In an attempt to penalize so-called “johns” and protect prostitutes who some lawmakers view as victims of the sex trade, the city of Seattle more than two years ago, changed the crime of “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation.”
As it turns out, the simple name change may unfairly label clients seeking to pay for sex while further endangering the sex workers city officials sought to protect.
Even though the crime is still a misdemeanor and the punishment has not changed, because Seattle is the only jurisdiction in the state of Washington and in other states to refer to soliciting a prostitute as sexual exploitation, the new label may be viewed as a far more serious crime. For example, were a prospective employer to conduct a background check, it would likely turn up “sexual exploitation,” without any qualifying information, potentially leading an employer to assume a much worse crime was committed. Some background checks are even labeling a felony what Seattle officials call misdemeanor sexual exploitation because far more serious crimes of the same name in other states are felonies.
Under the Seattle ordinance, a first-time offender convicted of sexual exploitation may have to pay thousands of dollars in fines, provide a DNA sample, attend education classes and perform community service.
City officials insisted the name change was necessary to better described the sex-buyer's conduct, thereby holding them accountable and taking the onus off the sex workers, many of whom, officials fear, are forced into the sex trade. However, a study from Canada on the policing of clients versus the prostitutes indicates the practice leaves the sex workers even more vulnerable. When police cracked down on clients, arresting them while showing concern for the safety of the prostitutes, the sex workers continued to distrust police. In addition, the prostitutes had to rush screening clients to try to subvert their arrest and they were “displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex.” The researchers concluded that “criminalization and policing strategies that target clients reproduce the harms created by the criminalization of sex work, in particular, vulnerability to violence and HIV/STIs (sexually transmitted infections).”
Even UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, recommends separating sex work from sexual exploitation or trafficking. According to UN Women: “The conflation of consensual sex work and sex trafficking leads to inappropriate responses that fail to assist sex workers and victims of trafficking in realizing their rights. Furthermore, failing to distinguish between these groups infringes on sex workers' right to health and self-determination and can impede efforts to prevent and prosecute trafficking.”
Regardless of the circumstances, everyone deserves the best defense. If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.