Midway through January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month, officials from the county, public transit and the Port of Seattle gathered at Sea-Tac International Airport to announce the first coordinated campaign to combat the exploitation of vulnerable people for labor and sex in six years.
The effort involved putting up awareness signs in airports, buses, government buildings and libraries throughout King County that read “Help Stop Human Trafficking” in seven different languages.
“Human traffickers prey on people in our community who are vulnerable, specifically targeting people of color,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “Our united effort will connect survivors with the resources they need to break free and thrive once again.”
For advocates, it was a victory. The last campaign, described to Real Change as a loosely coordinated effort put together with “duct tape and bubble gum” by County Council Member Reagan Dunn, led to a 63 percent increase in the number of people from Washington state who called the national human trafficking hotline.
This time, the effort is more comprehensive, bringing together public and private entities such as the county, transit systems, private airlines and rideshare companies together to spot and report trafficking.
But to sex worker Ennellette Phiori, the awareness campaign felt like a threat. “They jumped the gun on this,” Phiori told Real Change.
Phiori is her advocacy name, not her legal one. She is many things: entrepreneur, marketing strategist and advocate. She deploys these skills for what she calls “vanilla” work and her preferred career: Sex work.
She works with the Seattle branch of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), an organization that offers current and former sex workers a place to find community and advocate for criminal justice reform.
The term “sex work” encompasses a wide range of activities from performing in strip clubs to working as a clerk in a sex shop to prostitution.
Consensual sex workers say the awareness campaign compounded years of changes at the local and federal level that made their lives and livelihoods more dangerous.
Seattle authorities began cracking down on people who buy sex, including two high-profile stings in 2016 that netted hundreds of arrests. The “end demand” approach also ends income for consensual sex workers. Two years later, the federal government passed legislation that made it harder for sex workers to advertise online or communicate between themselves.
The impact has been threefold, according to Phiori. First, the local crackdown removed potential clients. Second, the federal legislation made it more difficult to find and vet new ones by shutting down websites used to advertise to and check up on customers. Finally, changes at the federal level have made it more dangerous for sex workers to communicate among themselves, affecting pricing and more mundane activities like phone calls between sex workers.
“We’ve already been seeing the effects little by little, but this last year — and especially this last couple of months — have been extremely difficult,” Phiori said.
The “see something, say something” nature of the awareness campaign concerns her. She argues it conflates sex workers with human trafficking victims in a way that causes harm to both. Consensual sex workers lose customers and traffickers go further underground.
“We’re one community. We’re the ones who know best how to identify and find people who are perpetrators,” Phiori said.
“We’re one community. We’re the ones who know best how to identify and find people who are perpetrators."
Human trafficking is a real problem. In fiscal year 2018, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) started 879 cases involving human trafficking, according to the federal government.
In 2017, Washington authorities reported 29 sex trafficking offenses and one labor trafficking offense to the FBI. The numbers likely understate the scope of the problem. The Washington Anti-trafficking Response Network (WARN) has served 139 trafficking victims in the past three years, despite only having the budget to help 60, said Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, WARN’s senior program coordinator.
It can be difficult to distinguish between human trafficking, consensual sex work or even blended families.
In one well-publicized case, Cindy McCain, wife of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, called authorities on a woman with a child at an airport because the two were of visibly different races.
“They went over and questioned her, and by god, she was trafficking that kid,” McCain told KTAR News 92.3 FM.
Police later reported that the child was not being trafficked, and McCain issued an apology. McCain herself has a daughter adopted from Bangladesh and is co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking.
WARN recognizes the difference between trafficking and consensual sex work and encourages people to call the national hotline rather than 9-1-1, Piraino-Guzman said.
The campaign is about public awareness meant to encourage trafficking victims and survivors to report trafficking and get help rather than to target sex workers, said Kate Hudson, a spokesperson for the Port of Seattle.
“We are seeking to ensure that the most vulnerable in our community are not being trafficked. The Port of Seattle is committed to leveraging our role as a county-wide government, large employer and manager of significant trade and travel facilities to ensure they are not used as transit points for traffickers and their victims,” Hudson said.
The effort comes at a precarious time for the sex work industry.
In spring of 2018, the U.S. Congress passed a bill called “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.” This bill and its companion in the Senate, the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” are known as FOSTA-SESTA.
FOSTA-SESTA made a splash. It made websites responsible for prostitution ads posted by users. Rather than try to police this, Craigslist axed its entire personals section.
“Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we have regretfully taken Craigslist personals offline,” reads a release on the Craigslist website.
Tumblr, a microblogging site, announced that it would ban all porn from its site beginning on Dec. 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
The example that got the most headlines was when the federal government seized Backpage (dot) com, a website used to connect sex workers and their clients in online spaces. The impact was immediate, Phiori said.
“Immediately after FOSTA-SESTA passed, we found people who were being hit financially extremely hard,” Phiori said. “People who were breadwinners, people with dependents, all the way from survival sex work to the higher echelon of high-paid escorts.”
Suddenly, websites used to advertise sex work were gone. Verification sites that allowed workers to check out potential clients from the safety of their own homes disappeared.
Even communications between workers could be criminalized under the law for facilitating sex work.
Sex workers who lobbied Congress on FOSTA-SESTA predicted that removing these websites would push more men, women and nonbinary people into the streets in search of clients.
That makes sex work far more dangerous. A 2017 study found that Craigslist’s “erotic services” page, which was up between 2002 and 2010, reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent because it allowed women to move indoors and match more safely with clients.
Cracking down on sex work creates its own victims. A literature review by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine published in 2018 found that sex workers who face “repressive policing” are more likely to experience violence and poor health.
“…[T]he researchers conclude that reform of demonstrably harmful policies and laws is urgently needed to protect and improve sex workers’ safety, health and broader rights,” the study said.
Ironically, FOSTA-SESTA also made it harder for law enforcement to find victims and for the Justice Department to hold perpetrators to account.
Law enforcement used the advertising websites to find victims, which is no longer an option. In a letter to lawmakers, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd explained that pieces of the new law could make it more difficult to prosecute cases.
Phiori believes new solutions will come from working directly with the sex work community, but the criminalization of sex work will make that difficult. Under the current circumstances, sex workers run the risk of arrest or self-incrimination when contacting law enforcement.
Jenny, a sex worker in Seattle who asked to use a fake name, was forced into sex work when she was young, got out and has only recently returned to the life — this time on her own terms. She never once called the police on the people who pimped her, Jenny said.
Decriminalization, referred to as “decrim”, is another way to change that dynamic.
“Decrim is the best way to bring all of the predators to the surface,” Phiori said. “Once people feel safe reaching out for help when they’re in a situation they don’t want to be in, that’s the only way we are going to find people who are taking advantage of people in the sex trade.”
Decriminalization trumps legalization for groups like SWOP because legalization comes with a level of government control and oversight that SWOP believes ultimately hurts the marginalized.
When the marijuana industry was recognized by the state, advocates say, White people with money to buy licenses and navigate complicated legal systems cashed in.
Black and Brown people who dominated the industry before legalization were cut out, sometimes because of a criminal record garnered from selling pot when it was illegal.
SWOP believes the same process would play out with sex work.
Advocates are fighting for changes. Phiori travels to Olympia, works with lawmakers, conducts interviews with journalists and tries to get the word out however she can to drum up support for policies that will help sex workers.
“It didn’t really hit me until I ran out of money and had to borrow money for rent last month that I have driven myself and my own brand into the ground,” Phiori said. But, she said, referencing philosopher Emmanuel Kant, the work is a moral imperative.
“People who are most affected by these laws tend to look like me,” Phiori, a woman of color, said. “Someone needs to be at the fucking table that looks like me.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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