In under two minutes, a bill that would severely increase the penalties for patronizing a prostitute passed out of a state Senate committee this morning. While the speedy vote indicated the lack of controversy within the Law and Justice Committee, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged controversy in the wider world as she offered a significant amendment that would apply the stiffer penalties—including up to a year in prison—only after a john’s third conviction.
She called this compromise with opponents “reasonable.” Nevertheless, she said she continues to “believe very strongly in a demand-reduction program.”
As anyone following this debate knows, “demand reduction” is an increasingly popular approach by law enforcement and government officials to dealing with prostitution. Its premise is that prostitutes are victims—often of “human trafficking”—who should not be punished. Rather, exploitative johns should be the ones to suffer.
To this end, the legislature is not only considering Kohl-Welles’ SB 5277, which makes repeat johns subject to a “gross” misdemeanor charge (currently the crime is a regular misdemeanor), and which now proceeds to the Senate’s rules committee on its way to the floor, but also another pair of bills that would allow authorities to seize the assets of suspected johns prior to conviction. The Senate’s version of the bill, SB 5041, is scheduled for a public hearing on Monday.
If prostitution is going to be illegal, it’s a very appealing idea to punish johns rather than sex workers, as they like to be called. But before making that logical leap, you should read an extremely well-argued open letter to legislators written by the Seattle branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Among is points: “End Demand practices harm the safety of sex workers by making it much more difficult to screen and vet their clients—one of the few tools a sex worker has at their disposal to avoid dangerous individuals.”
The letter also points out that patronizing a prostitute is a nonviolent crime, and putting johns in jail for a significant amount of time flies in the face of efforts to reduce mass incarceration. (See our cover story late last month on Alison Holcomb’s surprising and heartfelt approach as she leads a national ACLU campaign on the subject.)
It’s an oddity of the politics around prostitution that many of the people embracing this new, tough approach are exactly the type of people who deplore mass incarceration. To wit, Kohl-Welles has been one of the state’s leading voices for marijuana decriminalization.
Why this duality? The framing of this crime as trafficking lends a heightened moral tone to the anti-john crusade. What’s amazing, though, is how widely accepted this trafficking label has become.
A decade ago, when I wrote about the anti-trafficking crusade as it was taking root, the idea that all prostitution was tantamount to trafficking came from the fringes. Specifically, it popped up among conservative Christians, like onetime Congressmember from Vancouver Linda Smith, and among radical feminists. The label gave both a way to demonize a sex industry they disliked for different reasons.
Trafficking is supposed to have something to do with smuggling humans, though, and then forcing them into “a modern-day slavery,” as those fighting it like to say. And while thousands of women around the world are certainly a victim of this, clearly most prostitutes haven’t been smuggled anywhere. And it’s questionable that most have been literally forced into the work.
The use of the “trafficking” term added to its overall fuzziness; there was no clarity on what exactly amounted to trafficking and how big a problem it really was.
Obviously, that’s still the case. Yet nobody wants to be on the side of slavery, which is why anti-john efforts are getting traction in the legislature and among mainstream public officials like City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg. It’s also why many of the fascinating comments to SWOP’s open letter, while rationalizing their support for prostitution and sex workers, make sure to first declare their anti-trafficking bona fides.