Commercial sex and exploitation: Sorting out the public response

Even police say that enforcement has changed to concentrate on social services and protecting teenagers. But are we doing enough?
Even police say that enforcement has changed to concentrate on social services and protecting teenagers. But are we doing enough?

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 the five-part series concluding here, Crosscut offers an unprecedented investigation into this local underground economy.  

Envision a major police bust. Months or even years in the making, officers swarm a building or series of residences, and score a dramatic, coordinated blow against a city’s underground economy. Maybe it’s a cocaine distribution network. Maybe it’s a gun running ring. The cuffs are slapped on some hands, and the department issues a press release to celebrate the victory, demonstrating progress against organized, illegal activity. Maybe they hold a press conference, arraying their recently obtained kilos or automatic weapons in front of the news cameras.

Now picture a big bust against the prostitution industry. It’s the third major facet of the underground cash economy, beside drugs and guns. What does a successful bust look like when the illicit product is people? What does victory look like against “the world’s oldest profession?”

When it comes to fighting the commercial sex industry, there are often more questions than answers. For instance, a recent federal study declared that Seattle hosts the fastest growing sex industry in America, at least among the eight cities it covered. But if this is the case, why have prostitution arrests seemingly diminished over recent years? And why do both officers and sex worker advocates consider this good news?

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Police response to prostitution-related calls

The commercial sex industry is a subject rife with ambiguity, where one person’s “consenting adult” could be another person’s “potential victim.” Many sex workers — especially those marketing themselves online, free of coercion — may fit themselves into the former definition. But when you speak to police or read news of prostitutes being targeted for violence, one may wonder whether the profession can ever entirely offer “victimless crimes.”

“People who are being exploited don’t always realize they’re being exploited when they’re making money,” says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who has long led the charge on trafficking and exploitation legislation in Washington. “There are too many examples in which people are abused and murdered. There’s a serious power differential between the customer and the woman here. That’s something we can’t ignore.”

In Seattle, one thing can be said with clarity: Fighting prostitution is no longer a cut-and-dry affair of arresting streetwalkers and johns. Gangs have become more sophisticated in recruiting underage women to exploit, and better about avoiding enforcement. The Internet has caused the industry to grow rapidly, while simultaneously moving it further out of sight. In recent years, erotic Asian massage parlors and brothels have expanded their reach in the region.

In response to these changes, law enforcement has been forced to evolve as well, picking their battles against a swelling wave of activity. As this series has documented, this has led police to arrive at two primary directives — get underage women out of the business, and fight prostitution in the areas where neighbors complain, such as the region surrounding North Aurora Avenue.

“There’s been a realignment of priorities,” says Captain Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department. When Sano took over the SPD’s Vice Unit in 2013, he changed the name to the Vice and High Risk Victims unit “to be more reflective of what we do.” More and more, he says the department focuses on getting underage women into services, and busting johns to curb demand. This week the department joined a countywide program named “Buyer’s Beware,” aimed at reducing demand for prostitutes by 20 percent over two years.

This realignment, he says, is the reason arrests for prostitution have gone down in recent years, even as prostitution-related activity has allegedly ramped up. Unlike during his old days on the vice beat, today it no longer cuts it for the department to cast a wide net and picking up streetwalkers on Aurora, he says. Nor would it work for the police to spend all their time conducting sting operations against massage parlors, or online communities of escort-buying “hobbyists.” Less frequent, more targeted arrests are necessary.

Through his work on SPD’s High Risk Victims Unit, it's Sgt. Jaycin Diaz's job to make this realignment a reality. To hear him tell it, police just don’t really care about non-trafficked adults the way they once did. This attitude is apparent when he describes the adult women they bust, always noting they looked like they could’ve been teenagers.

“I think it’s safe to say yeah, working with underage women is where we’ve found we can make the biggest impact,” says Diaz. “Unfortunately there’s an adult population who really believes this should be legal. They believe in sex workers rights. They think they should be able to do this, don’t see it as the exploitation that maybe others do.”

Legalization: A debate to have?

But if police are deprioritizing certain areas of the commercial sex industry, should the criminalization of those activities be re-examined? Police don’t think so, and Sen. Kohl-Welles thinks it would be a big mistake.

“Legalizing any prostitution is not the answer,” says Kohl-Welles. She believes that instead of debating its legality, we should debate finding resources to help more women out of the industry.

The pro-legalization side of the debate still includes many fringe voices. For example, the online hobbyists of Seattle’s Review Board — who find prostitutes on the website, then wax on about their encounters in detailed, quasi-literary “reviews” — have taken note of this series. Some believe it offers a chance to draw distinctions between exploited women and independent operators in the business, and advance the legalization debate. Others have bashed the series for even existing, saying any focus on the wider industry is sensationalistic and misguided. The common theme is that there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, and mentioning it in any discussion of trafficking or sexual exploitation is a mistake.

Crosscut archive image.

Massage and jacuzzi in San Francisco Thomas Hawk/Flickr

But as the industry changes, it’s not only the people paying for sex who are questioning current laws. Among those advocating a new approach is Meredith Dank, the main author and researcher behind the study on the national industry.

“A big problem we’re still struggling with as country is a total criminalization (of the sex industry), and using the system to pick up everybody,” says Dank. “Sometimes law enforcement will say we’re arresting these women for their own good, to protect them or things of that sort. Which is extremely problematic. You don’t arrest a victim for a crime. A lot of sex workers that are a part of this voluntarily would never say they’re a victim.”

As its chief policy prescription, the federal study doesn’t delve into the legalization debate. It simply states that those “victimized in the underground commercial sex economy need access to mental health services, and law enforcement requires funding to persistently enforce laws.”

For his part, Seattle Police Sgt. Diaz believes local law enforcement is hewing to this first recommendation. He says the goal is to help women in the industry find the services to get them out of it, not to put them in jail or give them criminal records.

“I think we’re the only unit in the state with a victims advocate on staff,” says Diaz. “We can provide direct services almost immediately, because she’s on call 24 hours.”

As for “persistently” enforcing laws? As this series has documented in detail, some instances of illegal activity are deemed more worthy of enforcement than others. This is currently a matter of unwritten priorities, however. Encapsulating these priorities into law is a very different, more complicated issue.

Where does the Puget Sound area go from here?

Seattle has been described as having the fastest-growing sex industry in the U.S. But does it?

This claim derives from the federal study of only eight cities, which did not include San Francisco. An influx of money — mostly from the tech sector — has been linked to Seattle’s boom. In the Bay Area that trend is even more prevalent.

Also escaping the study’s scrutiny was Portland. Adjusted for population, the number of sex-related posts on is roughly the same between Portland and Seattle, indicating a similarly active online industry there. Per capita, Portland is also home to more strip clubs than any other metro area, a legal industry often linked to illegal escort sales.

The study was the first major attempt to collect nationwide data on the commercial sex trade. It therefore represents only a small, early step in understanding the industry’s mechanics. Any categorical claims about the industry — or the growth of the metro markets within it — will need far more research to back them up.

Whether or not the Puget Sound is home to the nation’s most thriving sex economy, the region could serve as incubator for new enforcement and legislative approaches. Sano says other cities are examining the SPD’s “victim-focused approach” to inform their enforcement of the industry. Washington passed some of the first laws attacking human trafficking. A legislative response to the commercial sex trade’s growth is not out of the question.

Because, consenting adults aside, it’s a fact that the sex industry is rampant with exploited and desperate people, both adult and underage. Many more resources are needed to help them than are currently allocated. But as the industry slips off the street corners and increasingly out of sight, will our interest in helping its victims fade as well?

Read the rest of this series:


The Street Level

Fighting “The Flood” online

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


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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