Is it time to decriminalize sex work?

Members of The Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project aka SWOP Seattle, whose faces have been blurred for fear of prosecution. (Courtesy photo)
Members of The Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project aka SWOP Seattle, whose faces have been blurred for fear of prosecution. (Courtesy photo)

Is sex work inherently exploitative?

A council of 160 current and retired sex workers from the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project don’t think so, and they’re joining other regional chapters of the organization in pushing for decriminalization of sex work.

Sola, the president of SWOP Seattle, is a 43-year-old woman who had 14 years of experience in the sex industry. She has a husky voice and an uninhibited laugh, which is often triggered by her indignation over laws prohibiting sex work.

Sola believes most sex workers chose their profession voluntarily and says she loves her job.

“It’s the most satisfying and profitable career I’ve undertaken. I really adore my clients. And there’s not many positions out there that’s so rewarding and allow you to enjoy yourself,” she said.

“It’s the most satisfying and profitable career I’ve undertaken. I really adore my clients.”

Savannah Sly, the president of the national SWOP USA, also lives here in Washington, and estimates the number of sex workers in the state to be “a couple thousand.” She acknowledges the number is hard to count since the criminalized industry has to conduct their business in secrecy. Sola, Sly, and many other sex workers, don’t go by their real names because of fear of prosecution. Washington state law deems all commercial sex as illegal.

“I feel like I could be arrested every day.” Sly said, citing previous experiences that have taught her not to trust law enforcement. She says she has a lot of friends who have been raped or blackmailed by police, both in Washington and other states. To her, trouble with police is “a lot scarier than whatever could happen at work.”

Sly says she supports the decriminalization of sex work because she’s a feminist. She argues that people should have the freedom to engage in what she calls “consensual sexual activities.”

She believes decriminalization would mean less stigma for sex workers, and allow them and their clients to inform police about sex trafficking without fear of prosecution.

A global movement to decriminalize sex work

The demand for sex workers’ rights is hardly unique to the United States.

Ever since more than 25,000 sex workers gathered in India on March 3rd, 2001, sex worker communities around the world celebrate March 3rd as “Sex Workers’ Rights Day.” Using the red umbrella as a symbol against the violence and discrimination toward sex workers, the movement has sparked protests by sex workers from Nigeria to the U.K. to Korea.

Increasingly, movement to decriminalize sex work also has the support of major global organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), Amnesty International and UNAIDS. On Amnesty’s “Q&A policy to protect the human rights of sex workers” webpage, the organization states that after more than two years of research, they recommend the removal of laws penalizing the selling, buying and organizing of sex work to enhance the safety and human rights of sex workers.

Sex workers in Calcutta, India gathered in a demonstration calling for legal rights. (Courtesy photo)
Sex workers in Calcutta, India gathered in a demonstration calling for legal rights. (Courtesy photo)

Can arrests curb demand?

In January 2016, the joint force of Bellevue police and the King County Sheriff’s Office raided 12 upscale apartments in Bellevue and charged 12 men and one woman for promoting prostitution.

The raid was part of the increasingly popular “End Demand” approach to policing, which focuses on the prosecution of sex buyers instead of sex workers.

Although the raid was branded by many media as a heroic act to combat sex trafficking, no evidence of use of force in the sex work was found.

At the same time, the joint force shut down three websites: The Review Board (TRB),, and, which had functioned like review services for voluntary sex workers and their clients.

“It gave us a sense who is who, makes it easier to research people, check references, check people’s reputation, which is really crucial in ensuring safety,” Sola said.

“You made it less safe, you made it harder to make money; how would you help any individual with that approach?”

Sola says the “End Demand” approach not only conflates voluntary sex work with sex trafficking, it creates a more dangerous working environment for sex workers. Busting those who pay for sex leaves sex workers to rely on dangerous and volatile clients who don’t mind breaking the law. Sex workers are now less able to screen their clients, as the clients tend to be reluctant of giving personal information in fear of prosecution.

Often, she says, what the police define as “brothels” are merely more than one sex workers working together, sometimes for safety reasons.

Sola said even for people who are in the industry by force or because of circumstances like poverty, criminalization only takes away their choices, and that the law enforcement does not provide resources to address the underlying issues.

“You made it less safe, you made it harder to make money; how would you help any individual with that approach?” she said.

Searching for compromise

Valiant Richey is the project coordinator of Buyer Beware, a partnered program between King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) that purports to end “commercial sexual exploitation.”

Richey explains that before the program, police has been arresting children and women who were working in the sex industry, whether by force or by choice. He started the program because he was sympathetic to people who work in the industry as a way of survival and he wanted to “stop treating children as criminals.”

“If there are a lot of buyers out there, there are going to be vulnerable women and children to be exploited. It’s just the way the market works.”

Since the program started in 2014, the number of people in King County charged for “patronizing” increased drastically, while the number of people charged for “prostitution” fell. In 2016, the number of people charged for “prostitution” dropped to less than 50. Richey said most of these people were charged in the city of Seattle, which is not his jurisdiction, but he is working with them to focus on arresting sex buyers.

Graph of the number of “prostitution” charges vs “patronizing” charges in King County from 2009 to 2016. (Courtesy Buyer Beware)
Graph of the number of “prostitution” charges vs “patronizing” charges in King County from 2009 to 2016. (Courtesy Buyer Beware)

While Richey agrees with SWOP that he doesn’t want to arrest sex workers, he wonders why anyone would choose to be in the industry.

“The vast majority of people who work as sex workers are being exploited… Why are they [SWOP] choosing to promote this industry that are exploiting so many vulnerable people?” he asked.

Richey says it’s not feasible to distinguish between “good buyers” and “bad buyers.”

“If there are a lot of buyers out there, there are going to be vulnerable women and children to be exploited. It’s just the way the market works,” he says.

In response to SWOP’s argument that criminalization took away resources for victims, he pointed out that Buyer Beware actually increased the resources by fining sex buyers; 50 percent of the fines paid go into programs that help the exploited, and another 50 percent go to help police working on trafficked cases.

Nevertheless, he says sex workers would not be charged if they reported violence or abuse to the police, and SWOP’s fear of arrest reflected their own negative perception of police, not the reality.

Can decriminalization help?

Despite Richey intention to stop prosecuting sex workers, Sola does not feel safe from WA laws.

“Nothing has been decriminalized under End Demand,” she says. “They [law enforcement] are still arresting sex workers, only under other charges. They label them as “pimp” or “traffickers.”

Sly agrees, criticizing the End Demand approach as arresting “nice, harmless men who are not criminals.”

They say many anti-trafficking organizations believed in the inherent harm of sex work because they rely on biased, inaccurate research. An example of such research is Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” which interviewed 854 sex workers in nine countries about their experience with violence. The research produced appalling statistics like 89 percent of sex workers want to leave the industry and 71 percent of sex workers have been physically assaulted during work.

However, according to SWOP, the study is flawed because Farley sourced her interviews mostly from the street, crisis centers and shelters, which heavily skewed the results.

In contrast, SWOP’s own information package cites different studies and many statements from sex workers that support decriminalization and reinforce their position that not all sex work means sexual exploitation.

According to the information package, in New Zealand, the first country to implement the decriminalization approach in 2003, sex workers report a greater sense of well-being and are more likely to report violence to the police.

“Studies after studies, unless the study is done outdoors, in shelters, crisis centers… say the majority of sex workers do choose to be in the industry,” Sola said.

Sola reasons that people in law enforcement tend to believe most sex workers are coerced into the industry because that’s what their jobs expose them to: “sex workers who are already in precarious situation or who aren’t able to work indoors.” Her role as the president of SWOP Seattle, on the other hand, means she’s more likely to meet sex workers who have more resources.

“The truth is probably somewhere in the middle,” she concludes.


Sex Workers Rights Day is Friday, March 3rd, and SWOP is holding their largest annual public event “Seattle Annual Sex Work Symposium (SASS)” this week to raise awareness.


  1. Ms. Lin, you provided a wonderful piece. The piece is balanced and you did not make yourself part of the story. Thank you, any piece about sex work that includes the voices of sex workers is most valuable.

    Mr. Richey likes to say that prostitution is the “world’s oldest oppression.” He said it again yesterday on a radio show, rinse,repeat. Although Julie Bindel, an avid prohibitionist, first introduced the phrase to me ten years prior, Mr. Richey still repeats it as often as he can.

    Newsday ran on opinion piece in 2015, “Law Enforcement and Oppression Go Hand In Hand,” and last year Time ran an article about LE being the face of oppression. Mr. Richey may like to repeat himself, thinking it a clever line, but like his policies he is kidding himself.

    I would like to highlight only one point not included in your story. Sex workers are up against a well-funded prohibitionist machine. Testimony on SB 5277 last year was a perfect example when Mr. Richey and seven others showed up to testify. They were all on there on salary and all had their bad stats and exploitative statements to make. There are more organizations with a mission statement on trafficking in the Seattle region than there are trafficking victims discovered on an annual basis.

    The two sex worker advocates that showed up to testify did so on their own accord. They were not part of an organization, they did no earn a salary. Their testimony was both intelligent, convincing and heart felt. One in particular was amazing in her portrayal of struggle. I believe the committee members felt as such as well. The stigma that Mr. Richey spreads with his deception was the burden on that woman’s shoulders that day and she still overcame.

    That is why I would like to thank the women who stand up to say that there is a better way, and that they should be part of the solution. Thank you for giving them an opportunity to contribute to the discussion.

  2. The worlds oldest profession will not be restrained nor harnessed. Supply will always meet demand. Yet we must be mindful that governments will ‘always’ attempt to regulate (legislate) morality while failing miserably. They exist only to supply jobs that foster courts, police, prosecutors and ‘fines’.

    Thus far Nevada is the only state that has shown some sanity in allowing this (sex work) mutually agreeable translation to occur.

    The rest of America and the free world will have to adopt a more Libertarian view in electing leaders who are willing to stricken these age old draconian laws from the books.

    The collective best efforts of all concerned about this can best expressed at the ballot box in any election.

  3. A response to some statements by Valiant Richey:

    “The vast majority of people who work as sex workers are being exploited…”

    Mr. Richey has encountered some sex workers who were exploited, and is convinced that all sex workers are exploited. We don’t have national data, but studies of prostitutes in specific areas have found that about 10% of prostitutes are forced into prostitution. The percentage varies from location to location, but tends to hover around 10%. This is true across the industrialized world and seems to have been true in the U.S. for over 100 years.

    But perhaps Mr. Richey means that there are people currently taking advantage of the majority of sex workers, people commonly referred to as “pimps”. A study of children under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution in New York City found that 10% had pimps. A study in six cities across the U.S. found that 15% have pimps. A study in Chicago found that the prostitutes in the study were more likely to be extorted for sex by a police officer than to be arrested by one. The exceptions were the prostitutes who had pimps; the pimps protected the prostitutes from police extortion. While pimps are one group of people exploiting prostitutes, so are police. You can go almost anywhere in the U.S. where street-based prostitutes are found, and if you talk to the prostitutes they can tell you stories about giving blow jobs to police officers in order to avoid arrest. But just as most prostitutes don’t have pimps, most prostitutes aren’t street based and aren’t as exposed to police extortion. There are prostitutes who are exploited, sometimes by customers, sometimes by pimps, and sometimes by police. The evidence indicates that the majority are not.

    “Richey says it’s not feasible to distinguish between ‘good buyers’ and ‘bad buyers.'”

    And yet, sex workers do just that. Why is it that Mr. Richey finds it infeasible to do something that sex workers do as a matter of routine?

    “If there are a lot of buyers out there, there are going to be vulnerable women and children to be exploited. It’s just the way the market works.”

    Markets don’t work that way. The existence of buyers for a particular service doesn’t guarantee the existence of people who can be exploited to provide that service. People become vulnerable to exploitation when they can’t get things they need. When street-based prostitutes and underage children are asked what they need in order to exit prostitution, the most common answer is housing, followed by things like education, jobs, health care, etc. The sex worker rights activist Tara Burns has described how she was forced into prostitution as a child, escaped, was denied services she needed by the state she lived in and, still a child, was forced to return to prostitution in order to survive. Survival sex workers exist because they’re poor and have to support themselves, not because a market conjured them into existence.

    People who are homeless or struggling to avoid homelessness often support themselves in ways that border on the illegal, or cross over: various types of street vending, petty thievery, small time drug dealing, prostitution, etc. If we eliminated survival prostitution, the survival prostitutes would be forced to become street vendors, petty thieves, or small time drug dealers. There would be no improvement in their circumstances. If we removed everybody from survival prostitution, they would be replaced by other people with similar economic circumstances. If we want to reduce that type of prostitution, we’ll have to provide help to everyone at that economic level. Which is to say, we’ll have to reduce poverty.

    And of course, the majority of sex work isn’t street based or survival prostitution, so it will continue regardless of what we do.

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