reaching out. There are so many social mediums right now, like Facebook. They’re reaching out to these girls, and developing a relationship online with them. They’re cultivating that relationship, becoming that boyfriend figure. ‘Hey, I love you, I’m the one that gives you attention.’

And they can do it with several different girls online, and bring them into the fold, a whole lot easier than before. Before they had to meet them somewhere, had to see them at the mall or whatever, develop that relationship. Now they can do it for hours a day on their computer or iPad.”

The federal study contains many such stories from across the country. Young women in unhappy homes are befriended online, and convinced to meet somewhere in public. Gang members approach the girl, run their game and days later she’s on the street. Her family doesn’t hear from her again for years, if ever.

As both the report and a recent article from InvestigateWest detail, Northwest gangs often move underage girls between cities to avoid detection, using a circuit along the I-5 corridor of frequently cooperative gangs. A girl convinced to leave her home in Seattle could be “broken” by gang members and quickly shipped south, helping to sever her connections to friends and family and reducing her chances of escaping the business.

The InvestigateWest article argues that gangs have taken over the Northwest child sex trade. Among its evidence is a 2013 study by Oregon’s U.S. Attorney, which noted that the state had identified 459 children as sex trafficking victims over four years, and nearly half had a gang connection.

And that number may likely keep growing. Diaz notes young men often join gangs while they’re still in middle or high school. As pimping becomes their illegal business of choice, the pimp population of Seattle is getting younger and younger, he says. Their main recruitment focus: their classmates.

Going Out of Sight

Every city has its own sort of Aurora Avenue. Dank calls this one of the overriding lessons of her study, which encompassed eight urban areas. In Denver, it’s Colfax Avenue. In Atlanta, it’s Fulton Industrial Boulevard. These streets gain a reputation that’s seemingly impossible to shake, she says. Men know where to go for company, and streetwalkers know where to go for money. The fact the cops are aware becomes the price of doing business.

The presence of these streetwalkers elicits reaction from the residents and businesses in these areas, who demand police action. GAIN commends the police for their attention to Aurora Avenue and Northern Seattle, and Sano says the group’s advocacy ensures the SPD’s continued focus on the area.

If you cruise Aurora now, however, you’ll see one of the most disquieting changes in the city’s recent history: The underage women are no longer there. The fact becomes more unsettling when considering the industry’s immense growth.

“Years ago, you saw a lot more juveniles on the street,” says Diaz. “Now, on North Aurora there’s the very rare juvenile, but what you’re mainly seeing is girls with substance abuse issues. They’ve generally been in the game for like five to 15 years, and most of those girls are 25-35 and upwards of that.”

Similar to the risk calculations that make prostitution a safer criminal enterprise, the most logical place to operate as a prostitute is no longer on the street. This is especially true when it comes to underage women, which can get a pimp a lot of jail time.

“It’s all sold online,” says Diaz. “Like, almost all of it. The younger ones who are relatively new, the ones we try to go ahead and have a chance of making a difference with, they’re online.”

Next in this series: Fighting “The Flood” online

Read the rest of this series:


Fighting “The Flood” online

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