Referred to as the “world’s oldest profession,” most cities have adopted a no-tolerance policy to prostitution. However, as human trafficking rates continue to soar and the demand for paid sex grows, some are taking another look at the law. 

In 2012, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes decided to adopt the “Nordic Model” in order to handle the city’s burgeoning sex industry. The concept is to go after the buyers of sex versus the sex workers themselves, a practice pioneered in Sweden. 

The law criminalizes the purchase of sex while allowing its sale, putting the criminal burden on the buyer instead of the prostitute. It seems to be working well for Sweden, which has seen a dramatic drop in sex work since the law was implemented in 1999. A study issued in 2015 found that street prostitution had been cut in half since 1995, and the number of men who admitted to paying for sex in that year had fallen to 40 percent

In fact, it’s working so well in Sweden that Norway and Iceland adopted similar laws in 2009, and England is trying to implement the same type of legislation. Once again Seattle finds itself on the forefront of progressive laws that decriminalize the effects of poverty. 

While it’s true that some sex workers take up the trade willingly, an overwhelming amount of these workers are poor women with few alternatives. They are lured or forced into “the life” through a history of sexual abuse, substance addiction, and severe poverty. That’s why in January 2015, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to change the name of the crime “patronizing a prostitute” to “sexual exploitation.” Words do matter, and admitting that most of these women are unwilling participants is a step in the right direction. 

Seattle and the UW campus should be in full support of this new legislation as the nation starts to recognize the impact it is having on the city. Already we are seeing a decline in street prostitution, although we still have a long way to go. 

Currently in America, about 60 percent of the people arrested for prostitution charges are the women themselves, while only 40 percent are the buyers and pimps. The conviction times are also disproportionate, with prostitutes more likely to get longer sentences than the johns who are exploiting them. 

The goal is not to legalize sex work, it is to disincentivize those who are willing to pay for it. Seattle’s increase in fines and jail time is a big deterrent for a lot of men who don’t want a record of sexual exploitation. 

The biggest criticisms of the legislation are coming from organizations and therapy groups who don’t want prostitutes labeled as victims. They want it to be seen as a legitimate business in which sex work is just as legitimate as any other blue-collar job. The term sexual exploitation implies that everyone is a victim, which many times is untrue. 

However, the alternative, making prostitution legal, has failed time and time again. Places like the Netherlands have seen an increase in sex trafficking and prostitution since they decided to make paid sex legal. The amount of violent crimes toward women in the industry had also been on the rise, along with drug abuse and petty crimes. 

So how do we begin to dismantle something so ingrained in our society? Holmes is making it his mission to see the rates in Seattle drop, while keeping sex workers safe and giving them alternatives to life on Aurora Avenue North. “We’re not trying to harass women who are caught up in the trade, we’re not trying to add to their burdens,” Holmes said in a recent interview. “We are actually trying to help.”


Reach writer Lauren Hanna at Twitter: @Lauren_A_Hanna

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